JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Patristic Philosophy of the Post-Nicene Period. General Remarks.

The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) forms one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Christian Church. At the moment when the Church, after long and sanguinary persecution, had at length obtained liberty, a heresy, springing from within the body of the Church itself, denying the fundamental truths of Christianity -- the Divinity of Christ, and the Incarnation of God -- threatened to destroy that Church which the rude methods of the persecutors had not been able to shake. This heresy was known as Arianism. It had already worked great confusion in Christendom when the bishops of the Church met at Nicaea, and in a solemn confession of faith proclaimed the divinity of the Logos, and His oneness in substance with the Father. This definition of the Church's faith stayed the progress of the heresy, and though the controversy with the Arians was not at an end, this solemn declaration formed a bulwark against which heresy was destined to expend itself in vain

2. The Council of Nicaea formed a turning-point for Christian philosophy, as well as for the history of the Christian Church, The dogmatic definition of this unity in substance of the Son and the Father, became a centre of truth, from which the defenders of Christianity proceeded in giving scientific development to the dogmas of Faith. The freedom secured to the Church, under Constantine, contributed not a little to an enlarged activity of thought, and increased, in considerable measure, the fruitfdness of scientific investigation. In this wise, Christian philosophy attained a remarkable development in the Post-Nicene period, and produced results which were destined to influence profoundly the course of thought in the ages that followed. What had been begun in the period preceding was now progressively developed. Still maintaining its conflict with heresy, Christian philosophy was growing into a structure which codd defy attack.

3. In the Patristic philosophy of this period, we have to notice two distinct currents of thought. The one is represented by the Greek, the other by the Latin Fathers, In the speculative opinions of the former, the influence of Origen, and even of the Neo-Platonists, is much more marked than in those of the latter. The Platonic philosophy was, indeed, the philosophy which the Latin Fathers pressed into the service of Christian speculation, but the distinctively Neo-Platonic views, and the allied opinions of Origen, find no favour with them, whereas these views occupy a foremost place in the speculations of many of the Greek Fathers. In both alike, orthodoxy of Faith is a guiding principle, but the philosophic differences we have noticed are so evident in their works that they cannot fail to force themselves on the attentive student.

4. In our exposition we will treat first of the Greek, and then of the Latin, Fathers and ecclesiastical writers.


§ 70.

1. It does not fall within the scope of our undertaking to trace in detail the chequered life of Athanasius, on whom posterity has rightfully bestowed the title of "Great." This task belongs to the writer of ecclesiastical history. Athanasius was born between A.D. 296 and A.D. 298, in the neighbourhood of Alexandria. He assisted, with his bishop Alexander, at the Council of Nicaea and on the death of that prelate succeeded to his See, A.D. 326. At this point began the long struggle of his life. He stands in the midst of the fierce conflict which the Arian heresy had roused, like a rock in the midst of the sea, and the genius as well as the unshaken firmness with which he upheld the fundamental dogma of Christianity have made his name imperishable through all time. He was expelled four times from his See, by violence and calumny; but his courage could not be shaken, and he was at length permitted to end his days in comparative peace. He died A.D. 373.

2. The writings of Athanasius are, for the most part, devoted to the proof and explanation of the dogma of Christ's Divinity, and His Unity in Substance with the Father. They belong, therefore, rather to the history of dogmas, than to the history of philosophy. Two only of his treatises have special interest for the philosopher, the work Contra Gentes, an apology for Christianity against the pagans, and the work De Incarnatione Verbi, in which Athanasius set forth his psychological theories. It will he enough to notice these two works.

3. Athanasius, in his work Contra Gentes, begins, like other Apologists, with a demonstration of the unity of God. He appeals to the universal order and harmony which prevail in the universe, and argues that this order, being one in itself, proves the ordaining intelligence to be one. From the organic unity which binds the members of the body together we argue the existence of one soul, the principle of this unity; so from the unity of the world our reason is forced to infer the existence of one God. There can be but one God. A plurality of gods are not gods at all. Polytheism is Atheism.

