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From The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume I., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 33-60.





THE Latin West afforded the milieu in which the thoughts and sentiments of the antique and partly Christian world were held in Latin forms and preserved from obliteration during the fifth and succeeding centuries, until taken up by the currents of mingled decrepitude and callowness which marked the coming of the medieval time. Latin Christianity survived, and made its way across those stormy centuries, to its mediaeval harbourage. The antique also was carried over, either in the ship of Latin Christianity, or in tenders freighted by certain Latin Christians who dealt in secular learning, though not in “unbroken packages.” Those unbroken packages, to wit, the Latin classics, and after many centuries the Greek, also floated over. But in the early mediaeval times, men preferred the pagan matter rehashed, as in the Etymologies of Isidore.

The great ship of Christian doctrine not only bore bits of the pagan antique stowed here and there, but itself was built with many a plank of antique timber, and there was antique adulteration in its Christian freight; or, in other words, the theology of the Church Fathers was partly made of Greek philosophy, and was put together in modes of Greek philosophic reasoning. The Fathers lived in the Roman Empire, or in what was left of it in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. Many of them were born of pagan parents, and all received the common education in grammar, rhetoric, and literature, which were pagan and permeated with pagan philosophy. For philosophy did not then stand apart from life and education; but had become a source of 34 principles of conduct and “daily thoughts for daily needs.” Many of the Fathers in their pagan, or at least unsanctified youth, had deeply studied it.

Philosophy held the sum of knowledge in the Empire, and from it came the concepts in which all the Fathers reasoned. But the Latin Fathers, who were juristically and rhetorically educated, might also reason through conceptions, or in a terminology, taken from the Roman Law. Nevertheless, in the rational process of formulating Christian dogma, Greek philosophy was the overwhelmingly important factor, because it furnished knowledge and the metaphysical concepts, and because the greater number of Christian theologians were Hellenic in spirit, and wrote Greek; while the Latins reset in Latin, and sometimes juristic, phrase what their eastern brethren had evolved.1

Obviously, for our purpose, which is to appreciate the spiritual endowment of the Middle Ages, it is essential to have cognizance of patristic thought. And in order to understand the mental processes of the Fathers, their attitude toward knowledge and their perception of fact, one must consider their intellectual environment; which was, of course, made up of the store of knowledge and philosophic interests prevailing in the Roman Empire. So we have to gauge the intellectual interests of the pagan world, first in the earlier times when thinkers were bringing together knowledge and philosophic concepts, and then in the later period when its accumulated and somewhat altered thought made the actual environment of the Church.

What race had ever a more genial appreciation of the facts of nature and of mortal life than the Greeks? The older Greek philosophers had sprung from open and unprejudiced observation of the visible world. They were physical inquiries. With Socrates philosophy turned, at it were, from 35 fact to truth, to a consideration of the validity of human understanding. Thereupon the Greek mind became entranced with its own creations. Man was the measure of all things, for the Sophists. More irrefragably and pregnantly, man become the measure of all things for Socrates and Plato. The aphorism might be discarded; but its transcendental import was established in an imaginative dialectic whose correspondence to the divinest splendours of the human mind warranted its truth. With Platonists — and the world was always to be filled with them — perceptions of physical facts and the data of human life and history, were henceforth to constitute the outer actuality of a creation within the mind. Every observed fact is an apparent tangibility; but its reality consists in its unison with the ultimate realities of rational conception. The apprehension of the fact must be made to conform to these. For this reason every fact has a secondary, nay, primary, because spiritual, meaning. Its true interpretation lies in that significance which accords with the mind’s consistent system of conceptions, which present the fact as it must be thought, and therefore as it is; it is the fact brought into right relationship with spiritual and ethical verity. Of course, methods of apprehending terrestrial and celestial phenomena as illustrations of ideally conceived principles, were unlikely to foster habits of close observation. The apparent facts of sense would probably be imaginatively treated if not transformed in the process of their apprehension. Nor, with respect to human story, would such methods draw fixed lines between the narration of what men are pleased to call the actual occurrence, and the shaping of a tale to meet the exigencies of argument or illustration.

All this is obvious in Plato. The Timaeus was his vision of the universe, in which physical facts became plastic material for the spirit’s power to mould into the likeness of ideal conceptions. The creation of the universe is conformed to the structure of Platonic dialectic. If any meaning be certain through the words and imagery of this dialogue, it is that the world and all creatures which it contains derive such reality as they have from conformity to the thoughts or ideal patterns in the divine mind. Visible things are real 36 only so far as they conform to those perfect conceptions. Moreover, the visible creation has another value, that of its ethical significance. Physical phenomena symbolize the conformity of humanity to its best ideal of conduct. Man may learn to regulate the lawless movements of his soul from the courses of the stars, the noblest of created gods.

Thus as to natural phenomena; and likewise as to the human story, fact or fiction. The myth of the shadow-seers in the cave, with which the seventh book of the Republic opens, is just as illustratively and ideally true as that opening tale in the Timaeus of the ancient Athenian state, which fought for its own and others’ freedom against the people of Atlantis — till the earthquake ended the old Athenian race, and the Atlantean continent was swallowed in the sea. This story has piqued curiosity for two thousand years. Was it tradition, or the creation of an artist dialectician? In either case its ideal and edifying truth stood or fell, not by reason of conformity to any basic antecedent fact, but according to its harmony with the beautiful and good.

Plato’s method of conceiving fact might be applied to man’s thoughts of God, of the origin of the world and the courses of the stars; also to the artistic manipulation of illustrative or edifying story. Matters, large, remote, and mysterious, admit of idealizing ways of apprehension. But it might seem idiocy, rather than idealism, to apply this method to the plain facts of common life, which may be handled and looked at all around — to which there is no mysterious other side, like the moon’s, for ever turned away. Nevertheless, the method and its motives drew men from careful observation of nature, and would invest biography and history with interests promoting the ingenious application, rather than the close scrutiny, of fact.

