Goetia Niflheim
17 min readJan 26, 2020

I. The formation of medieval philosophy

The formation of the philosophy of the Middle Ages took place against the backdrop of the crisis and collapse of the Roman Empire and the formation of feudalism.

In the first centuries of our era, the empire, located in the vast expanses of Europe, Asia and Africa, fell into decline due to internal contradictions: between the development of economic ties and the low productivity of slave labor; between the metropolis and the provinces; between the republican form and the monarchical essence of political institutions; finally, between the political and economic community and the spiritual disunity of the state. These contradictions led to an increase in social and interethnic tension, to the spread of political apathy and selfishness among Roman citizens. At a time when there is an alienation of citizens from the worldview and political foundations of society, ethical quests are growing in philosophy.

Residents of the Roman Empire in the era of decline looked for the answer to the question — “How to live?”— in epicureism and stoicism. The Epicureans preached the hedonistic principle of enjoyment as the highest good, and the path to its achievement was seen in avoiding a dangerous, anxious and vain public life. The Stoics taught with dignity to endure adversity in life, considered suicide as morally permissible as a resolution of the contradiction between the law of virtue and the impossibility of realizing it. In general, both teachings are focused on adapting to reality, but not on changing it.

The barbarians, who constantly attacked the borders of the empire, were not able, due to their cultural backwardness, to offer a constructive solution. They could either destroy, or at best inherit, the values ​​of Roman civilization.

The world empire needed a world religion. This appeared on the Middle Eastern outskirts of the empire in the person of Christianity. It was he who was to become the spiritual connecting beginning of the Roman world at first, and then throughout medieval Europe.

II. Gnosticism

The most significant among the religious and philosophical teachings that spread in the first centuries of a new era in the east of the Roman Empire was Gnosticism (from the Greek “Gnosis” — “knowledge”). The Gnostics believed that the basis of the universe are two principles — the highest Spirit and Matter. The first is the focus of light, reason and goodness and is a source of spiritual particles — aeons, which, separating from the Supreme Spirit, form a special sphere — the plerometer. Matter acts as an unorganized principle and forms chaos.

The visible world, taught by the Gnostics, arose by chance when one of the aeons, breaking away from the pleroma, came into contact with chaos and animated Matter. Thus, he became the Demiurge (i.e. the Creator) of the visible world.

People, in their opinion, are composed of body, soul and spirit. The last of the three elements is a particle of the Divine, imprisoned in Matter. The world is filled with continuous struggle. The Spirit, captivated by Matter, longs to break out and ascend into the pleroma, but it cannot do it itself. In order to save him, the highest Spirit sent his Supreme Aeon to the world to transmit gnosis to people, i.e. knowledge of their spiritual origin and method of liberation from the shackles of Matter. Only he who receives true knowledge will receive salvation and be reunited with pleroma.

In the II century, numerous writings of the Gnostics appeared, in which it was insistently emphasized that Christ brought people salvation not by his godfather sacrifice, but by the preaching of saving knowledge. At the same time it was said in them that he preached a twofold doctrine: one openly set out for all, the other — true and secret — told only to the elect. The first is found in the books of scripture known throughout the Church. The second is kept apocryphal (from the Greek “Apokryphos” — “secret”, “inmost”) Gospels, deeds and apocalypses, available only to the initiates. The Gnostics assured that the savior revealed to his beloved disciple John and Mary Magdalene most of all the secrets, and therefore associated the origin of most of his works with their names.

The Church later rejected most of these texts, but some nevertheless became part of the Christian Holy Tradition. Christian iconography has learned a lot from the apocrypha. In the monuments created in the traditions of Judaism, verbal portraits were completely absent, while the sensual Greco-Roman world required a visible and concrete imagery. This is how, for example, the apostle Paul appears in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thekla: “And he saw Paul walking, a man undersized, bald, with legs crooked, with a dignified posture, with eyebrows fused, with a slightly protruding nose, full of mercy”.

