Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner



ALL who have studied the history of human thought in the light of the Christian idea of Providence have regarded the philosophy of Greece and Rome as a preparatio evangelica, -- a preparation for the Gospel of Christ. The Church which Christ founded was not, it is true, a school of philosophy. By virtue of its divine commission, it rose above all schools and all systems. Still, although Christ in his teachings discarded all formal definition and formal proof, these teachings reformed the world of speculation as they reformed the practical ideals of men, and the Church, being by its nature and essence endowed with that power of adaptation to external conditions which is characteristic of a living organism, has an inherent right to speak to each generation in the language which that generation best understands. In the systematic development of dogmatic truth the Church avails itself of the doctrines of philosophers and formulates its dogmas in the language of the schools of philosophy.

Thus, the coming of Christ divides the history of philosophy as it divides the history of the world. From this point onward there will be the religious view and the rationalistic view of every question. Philosophy may profit by the teachings of religion; it may accept revelation as an extension of the horizon of human hopes, an opening up of new fields of human investigation; it may acknowledge the debt due to that institution to whose teaching we owe it that "doctrines concerning the nature of God, the immortality of the soul and the duties of men, which the noblest intellects of antiquity could barely grasp, have become the truisms of the village school, the proverbs of the cottage and of the alley."{1} Or, on the contrary, philosophy may deny the special authority of Christian revelation; it may cite the doctrines of Christ and His Church before the tribunal of reason, and pass sentence on them, denying the right of appeal to a higher court. Henceforth, then, there will be the religious attitude and the rationalistic attitude in presence of the great problems which ancient philosophy discussed without reference to any source of knowledge superior to reason itself. Christianity will be an ever-present factor in philosophical speculation: the rationalist who refuses its aid and the religious philosopher who accepts that aid must show reason for such refusal or acceptance. But, though the rationalistic spirit and the religious spirit pervade the whole history of the philosophy of the Christian era, they are not always present in equal proportion or in equal strength. From the first to the fifteenth century the religious spirit prevailed, while from the fifteenth century onward, the rationalizing spirit remained preponderant. There were rationalists in the first centuries, and there were religious-minded philosophers in the nineteenth; the difference on which the division is based is a difference in the spirit of the age, not in the character of individual philosophers. The prevailingly religious period is divided, according to another basis of division, into Patristic philosophy, extending from the first century to the period of the great invasions of the barbarians, and Scholastic philosophy, which begins with the reconstruction of European civilization in the ninth century and ends with the Reformation in the fifteenth. We may therefore divide the philosophy of the Christian era as follows

SECTION A -- PATRISTIC PHILOSOPHY, extending to the end of the fifth century.

SECTION B -- SCHOLASTIC PHILOSOPHY, extending from the ninth century to the fifteenth.

SECTION C -- MODERN, OR POST-REFORMATION PHILOSOPHY, extending from the fifteenth century to our own time.


FROM the account given of pre-Christian systems of speculation it should be evident that philosophy, like every other department of human thought and human activity, is continuous in its growth. In philosophical speculation there is no possibility of breaking completely with the past, and so the philosophy of the first Christian writers was connected in its origin with the systems that preceded it. These writers took whatever truth the older systems contained and made it part of their own theory of reality, rejecting whatever contradicted the teachings of faith or whatever could not bear the light of reason reenforced by the light of revelation. From the beginning, however, the rationalizing spirit of which mention has been made, began to assert itself in a tendency on the part of some Christian writers to subordinate revelation to the teachings of pagan philosophy. It was from this tendency that the heretical systems sprang. At the same time, the religious spirit, working in the minds of the orthodox exponents of the teachings of Christianity, led them to place high above all human speculation the authority of Christ and His Church, although they did not reject the philosophy of the pagan world, but made use of it in their expositions of revealed truth. Writers of this class are the true philosophers of the early Christian era. On account of the influence which they exerted on succeeding generations, they are styled the Fathers, or spiritual progenitors of the Church's theology and philosophy. The orthodox Patristic philosophers are to be subdivided according as they undertook merely to defend Christianity against the misconceptions and calumnies of paganism, or sought to establish a positive system of Christian speculation. The Apologists, as the former are called, belong chiefly to the period of intellectual struggle which preceded the great Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). The constructive thinkers of the Patristic period belong, for the most part, to the post-Nicene age.

