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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. 61-87.





SO it was that the intellectual conditions of the Roman Empire affected the attitude of the Church Fathers toward knowledge, and determined their way of apprehending fact. There was, indeed, scarcely a spiritual tendency or way of thinking, in the surrounding paganism, that did not enter their mental processes and make part of their understanding of Christianity. On the other hand, the militant and polemic position of the Church in the Empire furnished new interests, opened new fields of effort, and produced new modes of intellectual energy. And every element emanating from the pagan environment was, on entering the Christian pale, reinspired by Christian necessities and brought into a working concord with the master-motive of the Faith.

Salvation was the master Christian motive. The Gospel of Christ was a gospel of salvation unto eternal life. It presented itself in the self-sacrifice of divine love, not without warnings touching its rejection. It was understood and accepted according to the capacities of those to whom it was offered, capacities which it should reinspire and direct anew, and yet not change essentially. The young Christian communities had to adjust their tempers to the new Faith. They also fell under the unconscious need of defining it, in order to satisfy their own intelligence and present it in a valid form to the minds of men as yet unconverted. Consequently, the new Gospel of Salvation drew the energies of Christian communities to the work of defining that which they had accepted, and of establishing its religious and rational validity. The intellectual interests of these communities were first unified by the master-motive of salvation, 62 and then ordered and redirected according to the doctrinal and polemic exigencies of this new Faith precipitated into the Graeco-Roman world.

The intellectual interests of the Christian Fathers are not to be classified under categories of desire to know, for the sake of knowledge, but under categories of desire to be saved, and to that end possess knowledge in its saving forms. Their desire was less to know, than to know how — how to be saved and contribute to the salvation of others. Their need rightly to understand the Faith, define it and maintain it, was of such drastic power as to force into ancillary rôles every line of inquiry and intellectual effort. This need inspired those central intellectual labours of the Fathers which directly made for the Faith’s dogmatic substantiation and ecclesiastical supremacy; and then it mastered all provinces of education and inquiry which might seem to possess independent intellectual interest. They were either to be drawn to its support or discredited as irrelevant distractions.

This compelling Christian need did not, in fact, impress into its service the total sum of intellectual interests among Christians. Mortal curiosity survived, and the love of belles lettres. Yet its dominance was real. The Church Fathers were absorbed in the building up of Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical authority. The productions of Christian authorship through the first four centuries were entirely religious, so far as the extant works bear witness. This is true of both the Greek and the Latin Fathers, and affords a prodigious proof that the inspiration and the exigencies of the new religion had drawn into one spiritual vortex the energies and interests of Christian communities.

Some of the Fathers have left statements of their principles, coupled with more or less intimate accounts of their own spiritual attitude. Among the Eastern Christians Origen has already been referred to. With him Christianity was the sum of knowledge; and his life’s endeavour was to realize this view by co-ordinating all worthy forms of knowledge within the scheme of salvation through Christ. His mind was imbued with a vast desire to know. This he did not derive from Christianity. But his understanding of 63 Christianity gave him the schematic principle guiding his inquiries. His aim was to direct his labours with Christianity with Christianity as an end — τελικῶς  εἰς  χριστιανισμόν, as he says so pregnantly. He would use Greek philosophy as a propaedeutic for Christianity; he would seek from geometry and astronomy what might serve to explain Scripture; and so with all branches of learning.1

This was the expression of a mind of prodigious energy. For more personal disclosures we may turn at once to the Latin Fathers. Hilary, Bishop of Poictiers (d. 367), was a foremost Latin polemicist against the Arians in the middle of the fourth century. He was born a pagan; and in the introductory book to his chief work, the De Trinitate, he tells how he turned, with all his intellect and higher aspirations, to the Faith. Taking a noble view of human nature, he makes bold to say that men usually spurn the sensual and material, and yearn for a more worthy life. Thus they have reached patience, temperance, and other virtues, believing that death is not the end of all. He himself, however, did not rest satisfied with the pagan religion or the teachings of pagan philosophers; but he found doctrines to his liking in the books of Moses, and then in the Gospel of John. It was clear to him that prophecy led up to the revelation of Jesus Christ, and in that at length he gained a safe harbour. Thus Hilary explains that his better aspirations had led him on and upward to the Gospel; and when he had reached that end and unification of spiritual yearning, it was but natural that it should thenceforth hold the sum of his intellectual interests.

A like result appears with greater power in Augustine. His Confessions give the mode in which his spiritual progress presented itself to him some time after he had become a Catholic Christian.2 His whole life sets forth the same theme, presenting the religious passion of the man drawing into itself his energies and interests. God and the Soul — these two would he know, and these alone. But these alone indeed! As if they did not embrace all life pointed and updrawn toward its salvation. God was the 64 overmastering object of intellectual interest and of passionate love. All knowledge should direct itself toward knowing Him. By grace, within God’s light and love, was the Soul, knower and lover, expectant of eternal life. Nothing that was transient could be its chief good, or its good at all except so far as leading on to its chief good of salvation, life eternal, in and through the Trinity. One may read Augustine’s self-disclosures or the passages containing statements of the ultimate religious principles whereby he and all men should live, or one may proceed to examine his long life and the vast entire product of his labour. The result will be the same. His whole strength will be found devoted to the cause of Catholic Church and Faith; and all his intellectual interests will be seen converging to that end. He writes nothing save with Catholic religious purpose; and nothing in any of his writings had interest for the writer save as it bore upon that central aim. He may be engaged in a great work of ultimate Christian doctrine, as in his De Trinitate; he may be involved in controversy with Manichean, with Donatist or Pelagian; he may be offering pastoral instruction, as in his many letters; he may survey, as in the Civitas Dei, the whole range of human life and human knowledge; but never does his mind really bear away from its master-motive.

