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New Platonists



From Plato and Aristotle then we see the Platonic and Peripatetic schools rapidly rushing to absolute spiritualism on the one hand, or absolute sensualism on the other. At last, about the time of Christ, the two prevalent forms of philosophy were the stern doctrine of the Stoics on the one hand, founded on the idea of absolute idealism, and consequent pantheism with its coincident principle of inexorable fate; and on the other, the system of the Epicureans, a mechanical naturalism, which denied the existence of a supreme Deity, and resolved all virtue into a calculation of prudence, or a judicious pursuit of pleasure.

Among these, and especially among the Stoics, the philosophical Calvinists of their day, were many great and good men, some of whom, as Cleanthes, in his memorable hymn, which seems all but inspired from heaven, made occasional approaches to the highest truth, and sacrificed much for virtue, but the constant tendency was to extremes of spiritualism or of sensualism, or, as a recoil from these, to an unreasoning mysticism, or a contemptuous scepticism.1 Indeed an absolute scepticism was the fearful shadow which constantly accompanied the ancient philosophy, and seemed eventually to take possession of the entire Grecian mind.

Scepticism, however, can never satisfy the cravings of the soul; and hence we find subsequently to the Christian era, a revival of the Platonic philosophy in Alexandria, mingled with a predominant element of transcendental and pantheistic mysticism. The oriental theosophy, too, came in to modify speculation, giving it a more pantheistic as well as a more gorgeous and imposing character. Grecian philosophy then assumed a new aspect altogether, mingling with religion and theosophy, and sometimes with Christianity, even at the moment of opposing it. Indeed it could scarcely be called Grecian at all. It was rather eclectic in its character and cosmopolitan in its aim. Both Plotinus and Proclus borrowed largely, not only from Plato, but from the Eastern Magi. Then, philosophy had some grand and imposing features, but it could not escape the vortex of the absolute, and went out in a paroxysm of mystic transcendentalism.

Wherever Christianity came, it modified the prevalent philosophy. It was long opposed, however, by the Gnostics, the speculative philosophers of their age, who aimed at absolute knowledge (vois,) and looked with contempt upon the common Christianity, as a weak

1 After all, Cleanthes, oppressed with doubt and fear, committed suicide. VOL. VIII. No. 29.


superstition. In process of time, it grew somewhat eclectic, and took Christianity under its wing, rejecting the Old Testament, and giving the new a philosophical explanation. Every one acquainted with the subject, knows that most of the Gnostic theories were founded upon pantheistic ideas, mingled with the dualistic notions of the Parsees. God, according to their system, is the absolute Being, from whom emanate all other beings, gods, and men, in regular succession and gradation. Creation is represented, as in the Hindu mythologies and philosophies, as an emanation, pure and resplendent at its first issue, but becoming grosser and darker at its extremities.1

As soon as the doctors of the Christian church began to philosophize with freedom, they lost themselves in the theory of emanation. Justin Martyr, Tertullian even, Clement of Alexandria, Origen especially, nay more, Athanasius, and above all, Arius, with their divergent doctrines respecting the Divinity of Christ, all lapsed into this error. Their reverence for the Holy Scriptures kept them from wandering too far into the labyrinths of speculation, but they greatly marred the simplicity of truth by their subtile reasonings and fierce polemics. They wonderfully mingle spiritual and material notions, in their conceptions of the Divine character, and the creation of men and angels. In the middle ages, the predominant philosophy, if we may dignify it with that name, was the philosophy of Aristotle applied as a form or method of logic to the dogmas of the church. This produced an elaborate and imposing system of theological dialectics, controlled and limited by ecclesiastical authority. The schoolmen, therefore, could not well rush into the extremes of philosophical speculation; and yet how frequently is the God of their worship a mere logical quiddity, or metaphysic abstraction.

