The Asclepius describes man as poised between God and beast in his nature, because he is both a bodily and a spiritual creature. We have already touched on this hermetic tradition that if man behaves in accordance with his lower nature, he will grow more like a beast. If he cultivates his soul, he will grow more God-like. That puts crudely a widespread notion of late Platonism that the human condition is a perpetual struggle between a debasing materialism and an elevating spirituality, conceived of as primarily intellectual. There are traces of it in Augustine, in his famous phrase: deificari in otio, in which he describes the ascent of the soul towards God through a leisure spent in philosophical contemplation. There is a fundamental problem here for Christian thought. The pagan philosopher has no difficulty with the idea that a man might thus become a god, although he will draw the line at talk of a man's attaining to the heights of a divine 'being above being'. The Christian can speak only of man's return to the way he was made: in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26). Man cannot become God.
There is, however, a starting-point here for a tradition of mediaeval mysticism which envisages a goal of union with God such as Bernard of Clairvaux describes, and which was the experience of many later mediaeval mystics. Such union is, as a rule, only momentary. It is seen as a foretaste of heaven, when the lover of God will be united with him for ever in a bliss of contemplation.
From Augustine onwards 'becoming God-like' in this way is seen as an intellectual bliss, a perfection of mutual understanding. A singular exception is Anselm, who thinks there will be room for many familiar physical and emotional pleasures in heaven. More typical is Ailred of Rievaulx, in whose treatise on spiritual friendship is a picture of a shared understanding between Christians in this life in which Christ is always present too. Such conceptions of heaven and its first fruits on earth depend upon Platonism's ideal of reason transfigured, able to see clearly the supreme Reason which is its pattern and to enjoy purely intellectual joys untainted by the urgencies of the demands of the flesh.
Pseudo-Dionysius worked out the implications of this doctrine of a return to God by means of a purified intelligence in some detail, and this
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES thinking was an important source of a number of mediaeval assumptions in this area. He saw the whole hierarchical structure of the universe as a ladder designed to help the soul of man in its spiritual climb. The process of perfecting requires the soul to climb step by step; there can be no direct ascent. Down the steps flows the influence of the divine, which is itself the cause of the order, knowledge and activity of which the hierarchy is composed. Up the steps proceeds the soul, gaining ever greater illumination as it is purified and comes closer to God, and able to begin at all only because God comes down to meet it, and to show it the way.
All sorts of uses were made of this model. It seemed to be in keeping with the image ofJacob's Ladder (Genesis 28.12), which was always popular with mediaeval writers on spirituality, and so it caused no substantial difficulties in Christian use. Pseudo-Dionysius himself employs the image to explain why there are three orders of ordained minister. Deacons are responsible for purifying, priests for illuminating and bishops for perfecting the souls in their charge. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote (drawing here on Benedict too) on the steps of pride and humility the soul descends and ascends on its way to heaven. Alan of Lille makes the image the basis of a criticism of the way the beastly-minded drag down the study of theology to their own level. Their intellectual bestiality makes them scarcely capable of comprehending a piece of theatre, and they pretend to understand the debates of angels and even the colloquies of God.
Alan of Lille also touches on the theme in his Regulae Theologiae. Regulae V and VI deal with the question of beginning and end in relation to the Godhead. God is, as Monad, the beginning and end of all things, for all things tend to One as to their last end (V). Every creature, having a beginning and end, is capable of dissolution, even the angels. But while all created things are good in their beginning, for God made them, only rational creatures are good in both their beginning and their end, for the rational creatures not only tend towards God, but worship him, love him (VI).
But for the Christian, the notion of a return to God depends on the work of Christ. Here philosophy had been relevant if often embarrassing in the early Christian centuries. The idea that God might become man and enter this world to save sinners was quite foreign, indeed repugnant, to Platonism. But the philosophical traditions had had something to contribute to the debate about the manner in which the Incarnation could be possible. Boethius, especially, made use of them in his Contra Eutychen, where he explores all the options he can see, by way of 'mixing' and 'conjunction', and so on, in an attempt to provide a solid philosophical basis for the Chalcedonian view that Christ was one Person in two natures.
Peter Abelard in the twelfth century stresses the usefulness of the philosophers' concepts of the Logos as sapientia, sophia, lumen, mens. He got himself into trouble by doing so, because he seemed in danger of tumbling into old heresies about the distinction of attributes of the Godhead into those common to God as one and those proper to the Persons individually (see, for example, CCCM, XII, p. 293).
Yet, on the negative side, the revival of interest in philosophical vocabulary and frames of reference meant a corresponding revival of old heresies, sometimes in new guides. The author of the diatribe Against the Four Labyrinths of France, in the late twelfth century, speaks of 'new heretics' who say that Christ is nothing in so far as he is man ('non esse aliquid in eo quod est homo'), and others who say it is unfitting to suggest that God could be anything which he was not always, and that the Son cannot therefore have become incarnate at some point in history.
On the question of what was effected for man's salvation by the life and death and resurrection of Christ, philosophy had little to contribute directly, although Anselm attempted in his Cur Deus Homo to demonstrate by pure reason why God became man.
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