The justification for this centering of human interests and energies lay in the nature of the summum bonum for man. According to the principles of the City of God, eternal life is the supreme good and eternal death the supreme evil. Evidently no temporal satisfaction or happiness compares with the eternal. This is good logic; but it is enforced with arguments drawn from the Christian temper, which viewed earth as a vale of tears. The deep Catholic pessimism towards mortal life is Augustine’s in full measure: “Quis enim sufficit quantovis eloquentiae flumine, vitae hujus miserias explicare?” Virtue itself, the best of mortal goods, does nothing here on earth but wage perpetual war with vices. Though man’s life is and must be social, how filled is it with distress! The saints are blessed with hope. And mortal good which has not that hope is a false joy and a great misery. For it lacks the real blessedness of 65 the soul, which is the true wisdom that directs itself to the end where God shall be all in all in eternal certitude and perfect peace. Here our peace is with God through faith; and yet is rather a solatium miseriae than a gaudium beatitudinis, as it will be hereafter. But the end of those who do not belong to the City of God will be miseria sempiterna, which is also called the second death, since the soul alienated from God cannot be said to live, nor that body be said to live which is enduring eternal pains.3 Augustine devotes a whole book, the twenty-first, to an exposition of the sempiternal, non-purgatorial, punishment of the damned, whom the compassionate intercession of the saints will not save, nor many other considerations which have been deemed eventually saving by the fondly lenient opinion of men. His views were as dark as those of Gregory the Great. Only imaginative elaboration was needed to expand them to the full compass of mediaeval fear.

Augustine brought all intellectual interests into the closure of the Christian Faith, or discredited whatever stubbornly remained without. He did the same with ethics. For he transformed the virtues into accord with his Catholic conception of man’s chief good. That must consist in cleaving to what is most blessed to cleave to, which is God. To Him we can cleave only through dilectio, amor, and charitas. Virtue which leads us to the vita beata is nothing but summus amor Dei. So he defines the four cardinal virtues anew. Temperance is love keeping itself whole and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love easily bearing all things for God’s sake; justice is love serving God only, and for that reason rightly ruling in the other matters, which are subject to man; and prudence is love well discriminating between what helps and what impedes as to God (in deum).4 Conversely, the heathen virtues, as the heathen had in fact conceived them, were vices rather than virtues to Augustine. For they lacked knowledge of the true God, and therefore were affected with fundamental ignorance, and were also tainted with pride.5 Through his unique power of religious 66 perception, Augustine discerned the inconsistency between pagan ethics, and the Christian thoughts of divine grace moving the humbly and lovingly acceptant soul.

The treatise on Christian Doctrine clearly expresses Augustine’s view as to the value of knowledge. He starts, in his usual way, from a fundamental principle, which is here the distinction between the use of something for a purpose and the enjoyment of something in and for itself. “To enjoy is to cleave fast in the love of a thing for its own sake. But to use is to employ a thing in obtaining what one loves.” For an illustration he draws upon that Christian sentiment which from the first had made the Christian feel as a sojourner on earth.6

It is as if we were sojourners unable to live happily away from our own country, and we wished to use the means of journeying by land and sea to end our misery and return to our fatherland, which is to be enjoyed. But the charm of the journey or the very movement of the vehicle delighting us, we are taken by a froward sweetness and become careless of reaching our own country whose sweetness would make us happy. Now if, journeying through this world, away from God, we wish to return to our own land where we may be happy, this world must be used, not enjoyed; that the invisible things of God may be apprehended through those created things before our eyes, and we may gain the eternal and spiritual from the corporeal and temporal.”

From this illustration Augustine leaps at once to his final inference that only the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is to be enjoyed,7 It follows as a corollary that the important knowledge for man is that which will bring him to God surely and for eternity. Such is knowledge of Holy Writ and its teachings. Other knowledge is valuable as it aids us to this.

Proceeding from this point of view, Augustine speaks more specifically. To understand Scripture one needs to know the words and also the things referred to. Knowledge of the latter is useful, because it sheds light on their figurative significance. For example, to know the serpent’s habit of presenting its whole body to the assailant, in order 67 to protect its head, helps to understand our Lords’ command to be wise as serpents, and for the sake of our Head, which is Christ, present our whole bodies to the persecutors. Again, the statement that the serpent rids itself of its skin by squeezing through a narrow hole, accords with the Scriptural injunction to imitate the serpent’s wisdom, and put off the old man that we may put on the new, and in a narrow place — Enter ye in at the strait gate, says the Lord.8 The writer gives a rule for deciding whether in any instance a literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture should be employed, a rule representing a phase of the idealizing way of treating facts which began with Plato or before him, and through many channels entered the practice of Christian doctors. “Whatever in the divine word cannot properly be referred to morum honestas or fidei veritas is to be taken figuratively. The first pertains to love of God and one’s neighbour; the second to knowing God and one’s neighbour.”9

Augustine then refers to matters of human invention, like the letters of the alphabet, which are useful to know. History also is well, as it helps us to understand Scripture; and a knowledge of physical objects will help us to understand the Scriptural references. Likewise a moderate knowledge of rhetoric and dialectic enables one the better to understand and expound Scripture. Some men have made useful vocabularies of the Scriptural Hebrew and Syriac words and compends of history, which throw light on Scriptural questions. So, to save Christians from needless labour, I think it would be well if some one would make a general description of unknown places, animals, plants and minerals, and other things mentioned in Scripture; and the same might be done as to the numbers which Scripture uses. These suggestions were curiously prophetic. Christians were soon to produce just such compends, as will be seen when noticing the labours of Isidore of Seville.10 Augustine speaks sometimes in scorn and sometimes in sorrow of those who remain ignorant of God, and learn philosophies, or deem that they achieve something great by curiously examining 68 into that universal mass of matter which we call the world.11

Augustine’s word and his example sufficiently attest the fact that the Christian Faith constituted the primary intellectual interest with the Fathers. While not annihilating other activities of the mind, this dominant interest lowered their dignity by forcing them into a common subservience. Exerting its manifold energies in defining and building out the Faith, in protecting it from attack or insidious corruption, it drew to its exigencies the whole strength of its votaries. There resulted the perfected organization of the Catholic Church and the production of a vast doctrinal literature. The latter may be characterized as constructive of dogma, theoretically interpretative of Scripture, and polemically directed against pagans, Jews, heretics or schismatics, as the case may be.