Thus Platonism and its way of treating narrative could not but foster the allegorical interpretation of ancient tradition and literature, which was already in vogue in Plato’s time. It mattered not that he would have nothing to do with the current allegories through which men moralized or rationalized the old tales of the doings of the gods. He was himself a weaver of the loveliest allegories when it 37 served his purpose. And after him the allegorical habit entered into the interpretation of all ancient story. In the course of time allegory will be applied by the Jew Philo of Alexandria to the Pentateuch; and one or two centuries later it will play a great rôle in Christian polemics against Jew and then against Manichean. It will become par excellence the chief mode of patristic exegesis, and pass on as a legacy of spiritual truth to the mediaeval church.

Aristotle strikes us as a man of different type from Plato. Whether his intellectual interests were broader than his teacher’s is hardly for ordinary people to say. He certainly was more actively interested in the investigation of nature. Head of an actual school (as Plato had been), and assisted by the co-operation of able men, he presents himself, with what he accomplished, at least in threefold guise: as a metaphysician and the perfecter, if not creator, of formal logic; as an observer of the facts of nature and the institutions and arts of men; as a man of encyclopaedic learning. These three phases of intellectual effort proportioned each other in a mind of universal power and appetition. Yet it has been thought that there was more metaphysics and formal logic in Aristotle than was good for natural science.

The lost and extant writings which have been ascribed to him, embraced a hundred and fifty titles and amounted to four hundred books. Those which have been of universal influence upon human inquiry suffice to illustrate the scope of his labours. There were the treatises upon Logic and first among them the Categories or classes of propositions, and the De interpretatione on the constituent parts and kinds of sentences. These two elementary treatises (the authorship of which has been questioned) were the only Aristotelian writings generally used through the West until the latter half of the twelfth century, when the remainder of the logical treatises became known, to wit, the Prior Analytics, upon the syllogism; the Posterior Analytics upon logical demonstration; the Topics, or demonstrations having probability; and the Sophistical Elenchi, upon false conclusions and their refutation. Together these constitute the Organon or complete logical instrument, as it became known to the 38 latter half of the twelfth century, and as we possess it to-day.

The Rhetoric follows, not disconnected with the logical treatises. Then may be named the Metaphysics, and then the writings devoted to Nature, to wit, the Physics, Concerning the Heavens, Concerning Genesis and Decay, the Meteorology, the Mechanical Problems, the History of Animals, the Anatomical Descriptions, the Psychology, the Parts of Animals, the Generation of Animals. There was a Botany, which is lost. Finally, one names the great works on Ethics, Politics, and Poetry.

Every one is overwhelmed by the compass of the achievement of this intellect. As to the transcendent value of the works on Logic, Metaphysics, Psychology, Rhetoric, Ethics, Politics, and Poetry, the world of scholarship has long been practically at one. There is a difference of opinion as to the quantity and quality of actual investigation represented by the writings on Natural History. But Aristotle is commonly regarded as the founder of systematic Zoology. On the whole, perhaps one will not err in repeating what has been said hundreds of times, that the works ascribed to Aristotle, and which undoubtedly were produced by him or his co-labourers, under his direction, represent the most prodigious intellectual achievement ever connected with any single name.

In the school of Aristotle, one phase or another of the master’s activity would be likely to absorb the student’s energy and fasten his entire attention. Aristotle’s own pupil and successor was the admirable Theophrastus, a man of comprehensive attainment, who nevertheless devoted himself principally to carrying on his master’s labours in botany, and other branches of natural science. A History of Physics was one of the most important of his works. Another pupil of Aristotle was Eudemus of Rhodes, who became a physicist and a historian of the three sciences of Geometry, Arithmetic, and Astronomy. He exhibit’s the learned activities thenceforth to characterize the Peripatetics. It would have been difficult to carry further the logic or metaphysics of the master. But his work in natural science might be supplemented, while the body of his writings offered 39 a vast field for the labours of the commentator. And so, in fact, Peripatetic energies in the succeeding generations were divided between science and learning, the latter centring chiefly in historical and grammatical labours and the exposition of the master’s writing.2

Aristotelianism was not to be the philosophy of the closing pre-Christian centuries, any more than it was to be the philosophy of the thousand years and more following the Crucifixion. During all that time, its logic held its own, and a number of its metaphysical principles were absorbed in other systems. But Aristotelianism as a system soon ceased to be in vogue, and by the sixth century was no longer known.

Yet one might find an echo of its, or some like, spirit in all men who were seeking knowledge from the world of nature, from history and humane learning. There were always such; and some famous examples may be drawn even from among the practical-minded Romans. One thinks at once of Cicero’s splendid breadth of humane and literary interest. His friend Terentius Varro was a more encyclopaedic personality, and an eager student in all fields of knowledge. Although not an investigator of nature he wrote on agriculture, on navigation, on geometry, as well as the Latin tongue, and on Antiquities, divine and human, even on philosophy.3

Another lover of knowledge was the elder Pliny, who died from venturing too near to observe the eruption which destroyed Pompeii. He was an important functionary under the emperor Vespasian, just as Varro had held offices of authority in the time of the Republic. Pliny’s Historia naturalis was an astounding compilation, intended to cover the whole plain of common and uncommon knowledge. The compiler neither observed for himself nor weighed the statements of others. His compilation is a happy harbourage for the preposterous as well as reasonable, where the traveller’s tale of far-off wonders takes its place beside the testimony of Aristotle. All is fish that comes to the net 40 of the good Pliny, though it be that wonderful piscis, the Echinus, which though but a cubit long has such tenacity of grip and purpose that it holds fast the largest galley, and with the resistance of its fins, renders impotent the efforts of a hundred rowers. Fish for Pliny also are all the stories of antiquity, of dog-headed, one-legged, big-footed men, of the Pigmies and the Cranes, of the Phoenix and the Basilisk. He delights in the more intricate causality of nature’s phenomena, and tells how the bowels of the field-mouse increase in number with the days of the moon, and the energy of the ant decreases as the orb of Venus wanes.4 But this credulous person was a marvel of curiosity and diligence, and we are all his debtors for an acquaintance with the hearsay opinions current in the antique world.