4. This proof seems to Athanasius so evident, that he holds it must compel the reason even of the pagan who is the slave of sensual passion. But it is only sensual men who need the aid of such proofs as this; the man whose soul is lifted above the desires of sense and the sensuous pictures of imagination which they provoke, and whose heart is purified from sin and from all attachment to sin, has no need of such arguments. He can see within himself, as in an image, the Logos, and, through the Logos, the Father; for man is created to the image of God. To know the one God we need only know ourselves, need only know our own soul. This explains why the denial of God is followed by the denial of the soul, and conversely. The pagans denied the one God, and they also denied the existence of a soul.

5. This one God is infinitely perfect, and cannot be comprehended by human thought. He is incomprehensible and inscrutable. We can obtain an imperfect knowledge of Him from His works. Creation gives a knowledge of the Logos, through whom God has made the world; and through the Logos -- the channel of revelation, we have knowledge of the Father. But from the works of God we know what God is not, rather than what He is. He is incorporeal, immutable, all-sufficient. He is the Good, and more than the Good. He transcends being itself. It is supreme folly to identify Him with the created world, or with any part of it. The gods of the heathens are phantoms conjured up by the diseased imaginations of men.

6. The soul of man is a spiritual substance, essentially distinct from the body. The irrational beast concerns itself only with things present to its senses, and has neither the power to pass beyond these, nor even to render an account to itself of that which it perceives. But man's thought not only reaches to things other than those present to his senses, but furthermore judges of the things presented to sense, and decides that one object is to be preferred to another. There must, therefore, exist in him some higher principle to which belong the functions thus distinguished from the functions of sense. Again, man's faculty of thought can rise to a sphere which transcends all experiences. He can contemplate and can love things perishable and mortal, but he can understand and love the imperishable and the immortal as well. How could this be, if he had not in himself some element of being which does not pass and is not doomed to die?

7. Again, it is a law of the senses that, when they are directed to their proper object, and this object is within their reach, they cannot cease to act upon the object in question. This being so, how shall we explain the phenomenon that man not unfrequently diverts his senses from the proper object and forbids them to enjoy it, unless we assume that there exists in him some principle of action different from the body, and holding control over the senses? It is only because he is possessed of a spiritual soul that man becomes capable of receiving the law which commands good and forbids evil. Suppose him deprived of this spiritual soul, and he can no more distinguish good from evil, and elect between both, than can the beast.

8. The human will is free, and this freedom is the root of the good and the evil in man. Evil is not a positive entity; it is merely a privation. Man is bound to use his liberty to know and love God: this is goodness; should he turn from God and to the things of sense, this want of the knowledge and love of God is evil. For this he is responsible to God, for he has not been overborne by any external force, but has deliberately incurred the guilt himself.

9. With Athanasius are connected two remarkable men, who, from their early youth, were bound together by the closest ties of friendship, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Basil was born in Caesarea of Cappadocia, about A.D. 330, he received his education first at Constantinople and then at Athens, and subsequently became Archbishop of Caesarea, where he was a foremost champion of the Church in her struggle with Arianism (379). Gregory, on the other hand, was born at Nazianzus, in the south-west of Cappadocia, about the same year, A.D. 330. He too received his education at Athens; while here he formed the acquaintance of Basil, and a friendship was cemented which united them closely for the remainder of their lives. Gregory became, at a later period, Bishop of Constantinople, and in this capacity laboured strenuously in the cause of Faith. The intrigues of the Arians ultimately forced him to resign his See, and he thereupon withdrew into retirement (390).

10. To the works of both these writers the remark made with reference to Athanasius will apply. The defence of the dogma of the Trinity and a fuller study of its significance was their chief task, though they sometimes discussed other theological themes. Both held Origen in profound veneration. Of Basil's writings the most important for the history of philosophy are the Hexaemeron, his Homilies, and the treatise Contra Eunomium. Gregory was an orator; his so-called theological discourses are amongst the best examples of oratory that have come to us from the age in which he lived.