It must be confessed, that within certain limits this was an era of immense intellectual vigor among the few that did think at all. The very names of the theologians and doctors of the middle ages suggest to those even slightly acquainted with their literature, a certain feeling of respect and even veneration. "Scholasticos," says Leibnitz, "agnosco abundare ineptiis; sed aurum est in illo coeno." In truth there were giants in those days, though confined within narrow

1 Ritter, Vol. IV. pp. 545, 607. Histoire du Gnosticisme, par M J. Matter, Tome I. pp. 220-339. For an abridged statement, see same author, "Histoire du Christianisme," Tome I. pp. 160-178. Neander's History of the Church, I. pp. 366-500.

2 Let any one read a few pages of Origen and Tertullian, and he will be satisfied of this.


Doctors of the Middle Ages.


bounds, and beating, with heavy tread, the same circle of mystic speculation. Anselm of Canterbury, who, with the profoundest reverence for the teachings of the church, ranged the whole field of the higher metaphysics, much in the imaginative spirit of Plato, mingled with the logical subtilty of Aristotle, gave the process of " reason seeking the faith," and of "faith seeking the reason." He endeavored to establish religion on the simple idea of God, and that again on the idea of the absolute, as existing in the human mind, the precise argument of Descartes and Leibnitz on the same subject, the validity of which as a metaphysical proof of the Divine existence, has been vehemently disputed to the present day. Anselm is entitled

to the appellation of the doctor transcendentalis. Others followed him, some tending to sensationalism, others to idealism. Among these we have Peter Lombard, Magister Sententiarum Sapientum; Alexander Hales, the doctor irrefragibilis, count of Gloucester, author of the Summa Universae Theologiae; and Thomas Aquinas, the doctor angelicus, that learned and high born Dominican monk, author of the celebrated Summa Theologiae, and founder of the school of the Realists, called by his schoolmates at Cologne, the Dumb Ox, who fulfilled the prophecy of his master, Albertus Magnus,1 by "giving such a bellow of learning as was heard all over the world." He was a profound thinker and a good man, being justly denominated by his contemporaries "the Angel of the Schools." Having spent a long life amid the loftiest abstractions, where ideas, as with Plato, took the form of archetypal entities, mingled with prayers and canticles, he died in peace at Terracina, Italy, saying, "This is my rest for ages without end." Still later, we find John of Fidanza, commonly called Bonaventura, the doctor seraphicus, who taught that philosophy is true religion, and true religion philosophy, and rose to the sublimest heights of mystic fervor; Henry of Göthüls, or Henry de Gand, the doctor solemnis; Richard of Middletown, the doctor solidus; Giles of Cologne, the doctor fundatissimus; Vincent de Beauvais, the teacher of St. Louis, and author of the Speculum Doctrinale, Naturale, Historiale; and above all, John, Duns Scotus, the doctor subtilis, that keen but somewhat arid Scotchman, or rather Northumbrian, the founder of the Nominalists, who taught that the end of philosophy is to find out "the quiddity of thingsthat everything has a kind of quiddity or quidditive existence — and

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1 Albert of Bollstädt, Professor at Cologne and Paris, and one of the most celebrated doctors of his day.

that nothingness is divided into absolute and relative nothingness, which has no existence out of the understanding." Belonging to the same era, and climbing the same dizzy heights of philosophic speculation, were Roger Bacon, the doctor mirabilis, so learned for his times, that he was deemed a sorcerer; Raymond Lully, (Lullé,) the doctor illuminatus, a fervid Spanish monk, half African and half Arabian, who invented the logical system called Ars Universalis ; and John D'Occam, the doctor invincibilis, singularis et venerabilis, that redoubtable Franciscan monk, who told Louis of Bavaria, that "if he would defend him with the sword, he would defend him with the pen." He studied under Duns Scotus, revived the discussions of his master, and taught with such success that the Nominalists became victorious in a dispute which, in the spirit of the times, often proceeded from words to blows. Nor ought we to forget, in this connection, those other philosophical or religious doctors who illumined the dark ages, (so called, though not with exact propriety,) Francis of Mayence, magister acutus abstractionum; William Durand, the doctor resolutissimus; Walter Burleigh, the doctor planus et perspicuus, author of the first history of Mediaeval Philosophy; and especially Gerson of Paris, doctor christianissimus, who possessed of all the science and learning of the times, abandoned the whole for the knowledge of Christ, passed a life of great purity and devotion, vindicated communion with God as the only true philosophy, and wrote, there is every reason to believe, that admirable manual of Christian devotion, "The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A'Kempis."