III. Patristics. St. Augustine

After centuries of persecution, executions and other repressions to which Christians were subjected, at the beginning of the 4th century under Emperor Constantine I the Great, a historical union of imperial power and a new religion took place. As a consequence of this, a need arose for a philosophical and theological union, i.e., for the synthesis of the achievements of ancient philosophy (with proper selection and adaptation) and the dogmas of the Christian faith. The implementation of this synthesis was one of the tasks of patristics (from the Latin “Pater” — “father”). This term refers to the totality of theological and philosophical views of the so-called “Church Fathers”. Their number is different in different Christian denominations. However, the vast majority of Christian churches include Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa among them. The main merit of these theologians is the clarification of the question of the relationship between the concepts of “essence” and “hypostasis” in relation to the persons of the Holy Trinity. The term “essence” denoted a single Deity, manifested in the three faces of the Trinity, and the term “hypostasis” was assigned those personal evocative properties that give them an independent being. The essence of the Divine belongs equally to all three persons of the Trinity, and is expressed only in one Father. Each entity equally possesses this essence. At the same time, each hypostasis has some special properties. So, for the Father, unborn, for the Son — birth from the Father, for the Spirit — the coming from the Father through the Son. Since the divine essence of all three hypostases is one, therefore, they are consubstantial.

The most famous in Latin patristics is Saint (Blessed) Augustine Aurelius (354–430), Bishop of Hypnon, North Africa. Augustine’s views matured in the struggle against ideological opponents and differed in polemical extremes, often to the detriment of logical coherence. His theological and philosophical positions are often inconsistent with each other. In a polemic with Manichaeism, the religious doctrine of the eternal struggle of the forces of light and darkness, Augustine developed a strictly monistic philosophical and theological doctrine. God created the world from nothing. Only God has genuine being, everything else exists insofar as this is permitted by divine will.

Augustine’s original teaching on time. God abides in eternity, but the destiny of the created world is to be in the stream of time. Augustine emphasizes the spiritual aspect of time. For an individual person, the connection of the past, present and future appears as a unity in the soul of his memory, contemplation and hope. On a cosmic scale, the connection of times is miraculously and mysteriously laid in the divine plans for world destinies.

Since the world was created in the image and likeness of the divine mind, since it reflects true being, this world is necessarily good and beautiful. Where does world evil come from? Augustine solves the problem of theodicy (i.e. God’s justification for earthly evil) in the sense that evil essentially does not exist. There is an incomplete good, a deficit of good in the created world. Even hell is not without good.

The world is a ladder of creatures arranged by the divine mind and will in a harmonious order. Each item has a suitable place in the general plan of the universe. At the head of the creatures of this world are intelligent beings, whose approach or departure from God depends on their free will. Rational methods of cognition of divine truths are fundamentally limited, the main path to their comprehension runs through faith in revelation, religious insight.

The ideological struggle of Augustine against Pelagianism is indicative. The Irish theologian Pelagius taught that the main factor in saving a person’s soul is the free initiative of his will. Augustine, condemning Pelagianism, rejected the same affirmed free will. In the salvation or destruction of souls, predestination takes place. God — a formidable and merciless judge, whose sentence is not subject to appeal — even before the creation of the world, he intended some for salvation, others for destruction. In the short historical perspective, this teaching turned out to be unclaimed, since it objectively hindered the claims of the church to the leadership of the spiritual salvation of the flock.

When Rome was plundered by the Goths in 410, pagans attributed this catastrophe to the oblivion of the ancient gods. A counterargument against pagan revanchism was Augustine’s work “On the City of God.” It sets out the most important provisions on the organization of the medieval socio-political system. There are two cities — earthly and heavenly, both created by love, the first to self, the second to God. Their first citizens were the sinner Cain and the righteous Abel. According to Augustine, social and political life should be built on the basis of the spiritual unification of believers. And if Rome fell, then this means the defeat of the earthly, but not heavenly city. The Christian church is called to organize the inhabitants of the heavenly city, to guardianship over the reconstruction and functioning of secular power (earthly city). The idea of ​​the priority of church authority over state, expressed by Augustine, formed the basis of medieval political teachings.

The Basic Principles of Augustine’s Religious Ethics:

  1. God is the source and criterion of morality, which is the opposite of earthly sensuality;
  2. All the fullness of good is embodied in God, the source of evil is original sin, the “Cain seal” in the human race;
  3. The interpretation of evil as a denial of good, a departure from divine precepts;
  4. The personality’s activity, expressed in its free will, from the time of the fall has an exclusively negative meaning, leads to sin, therefore, a true Christian destroys “sinful willfulness” in himself, he is a servant of God, an insignificant worm, dust before the almighty;
  5. Christian virtues — the consistent denial of pagan virtues (“overloaded vices”). This is the passivity of the individual instead of activity, humility instead of courage, faith in the omnipotence of God instead of wisdom, unreasoning love of God instead of justice and hope for heavenly salvation.