Varro and Pliny were encyclopaedists. Yet before, as well as after them, the men possessed by the passion for knowledge of the natural world, were frequently devoted to some branch of inquiry, rather than encyclopaedic gleaners, or universal philosophers. Hippocrates, Socrates’s contemporary, had left a name rightly enduring as the greatest of physicians. In the third century before Christ Euclid is a great mathematician, and Hipparchus and Archimedes have place for ever, the one among the great astronomers, the other among the great terrestrial physicists. All these men represent reflection and theory, as well as investigation and experiment. Leaping forward to the second century A.D., we find among others two great lovers of science. Galen of Pergamos was a worthy follower, if not a peer, of the great physician of classical Greece; and Ptolemy of Alexandria emulated the Alexandrian Hipparchus, whose fame he revered, and whose labours (with his own) he transmitted to posterity. Each of these men may be regarded as advancing some portion of the universal plan of Aristotle.

Another philosophy, Stoicism, had already reached a wide acceptance. As for the causes of this, doubtless the decline of Greek civic freedom before the third century B.C., had intended to throw thoughtful men back upon their inner life; and those who had lost their taste for the popular religion, needed a philosophy to live by. Stoicism became especially 41 popular among the Romans. It was ethics, a philosophy of practice rather than of knowledge. The Stoic looked out upon the world from the inner fortress of the human will. That guarded or rather constituted his well-being. He cared for such knowledge, call it instruction rather, as would make good the principle that human well-being lay in the rightly self-directing will. He did not seriously care for metaphysics, or for knowledge of the natural world, save as one or the other subserved the ends of his philosophy as a guide of life. Thus the Stoic physics, so important a part of the Stoic system, was inspired by utilitarian motives and deflected from unprejudiced observation by teleological considerations and reflections on the dispensations of Providence. Of course, some of the Stoics show a further range of intellectual interest; Seneca, for example, who was a fine moralist and wrote beautiful essays upon the conduct of life. He, like a number of other people, composed a book of Quaestiones naturales, which was chiefly devoted to the weather, a subject always very close to man. But he was not a serious meteorologist. For him the interest of the fact lay rather in its use or in its moral bearing. After Seneca the Stoic interest in fact narrows still furthers, as with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Like things might be said of the school of Epicurus, a child of different colour, yet birthmate of the Stoa. For in that philosophy as in Stoicism, all knowledge beyond ethics had a subordinate rôle. As a Stoic or Epicurean, a man was not likely to contribute to the advance of any branch of science. Yet habits of eclectic thought and common curiosity, or call it love of knowledge, made many nominal members of these schools eager students and compilers from the works of others.

We have yet to speak of the system most representative of latter-day paganism, and of enormous import for the first thousand years of Christian thought. Neo-Platonism was the last great creation of Greek philosophy. More specifically, it was the noblest product of that latter-day paganism which was yearning somewhat distractedly, impelled by cravings which paganism could neither quench nor satisfy.


Spirit is; it is the Real. It makes the body, thereby presenting itself in sensible form; it is not confined by body or dependent on body as its cause or necessary ground. In many ways men have expressed, and will express hereafter, the creative or causal antecedence of the spiritual principle. In many ways they have striven to establish this principle in God who is Spirit, or in the Absolute One. Many also have been the processes of individualization and diverse the mediatorial means, through which philosopher, apostle, or Church Doctor has tried to bring this principal down to man, and conceive him as spirit manifesting an intelligible selfhood through the organs of sense. Platonism was a beautiful, if elusive, expression of this endeavour, and Neo-Platonism a very palpable although darkening statement of the same.

All men, except fools, have their irrational sides. Who does not believe what his reason shall labour in vain to justify? Such belief may have its roots spread through generalizations broader than any specific rational processes of which the man is conscious. And a man is marked by the character of his supra-rational convictions, or beliefs or credulous conjectures. One thinks how Plato wove and coloured his dialectic, and angled with it, after those transcendencies that he well knew could never be so hooked and taken. His conviction — non-dialectical — of the supreme and beautiful reality of spirit led him on through all his arguments, some of which appear as playful, while others are very earnest.

Less elusive than Plato’s was the supra-rationality of his distant disciple, the Egyptian Plotinus (died 270), creator of Neo-Platonism. With him the supra-rational represented an élan, a reaching beyond the clearly seen or clearly known, to the Spirit itself. He had a disciple Porphyry, like himself a sage — and yet a different sage. Porphyry’s supra-rationalities hungered for many things from which his rational nature turned askance. But he has a disciple, Iamblicus by name, whose rational nature not only ceases to protest, but of its free will prostitutes itself in the service of unreason.

The synthetic genius of Plotinus enabled him to weave 43 into his system valuable elements from Aristotle and the Stoics. But he was above all a Platonist. He presents the spiritual triad: the One, the Mind, the Soul. From the One comes the Mind, that is, the Nous, which embraces the totality of the knowable or intelligible, to wit, the Cosmos of Ideas. From that, come the Soul of the World and the souls of men. Matter, which is no-thing, gains form and partial reality when informed with soul. Plotinus’s attitude toward knowledge of the concrete natural or historic fact, displays a transcendental indifference exceeding that of Plato. Perceptible facts with him are but half-real manifestations of the informing spirit. They were quite plastic, malleable, reducible. Moreover, thoughts of the evil of the multiple world of sense held for Plotinus and his followers a bitterness of ethical unreality which Plato was too great an Athenian to feel.

Dualistic ethics which find in matter the principle of unreality or evil, diminish the human interest in physical fact. The ethics of Plotinus consisted in purification and detachment from things of sense. This is asceticism. And Plotinus was an ascetic, not through endeavour, but from contempt. He did not struggle to renounce the world, but despised it with the spontaneity of a sublimated temperament. He seemed like a man ashamed of being in the body, Porphyry says of him. Nor did he wish to cure any contemptible bodily ailments, or wash his wretched body.

Plotinus’s Absolute, the First or One, might not be grasped by reason. Yet to approach and contemplate It was the best for man. Life’s crown was the ecstasy of the supra-rational and supra-intelligible vision of It. This Plotinean irrationality was lofty; but it was too transcendent, too difficult, and too unrelated to the human heart, to satisfy other men. No fear but that his followers would bring it down to the level of their irrational tendencies.