1 Roscelin, a canon of Compiegne, who belonged to the latter part of the 11th century, is the proper father of Nominalism, if indeed we are to refer it to Aristotle. But Duns Scotus and Thomas D'Occam were the great expounders and defenders of the system. Roscelin was followed by the celebrated Abelard.

2 The period of which we are speaking, extended from the 10th to the middle of the 14th century.

3 For a brief and elegant account of the Mediaeval Philosophy, see Cousin's "Cours de l'Histoire de la Philosophie," 2 s. Tome II. pp. 221-257. His "Fragmens Philosophiques," article "Abelard," ought also to be consulted. Tennemann's Manual will supply many particulars, pp. 218-258. Portions of Anselm's works have been recently published. They are very curious, as containing speculations and modes of expression similar to those of the French and German philosophers. Descartes and even Leibnitz are anticipated in many things. Ritter's recent work on the History of Christian Philosophy, is doubtless characterized by the same traits of accuracy and thoroughness which are manifest in his History of Ancient Philosophy. Some information, but not much that is satisfactory, may be gathered from Hallam's "Middle Ages," and his "Introduction to the Literature of Europe," as well as from Villemain's very interesting and


Revival of Learning.


It is singular, but true, that nearly all the arguments and theories. of the rationalistic school of modern philosophy, have been anticipated, in forms more or less perfect, by the philosophers of the mediaeval period. Descartes, Leibnitz, and Schelling seem only to echo their speculations. They proceed on the same à priori principles, and except that the latter are less restrained by ecclesiastical notions, arrive at much the same results. Among the schoolmen, the same speculative disputes touching the nature and origin of ideas, the relation of the finite to the infinite, which in other ages led to absolute spiritualism on the one side, and absolute materialism on the other, were carried on for generations, giving rise to the rival schools of the Thomists and Scotists, the Nominalists and Realists of that thoughtful and stormy era. The practical effect of the whole is strikingly symbolized in the proposal made by some of the most illustrious doctors to canonize Aristotle as preeminently "the philosopher of the church!" The great truths of religion mingled and modified by the errors of the times, were reduced, by the help of Aristotelian dialectics, to "the region of pure ideas," and then set to fighting on scientific principles. The irresistible consequence was, the prevalence, in the fifteenth century, within the precints of the Catholic church, of a heartless and godless scepticism, making the reformation of the sixteenth century a matter of absolute moral necessity.

Previous to this, however, Philosophy began to emancipate herself from ecclesiastical authority, but it was only to rush, as usual, into the extremes of atheism or pantheism. The revival of learning in Italy introduced Plato and the Greek philosophers. The reign of instructive "Cours de Literature." In Brucker's 3d Vol. of the Critical History of Philosophy, may be found a mass of valuable, but poorly digested facts.

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1 If Aristotle had been a god, he could not have been regarded with greater reverence in the age to which we refer. His very name was a synonyme for reason. His logic and physics, so far as known, along with the Ptolemaic astronomy, constituted the science of the church. He, not Jesus Christ, was the sun of their intellectual heavens. They made an anagram of his name, “Aristoteles" iste sol erat. Some one having detected spots on the sun, made known his discovery to a priest. My son," replied the priest, "I have read Aristotle many times, and I assure you there is nothing of the kind mentioned by him. Go, rest in peace, and be certain that the spots you have seen are in your eyes, and not in the sun." Are you for, or against Aristotle? was the great question of philosophy; and yet the disputants on either side knew little of the real opinions of the immortal Stagyrite. A more ample study of his works has discovered more points of resemblance to Plato and the Pythagoreans than most persons even now dream of.

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