In his doctrine of the city of God, Augustine turned out to be a prophet. After the death of the Western Roman Empire and the consequent loss of the former political base by the Christian religion, the reconstruction of the socio-political integrity of the West was carried out on the basis of the Roman Catholic Church. In spiritual life, this turned into militant dogmatization. However, in parallel with the Western worlds existed — Byzantine and Arab, whose integrity had other (political and ethnic) grounds. As a result of this, the ideological pressure from the church or mosque was not as powerful as in the West, therefore, ancient and eastern motifs were organically woven into the fabric of philosophizing.

IV. Key ideas of Byzantine medieval philosophy

Byzantine philosophy was influenced by the ideas of ancient rationalism, Neoplatonism and Eastern mysticism.

Neoplatonic motifs are inherent in the philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (pseudonym of an unknown author of the 5th-6th centuries). Dionysius asserted the ineffability and unknowability of God, his outflow into the world in the form of light emanations, the organization of the heavenly army, the church and the universe in a hierarchical order of decreasing luminosity, which fades in the darkness of “meon” (non-existence). Since the word, the mind is not able to express the divine essence, ecstatic, mystical ways of merging with God are affirmed.

Rationalist ideas are inherent in Mikhail Psell (1018–1090). Michael strove to create a synthesis of ancient and Christian views. In addition to the “higher philosophy” (theology) comprehended by revelation, he recognized the meaning of “lower”, i.e. knowledge achieved by logical reasoning. In the spirit of Plato, he assigned an intermediate place to mathematics, the “science of the incorporeal.” Psell rationalized criticisms of miracles.

On the contrary, the teachings of the Byzantine Hesychasm (from the Greek “hesychia” — inner silence, peace, detachment), represented by Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), are pervaded by mysticism. Hesychasm focuses on the spiritual world of man, the practical methods of its improvement in the direction of achieving direct contact with the divine reality. Gregory argued that the hesychast ascetic in an ecstatic state perceives the uncreated and immaterial radiation of God (Tabor Light). Opposing rationalistic theology, Gregory sharply contrasted the divine and the secular. The world is created from “energies” emanating from God, but opposed to His essence, as all that is knowable is opposite to the unknowable. The path to God lies through silence (“hesychia”), which is “the abandonment of the mind and the world, the oblivion of the lower, the secret knowledge of the higher”.

Byzantine philosophy had a great influence on Western (especially during the Renaissance), as well as on Russian philosophical thought.

V. Nominalism and Realism. Philosophical ideas of the developed Middle Ages

The connecting principle of Western European medieval society was church hierarchical structures. Theocentrism completely dominated the worldview, where the world was presented in the form of a colossal vertically organized hierarchical system, on top of which (on the throne of the world) God abides. In a theocentric worldview, the significance of things and events is not limited to their immediate function and external form. In ordinary objects, hidden higher meanings must be sought. At the same time, spatio-temporal disunity is not significant. The medieval icons organically depicted characters and events spaced in space and time, for example, the Evangelist Luke, who draws a Madonna and Child from nature.

The most important socially significant figure was a theologian. It was at his disposal the basic codes for deciphering the significance of various natural or social phenomena. In the Middle Ages, the Bible is a book exclusively for theological use. The need for a special system of training qualified theological cadres is obvious. In this system, a rightful place and philosophy is granted, it becomes a scholasticism (i.e. “school”) and a servant of theology. Appeal to quotes from the Holy Scriptures, from the writings of the church fathers and canonized authorities were the main ways of substantiating the truth. Particular importance was attached to the logic of reasoning and conclusion. It was in the field of logic that the philosophers of that era left the most significant achievements, which retain their significance to this day.

The problems of the relationship between the world and God, the individual and the general, knowledge and faith were widely debated in the philosophical environment. One of the most important topics in the philosophy of the Middle Ages is the centuries-old debate about universals (i.e., general concepts). Medieval realists insisted on the objectively real existence of universals, while nominalists made them dependent on the knowledge of single things, called them names (in Latin Nomen — name) to denote the general properties of any classes of single objects.