It was constructive of dogma through the intellectual necessity of apprehending the Faith in concepts and modes of reasoning accepted as valid by the Graeco-Roman world. In the dogmatic treatises emanating from the Hellenic East, the concepts and modes of reasoning were those of the later phases of Greek philosophy. Prominent examples are the De principiis of Origen or the Orationes of Athanasius against the Arians. For the Latin West, Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem or the treatises of Hilary and Augustine upon the Trinity serve for examples. The Western writings are distinguished from their Eastern kin by the entry of the juristic element, filling them with a mass of conceptions from the Roman Law.12 They also develop a more searching psychology. In both of these respects, Tertullian and Augustine were the great creators.

Secondly, this literature, at least in theory, was interpretative or expository of Scripture. Undoubtedly Origen and Athanasius and Augustine approached the Faith with ideas formed from philosophical study and their own reflections; and their metaphysical and allegorical treatment of Scripture texts elicited a significance different from the 69 meaning which we now should draw. Yet Christianity was an authoritatively revealed religion, and the letter of that revelation was Holy Scripture, to wit, the gradually formed canon of the Old and New Testaments. If the reasoning or conclusions which resulted in the Nicene Creed were not just what Scripture would seem to suggest, at all events they had to be and were confirmed by Scripture, interpreted, to be sure, under the stress of controversy and the influence of all that had gone into the intellectual natures of the Greek and Latin Fathers. And the patristic faculty of doctrinal exposition, that is, of reasoning constructively along the lines of Scriptural interpretation, was marvellous. Such a writing as Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian De spiritu et littera is a striking example.

Moreover, the Faith, which is to say, the Scriptures rightly interpreted, contained the sum of knowledge needful for salvation, and indeed everything that men should seek to know. Therefore there was no question possessing valid claim upon human curiosity which the Scriptures, through their interpreters, might not be called upon to answer. For example, Augustine feels obliged to solve through Scriptural interpretation and inference such an apparently obscure question as that of the different degrees of knowledge of God possessed by demons and angels.13 Indeed, many an unanswerable question had beset the ways by which Augustine himself and other doctors had reached their spiritual harbourage in Catholic Christianity. They sought to confirm from Scripture their solutions of their own doubts. At all events, from Scripture they were obliged to answer other questioners seeking instruction or needing refutation.14

Thirdly, it is too well known to require more than a mere reminder, that dogmatic treatises commonly were controversial or polemic, directed as might be against pagans or Jews, or Gnostics or Manicheans, or against Arians or 70 Monatists or Donatists. Practically all Christian doctrine was of militant growth, advancing by argumentative denial and then by counter-formulation.

As already noticed at some length, the later phases of pagan philosophic inquiry had other motives besides the wish for knowledge. These motives were connected with man’s social welfare or his relations with supernatural powers. The Stoical and Epicurean interest in knowledge had a practical incentive. And Neo-Platonism was a philosophy of saving union with the divine, rather than an open-minded search for ultimate knowledge. But no Hellenic or quasi-Romanized philosophy so drastically drew all subjects of speculation and inquiry within the purview and dominance of a single motive at once intellectual and emotional as the Christian Faith.

Naturally the surviving intellectual ardour of the Graeco-Roman world passed into the literature of Christian doctrine. For example, the Faith, with its master-motive of salvation, drew within its work of militant formulation and pertinent discussion that round of intellectual interest and energy which had issued in Neo-Platonism. Likewise such ethical earnestness as had come down through Stoicism was drawn within the master Christian energy. And so far as any interest survived in zoology or physics or astronomy, it also was absorbed in curious Christian endeavours to educe an edifying conformity between the statements or references of Scripture and the round of phenomena of the natural world. Then history likewise passed from heathenism to the service of the Church, and became polemic narrative, or filled itself with edifying tales, mostly of miracles.

In fine, no branch of human inquiry or intellectual interest was left unsubjugated by the dominant motives of the Faith. First of all, philosophy itself — the general inquiry for final knowledge — no longer had an independent existence. It had none with Hilary, none with Ambrose, and none whatsoever with Augustine after he became a Catholic Christian. Patristic philosophy consisted in the formulation of Christian doctrine, which in theory was an eliciting of the truth of Scripture. It embodied the substantial results, or survivals if one will, of Greek philosophy, so far as it did not controvert and discard them. As for the reasoning process, 71 the dialectic whereby such results were reached, as distinguished from the results themselves, that also passed into doctrinal writings. The great Christian Fathers were masters of it. Augustine recognized it as a proper tool; but like other tools its value was not in itself but in its usefulness. As a tool, dialectic, or logic, as it has commonly been called, was to preserve a distinct, if not independent, existence. Aristotle had devoted to it a group of special treatises.15 No one had anything to add to this Organon, or Aristotelian tool, which was to be preserved in Latin by the Boëthian translations.16 No attempt was made to supplant them with Christian treatises.

So it was with elementary education. The grammarians, Servius, Prisicianus, and probably Donatus, were pagans. As far as concerned grammatical and rhetorical studies, the Fathers had to admit that the best theory and examples were in pagan writings. It also happened that the book which was to become the common text-book of the Seven Arts was by a pagan, of Neo-Platonic views. This was the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, by Martianus Capella.17 Possibly some good Christian of the time could have composed a worse book, or at least one somewhat more deflected from the natural objects of primary education. But the De nuptiis is astonishingly poor and dry. The writer was an unintelligent compiler, who took his matter not from the original sources, but from compilers before him, Varro above all. Capella talks of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Euclid, Ptolemy; but if he had ever read them, it was to little profit. Book VI., for example, is occupied with “Geometria.” The first part of it is simply geography; then come nine pages18 of geometry, consisting of definitions, with a few axioms; and then, instead of following with theorems, the maid, who personifies “Geometria,” presents as a bridal offering the books of Euclid, amid great 72 applause. Had she ever opened them, one queries. Book VII., “Arithmetica,” is even worse. It begins with the current foolishness regarding the virtues and interesting qualities of the first ten numbers: “How shall I commemorate thee, O Seven, always to be revered, neither begotten like the other numbers, nor procreative, a virgin even as Minerva?” Capella never is original. From Pythagoras on, the curiosities of numbers had interested the pagan mind.19 These fantasies gained new power and application in the writings of the Fathers. For them, the numbers used in Scripture had prefigurative significance. Such notions came to Christianity from its environment, and then took on a new apologetic purpose. Here an intellect like Augustine’s is no whit above its fellows. In arguing from Scripture numbers he is at his very obvious worst.20 Fortunately the coming time was to have better treatises, like the De arithmetica of Boëthius, which was quite free from mysticism. But in Boëthius’s time, as well as before and after him, it was the allegorical significance of numbers apologetically pointed that aroused deepest interest.