The borrowed materials of this philosophy were made by its founder into a veritable system. It included, potentially at least, the popular beliefs, which, however, interested this metaphysical Copt very little. But in those superstitious centuries, before as well as after him, these cruder elements were gathered and made much of by men of note. There 44 was a tendency to contrast the spiritual and real with the manifold of material nonentity, and a cognate tendency to emphasize the opposition between the spiritual and good, and the material and evil, or between opposing spiritual principles. With less metaphysical people such opposition would take more entrancing shapes in the battles of gods and demons. Probably it would cause ascetic repression of the physical passions. Both tendencies had shown themselves before Plotinus came to build them into his system. Friend Plutarch, for instance, of Chaeroneia, was a man of pleasant temper and catholic curiosity. His philosophy was no great matter. He was gently credulous, and interested in anything marvellous and every imaginable god and demon. This good Greek was no ascetic, and yet had much to say of the strife between the good and evil principle. Like thoughts begat asceticism in men of a different temperament; for instance in the once famous Apollonius of Tyana and others, who were called Neo-Pythagoreans, whatever that meant. Such men had also their irrationalities, which perhaps made up the major part of their natures. They did indeed belong to those centuries when Astrology flourished at the Imperial Court,5 and every mode of magic mystery drew its gaping votaries; when men were ravenously drawing toward everything, except the plain concrete fact steadily viewed and quietly reasoned on.

But it was within the schools of Neo-Platonism, in the generations after Plotinus, that these tendencies flourished, beneath the shelter of his elastic principles. Here three kindred currents made a resistless stream: a transcendental, fact-compelling dialectic; unveiled recognition of the supreme virtue of supra-rational convictions and experiences; and an asceticism which contemned matter and abhorred the things of sense. What more was needed to close the faculties of observation, befool the reason, and destroy knowledge in the end?

Porphyry and Iamblicus show the turning of the tide. The first of these was a Tyrian, learned, intelligent, austere. His life extends from about the year 232 to the year 300. 45 His famous Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle was a corner-stone of the early mediaeval knowledge of logic. He wrote a keenly rational work against the Christians, in which his critical acumen pointed out that the Book of David was not composed before the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. He did much to render intelligible the writings of his master Plotinus, and made a compend of Neo-Platonism in the form of Sentences. These survive, as well as his work on Abstinence from Eating Flesh, and other treatises, allegorical and philosophic.

He was to Plotinus as Soul, in the Neo-Platonic system, was to Mind — Soul which somehow was darkly, passionately tangled in the body of which it was the living principle. The individual soul of Porphyry wrestled with all the matters which the mind of Plotinus made slight account of. Plotinus lived aloof in a region of metaphysics warmed with occasional ecstasy. Porphyry, willy nilly, was drawn down to life, and suffered all the pain of keen mentality when limed and netted with the anxieties of common superstitions. He was forever groping in a murky atmosphere. He could not clear himself of credulity, deny and argue as he might. Nor could asceticism pacify his mind. Philosophically he followed Plotinus’s teachings, and understood them too, which was a marvel. Many of his own, or possibly reflected, thoughts are excellent. No Christian could hold a more spiritual conception of sacrifice than Porphyry when thinking of the worship of the Mind — the Nous or Second God. Offer to it silence and chaste thought, which will unite us to it, and make us like itself. The perfect sacrifice is to disengage the soul from passions.6 What could be finer? And again says Porphyry: The body is the soul’s garment, to be laid aside; the wise man needs only God; evil spirits have no power over a pure soul. But, but, but — at his last statement Porphyry’s confidence breaks. He is worried because it is so hard to know the good from evil demons; and the latter throng the temples, and must be exorcised before the true God will appear. This same man had said that God’s true temple was the wise man’s soul! Alas! Porphyry’s nature reeks with contradictions. His letter to the Egyptian priest, 46 Anebo, consists of sharply-put questions as to the validity of any kind of theurgy or divination. How can men know anything as to these things? What reason to suppose that this, that, or the other rite — all anxiously enumerated — is rightly directed or has effect? None! none! none! such is the answer expected by the questions.

But Porphyry’s own soul answers otherwise. His works — the De abstinentia for example — teem with detailed and believing discussion of every kind of theurgic practice and magic rite, whereby the divine and demonic natures may be moved. He believed in oracles and sorcery. Vainly did the more keenly intellectual side of his nature seek to hold such matters at arm’s length; his other instincts hungered for them, craved to touch and taste and handle, as the child hankers for what is forbidden. There is angel-lore, but far more devil-lore, in Porphyry, and below the earth the demons have their realm, and at their head a demon-king. Thus organized, these malformed devil-shapes torment the lives of men, malignant deceivers, spiteful trippers-up, as they are.

Such a man beset by demons (which his intelligence declares to have no power over him!), such a man, austere and grim, would practise fanatically the asceticism recognized so calmly by the system of Plotinus. With Porphyry, strenuously, anxiously, the upper grades of virtue become violent purification and detachment from things of sense. Here he is in grim earnest.

It is wonderful that this man should have had a critical sense of historic fact, as when he saw the comparatively late date of the Book of Daniel. He could see the holes in other’s garments. But save for some such polemic purpose, the bare, crude fact interests him little. He is an elaborate fashioner of allegory, and would so interpret the fictions of the poets. Plotinus, when it suited him, had played with myths, like Plato. No such light hand, and scarcely concealed smile, has Porphyry. As for physical investigations, they interest him no more seriously than they did his master, and when he touches upon natural fact he is as credulous as Pliny. “The Arabians,” says he, “understand the speech of crows, and the Tyrrhenians that of eagles; and perhaps 47 we and all men would understand all living beings if a dragon licked our ears.”7

These inner conflicts darkened Porphyry’s life, and doubtless made some of the motives which were turning his thoughts to suicide, when Plotinus showed him that this was not the true way of detachment. There was no conflict, but complete surrender, and happy abandonment in Iamblicus the Divine (θεοῖς) who when he prayed might be lifted ten cubits from the ground — so thought his disciples — and around whose theurgic fingers, dabbling in a magic basin of water, Cupids played and kissed each other. His life, told by the Neo-Platonic philosopher, Eunapius, is as full of miracle as the contemporary Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius. Iamblicus floats before us a beautiful and marvellously garbed priest, dweller in the recesses of temples. He frankly gave himself to theurgy, convinced that the Soul needs the aid of every superhuman being — hero, god, demon, angel.8 He was credulous on principle. It is of first importance, he writes, that the devotee should not let the marvellous character of an occurrence arouse incredulity within him. He needs above all a “science” (ἐπιστήμη) which shall teach him to disbelieve nothing as to the gods.9 For the divine principle is essentially miraculous, and magic is the open door, yes, and the way up to it, the anagogic path.

