DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2019, from

2. Beginnings

The general character of medieval philosophy in the West is determined to a significant extent by historical events associated with the collapse of Roman civilization. The overrunning of Western Europe by invading Goths, Huns and Vandals brought in its wake not only the military and political defeat of the Roman Empire but also the disintegration of the shared institutions and culture that had sustained philosophical activity in late antiquity. Boethius, a Roman patrician by birth and a high-ranking official in the Ostrogothic king’s administration, is an eloquent witness to the general decline of intellectual vitality in his own day. He announces his intention to translate into Latin and write Latin commentaries on all the works of Plato and Aristotle, and he gives as his reason the fear that, lacking this sort of remedial aid, his own Latin-speaking and increasingly ill-trained contemporaries will soon lose access altogether to the philosophical legacy of ancient Greece. Boethius’ assessment of the situation appears to have been particularly astute, for in fact in the six centuries following his death (until the mid-twelfth century), philosophers in the West depended almost entirely on Boethius himself for what little access they had to the primary texts of Greek philosophy. Moreover, since he had barely begun to carry out his plan when his execution for treason put an end to his work, Boethius’ fears were substantially realized. Having translated only Aristotle’s treatises on logic together with Porphyry’s introduction to Aristotle’s Categories (see Aristotle; Porphyry) and having completed commentaries on only some of the texts he translated, Boethius left subsequent generations of medieval thinkers without direct knowledge of most of Aristotle’s thought, including the natural philosophy, metaphysics and ethics, and with no texts of Plato (though a small portion of the Timaeus had been translated and commented on by Calcidius in the fourth century). Medieval philosophy was therefore significantly shaped by what was lost to it. It took root in an environment devoid of the social and educational structures of antiquity, lacking the Greek language and cut off from the rich resources of a large portion of classical thought. Not surprisingly, the gradual reclamation of ancient thought over the course of the Middle Ages had a significant impact on the development of the medieval philosophical tradition.

Medieval philosophy, however, was also shaped by what was left to it and, in particular, by two pieces of the cultural legacy of late antiquity that survived the collapse of Roman civilization. The first of these is the Latin language, which remained the exclusive language of intellectual discourse in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Latin provided medieval thinkers with access to some important ancient resources, including Cicero, Seneca, Macrobius, Calcidius, the Latin Church Fathers (see Patristic philosophy), Augustine and Boethius. These Latin sources gave early medieval thinkers a general, if not deep, acquaintance with classical ideas. Augustine is far and away the most significant of these Latin sources. His thought, and in particular his philosophical approach to Christianity and his Christianized Neoplatonist philosophical outlook, profoundly affect every period and virtually every area of medieval philosophy (see §5).

The second significant piece of late antiquity to survive into the Middle Ages is Christianity. Christianity had grown in importance in the late Roman Empire and, with the demise of the empire’s social structures, the Church remained until the twelfth century virtually the only institution capable of supporting intellectual culture. It sustained formal education in schools associated with its monasteries, churches and cathedrals, and provided for the preservation of ancient texts, both sacred and secular, in its libraries and scriptoriums. Medieval philosophers received at least some of their formal training in ecclesiastical institutions and most were themselves officially attached to the Church in some way, as monks, friars, priests or clerks. In the later Middle Ages, the study of theology was open only to men who had acquired an arts degree, and the degree of Master of Theology constituted the highest level of academic achievement. Consequently, most of the great philosophical minds of the period would have thought of themselves primarily as theologians. Moreover, in addition to providing the institutional basis for medieval philosophy, Christianity was an important stimulus to philosophical activity. Its ideas and doctrines constituted a rich source of philosophical subject matter. Medieval philosophy, therefore, took root in an intellectual world sustained by the Church and permeated with Christianity’s texts and ideas (see §5).

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustine; Augustinianism; Boethius, A.M.S.; Clement of Alexandria; Liber de causis ; Marius Victorinus; Nemesius; Origen; Patristic philosophy; Platonism, medieval; Pseudo-Dionysius; Stoicism; Tertullian, Q.S.F.; Themistius; Translators)

Citing this article:
MacDonald, Scott and Norman Kretzmann. Beginnings. Medieval philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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