by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The history of Western Philosophy has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ancient Greek Philosophy marks the beginning of Western thought, as it emerges with a decidedly Western slant (toward science and techne). Modern (and contemporary) philosophy, with its emphasis on self-consciousness, individuality, and technology, concludes the Western philosophical adventure (a conclusion that itself may not end for a long time). The link between ancient and modern thought, the "middle term" between the "premise" and the "conclusion" of Western Philosophy is the philosophy of the Middle Ages (theology or "Christian" philosophy). The Middle Ages was a period when thinkers turned their attention away from questions of natural science and "political" science to questions of God, sin, and salvation. It is not that they did not consider such worldly questions, but their consideration of them was subordinate and secondary to questions of the relation of the individual to his God. The philosophy of the Middle Ages was theocentric (God-centered), whereas the philosophy of the Greeks was predominantly cosmocentric (centered on nature or the natural universe). Modern philosophy, in its turn, became ego-centric (centered on self-consciousness) and finally techno-centric (centered on artificial methods and instruments). The story of the philosophy of the Middle Ages is the story of turning away from non-human nature, re-interpreting human nature, and focusing on the existence and activity of God.
Question: Does focus on one aspect of context necessarily lead to neglect of other aspects of context? Why or why not?
2. For the ancients, the cosmos is the primary context. In their view, the universe is eternal, reliable, and generally supportive of human affairs. Even God or gods are within nature, though perhaps its best and most important part. For Plato, what is eternal and reliable is the forms themselves, those unchanging principles of order or "blueprints" that are the foundations of existence, speech, morality, etc. They are the stable and supportive and unchanging bases of all concrete existence. Even God is subordinate to them and works according to their model. For Aristotle, the natural universe as a whole is eternal and unchanging; God -- the apex of all natural striving -- is the highest part, the most spiritual element, of the cosmos. Also unchanging are the species or forms of all individual beings. For Epicurus, the universe as atoms and void is eternal and absolute. Atoms are not created, and they do not perish. For the Stoics, Nature, which is both calm and movement, reason (logos) and flux, internal and external, is what is ultimate and eternal. The best Stoic life imitates the reasonableness of reason within nature. In general, for all the Greeks, nature is best and eternal.
Question: Why do human beings seem to need to believe that something is reliable?

3. The ancients struggled with the relation between the individual and the community. But three basic presuppositions about human nature and human society generally prevailed:

(1) the importance of the polis as the enabling context (or inhibiting context) of individual development. In both negative and positive ways, one's individual condition seemed bound up with the organization of one's fellow citizens. With the Epicureans and the Stoics, the emphasis upon citizenship in a particular city-state declined, but the importance of community and friendship was maintained by the Epicureans. It was the Stoic view that was most aloof, but even the Stoics maintained a sense of this-worldly activity.

(2) The ancients (like most Chinese philosophers) maintained the original innocence or potential goodness of human nature. Not only was non-human nature seen to be reliable, but human nature (within limits) could be counted on. For example, Aristotle maintains that humans have positive intellectual and social tendencies.

(3) For most ancient thinkers, it is possible to be happy in this life. For Plato, the just person, despite outward trials, is happy within this life. For Aristotle, there are moments of moral and contemplative bliss that make life worth living. For Epicureans, the attainment of peace of mind (if not bodily health) is possible for everyone (that's why even young people should study philosophy). For the Stoics, one can enjoy peace of mind even while being tortured on the rack. Happiness, for all ancients, lay in the realization of limits, self-control, and moderate expectations. For medievals, happiness is postponed beyond this life.

Question: What happens to "this life" if happiness is "postponed to afterlife"?
4. The philosophy of the Middle Ages is a curious mix of ancient thought -- including Platonism through Augustine, Aristotelianism as conveyed by the Arab philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, and Stoicism -- and Christian doctrine (derived from the Scriptures, early Church teaching, etc.). Particular accents were given to ancient thought. For example, the "otherworldliness" of certain Platonic dialogues (such as the Timaeus) was seized upon, whereas "this-worldly" or more humanistic elements were passed over. The emphasis became one of leaving the cave and not returning (e.g., mysticism). Platonism was interpreted as an escape philosophy, a rationale for the soul's breaking away from the evils of the body and the flesh to be united with God. Augustine, who was most responsible for bringing Platonism into the Middle Ages, relied most often on secondary neo-Platonic texts and translations into Latin. It is significant that the two greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages -- Augustine and Thomas Aquinas -- were both priests who could not read Greek. The fate of Aristotle was similar. The logical works of Aristotle -- which arrived first into the West via the Arabs -- were emphasized and treated as the basic texts of Aristotle. The works on physics were considered later and given less importance. In fact, natural science in the Middle Ages did not progress much beyond the findings of Aristotle.
Question: Is it possible to translate "cultural contexts"? What happens to the Greek experience when it is translated into Roman terms?