It will, therefore, be convenient to study:

I. Heretical Systems.
II. Ante-Nicene Fathers.
III. Post-Nicene Fathers.


Of the heretical systems which sprang up during the first centuries of the Christian era, Monarchianism, Arianism, and Apollinarism belong exclusively to the history of theological opinions. Gnosticism and Manicheism are of greatest interest in the history of Patristic philosophy.

Sources. Besides the work entitled Pistis Sophia and a few fragments, which constitute the entire body of original Gnostic literature, we have the writings of Irenaeus and Hippolytus. To these must be added the works of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, St. Augustine, and the second of the Enneads of Plotinus. For our knowledge of Manichean doctrines we are indebted to the writings of St. Augustine.

Gnosticism. Cerinthus, Saturninus, Marcion, Carpocrates, Basilides, and Valentinus, all of whom flourished during the second century, were the principal teachers of the Gnostic doctrine. Dissatisfied with the explanation which the Christian religion had to offer on such questions as the origin of evil and the nature of man, the Gnostics turned to pagan philosophy for a solution of these and other problems. But, while they thus made reason the basis and criterion of all truth, they were not willing to set aside altogether the authority of Christ's teaching. They had recourse, therefore, to the theory that Christ, besides the exoteric doctrines which He imparted to all His listeners, committed to His chosen disciples a higher esoteric doctrine, which constitutes the true essence of Christian teaching. This esoteric doctrine, gnôsis is the alleged source of all that the Gnostics taught.

In point of fact, the Gnostic teaching is a mixture of the philosophies of Philo and Plotinus with certain elements of Christianity. The Gnostics maintained the essential antithesis of the spiritual and the material; the origin, by emanation from God, of numberless aeons, the sum of which is the pleroma; and the final return of all things to God by a universal redemption. They recognized no mystery in the Christian sense of the word, the gnosis being the merest subterfuge, and human reason the really ultimate test of all truth, supernatural as well as natural.

Manicheism. This sect was founded by Manes, a Persian, who in the third century became a Christian and sought to introduce into Christian theology and philosophy the Parsee conception of the dualism of God and Matter. There is no doubt that his followers, in developing the teachings of the founder of the sect, were influenced to a large extent by the Gnostic dualism, and laid claim, as the Gnostics did, to a special gnosis. They concerned themselves chiefly with the problem of evil, assuming the existence of two eternal principles, the one essentially good and the other essentially evil, and deriving from the latter all the evil, physical and moral, which exists in the world. They maintained that from the good principle there emanated, in the first place, primeval man, who was the first to enter into the struggle with evil; in the next place the Spirit of Life, who rescued primeval man from the powers of darkness; finally the World-Soul, Christ, the Son of primeval man, who restored to man the light which he had lost in the struggle with darkness. They distinguished in man two souls -- the soul that animates the body, and the soul of light, which is part of the World-Soul, Christ. The former is the creation of the powers of darkness, the latter is an emanation from light itself. Thus, man's soul is a battlefield on which light and darkness are at war, as they are in the universe. Human action depends on the outcome of the contest: there is no freedom of choice. All matter is evil and the cause of evil.

{1} Lecky, Hist. of European Morals (third edition, New York, 1880), Vol. II, p.3.

{2} For description of collections of Sources, cf. Bardenhewer, Patrologie (Freiburg im B., 1894), pp. 14 ff.; Fessler-Jungmann, Institutiones Patrologiae (2 vols., Innsbruck, 1890), pp. xi ff. and 100 ff.; Schmid, Manual of Patrology, trans. by Schobel (St. Louis, 1899), pp. 21 ff.

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