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Platonism, medieval

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B095-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Medieval Platonism includes the medieval biographical tradition, the transmission of the dialogues, a general outlook spanning commitment to extramental ideas, intellectualism in cognition, emphasis on self-knowledge as the source of philosophizing, and employment of the dialogue form. Platonism permeated the philosophy of the Church Fathers, the writings of Anselm and Abelard, the twelfth-century renaissance, the Italian Renaissance and the northern renaissance. Indeed the mathematical treatment of nature, which inspired the birth of modern science in the works of Kepler and Galileo, stems in part from late medieval Pythagorean Platonism.

The term ‘Platonism’ is of seventeenth-century origin. Medieval authors spoke not of Platonism but rather of Plato and of Platonists (platonici), applying the term ‘Platonist’ to an extreme extramental realism about universals, or a commitment to the extramental existence of the Ideas. Thus John of Salisbury characterized Bernard of Chartres as ‘the foremost Platonist of our time’ in regard to his theory of ideas. For Aquinas, Platonists hold an overly intellectualist account of human knowledge, ignoring the mediation of the senses. In general, medieval writers agreed with Cassiodorus’ maxim, Plato theologus, Aristoteles logicus. Plato was primarily a theologian, an expert on the divine, eternal, immaterial and intelligible realm, a classifier of the orders of angelic and demonic beings, whereas Aristotle was primarily a logician and classifier of the forms of argument.

Medieval Platonism combines elements drawn from Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. It generally assumes a dualistic opposition of the divine and temporal worlds, with the sensible world patterned on unchanging immaterial forms, often expressed as numbers. It also affirms the soul’s immortality and direct knowledge of intelligible truths, combined with a suspicion of the mortal body and a distrust of the evidence of the senses. Neoplatonists sympathized with Porphyry’s aim (in his lost De harmonia Platonis et Aristotelis) of harmonizing Plato with Aristotle. A Platonic outlook (largely inspired by the Timaeus) dominates the early Middle Ages from the sixth to twelfth centuries, whereas the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the age of scholasticism, witnessed an explosion in the knowledge of Aristotelian texts, often transmitted through Arabic intermediaries. The new interest in Aristotle was such that, although the Timaeus was widely lectured on during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, by 1255 it was no longer required reading at the University of Paris. Interest in Plato re-emerged in the Italian Renaissance with the availability of genuine works of Plato, Plotinus and Proclus. Nevertheless, through Pseudo-Dionysius in particular, Platonism reverberates in many thirteenth-century authors, especially in theology.

Citing this article:
Moran, Dermot. Platonism, medieval, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B095-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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