5. The doctrine of creation -- as found in Genesis -- discounted the view of the universe as eternal and necessary. Because it was created by God and was sustained every moment by his intervening support, the universe was viewed as non-eternal (created in time), non-necessary (contingent upon God), and non-absolute. Not nature, but a God beyond nature, transcending the limitations of nature ("supernatural" therefore), is the absolute. In fact, the distinction between the natural and the artificial (maintained by Aristotle), was also blurred. After all, natural beings do not emerge by themselves in the context of an eternal process; they themselves are "made" by a divine "maker." Nature is a product of God's craftsmanship. Secondly, the role of nature is further diminished by the concept of original sin. Not only human nature, but non-human nature as well, participates in the original corruption, the first deviation. Animals and plants which were created for us, for our support, no longer cooperate. We have to work with the sweat of our brow to extract what was given easily and freely in original innocence. Nature, itself fallen, is no longer as supportive of human affairs.

6. Human nature is individually fallen and corrupted. Original sin increases the resistance of our flesh to our spirit. There is a war in us. Moreover, our soul is itself affected. Even the newly born infant is slanted toward failure and temptation. Human nature can not rely on non-human nature, but, in addition, it cannot even rely on itself. Human nature cannot be trusted. Our natural tendencies are not positive, but negative. We are sinners, even before we deliberately sin. Human beings are not "naturally" social. They are naturally antagonistic and self-seeking. But salvation is possible. Human nature can be redeemed. God makes up for the natural deficiency of human nature by supplying grace. Without God we can do nothing; with God all things are possible. God is the eternal, absolute, and reliable fact we can turn to.