Astronomy makes one of Capella’s seven Artes. His eighth book, a rather abject compilation, is devoted to it. His matter, of course, is not yet Christianized. But Christianity was to draw Astronomy into its service; and the determination of the date of Easter and other Church festivals became the chief end of what survived of astronomical knowledge.

The patristic attitude toward cosmogony and natural science plainly appears in the Hexaëmeron of St. Ambrose.21 This was a commentary on the first chapters of Genesis, or rather an argumentative exposition of the Scriptural account of the Creation, primarily directed against those who asserted that the world was uncreated and eternal. As one turns the leaves of this writing, it becomes clear that the interest of Ambrose is always religious, and that his soul is gazing beyond the works of the Creation to another world. He 73 has no interest in physical phenomena, which have no laws for him except the will of God.

“To discuss the nature and position of the earth,” says he, “does not help us in our hope of the life to come. It is enough to know what Scripture states, ‘that He hung up the earth upon nothing’ (Job xxvi. 7). Why then argue whether He hung it up in air or upon the water, and raise a controversy as to how the thin air could sustain the earth; or why, if upon the waters, the earth does not go crashing down to the bottom? . . Not because the earth is in the middle, as if suspended on even balance, but because the majesty of God constrains it by the law of His will, does it endure stable upon the unstable and the void.”

The archbishop then explains that God did not fix the earth’s stability as an artisan would, with compass and level, but as the Omnipotent, by the might of His command. If we would understand why the earth is unmoved, we must not try to measure creation as with a compass, but must look to the will of God: “voluntate Dei immobilis manet et stat in saeculum terra.” And again Ambrose asks, Why argue as to the elements which make the heaven? Why trouble oneself with these physical inquiries? “Sufficeth for our salvation, not such disputation, but the verity of the precepts, not the acuteness of argument, but the mind’s faith, so that rather than the creature, we may serve the Creator, who is God blessed forever.”22

Thus with Ambrose, the whole creation springs from the immediate working of God’s inscrutable will. It is all essentially a miracle, like those which He wrought in after times to aid or save men: they also were but operations of His will. God said Fiat lux, and there was light. Thus His will creates; and nature is His work (opus Dei natura est). And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters; and it was so. “Hear the word, Fiat. His will is the measure of things; His word ends the work.” The division of the waters above and beneath the firmament was a work of His will, just as He divided the waters of the Red Sea before the eyes of the Jews in order that those things might be believed which the Jews had not seen. He could have 74 saved them by another means. The fiat of God is nature’s strength (virtus) and the substance of its endurance (diurnitatis substantia) so long as He wishes it to continue where He has appointed it.23

According to this reasoning, the miracle, except for its infrequency, is in the same category with other occurrences. Here Ambrose is fully supported by Augustine. With the latter, God is the source of all causation: He is the cause of usual as well as of extraordinary occurrences, i.e. miracles. The exceptional or extraordinary character of certain occurrences is what makes them miracles.24

Here are fundamental principles of patristic faith. The will of God is the one cause of all things. It is unsearchable. But we have been taught much regarding God’s love and compassionateness, and of His desire to edify and save His people. These qualities prompt His actions toward them. Therefore we may expect His acts to evince edifying and saving purpose. All the narratives of Scripture are for our edification. How many mighty saving acts do they record, from the Creation, onward through the story of Israel, to the birth and resurrection of Christ! And surely God still cares for His people. Nor is there any reason to suppose that He has cased to edify and save them through signs and wonders. Shall we not still look for miracles from His grace?

Thus in the nature of Christianity, as a miraculously founded and revealed religion, lay the ground for expecting miracles, or, at least, for not deeming them unlikely to occur. And to the same result from all sides conspired the influences which had been obscuring natural knowledge. We have followed those influences in pagan circles from Plato on through Neo-Platonism and other systems current in the first centuries of the Christian era. We have seen them obliterate rational conceptions of nature’s processes and destroy the interest that impels to unbiassed investigation. The character and exigencies of the Faith intensified the operation of like tendencies among Christians. Their eyes were lifted from the earth. They were not concerned with its transitory things, soon to be consumed. Their hope was fixed in the 75 assurance of their Faith; their minds were set upon its confirmation. They and their Faith seemed to have no use for a knowledge of earth’s phenomena save as bearing illustrative or confirmatory testimony to the truth of Scripture. Moreover, the militant exigencies of their situation made them set excessive store on the miraculous foundation and continuing confirmation of their religion.

For these reasons the eyes of the Fathers were closed to the natural world or at least their vision was affected with an obliquity parallel to the needs of doctrine. Any veritable physical or natural knowledge rapidly dwindled among them. What remained continued to exist because explanatory of Scripture and illustrative of spiritual allegories. To such an intellectual temper nothing seems impossible, provided it accord, or can be interpreted to accord, with doctrines elicited from Scripture. Soon there will cease to exist any natural knowledge sufficient to distinguish the normal and possible from the impossible and miraculous. One may recall how little knowledge of the physiology and habits of animals was shown in Pliny’s Natural History.25 He had not even a rough idea of what was physiologically possible. Personally, he may or may not have believed that the bowels of the field-mouse increase in number with the waxing of the moon; but he had no sufficiently clear appreciation of the causes and relations of natural phenomena to know that such an idea was absurd. It was almost an accident, whether he believed it or not. It is safe to say that neither Ambrose nor Jerome nor Augustine had any clearer understanding of such things than Pliny. They had read far less about them, and knew less than he. Pliny, at all events, had no motive for understanding or presenting natural facts in any other way than as he had read or been told about the, or perhaps had noticed for himself. Augustine and Ambrose had a motive. Their sole interest in natural fact lay in its confirmatory evidence of Scriptural truth. They were constantly impelled to understand facts in conformity with their understanding of Scripture, and to accept or deny accordingly. Thus Augustine denies the existence of Antipodes, men on the opposite side of the earth, who walk with their feet 76 opposite to our own.26 That did not harmonize with his general conception of Scriptural cosmogony.