All this and more besides is set forth in the De mysteriis, the chief composition of his school. It was the answer to that doubting letter of Porphyry to Anebo, and contains full proof and exposition of the occult art of moving god or demon. We all have an inborn knowledge (ἐμφυτος  γνῶσις)10 of the gods. But it is not thought or contemplation that unites us to them; it is the power of the theurgic rite or cabalistic word, understood only by the gods. We cannot understand the reason of these acts and their effects. 11

There is no lower depth. Plotinus’s reason-surpassing 48 vision of the One (which represents in him the principle of irrationality) is at last brought down to the irrational act, the occult magic deed or word. Truly the worshipper needs his best credulity — which is bespoken by Iamblicus and by this book. The work seems to argue, somewhat obscurely, that the prayer or invocation or rite, does not actually draw the god to us, but draws us toward the god, making our wills fit to share in his. The writer of such a work is likely to be confused in his statement of principles; but will expand more genially when expounding the natures of demons, heroes, angels, and gods, and the effect of them upon humanity. Perhaps the matter still seems dark; but the picturesque details are bright enough. For the writer describes the manifestations and apparitions of these beings — their ἐπιφανείαι and φάσματα. The apparitions of the gods are μονοειδῆ, simple and uniform: those of the demons are ποικίλα, that is, various and manifold; those of the angels are more simple than those of the demons, but inferior to those of the gods. The archangels in their apparitions are more like the gods; while the ἄρχοντες, the “governors,” have variety and yet order. The gods as they appear to men, are radiant with divine effulgence, the archangels terrible yet kind; the demons are frightful, producing perturbation and terror — on all of which the work enlarges. Speaking more specifically of the effect of these apparitions on the thaumaturgist, the writer says that visions of the gods bring a mighty power, and divine love and joy ineffable; the archangels bring steadfastness and power of will and intellectual contemplation; the angles bring rational wisdom and truth and virtue. But the vision of demons brings the desires of sense and the vigour to fulfil them.

So low sank Neo-Platonism in pagan circles. Of course it did not create this mass of superstitious fantasy. It merely fell in cordially, and over every superstition flung the justification of its principles. In the process it changed from a philosophy to a system of theurgic practice. The common superstitions of the time, or their like, were old enough. But now — and here was the portentous fact — they had wound themselves into the natures of intellectual people; 49 and Neo-Platonism represents the chief formal facilitation of this result.

A contemporary phenomenon, and perhaps the most popular of pagan cults in the third and fourth centuries, was the worship of Mithra, around which Neo-Platonism could throw its cloak as well as around any other form of pagan worship. Mithraism, a partially Hellenized growth from the old Mazdaean (even Indo-Iranian) faith, had been carried from one boundary of the Empire to the other, by soldiers or by merchants who had imbibed its doctrines in the East. It shot over the Empire like a flame. A warrior cult, the late pagan emperors gave it their adhesion. It was, in fine, the pagan Antaeus destined to succumb in the grasp of the Christian Hercules.

With it, or after it, came Manicheism, also from the East. This was quite as good a philosophy as the Neo-Platonism of Iamblichus. The system called after Manes was a crass dualism, containing fantastic and largely borrowed speculation as to the world and man. Satan was there and all his devils. He was the begetter of mankind, in Adam. But Satan himself, in previous struggles with good angels, had gained some elements of light; and these passed into Adam’s nature. Eve, however, is sensuality. After man’s engendering, the strife begins between the good and evil spirits to control his lot. In ethics, of course, Manicheism was dualistic and ascetic, like Neo-Platonism, and also like the Christianity of the Eastern and Western Empire. Manicheism, unlike Mithraism, was not to succumb, but merely to retreat before Christianity. Again and again from the East, through the lower confines of the present Russia, through Hungary, it made advance. The Bogomiles were its children; likewise the Cathari in the north of Italy, and the Albigenses of Provence.12

Platonism, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Mithraism, and Manicheism, these names, taken for simplicity’s sake, serve to indicate the mind and temper of the educated world in which Christianity was spreading. Obviously the Christian Fathers’ ways of thinking were given by all that made up their environment, their education, their second natures. 50 They were men of their period, and as Christians their intellectual standards did not rise nor their understanding of fact alter, although their approvals and disapprovals might be changed. Their natures might be stimulated and uplifted by the Faith and its polemic ardours, and ye their manner of approaching and apprehending facts, its facts, for example, might continue substantially those of their pagan contemporaries or predecessors.

In the fourth century the leaders of the Church both in the East and West were greater men than contemporary pagan priests or philosophers or rhetoricians. For the strongest minds had enlisted on the Christian side, and a great cause inspired their highest energies with an efficient purpose. There is no comparison between Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and Chrysostom in the East; Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine in the West; and pagans, like Libanius, the favourite of the Emperor Julian, or even Julian himself, or Symmachus, the opponent of St. Ambrose in the cause of the pagan Altar of Victory. That was a lost cause, and the cause of paganism was becoming more and more broken, dissipated, uninspiring. Nevertheless, in spite of the superiority of the Christian doctors, in spite also of the mighty cause which marshalled their endeavours so efficiently, they present, both in their higher intelligence and their lower irrationalities, abundant likeness to the pagans.

It has appeared that metaphysical interests absorbed the attention of Plotinus, who has nevertheless his supreme irrationality atop of all. Porphyry also possessed a strong reasoning nature, but was drawn irresistibly to all the things, gods, demons, divination and theurgy, of which one half of him disapproved. Plotinus, quite in accordance with his philosophic principles, has an easy contempt for the physical life. With Porphyry this has become ardent asceticism. It was also remarked that Plotinus’s system was a synthesis of much antecedent thought; and that its receptivity was rendered extremely elastic by the Neo-Platonic principle that man’s ultimate approach to God lay through ecstasy and not through reason. Herein, rather latent and not yet sorely taxed, was a broad justification of common beliefs and 51 practices. To all these Iamblicus gladly opened the door. Rather than a philosopher, he was a priest, a thaumaturgist and magician. Finally, it is obvious that neither Iamblicus nor Porphyry nor Plotinus was primarily or even seriously interested in any clear objective knowledge of material facts. Plotinus merely notice them casually in order to illustrate his principles, while Iamblicus looked to them for miracles.

