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MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY

What was medieval philosophy?

Medieval philosophy was the historical period of thought from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries, which was dominated by religious concerns, the study of ancient Greek philosophy, and a need to reconcile rational inquiry with religious faith. It was mainly, but not completely, limited to the implications of christian doctrine. Thus, St. Augustine (354-430) in the fourth century gave christianity its first philosophical foundation in politics and ethics; and at the end of the era Nicolas of Oresme (1323-1382), in working out Aristotelian theories of motion that were approved by the church, he was able to anticipate infinitesimal calculus and coordinate geometry, before Galileo's mechanical theories.

How is Christian philosophy different from Christian theology?

The main job of medieval Christian theologians was to intellectually work out the doctrine of the catholic church, without questioning its basic premises or the content of the religion that was based on the New Testament. The main job of medieval christian philosophers was to explain how accepted knowledge that did not have christian origins was compatible with christian theology. This distinction was not made in the early church writings, such as those of St. Augustine.

What was St. Augustine's role at the beginning of medieval philosophy?

St. Augustine, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) was a pivotal figure in the transition between classical and medieval thought. Some see him as the last of the great classical thinkers, whereas others claim him as the first medieval thinker. He lived through the decline of the Roman Empire, with its political turmoil and military failures, and the

A stained glass window at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine in Florida depicts the church's namesake (iStock).

A stained glass window at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine in Florida depicts the church's namesake (iStock).

Roman state's acceptance of Christianity as the official religion. Just before Augustine died, the Vandals were burning and sacking Hippo, where he was bishop.

Augustine's most influential works are Confessions, On the Trinity, On Genesis According to the Letter, and City of God. They all reflect his own faith after conversion and provide an intellectual structure for much Christian writing that followed. Although Augustine's initial education was in rhetoric, his later studies in Neoplatonism deeply influenced his religious understanding. Still, he approached philosophy in terms of how it could serve religion, rather than as a valuable discipline in its own right. This secondary status of philosophy was widely accepted by philosophers throughout the medieval period. Augustine was one of the early Church Fathers and was canonized as a saint, by popular acclaim, as was the custom during the early centuries of the Catholic Church.

What did Augustine confess in Confessions?

The importance of Augustine's (354-430) Confessions lies less in what he disclosed about himself and more in its intimate, first-person style of writing, which became a distinct genre in future religious works, as well as philosophical treatises. His Confessions, written when he was in his forties, relates his religious yearnings, strivings, and happiness.

Augustine's early education was in rhetoric and literature. He claims that when, at the age of 18, he read Cicero's now lost dialogue, Hortensias, he was inspired to devote his life to the search for wisdom. Although he converted to Christianity in 386, he made a living teaching rhetoric, and for a while his main religious interest was in Manicaeanism. (Manicaeanism denied the crucifixion of Jesus, united Christianity with Budhhism, and was preoccupied with struggles between good and evil, or light and darkness.) Augustine came into contact with Bishop Ambrose and Christian Neoplatonists in Milan and found a sufficiently sophisticated form of Christianity that appealed to him.

Augustine believed that Neoplatonism anticipated the basic Christian doctrines about God, the creation, and divine presence. When he returned to his home in North Africa, he was ordained as a priest and then became bishop of Hippo. He preached, traveled, and corresponded voluminously. In his scholarly and devotional activities, he came to believe that the christian scriptures, particularly the Gospel account of the life of Jesus, were more important than the writings of philosophers. He concluded that more important than belief, which was an intellectual matter, was understanding, which began with faith: "Believe in order that you may understand." Understanding required a vision of God.

What did St. Augustine mean when he said, "Please God, make me good...."?

St. Augustine (354-430) considered himself profligate in his youth, much to the distress of his mother, Monica. In his Confessions, which recounts some of this early history, he is famous for having written what is often repeated as: "Please God, make me good, but not just yet." However, some scholars think that a more accurate translation of the Latin is: "Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate—but not yet!" They also think that Augustine was not so much talking about his past self as he was ironically criticizing all who lack resolve about developing their virtues and devoting themselves to God.

Augustine's sins were probably not as great as his oft-quoted remark has led many to believe. As a youth, before his conversion to christianity, Augustine was fond of drink and women. He had an illegitimate son in 372, but was in a 15-year relationship with the child's mother, which would have been considered perfectly respectable at the time.

 
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