For the result, one can point to a concrete instant which is typical of much. In patristic circles the knowledge of the animal kingdom came to be represented by the curious book called the Physiologus. It was a series of descriptions of animals, probably based on stories current in Alexandria, and appears to have been put together in Greek early in the second century. Internal evidence has led to the supposition that it emanated from Gnostic circles. It soon came into common use among the Greek and Latin Fathers. Origen draws from it by name. In the West, to refer only to the fourth and fifth centuries, Ambrose seems to use it constantly, Jerome occasionally, and also Augustine.

Well known as these stories are, one or two examples may be given to recall their character: The Lion has three characteristics; as he walks or runs he brushes his footprints with his tail, so that the hunters many not track him. This signifies the secrecy of the Incarnation — of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Secondly, the Lion sleeps with his eyes open; so slept the body of Christ upon the Cross, while His Godhead watched at the right hand of the Father. Thirdly, the Lioness brings forth her cub dead; on the third day the father comes and roars in its face, and wakes it to life. This signifies our Lords’ resurrection on the third day.

The Pelican is distinguished by its love for its young. As these begin to grow they strike at their parents’ faces, and the parents strike back and kill them. Then the parents take pity, and on the third day the mother comes and opens her side and lets the blood flow on the dead young ones, and they become alive again. Thus God cast off mankind after the Fall, and delivered them over to death; but He took pity on us, as a mother, for by the Crucifixion He awoke us with His blood to eternal life.

The Unicorn cannot be taken by hunters, because of his great strength, but lets himself be captured by a pure virgin. So Christ, mightier than the heavenly powers, took on humanity in a virgin’s womb.

The Phoenix lives in India, and when five hundred years 77 old fills his wings with fragrant herbs and flies to Heliopolis, where he commits himself to the flames in the Temple of the Sun. From his ashes comes a worm, which the second day becomes a fledgling, and on the third day a full-grown phoenix, who flies away to his old dwelling-place. The Phoenix is the symbol of Christ; the two wings filled with sweet-smelling herbs are the Old and New Testaments, full of divine teaching.27

These examples illustrate the two general characteristics of the accounts in the Physiologus: they have the same legendary quality whether the animal is real or fabulous; the subjects are chosen, and the accounts are shaped, by doctrinal considerations. Indeed, from the first the Physiologus seems to have been a selection of those animal stories which lent themselves most readily to theological application. It would be pointless to distinguish between the actual and fabulous in such a book; nor did the minds of the readers make any such distinction. For Ambrose or Augustine the importance of the story lay in its doctrinal significance, or moral, which was quite careless of the truth of facts of which it was the “point.” The facts were told as introductory argument.

The interest of the Fathers in physics and natural history bears analogy to their interest in history and biography. Looking back to classical times, one finds that historians were led by other motives than the mere endeavour to ascertain and state the facts. The Homeric Epos was the literary forerunner of the history which Herodotus wrote of the Persian Wars; and the latter often was less interested in the closeness of his facts than in their aptness and rhetorical probability. Doubtless he followed legends when telling how Greek and Persian spoke or acted. But had not legend already sifted the chaff of irrelevancy from the story, leaving the grain of convincing fitness, which is also rhetorical probability? Likewise, Thucydides, in composing the History 78 of the Peloponnesian War, that masterpiece of reasoned statement, was not over-anxious as to accuracy of actual word and fact reported. He carefully inquired regarding the events, in some of which he had been an actor. Often he knew or ascertained what the chief speakers said in those dramatic situations which kept arising in this war of neighbours. Yet, instead of reporting actual words, he gives the sentiments which, according to the laws of rhetorical probability, they must have uttered. So he presents the psychology and turning-point of the matter.

This was true historical rhetoric; the historian’s art of setting forth a situation veritably, by presenting its intrinsic necessities. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia went a step further; it was a historical romance, which neither followed fact nor proceeded according to the necessities of the actual situation. But it did proceed according to moral proprieties, and so was edifying and plausible.

The classical Latin practice accorded with the Greek. Cicero speaks of history as opus oratorium, that is, a work having rhetorical and literary qualities. It should set forth the events and situations according to their inherent necessities which constitute their rhetorical truth. Then it should possess the civic and social qualities of good oratory: morals and public utility. These are, in fact, the characteristics of the works of Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. None of them troubled himself much over an accuracy of detail irrelevant to his larger purpose. Tacitus is interested in memorable facts; he would relate them in such form that they might carry their lesson, and bear their part in the education of the citizen, for whom it is salutary to study the past. He condemns, indeed, the historians of the Empire who, under an evil emperor, lie from fear, and, upon his death, lie from hate. But such condemnation of immoral lying does not forbid the shaping of a story according to artistic probability and moral ends. Some shaping and adorning of fact might be allowed the historian, acting with motives of public policy, or seeking to glorify or defend his country.28 This quite accords with the view of Varro and Cicero, that good policy should sometimes outweigh truth: 79 whether or not the accounts of the gods were true, it was well for the people to believe.

Thus the Fathers of the Church were accustomed to a historical tradition and practice in which facts were presented so as to conduce to worthy ends. Various motives lie back of human interest in truth. A knowledge of the world’s origin, of man’s creation, destiny, and relationship to God, may be sought for its own sake as the highest human good; and yet it may be also sought for the sake of some ulterior and, to the seeker, more important end. With the Christian Fathers that more important end was salvation. To obtain a saving knowledge was the object of their most strenuous inquiries. Doubtless all men take some pleasure simply in knowing; and, on the other hand, there are few among wisdom’s most disinterested lovers that have not some thought of the connection between knowledge and the other goods of human life, to which it may conduce. Yet if seekers after knowledge be roughly divided into two classes, those who wish to know for the sake of knowing, and those who look to another end to which true knowledge is a means, then the Fathers of the Church fall in the latter class.