One of the scholastic fathers, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), defended a realistic position. In understanding the world, he adhered to views close to Plato: concepts have reality. Truth is contained not only in the intellect, it has an independent existence. Universals are connected with single things, but exist independently of them. According to Anselm, thinking should be subject to faith. “I believe in order to understand” — this is his motto.

Anselm is known for his evidence of the existence of God, which in his own view was not so much an argument as an illustration. His ontological evidence is best known. Defining the concept of God as “something that is no longer conceivable”, Anselm argued that since the proposition “God exists only as a concept in intelligence” contradicts the original definition, God necessarily has a real existence. This argument was coming a long life. Not having serious significance in the Middle Ages, it acquired one already in modern times.

Representatives of nominalism were the British Roger Bacon (1214–1292) and William of Ockham (1290–1350). Bacon considered universals not independent, but existing only in the singular, which is objective, regardless of the general and thinking principle. At a time when the methodology was dominated by a reference to authority and deductive inference, Bacon, on the contrary, suggested proceeding from direct experience. He was convinced that experience was necessary for the knowledge of not only sensual, natural, but also supersensible, supernatural objects. It is possible to acquire the truth about God through the medium of not reason, but experience, which happens in two forms — external and internal. The inner experience is intuitive, mystical in nature, it involves divine insight. Bacon himself was actively engaged in experimentation, he predicted a number of later technical inventions (telescope, self-propelled wagon, aircraft, gunpowder, etc.). Roger Bacon was ahead of his time, as a result of which he was suspected by the church authorities, was subjected to repression. At the same time, the duality of his ideas should be noted, which was manifested in the doctrine of two kinds of experience. Such dualistic motives are even more pronounced in Ockham.

The fate of Ockham was drawn into a whirlpool of not only ideological, but also political conflicts of the era. Forced to flee from the persecution, he entered the service of the king who fought with the pope, Ludwig of Bavaria. Ockham sharply criticized the institution of the papacy, considered it a temporary institution. Universals, according to Ockham, are only signs of real single things. The unit is the only object of science. Universals are used as logical tools in the knowledge of things.

Statements not based on knowledge of things are doubtful. So, Ockham expresses an idea that is not consistent with Aristotle’s authority on the material homogeneity of the sublunar and supralunar worlds on the grounds that there is no need to make unnecessary assumptions. He formulated the famous principle of the simplicity of scientific description, called “Occam’s razor”: “You should not multiply entities beyond necessity”. This is a methodological principle according to which all assumptions not self-evident and not verified by experience should be eliminated from science. Ockham was convinced that philosophy and theology should be autonomous, the principle of two truths should be respected. His motto, unlike Anselm, was expressed by the words: “I believe and understand.”

The dualistic views, alternative to the ideas prevailing in medieval scholasticism, were not only epistemological (duality of truth), but also ontological. These latter penetrated into Europe from the Muslim world, where Arab peripatetism became widespread.

VI. Arab medieval philosophy

The teachings of the Aristotelian (peripatetic) school became widespread in the Arab East, and here it was most closely associated with specific sciences — medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and it was less sought to adapt to the letter of the Koran than in the West to the Bible. The Iranian thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna; 980–1037) left about four hundred works in Arabic and about twenty in Persian in all then known sections of scientific and philosophical knowledge. The main encyclopedic work “The Book of Healing” consists of four sections devoted to questions of logic, physics, mathematics (including music and astronomy) and metaphysics. Avicenna developed the ideas of Aristotelianism, although Aristotle himself would hardly have recognized his faithful student in him. He taught that the world was not created in time, it represents the timeless emanation (outflow) of God, the “first cause”. The minds, souls and bodies of the celestial spheres flow in a hierarchical order from God according to the Aristotelian cosmological picture. God alone has an absolute existence, everything else exists only in potency, the actualization of which is entirely dependent on God. However, the world that has expired from God has relative autonomy and, being limited in space and time, exists according to the laws of self-movement.

