The Classical Sources Of Mediaeval Philosophy

The influence of Greek and Roman philosophical texts upon the Christian theology of the Middle Ages was both direct and indirect. In many cases the books were available to be read for themselves. But there were also layers upon layers of intermediate influence. Macrobius, for example, commented upon Cicero's Dream of Scipio and provided his mediaeval readers with material on Pythagorean mathematics, Platonic cosmology and much else in the process. Christian patristic authors were themselves a means by which classical philosophical ideas were diffused in the mediaeval West: most notably Augustine, but also Origen, Jerome and Gregory the Great, with Ambrose of Milan giving a glimpse of the Cappadocian Fathers, and through them additional elements of the background of Greek thought. And there is, of course, the possibility that sometimes a scholar hit on a problem or its solution for himself and then barricaded his position with authorities.

The most significant barrier to the direct transmission, of the Greek texts in particular, was the problem of language. In Augustine's day it was a matter of mild embarrassment to an educated Latin-speaker to be unable to read Greek fluently. By the time of Gregory the Great (c.540- 604) the language-barrier was dividing the Empire as clearly as was the political situation. Bede knew only a few words of Greek. John Scotus Eriugena (c.810-77) was almost unique in Carolingian times in the mastery he achieved of a language which by now was likely to have to be learned in the West from books and not from native speakers. It was sufficiently clear to Boethius that Greek works were becoming inaccessible to Latin-speakers, indeed that the legacy of the Greek world was at risk, for him to put in hand the project of translating the whole of Plato and Aristotle. He had completed only a small part of it before his death. It is apparent that he was right, for

PHILOSOPHICAL SOURCES the West had to make do with what he had provided until the twelfth century, when translation from the Arabic renderings of Aristotle, and to a lesser extent direct from the Greek again, made parts of ancient Greek thought more fully accessible. It is not too much to say that the whole history of Western thought was shaped until then by the chance which gave it small Aristotle and almost no Plato.

Cassiodorus, Boethius' contemporary, also saw that Greek learning was in danger of being lost to the West, but his plan was to make encyclopaedic summaries of the essentials of the disciplines for use in teaching. His Institutiones served their purpose, and became a model for Isidore in his Etymologiae and for the Carolingian encyclopaedists later. But in the nature of things they could do little to sustain or further serious philosophical enquiry.

The Greek philosophical tradition remained, then, at a linguistic disadvantage for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was in any case limited in its influence throughout the Middle Ages where it had to be read in Latin, because the Latin language remained a less happy vehicle for abstract speculation than Greek (despite Cicero's efforts to stretch and adapt it, and Boethius' attempts to take his achievements further). In the high Middle Ages Latin became a technically exact instrument for the logician's and metaphysician's purposes, but it never matched ancient Greek in its capacity for subtlety of expression. To this intrinsic disadvantage of Latin must be added the awkwardness and often the inaccuracy of translations made in an earnest effort to render word for word and by scholars whose Greek was almost never as fluent as their Latin, or who were (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) sometimes working from a rendering into Arabic and not directly from the Greek.

Roger Bacon, who was a passionate advocate of the study of languages, believed that the comparative poverty of Latin philosophy in the ancient world was due to a failure to translate all the work of the Greeks into Latin. He thought that the works of Plato had been generally known to the Romans, but not those of Aristotle, because he had been Plato's opponent. He praises Augustine for having (as he believed) translated the Categories (for his son), and mentions that Boethius had translated some of Aristotle's logic (Opus Maius I.xiii).

It is worth pausing for a moment over Bacon's account of the transmission of ancient philosophical learning (although Bacon is something of an eccentric), because it gives us an insight into the picture thirteenth-century scholars themselves had of what had happened and how their sources had

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES reached them. Bacon thinks it important to make the link between Christian history and the history of philosophy. That can be shown from Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine (Opus Maius II.vi). He used the Old Testament patriarchs as instructors. Josephus tells us that Noah and his sons taught philosophy to the Chaldeans and that Abraham taught the Egyptians. Even Aristotle admits that philosophy began with the patriarchs (Opus Maius II.ix). Ancient philosophy developed from that point in parallel with Hebrew learning (OpusMaius II.ix-x). Bacon knew the names and 'schools' of Greek thinkers from Thales of Miletus, through the Pythagoreans to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He can name Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras and Archelaus on the way. (He does not accept that Plato studied under Jeremiah the Prophet while he was in Egypt, as some believe he did, because the chronology will not fit (Opus Maius II.xi-xii)). He sees Aristotle as the greatest and last of this line, a philosopher who almost succeeded in bringing philosophy back to the perfection in which it had been given to the patriarchs of old. But he made mistakes, and it is still possible to improve on what he said (Opus Maius II.xiii). Thus, while regarding the philosophical tradition as God-given and parallel to the Christian, Bacon feels free to criticise and amend the work of the philosophers. It was necessary to justify doing so, for this heritage of ancient philosophical learning did not pass easily into the Christian tradition. This was so, Bacon explains, because the pagans persecuted the Christians at first, and the Church found herself confronted by philosophers who were also enemies. Moreover, these hostile philosophers seemed to Christian eyes, he says, to be intellectually and morally tainted by the study of magical arts. This suspicion has lingered, he comments, although it is no longer justified. It meant that Christians were not at ease in using the philosophers and had to wait for most of Aristotle until Moslem scholars brought his work to light and their work began to find its way to the Christian West, he explains (OpusMaius II.xiii and I.xiv-v).

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