If truth be sought for the sake of something else, why may it not also be sacrificed? A work of art is achieved by shaping the story for the drama’s sake, and if we weave fiction to suit the end, why not weave fiction with fact, or, still better, see the fact in such guise as to suit the requirements of our purpose? Many are the aspects and relationships of any fact; its actuality is exhaustless.29 In how many ways does a human life present itself? What 80 narrative could exhaust the actuality and significance of the assassination of Julius Caesar? Indeed, no fact has such narrow or compelling singleness of significance or actuality that all its truth can be put in any statement! And again, who is it that can draw the line between reality and conviction?

It is clear that the limited and special interest taken by the Church Fathers in physical and historic facts would affect their apprehension of them. One may ask what was real to Plato in the world of physical phenomena. At all events, Christian Platonists, like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa,30 saw the paramount reality of such phenomena in the spiritual ideas implicated and evinced by them. The world’s reality would thus be resolved into the world’s moral or spiritual significance, and in that case its truth might be educed through moral and allegorical interpretation. Of course, such an understanding of reality involves hosts of assumptions which were valid in the fourth century, but are not commonly accepted now; and chief among them is the very assumption that the deepest meaning of ancient poets, and the Scriptures above all, is allegorical.

This is but a central illustration of what would determine the Fathers’ conception of the truth of physical events. Again: the Creation was a great miracle; its cause, the will of God. The Cause of the Creation was spiritual, and spiritual was its purpose, to wit, the edification and salvation of God’s people; the building, preservation, and final consummation of the City of God. Did not the deepest truth of the matter lie in this spiritual cause and purpose? And afterwards to what other end tended all human history? It was one long exemplification of the purpose of God through the ways of providence. The conception of what constituted a fitting exemplification of that purpose would control the choice of facts and shape their presentation. Then what was more natural than that events should exhibit this purpose, that it might be perceived by the people of God? It would clearly appear in saving interpositions or remarkable chronological coincidences. Such, even more palpably than the other links in the 81 providential chain, were direct manifestations of the will of God, and were miraculous because of their extraordinary character. History, made anew through these convictions, became a demonstration of the truth of Christian doctrine — in other words, apologetic.

The most universal and comprehensive example of this was Augustine’s City of God, already adverted to. Its subject was the ways of God with men. It embraced history, philosophy, and religion. It was the final Christian apology, and the conclusive proof of Christian doctrine, adversum paganos. To this end Augustine unites the manifold topics which he discusses; and to this end his apparent digressions eventually return, bearing their sheaves of corroborative evidence. In no province of inquiry does his apologetic purpose appear with clearer power than in his treatment of history, profane and sacred.31 Through the centuries the currents of divine purpose are seen to draw into their dual course the otherwise pointless eddyings of human affairs. Beneath the Providence of God, a revolving succession of kingdoms fill out the destinies of the earthly Commonwealth of war and rapine, until the red torrents are pressed together into the terrestrial greatness of imperial Rome. No power of heathen gods effected this result, nor all the falsities of pagan philosophy: but the will of the one true Christian God. The fortunes of the heavenly City are traced through the prefigurative stories of antediluvian and patriarchal times, and then on through the prophetic history of the chosen people, until the end of prophecy appears — Christ and the Catholic Church.

The Civitas Dei is the crowning example of the drastic power with which the Church Fathers conformed the data of human understanding into a substantiation of Catholic Christianity.32 At the time of its composition, the Faith 82 needed advocacy in the world. Alaric entered Rome in 410; and it was to meet the cry of those who would lay that catastrophe at the Church’s doors that Augustine began the Civitas Dei. Soon after, an ardent young Spaniard named Orosius came on pilgrimage to the great doctor at Hippo, and finding favour in his eyes, was asked to write a profane history proving the abundance of calamities which had afflicted mankind before the time of Christ. So Orosius devoted some years (417-418) to the compilation of a universal chronicle, using Latin sources, and calling his work Seven Books of Historiesadversum paganos.”33 Addressing Augustine in his prologue, he says:

“Thou hast commanded me that as against the vain rhetoric of those who, aliens to God’s Commonwealth, coming from country cross-roads and villages are called pagans, because they know earthly things, who seek not unto the future and ignore the past, yet cry down the present time as filled with evil, just because Christ is believed and God is worshipped; — thou hast commanded that I should gather from histories and annals whatever mighty ills and miseries and terrors there have been from wars and pestilence, from famine, earthquake, and floods, from volcanic eruptions, from lightning or from hail, and also from monstrous crimes in the past centuries, and that I should arrange and set forth the matter briefly in a book.”

Orosius’s story of the four great Empires — Babylonian, Macedonia, African, and Roman — makes a red tale of carnage. He deemed “that such things should be commemorated, in order that with the secret of God’s ineffable judgments partly laid open, those stupid murmurers at our Christian times should understand that the one God ordained the fortunes of Babylon in the beginning, and at the end those of Rome; understand also that it is through His clemency that we live, although wretchedly because of 83 our intemperance. Like was the origin of Babylon and Rome, and like their power, greatness, and their fortunes good and ill; but unlike their destinies, since Babylon lost her kingdom and Rome kept hers”; and Orosius refers to the clemency of the barbarian victors, who as Christians spared Christians.34

At the opening of his seventh book he again presents his purpose and conclusions.

“I think enough evidence has been brought together, to prove that the one and true God, made known by the Christian Faith, created the world and His creature as He wished, and that He has ordered and directed it through many things, of which it has not seen the purpose, and has ordained it for one event, declared through One; and likewise has made manifest His power and patience by arguments manifold. Whereat, I perceive, straitened and anxious minds have stumbled, to think of so much patience joined to so great power. For, if He was able to create the world, and establish its peace, and impart to it a knowledge of His worship and Himself, what was the need of so great and (as they say) so hurtful patience, exerted to the end that at last, through the errors, slaughters and the toils of men, there should result what might rather have arisen in the beginning by His virtue, which you preach? To whom I can truly reply: the human race from the beginning was so created and appointed that living under religion with peace without labour, by the fruit of obedience it might merit eternity; but it abused the Creator’s goodness, turned liberty into wilful licence, and through disdain fell into forgetfulness; now the patience of God is just and doubly just, operating that this disdain might not wholly ruin those whom He wished to spare, but might be reduced through labours; and also so that He might always hold out guidance although to an ignorant creature, to whom if penitent He would mercifully restore the means of grace.”