Christianity as well as Neo-Platonism was an expression of the principle that life’s primordial reality is spirit. And likewise with Christians, as with Neo-Platonists, phases of irrationality may be observed in ascending and descending order. At the summit the sublimest Christian supra-rationality, the love of God, uplifts itself. From that height the irrational conviction grades down to credulity preoccupied with the demoniacal and miraculous. Fruitful comparisons may be drawn between Neo-Platonists and Christian doctors.13

Origen (dies 253), like Plotinus, of Coptic descent, and the most brilliant genius of the Eastern Church, was by some fifteen years the senior of the Neo-Platonist. It is not certain that either of them directly influenced the other. In intellectual power the two were peers. Both were absorbed in the higher phases of their thought, but neither excluded the more popular beliefs from the system which he was occupied in constructing. Plotinus had no mind to shut the door against the beliefs of polytheism; and Origen accepted on his part the demons and angels of current Christian credence.14 In fact, he occupied himself with them more than Plotinus did with the gods of the Hellenistic pantheon. Of course, Origen, like every other Christian doctor, had his fundamental and saving irrationality in his acceptance of the Christian revelation and the risen Christ. This had already taken its most drastic form in the credo quia absurdum of Tertullian the Latin Father, who was twenty-five years his 52 senior. Herein one observes the acceptance of the miraculous on principle. That the great facts of the Christian creed were beyond the proof or disproof of reason was a principle definitely accepted by all the Fathers.

Further, since all Catholic Christians accepted the Scriptures as revealed truth, they were obliged to accept many things which their reason, unaided, might struggle with in vain. Here was a large opportunity, as to which Christians would act according to their tempers, in emphasizing and amplifying the authoritative or miraculous, i.e. irrational, element. And besides, outside even of these Scriptural matters and their interpretations, there would be the general question of the educated Christian’s interest in the miraculous. Great mental power and devotion to the construction of dogma by no means precluded a lively interest in this, as may be seen in that very miraculous life of St. Anthony, written probably by Athanasius himself. This biography is more preoccupied with the demoniacal and miraculous than Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus; indeed in this respect it is not outdone by Eunapius’s Live of Iamblicus. Turning to the Latin West, one may compare with them that charming prototypal Vita Sancti, the Life of St. Martin by Sulpicius Severus.15 A glance at these writings shows a similarity of interest with Christian and Neo-Platonist, and in both is found the same unquestioning acceptance of the miraculous.

Thus one observes how the supernatural manifestation, the miraculous event, was admitted and justified on principle in both the Neo-Platonic and the Christian system. In both, moreover, metaphysical or symbolizing tendencies had withdrawn attention from a close scrutiny of any fact, observed, imagined, or reported. With both, the primary value of historical or physical fact lay in its illumination of general convictions or accepted principles. And with both, the supernatural fact was the fact par excellence, in that it was the direct manifestation of the divine or spiritual power.


Iamblicus had announced that man must not be incredulous as to superhuman beings and their supernatural doings. On the Christian side, there was no bit of popular credence in miracle or magic mystery, or any notion as to devils, angels, and departed saints, for which justification could not be found in the writings of the great Doctors of the Church. These learned and intellectual men evince different degrees of interest in such matters; but none stand altogether aloof, or denies in toto. No evidence is needed here. A broad illustration, however, lies in the fact that before the fourth century the chief Christian rites had become sacramental mysteries, necessarily miraculous in their nature and their efficacy. This was true of Baptism; it was more stupendously true of the Eucharist. Mystically, but none the less really, and above all inevitably, the bread and wine have miraculously become the body and the blood. The process, one may say, began with Origen; with Cyril of Jerusalem it is completed; Gregory of Nyssa regards it as a continuation of the verity of the Incarnation, and Chrysostom is with him.16 One pauses to remark that the relationship between the pagan and Christian mysteries was not one of causal antecedence so much as one of analogous growth. A pollen of terms and concepts blew hither and thither, and effected a cross-fertilization of vigorously growing plants. The life-sap of the Christian mysteries, as with those of Mithra, was the passion for a symbolism of the unknown and the inexpressible.

But one must not stop here. The whole Christian Church, as well as Porphyry and Iamblicus, accepted angels and devils, and recognized their intervention or interference in human affairs. Then displacing the local pagan divinities come the saints; and Mary above all. They are honoured, they are worshipped. Only an Augustine has some gentle warning to utter against carrying these matters to excess.

In connection with all this, one may notice an illuminating point, or rather motive. In the third and fourth centuries the common yearning of the Graeco-Roman world 54 was for an approach to God; it was looking for the anagogic path, the way up from man and multiplicity to unity and God. An absorbing interest was taken in the means. Neo-Platonism, the creature of this time, whatever else it was, was mediatorial, a system of mediation between man and the Absolute First Principle. Passing halfway over from paganism to Christianity, the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius is also essentially a system of mediation, which has many affinities (as well it might!) with the system of Plotinus.17 Within Catholic Christianity the great work of Athanasius was to establish Christ’s sole and all-sufficient mediation. Catholicism was permanently set upon the mediatorship of Christ, God and man, the one God-man reconciling the nature which He had veritably, and not seemingly, assumed, to the divine substance which He had never ceased to be. Athanasius’s struggle for this principle was bitter and hard-pressed, because within Christianity as well as without, men were demanding easier and more tangible stages and means of mediation.

Of such, Catholic Christianity was to recognize a vast multitude, perhaps not dogmatically as a necessary part of itself; but practically and universally. Angels, saints, the Virgin over all, are mediators between man and God. This began to be true at an early period, and was established before the fourth century.18 Moreover, every bit of rite and mystery and miracle, as in paganism, so in Catholicism, was essentially a means of mediation, a way of bringing the divine principle to bear on man and his affairs, and so of bringing man within the sphere of the divine efficiency.