Question: What happens when this "fact" is no longer relied on?
7. Nor can we rely on collective human nature, in the city. The city is not supportive of individual improvement. First, we have the view that no man can see the soul or the internal character of the other person. The soul is hidden. God alone sees us as we really are. Our relations with other people are superficial and secondary compared to our relation in prayer with God. The true community is not the earthly city (not even friendship), but the heavenly one-to-one community of individuals and their God. The greatest benefit is salvation, redemption from sin; only God can do this for the individual. Human beings are secondary instruments in this process. Conversation with God and adjustment of friendship with God is more important than conversation with others and mutual improvement. Not only is there no justice in this life; such political order should not even be expected. Afterlife is more important than this life. This life is a temporary trial period. Afterlife depends upon the condition of each soul before God, not the achievement of political stability.
Question: What happens to the Greek emphasis on friendship and political involvement?
8. The Medieval understanding of the individual human soul gives human beings a new and special status. Each soul is individually created by God (not generated from our parents, as for Aristotle) and exists forever after that. Human souls are eternal in one direction, like a line drawn to infinity from a point. According to Thomas Aquinas, the status of the human soul is higher than that of the heavenly bodies, but lower than that of the angels. Human bodies are inferior to heavenly bodies (which are incorruptible), but human souls are superior to them. Thus, compared with Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas elevates human beings above all of physical creation (except for the angels, although certain of the saints, such as the Blessed Virgin, are higher than the angels). At the same time as human nature is given a higher status, by virtue of the individual dignity of the immortal human soul, it is also seen as deficient and fallen and dependent upon redemption. The highest human nature (apart from the Son of God) is that of Mary, who sits next to God above the angels in heaven. The lowest human nature, that of the damned and the spiritually dead (mortal sin) is lower and more wretched than the lowest earthly beast. Thus, we see in human nature both elevated status and radical deficiency (by original sin). This confidence and self-effacement of human nature persisted long into the modern ages and long after philosophers ceased to accept the theological faith that underlay it. In many ways, the Freudian view of human nature is an atheistic account of the effects of original sin. In any case, in the modern ages, both to believers and unbelievers, human nature was considered to be, however splendid in its scientific capability, hardly innocent in its moral and political foundations.
Question: How is human nature both ennobled and degraded in the medieval perspective?
9. In the philosophy of the modern ages, we will see what happens when certain presuppositions of the Middle Ages are remembered, while others are forgotten. The modern ages remember the medieval view that nature is unreliable and that the cosmos is not our true home. They also remember that human beings can do nothing by themselves -- or very little. They remember that human minds tend to be clouded by ignorance, that the senses tend to deceive, that human motives tend to be conniving and anti-social. But what happens if such presuppositions are retained, while the presupposition of faith in redemption is lost? If human nature is deficient and non-human nature is unsupportive, on what can we rely? We cannot even rely wholly on ourselves, for we tend to make all kinds of mistakes. If we cannot count on God and we cannot return to the naive trust of the ancient naturalistic views, we can perhaps turn to certain artificial creations or products of the mind and the body. To make up for the shortcomings of our mind, we can devise and use methods. To make up for the shortcomings of our body, we can invent artificial aids and conveniences. If our legs are deficient, we can rely on crutches; if we walk too slowly, we can invent carriages, etc. The artificial is then seen as better than the natural. After loss of faith in the natural and after loss of faith in God, we can at least have faith in our products, our inventions, our sciences. Mathematical method will help us to think clearly. Physical contrivances will afford us health and convenience. We have then the reversal of the Aristotelian view that the natural is better than the artificial. After all, is not our artificial production in some way an imitation of the production of the Creator? Why should we leave things as they are, when the raw gifts of nature are unreliable and unsupportive, whereas the tools we make are reliable, supportive, and dependable? Nature is antagonistic (both human and non-human); we must quickly as possible convert nature into artifice. Even human nature must be consciously formed and reworked (against its tendencies) in order to be "redeemed." See Hobbes, for whom the artificial institution of the state is superior to the natural condition of man (state of nature where every man is a wolf to every other man -- homo homini lupus).
Question: Explain how technology "redeems" human beings from their natural frailty? In what way does technology add to human frailty?
10. Of course, if humans lose faith in nature, other humans, and God, and then lose faith in themselves and in technology, we have nihilism, the belief that nothing matters, that nothing has importance. Nihilism is the black hole that absorbs all interest. Every human being has a fundamental attitude that esteems some things of more importance than others (priorities). This esteem is perhaps an unwarranted attachment, an unreasonable love, a prejudice. But such prejudice is the basis of life. To exist without belief, without presupposition, without preference for this or that aspect of context, is inhuman and quite impossible. The ancient Greeks felt awe and wonder before the universe, the basic and unquestioned context for their lives. Medieval religious persons bowed before their God in prayer; faith was their unquestioned foundation. Moderns turned to scientific enquiry, empiricism, reason, mathematics, and technological progress. Some moderns turned to the self as absolute. In every case, new faith (however problematic) followed every loss of faith.
Question: Why does nihilism seem to go against human nature?
11. Thomas Aquinas was the most important medieval thinker. He was primarily a synthesizer. He brought together in his works the thought of Aristotle, Augustine, Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, the Church Fathers, and the Bible. Thomas' idea of God combines neo-Platonic (craftsman and provider), Aristotelian (self-sufficient contemplator), and Biblical notions of God. After his death, many of his conclusions were condemned in the Condemnation of 1277 (a list of philosophical views deemed heretical by the Church). Subsequently, however, his work was exonerated. He was elevated to sainthood, and his dialectical and quite tentative theology was elevated to fixed dogma. His works became the basis of Catholic theology even up until the present day. Protestants, including Martin Luther and others, found fault with his theology and turned to thinkers such as Augustine for edification. They believed that Thomas' doctrine was too intellectualistic and did not emphasize enough the operation of the will. In fact, Thomas based much of his thinking on the intellectualistic views of Aristotle. Aquinas' understanding of the beatific vision (seeing God face to face after death) is to a great extent a modified version of Aristotle's scientific contemplation. Just as Aristotle hoped in this lifetime, from time to time in his study, to know what it was like to be like God, so Aquinas projected this hope into afterlife -- where the individual soul would finally understand God and all earthly questions would be answered. For Aquinas, eternal bliss is the satisfaction of a scientific appetite; perfect knowledge is the goal of human life (achieved only in the afterlife). Many Christian theologians disputed this view, including Duns Scotus; but it was Thomas Aquinas who ultimately prevailed. Thomism is the prevailing Catholic philosophy in the twentieth century.
Question: What kinds of difficulties can arise in combining Aristotle and Christianity?

12. For additional reading see Ernest L. Fortin, "St. Augustine," in Leo Strauss' History of Political Philosophy.

Questions for Discussion:

1. List, in separate columns, ancient, medieval, and modern views about human nature, non-human nature, human society, artificial products, and God. How do these views compare with present-day views? How do these views compare with your views?

2. Describe the impact of the doctrine of original sin on views of human nature and society.

3. What aspects of context does modern philosophy emphasize?

4. What is nihilism? What effect does it have on fundamental attitude?

5. Why is method so important in the modern ages?

6. What were Hobbes' views of human nature and society? Are they similar to St. Augustine's?

7. What is meant by "intellectualism"? Why would some believers find fault with an intellectualistic approach to God and human aspirations?

8. What do you suppose was the relation between Church and State in the Middle Ages? (This question goes beyond the notes, but use your knowledge of history to help you here.)

9. In what sense are presuppositions concerning human nature, human society, non-human nature, and artificial products "self-fulfilling prophecies"?

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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.