11. The contest with Eunomius in which these two Fathers (as well as Gregory of Nyssa) engaged, is particularly worthy of notice. Eunomius, with Aetius, belonged to the sect known as Anomians -- a sect which dissented from the more extreme forms of Arianism. To maintain the fundamental Arian doctrine, and to combat the unity of essence (homoousia) in the Trinity, Eunomius, with Aetius, maintained two singular propositions with regard to our knowledge of God:

(a) In the first place he rejected wholly the notion of a knowledge of God derived from created things, i.e., through the Logos. He held the Logos to be a mere creature, and he could not, in consequence, allow the world, which the Logos had created, to be a revelation of God, or a means of attaining knowledge of Him. Accordingly he assumed our knowledge of God to be direct and immediate, and asserted that to know God we have no need of created things or other medium. Pursuing this idea, he maintained that this immediate knowledge of God is an exhaustive knowledge, and he consequently denied that God is incomprehensible. He knew God, he asserted, as well as he knew himself, or even better.

(b) But this was not all. He further held that between the attributes we assign in thought to God there is no difference whatever -- not even a difference kat epinoian (virtual distinction). The assumption that the Divine Being is known directly and immediately in all His fulness led him logically to the conclusion that no distinction is admissible between the essential attributes of God. If we admit the simplicity of the Divine Being, we are forced to admit that all the names applied to God are alike in significance, that they all designate directly and immediately the Divine Being in His completeness. Nor can it be asserted that God's attributes are distinguishable kat epinoian. For what is merely notional (kat epinoian) has no existence except in terms or words, and vanishes with the utterance of the words. Our language is true only when it responds to existent objects. When one and the same object is designated by several names, either these names have no difference of meaning, or the differences exist in the object as well as in the names. The latter alternative is inadmissible with reference to God, because of His absolute simplicity of being; the former only can be allowed: that is to say, all names applied to the attributes of God are of equal significance; between these attributes no differences exist.

12. The orthodox teachers strenuously combated these opinions. Basil and the two Gregories insisted strongly on the principle that the Divine Being exceeds our comprehension, and that we have not an immediate knowledge of God, but know Him only from His works. This contention involved the denial of the other assertion that between the terms applied to God, i.e., between the Divine attributes, no distinction is allowable. "In point of fact," says Basil, (Cont. Eunom. I. 2.) "if what Eunomius asserts were true, it would follow that we might at will substitute one of the Divine Names for another, just as we name the same apostle Peter or Cephas or Simon indifferently. Thus if I were asked what I mean by Supreme Judge I might answer, the Increated, and if asked what is signified by the term Justice, I might answer, Incorporeal Being. This is evidently absurd."

13. We must, therefore, allow a distinction of meaning (at least kat epinoian) between the terms we apply to God. If it is true that we have not an immediate knowledge of God, nor comprehend Him in all the infinitude of His Being, but only obtain a practical knowledge of Him from his works, it must follow that we contemplate the being of God from various points of view, according to the various ways in which He reveals Himself in created things. And this being so, there must thence result different concepts by which we represent God to ourselves, and different names by which we designate Him; and these different concepts and different names, because of the distinction thus established between them, must not be exchanged with one another. We might assert as much as this with reference to objects of the least importance; for example, we conceive differently the grain of corn as product of a vegetable growth, and as seed, and again as an article of food, and we apply different names to it accordingly. No one will, however, contend that these concepts and these names express one and the same thing, though they are applied to one and the same object.

14. The absolute oneness of the Divine Being is not denied or even imperilled by this doctrine. Light, Vine, Way, Life, Shepherd, etc., do not signify the same thing, and yet one and the same Christ is designated by all these terms. "The Divine Nature," says Basil, (C. Eunom. I. 12.) "is one, simple, formally indivisible (monoeidês), and without constituent parts; but the human mind, attached to the earth and enclosed within an earthly body, being unable to attain the clear conception after which it strives, must represent to itself the Ineffable Being partially, and under various forms in a multiplicity of concepts; it cannot succeed in comprehending in one conception the object of its thought." "They think unworthily of the Divine Being," says Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. 45, ad Evagr.), "who hold that, as the names applied to God are many, so the things signified by these names are manifold also. We know that the Being signified is absolutely indivisible, absolutely simple, though, for our advantage He submits Himself to a certain division in our thoughts." Cfr. Kleutgen. Philosophie der Vorzeit. Vol. I., p. 309.

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