Let us make some further Christian comparisons with our Neo-Platonic friends Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblicus. As we have adduced Origen, it would also be easy to find other parallels from the Eastern Church. But as the purpose 55 is to mark the origin of the intellectual tendencies of the Western Middle ages, we may at once draw examples from the Latin Fathers. For their views set the forms of mediaeval intellectual interests, and for centuries directed and even limited the mediaeval capacity for apprehending whatever it was given to the Middle Ages to set themselves to know. To pass thus from the East to the West is permissible, since the same pagan cults and modes of thought passed from one boundary of the Empire to the other. Plotinus himself lived and taught in Rome for the last twenty-five years of his life, and there wrote his Enneads in Greek. So on the Christian side, the Catholic Church throughout the East and West presents a solidarity of development, both as to dogma and organization, and also as to popular acceptances.

Let us train our attention upon some points of likeness between Plotinus and St. Augustine. The latter’s teachings contain much Platonism; and with this greatest of Latin Fathers, who did not read much Greek, Platonism was inextricably mingled with Neo-Platonism. It is possible to search the works of Augustine and discover this, that, or the other statement reflecting Plato or Plotinus.19 Yet their most interesting effect on Augustine will not be found in Platonic theorems consciously followed or abjured by the latter. Platonism was “in the air,” at least was in the air breathed by an Augustine. Our specific bishop of Hippo knew little of Plato’s writings. But Plato had lived: his thoughts had influenced many generations, and in their diffusion had been modified, and had lost many a specific feature. Thereafter Plotinus had constructed Neo-Platonism; that too had permeated the minds of many, itself loosened in the process. These views, these phases of thought and mood, were held or felt by many men, who may not have known their source. And Augustine was not only part of all this, but in mind and temper was Platonically inclined. Thus the most important elements of Platonism and Neo-Platonism in Augustine were his cognate spiritual mood and his attitude toward the world of physical fact.

Note the personal affinity between Augustine and Plotinus. 56 Both are absorbed in the higher pointings of their thought; neither is much occupied with its left-handed relationships, which, however, are by no means to be disowned. The minds and souls of both are set upon God the Spirit; the minds and eyes of both are closed to the knowledge of the natural world. Thus neither Plotinus nor Augustine was much affected by the popular beliefs of Christianity or paganism. The former cared little for demon-lore or divination, and was not seriously touched by polytheism. No more was the latter affected by the worship of saints and relics, or by other elements of Christian credulity, which when brought to his attention pass from his mind as quickly as his duties of Christian bishop will permit.

But it was half otherwise with Porphyry, and altogether otherwise with Iamblicus. The first of these was drawn, repelled, and tortured by the common superstitions, especially the magic and theurgy which made men gape; but Iamblicus gladly sported in these mottled currents. On the Christian side, Jerome might be compared with them, or a later man, the last of the Latin Fathers, Gregory the Great. Clear as was the temporal wisdom of this great pope, and heavy as were his duties during the troubled times of his pontificate (590-604), sill his mind was busy with the miraculous and diabolic. His mind and temperament have absorbed at least the fruitage of prior superstitions, whether Christian or pagan need not be decided. He certainly was not influence by Iamblicus. Nor need one look upon these phases of his nature as specifically the result of the absorption of pagan elements. He and his forebears had but gone the path of credulity and mortal blindness, thronged by both pagans and Christians. And so in Gregory the tendencies making for intellectual obliquity do their perfect work. His religious dualism is strident; his resultant asceticism is extreme; and finally the symbolical, the allegorical, habit has shut his mind to the perception of the literal (shall we say, actual) meaning, when engaged with Scripture, as his great Commentary on Job bears witness. The same tendencies, but usually in milder type, had shown themselves with Augustine, who, in these respects, stands to Gregory as Plotinus to Iamblicus. Augustine can push allegory to absurdity; he 57 can be ascetic; he is dualistic. But all these things have not barbarized his mind, as they have Gregory’s.20 Similarly the elements, which in Plotinus’s personality were held in innocuous abeyance, dominated the entire personality of Iamblicus, and made him a high priest of folly.

Thus we have observed the phases of thought which set the intellectual conditions of the later pagan times, and affected the mental processes of the Latin Fathers. The matter may be summarized briefly in conclusion. Platonism had created an intellectual and intelligible world, wherein a dissolving dialectic turned the cognition of material phenomena into a reflection of the mind’s ideals. This was more palpable in Neo-Platonism than it had been in Plato’s system. Stoicism on the other hand represented a rule of life, the sanction of which was inner peace. Its working principle was the rightly directed action of the self-controlling will. Fundamentally ethical, it set itself to frame a corresponding conception of the universe. Platonism and Neo-Platonism found in material facts illustrations or symbols of ideal truths and principles of human life. Stoicism was interested in them as affording a foundation for ethics. None of these systems was seriously interested in facts apart from their symbolical exemplification of truth, or their bearing on the conduct of life; and the same principles that affected the observation of nature were applied to the interpretation of myth, tradition, and history.

In the opening centuries of the Christian Era the world was becoming less self-reliant. It was tending to look to authority for peace of mind. In religion men not only sought, as formerly, for superhuman aid, but were reaching outward for what their own rational self-control no longer gave. They needed not merely to be helped by the gods, but to be sustained and saved. Consequently, prodigious interest was taken in the means of bringing man to the divine, and obtaining the saving support which the gods alone could give. The philosophic thought of the time became palpably mediatorial. Neo-Platonism was a system of mediation between man and the Absolute First Principle; and soon its lower phases became occupied with such 58 palpable means as divination and oracles, magic and theurgy.

The human reason has always proved unable to effect this mediation between man and God. The higher Neo-Platonism presented as the furthest goal a supra-rational and ecstatic vision. This was its union with the divine. The lower Neo-Platonism turned this lofty supra-rationality into a principle of credulity more and more agape for fascinating or helpful miracles. Thus a constant looking for divine or demonic action became characteristic of the pagan intelligence.

The Gospel of Christ, in spreading throughout the pagan world, was certain to gather to itself the incidents of its apprehension by pagans, and take various forms, one of which was to become the dominant or Catholic. Conversely, Christians (and we have in mind the educated people) would retain their methods of thinking in spite of change in the contents of their thought. This would be true even of the great and learned Christian leaders, the Fathers of the Church. At the same time the Faith reinspired and redirected their energies. Yet (be it repeated for the sake of emphasis) their mental processes, their ways of apprehending and appreciating facts, would continue those of that paganism which in them had changed to Christianity.