Such was the point of view and such the motives of this book, which was to be par excellence the source of ancient history for the Middle Ages. But, concerned chiefly with the Gentile nations, Orosius has few palpable miracles to tell. The miracle lies in God’s ineffabilis ordinatio of events, and especially in marvellous chronological parallels shown in the histories of nations, for our edification. Likewise for mediaeval men these ineffable chronological correspondences 84 (which never existed in fact) were to be evidence of God’s providential guidance of the world.

Some thirty years after Orosius wrote, a priest of Marseilles, Salvian by name, composed a different sort of treatise, with a like object of demonstrating the righteous validity of God’s providential ordering of affairs, especially in those troubled times of barbarian invasion through which the Empire then was passing. The book declared its purpose in its title — De gubernatione Dei.35 Its tenor is further elucidated by the title bestowed upon it by a contemporary: De praesenti (Dei) judicio. It is famous for the pictures (doubtless overwrought) which it gives of the low state of morals among the Roman provincials, and of the comparative decency of the barbarians.

These examples sufficiently indicate the broad apologetic purpose in the patristic writing of history. There was another class of composition, biographical rather than historical, the object of which was to give edifying examples of the grace of God working in holy men. The reference, of course, is to the Vitae sanctorum whose number from the fourth century onward becomes legion. They set forth the marvellous virtues of anchorites and their miracles. In the East, the prime example is the Athanasian Life of Anthony; Jerome also wrote, in Latin, the lives of Anthony’s forerunner Paulus and of other saint. But for the Latin West the typical example was the Life of St. Martin of Tours, most popular of saints, by Sulpicius Severus.

To dub this class of compositions (and there are classes within classes here) uncritical, credulous, intentionally untruthful, is not warranted without a preliminary consideration of their purpose. That in general was to edify; the writer is telling a moral tale, illustrative of God’s grace in the instances of holy men. But the divine grace is the real matter; the saint’s life is but the example. God’s grace exits; it operates in this way. As to the illustrative details of its operation, why be over-anxious as to their correctness? Only the vita must be interesting, to fix the reader’s attention, and must be edifying, to improve him. These principles exerted sometimes a less, sometimes a 85 greater influence; and accordingly, while perhaps none of the vitae is without pious comforting, as a class they range from fairly trustworthy biographies to vehicles of edifying myth.36

Miracles are never lacking. The vita commonly was drawn less form personal knowledge than from report or tradition. Report grows passing from mouth to mouth, and is enlarged with illustrative incidents. Since no disbelief blocked the acceptance of miracles, their growth outstripped that of the other elements of the story, because they interested the most people. Yet there was little originality, and the vitae constantly reproduced like incidents. Especially, Biblical prototypes were followed, as one sees in the Dialogi of Gregory the Great, telling of the career of St. Benedict of Nursia. The Pope finds that the great founder of western monasticism performed many of the miracles ascribed to Scriptural characters.37 Herein we see the working of suggestion and imitation upon a “legend”; but Gregory found rather an additional wonder-striking feature, that God not only had wrought miracles through Benedict, but in His ineffable wisdom had chosen to conform the saint’s deeds to the pattern of Scriptural prototypes. And so, in the Vitae sanctorum, the joinder of suggestion and the will to believe literally worked marvels.

Usually the Fathers of the Church were as interested in miracles as the uneducated laity. Ambrose, the great Archbishop of Milan, writes a long letter to his sister 86 Marcellina upon finding the relics of certain martyrs, and the miracles wrought by this treasure-trove.38 As for Jerome, of course, he is very open-minded, and none too careful in his own accounts. His passion for the relics of the saints appears in his polemic Contra Vigilantium. What interest, either in the writing or the hearing, would men have taken in a hermit desert life that was bare of miracles? The desert and the forest solitude have always been full of wonders. In Jerome’s Lives of Paulus and Hilarion, the romantic and picturesque elements consist exclusively in the miraculous. And again, how could any one devote himself to the cult of an almost contemporary saint or the worship of a martyr, and not find abundant miracles? Sulpicius Severus wrote the Vita of St. Martin while the saint was still alive; and there would have been no reason for the worship of St. Felix, carried on through years by Paulinus of Nola, if Felix’s relics had not had saving power. It was to this charming tender of the dead, afterwards beatified as St. Paulinus of Nola,39 that Augustine addressed his moderating treatise on these matters, entitled De cura pro mortuis. He can see no advantage in burying a body close to a martyr’s tomb unless in order to stimulate the prayers of the living. How the martyrs help us surpasses my understanding, says the writer; but it is known that they do help. Very few were as critical as the Bishop of Hippo; and all men recognized the efficacy of prayers to the martyred saints, and the magic power of their relics.

Having said so much of the intellectual obliquities of the Church Fathers, it were well to dwell a moment on their power. Their inspiration was the Christian Faith, working within them and bending their strength to its call. Their mental energies conformed to their understanding of the Faith and their interpretation of its Scriptural presentation. Their achievement was Catholic Christianity consisting in the union of two complements, ecclesiastical organization and the complete and consistent organism of doctrine. Here, in fact, two living organisms were united as body and soul. Each was fitted to the other, and neither could have 87 existed alone. In their union they were to prove unequalled in history for coherence and efficiency. Great then was the energy and intellectual power of the men who constructed Church and doctrine. Great was Paul; great was Tertullian; great were Origen, Athanasius, and the Greek Gregories. Great also were those Latin Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine their last and greatest, who finally completed Church and doctrine for transmission to the Middle Ages — the doctrine, however, destined to be readjusted as to emphasis, and barbarized in character by him whose mind at least is patristically recreative, but whose soul is mediaeval, Gregorius Magnus.40