The views of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes; 1126–1198) differed much more radical Aristotelianism. His main works are comments on the works of Aristotle. Averroes affirmed the eternity of the world and the uncreated nature of primary matter. God, “perfect to the world,” only actualizes the potential forms inherent in matter. In his works, the necessity of separating theology and philosophy is substantiated, the principle of two truths mentioned above is affirmed.

The dualistic ideas of the Arab East penetrated Europe; this was the whole direction, called Latin Averroism, whose representative was Siger of Brabant (1235–1282). His views were condemned by the church twice (in 1270 and 1277). The theses were, in principle, quite compatible with radical Aristotelianism: about the perfection of the world to God, about the non-existence of the first person, about the mortality of the human soul, about the impossibility of divine foresight of single events. Siger himself was put on trial by the Inquisition and was killed, as is believed, at the direction of the church authorities.

VII. Thomas Aquinas — a systematizer of medieval scholasticism

A kind of completion of philosophical development in the Middle Ages was the Tomist doctrine, i.e., the system of views of Thomas Aquinas (Thomas Aquinas; 1225–1274). Thanks to his ability to rely on common sense when considering any issue, to find the resultant, harmonious solution Aquinat, like no other, earned the nickname “Aristotle in tonus” (that is, with the crown shaved by the monastic rank). In his main writings, “The Sum of Theology” and “Sum against the Gentiles,” the foundations of Christian doctrine are worked out in the spirit of the Aristotelian culture of common sense. One of his life mottos was: listen not to the one who speaks, but to what is being said. As for the theory, here his claims to the Aristotelian inheritance are not so certain. Thomas adapted the ideas of Aristotle to the needs of theocentrism. Absolute being is possessed only by God, “pure actuality”. Everything that is singular is created, has a random and conditioned character. Matter — “pure potentiality”, “the weakest kind of being”, is characterized only by passive susceptibility to external influences.

Since God is a being that has once and for all an established order and hierarchy, the moral life of man, according to the thinker, consists in following this order both in personal and social life. Thus, the philosopher justifies and consolidates the class-corporate morality of feudalism.

Each person must occupy the position in society that is predetermined for him by God and his governors on earth: the Catholic Church and secular authorities. Man experiences and experiences supreme bliss only when he sees the divine essence. But “to see God as he is” is given only to those who follow all the instructions of religious morality and the instructions of the church.

In a dispute over universals, Thomas Aquinas stood in moderately realistic positions. Universals exist before things as types of things; in things as images that have received incarnations; finally, after things as a result of abstraction. In Thomism, the principle of harmony of faith and reason is formulated. Aquinas was convinced that with the help of reason one can rise to the truths of revelation. Having rejected the ontological proof of the existence of God Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas developed and improved the system of posterior (i.e., based on experience) evidence. There are five evidence in total. From the data in the direct experience of movement, the causal chain, degrees of perfection and, finally, natural expediency, Thomas concludes about the first engine, the first reason, self-sufficient necessity and the source of expediency — i.e., about God.

In contrast to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, Thomas advocated the principle of free will. Avoiding the extremes of Augustine’s teachings about the state as a consequence of Cain’s crime, he argued in the Aristotelian spirit that the state exists then to take care of the common good. The emperor’s task is to lead citizens to a virtuous life, but the church leads them to heavenly bliss. Secular power should bow before spiritual power. Thomas Aquinas was posthumously canonized and even declared the fifth teacher of the church.

Pierre Abelard demanded a reasonable interpretation of religious dogma. He emphasized that the means of finding the truth is doubt: the mind has the right to reject everything that is wrong in the works of church authorities and only in case of insoluble contradictions choose those arguments of authority that it considers more convincing. In the work “Know thyself, or Ethics,” Abelard, in contrast to Augustine, proves that a person of free will can not only sin, but also be virtuous. Conscience is a natural law inherent in all people and acts as a criterion of morality: an act of conscience is not sinful. With unusual passion, Abelard defends the value of the human personality, its right to independence and happiness, condemns the inhumanity of orthodox theologians, which is based on ignorance and intolerance. His teaching was condemned by the Soissons (1121) and Sens (1140) cathedrals and Pope Innocent II primarily for anti-authoritarian tendencies: it was at this point that Abelard’s views were especially close to heresy. But such ideas were not only a protest against the absolutization of divine sanction in morality, but also a kind of anticipation of the subsequent fate of ethical reflection at a new stage in history.