Every phase of intellectual tendency just summarized as characteristic of the pagan world, entered the modes in which the Fathers of the Latin Church apprehended and built out their new religion. First of all, the attitude toward knowledge. No pagan philosophy, not Platonism or any system that came after it, had afforded an incentive for concentration of desire equal to that presented in the person and the precepts of Jesus. The desire of the Kingdom of Heaven was a master-motive such as no previous idealism had offered. It would bring into conformity with itself not only all the practical considerations of life, but verily the whole human desire to know. First it mastered the mind of Tertullian; and in spite of variance and deviation it endured through the Middle Ages as the controlling principle of intellectual effort. Its decree was this: the knowledge which men need and should desire is that which will help 59 them to save and perfect their souls for the Kingdom of God. Some would interpret this broadly, others narrowly; some would actually be constrained by it, and others merely do it a polite obeisance. But acknowledged it was by well-nigh all men, according to their individual tempers and the varying times in which they lived.

Platonism was an idealistic cosmos; Stoicism a common of subjective ethics and teleological conceptions of the physical world. The furthest outcome of both might be represented by Augustine’s cosmos of the soul and God. As for reasoning processes, inwardly inspired and then applied to the world of nature and history, Christianity combined the idealizing, fact-compelling ways of Platonic dialectic with the Stoical interest in moral edification. And, more utterly than either Platonist or Stoic, the Christian Father lacked interest in knowledge of the concrete fact for its own sake. His mental glance was even more oblique than theirs, fixed as it was upon the moral or spiritual — the anagogic — inference. Of course he carried symbolism and allegory further than Stoic and Platonist had done, one reason being that he was impelled by the specific motive of harmonizing the Old Testament with the Gospel, and thereby proving the divine mission of Jesus.

Idealism might tend toward dualistic ethics, and issue in asceticism, as was the tendency in Stoicism and the open result with Plotinus and his disciples. Such, with mightier power and firmer motive, was the outcome of Christian ethics, in monasticism. Christianity was not a dualistic philosophy; but neither was Stoicism or Neo-Platonism. Yet, like them, it was burningly dualistic in its warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

We can turn to other but connected matters: salvation, mediatorship, theory and practice. The need of salvation made men Christians; the God-man was the one and sufficient mediator between man and God. Such was the high dogma, established with toil and pain. And the practice graded downward to mediatorial persons, acts, and things, marvellous, manifold, and utterly analogous to their pagan kin. The mediatorial persons were the Virgin and the saints; the sacraments were the magic mediatorial acts; 60 the relic was the magic mediatorial thing. And, as with Neo-Platonism, there was in Christianity a principle of supra-rational belief in all these matters. At the top the revelation of Christ, and the high love of God which He inspired. This was not set on reason, but above it. And, as with Neo-Platonism, the supra-rational principle of Christianity was led down through conduits of credulity, resembling those we have become familiar with in our descent from Plotinus to Iamblicus.



1  A prime illustration is afforded by the Latin juristic word persona used in the Creed. The Latins had to render the three ὑποςτάσεις of the Greeks; and “three somethings,” tria quaedam, was too loose, as Augustine says (De Trinitate, vii. 7-12). The true and literal translation of ὑποςτάσις would have been substantia; but that word had been taken to render οὐσία. So the legal word persona was employed in spite of its recognized unfitness. Cf. Taylor Classical Heritage, etc., p. 116 sqq.

2  On these Peripatetics see Zeller, Philosophie der Griechen, 3rd ed. vol. ii. pp. 806-946.

3  See Boissier, Étude sur M. T. Varron (Paris, 1861).

4  Hist. naturalis, ii. 41.

5  From the reign of Augustus onward, Astrology flourished as never before. See Habler, Astrologie im Altherthum, p. 23 sqq. (Zwickau, 1879).

6  De abstinentia, ii. 34.

7  De abstinentia, iii. 4.

8  Porphyry before him had spoken of angels and archangels which he had found in Jewish writings.

9  For authorities cited, see Zeller, Ges. Der. Phil.. iii.2 p. 686

10  De mysteriis, i. 3.

11  Ibid. ii. 3, 9.

12  Cf. Döllinger, Sektengeschichte.

13  All my Christian examples are taken from among the representatives of Catholic Christianity, because it was that which triumphed, and set the lines of mediaeval thought. Consequently, I have not referred to the Gnostics, not wishing to complicate an already complex spiritual situation. Gnosticism was a mixture of Hellenic, oriental, and Christian elements. Its votaries represented one (most distorting) way in which the Gospel was taken. But Gnosticism neither triumphed nor deserved to. It flourished somewhat before the time of Plotinus.

14  See Origen, De principiis, iii. 2.

15  The Athanasian Vita Antonii is in Migne, Patr. Graec. 26, and trans. in Nicene Fathers, second series, iv. The Vita S. Martini is in Halm’s ed. of Sulp. Severus (Vienna, 1866), and in Migne, Pat. Lat. 20, and trans. in Nicene Fathers, second series, xi.

16  See Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, ii. 413 sqq., especially 432 sqq. Also Taylor, Classical Heritage, pp. 94-97.

17  In cap. iii. § 2 of the Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius says that the goal of his system is the becoming like to God and oneness with Him (ἡ  πρὸς  θεὸν  ἀφομοίωσίς  τέ  καὶ  ἔνωσις). He classifies his “celestial intelligences” even more systematically than the De mysteriis of Iamblicus’s school. His work is full of Neo-Platonism. Cf. Vacherot, Histoire de l’école d’Alexandrie, iii. 24 sqq.

18  The cult of the Virgin and the saints was of very early growth. See Lucius, Die Anfänge des Heiligen Kults in der christlichen Kirche (ed. By Anrich, Tübingen, 1904).

19  See, e.g., Grandgeorge, St. Augustin et le Néoplatonisme (Paris, 1896).

20  On Gregory, see post, Chapter V.


For a brief discussion of the various Greek schools of philosophy and its refinement by Epictetus in his works, as well as his lectures, see: The Teaching of Epictetus: Being the ‘Encheiridion of Epictetus,’ with Selections from the ‘Dissertations’ and ‘Fragments,’ translated from the Greek, with Introduction and Notes, by T. W. Rolleston, on this site. The link will open in a new window. — Elf.Ed.


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