1  Epistola ad Gregorium Thaumaturgum.

2  Cf. Boissier, Fin du paganisme.

3  Civ. Dei, xix. caps. 49, 20, 27, 28.

4  De moribus Ecclesiae, 14, 15; cf. Epist. 155, §§ 12, 13.

5  Civ. Dei, xix. 25.

6  See Clement of Rome, Ep. to the Corinthians (A.D. cir. 92), opening passage, and notes in Lightfoot’s edition.

7  De doc. Chris. i. 4, 5.

8  De doc. Chris. ii. 16.

9  De doc. Chris. iii. cap. 10 sqq.

10  Post, Chapter V.

11  De moribus Ecclesiae, 21; Confessions, v. 7; x. 54-57.

12  See Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, iii. 14 sqq.; Taylor, Classical Heritage, p. 117 sqq.

13  Civ. Dei, ix. 21, 22; cf. Civ. Dei, xvi. 6-9.

14  Civ. Dei, book xii., affords a discussion of such questions, e.g. why was man created when he was, and not before or afterwards. All these matters entered into the discussions of the mediaeval philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, for example

Besides these dogmatic treatises, in which Scriptural texts were called upon at least for confirmation, the Fathers, Greek and Latin, composed an enormous mass of Biblical commentary, chiefly allegorical, following the chapter and verse of the canonical writings.

15  See ante, Chapter III.

16  See post, Chapter V.

17  The substance of Capella’s book is framed in an allegorical narrative of the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. For a nuptial gift, the groom presents the bride with seven maid-servants, symbolizing the Seven Liberal Arts — Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music. Cf. Taylor, Classical Heritage, etc., p. 49 sqq.

18  In Eyssenhardt’s edition.

19  On the symbolism of Numbers see Cantor, Vorlesungen über Ges. Der Mathematick, 2nd ed. pp. 95, 96, 146, 156, 529, 531.

20  See an extraordinary example taken from the treatise against Faustus, post, Chapter XXVII. Also De doc. Chris. ii. 16; De Trinitate, iv. 4-6.

21  Migne, Pat. Lat. 14, col. 123-273. Written cir. 389.

22  Hex. i. cap. 6.

23  Hex. ii. caps. 2, 3.

24  Aug. De Trinitate, iii. 5-9.

25  Ante, Chapter III.

26  Civ. Dei, xvi. 9.

27  For the sources of these accounts see Lauchert, Ges. Des Physiologus (Strasburg, 1889), p. 4 sqq. The wide use of this work is well known. It was soon translated into Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syrian; into Latin not later than the beginning of the fifth century; and subsequently, of course with many accretions, into the various languages of western mediaeval Europe. See Lauchert, o.c. p. 79 sqq.

28  Cf. Boissier, Tacite (Paris, 1903).

29  For example, what different truths can one speak afterwards of a social dinner of men and women at which he has sat, In the first place, there is the hostess, to whom he may something pleasant and yet true. Then there is his congenial friend among the ladies present, to whom he will impart some intimate observations, also true. Thirdly, a club friend was at the dinner, and his ear shall be the receptacle of remarks on feminine traits illustrated by what was said and done there. Finally, there is himself, to whom in the watches of the night the dinner will present itself in its permanent values as an incident in human intercourse, which is so fascinating, so transitory, and so suggestive of topics of reflection. Here are four presentations; and if there was a company of twelve, we may multiply four by that number and imagine forty-eight true, although inexhaustive, accounts of that dinner which has now joined the fading circle of events that are no more.

30  On Gregory of Nyssa, see Taylor, Classical Heritage. p. 125 sqq.

31  Chiefly in Books III. and XV.-XVIII.

32  Like the Civitas Dei, the patristic writings devoted exclusively to history were all frankly apologetic, yet following different manners according to the temper and circumstances of the writer. In the East, at the epoch of the formal Christian triumph and the climax of the Arian dispute, lived Eusebius of Caesarea, the most famous of the early Church historians. He was learned, careful, capable of weighing testimony, and possessed the faculty of presenting salient points. He does not dwell overmuch on miracles. His apologetic tendencies appear in his method of seeing and stating facts so as to uphold the truth of Christianity. If just then Christianity seemed no longer to demand an advocate, there was place for a eulogist, and such was Eusebius in his Church History and fulsome Life of Constantine. His Church History is translated by A. C. McGiffert, Library of Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. i. (New York, 1890). It was translated into Latin by Rufinus, friend and then enemy of St. Jerome.

33  The best edition is Zangemeister’s in the Vienna Corpus scriptorum eccles. (1882). Orosius ignores the classic Greek historians, of whom he knew little or nothing. Cf. Taylor, Classical Heritage, pp. 219-221.

34  Hist. ii. 3.

35  Best edition that of Pauly, in Vienna Corpus scrip. eccles. (1883).

36  An excellent statement of the nature and classes of the mediaeval Vitae sanctorum is “Les Légendes hagiographiques,” by Hipp. Delehaye, S. J., in Revue des questions historique, t. 74 (1903), pp. 56-122. An English translation of this article has appeared as an independent volume.

37  At Gregory’s statement of the marvellous deeds of Benedict, his interlocutor, the Deacon Peter, answers and exclaims: “Wonderful and astonishing is what you relate. For in the water brought forth from the rock (i.e. by Benedict) I see Moses, in the iron which returned from the bottom of the lake I see Elisha (2 Kings vi. 6), in the running upon the water I see Peter, in the obedience of the raven I see Elijah (1 Kings xvii. 6), and in his grief for his dead enemy I see David (2 Sam. i. 11). That man, as I consider him, was full of the spirit of all the just” (Gregorius Magnus, Dialogi, ii. 8. Quoted and expanded by Odo of Cluny, Migne, Pat. Lat. 133, col. 724). The rest of the second book contains other miracles like those told in the Bible. The Life of a later saint may also follow earlier monastic types. Francis kisses the wounds of lepers, as Martin of Tours had done. See Sulpicius Severus, Vita S. Martini. But often the writer of a vita deliberately inserts miracles to make his story edifying, or enhance the fame of his hero, perhaps in order to benefit the church where he is interred.

38  Ambrose, Ep. 22, ad Marcillinam.

39  On Paulinus of Nola, see Taylor, Classical Heritage, pp. 272-276.

40  As this chapter has been devoted to the intellectual interests of the Fathers, it should be supplemented by a consideration of the emotions and passions approved or rejected by them. But this matter may be considered more conveniently in connection with the development of mediaeval emotion, post, Chapter XIV.


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