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Topics in Philosophy

Christian Philosophy

Philosophic Ideas which Christianity Welcomed, Adopted, or Created How it must Give a Fresh Aspect to All Philosophy, even that Foreign to Itself.
CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY AND MORALITY.--Christianity spread through the Empire by the propaganda of the Apostles, and more especially St. Paul, from about the year 40. Its success was extremely rapid, especially among the populace, and little by little it won over the upper classes. As a general philosophy, primitive Christianity did not absolutely bring more than the Hebrew dogmas: the unity of God, a providential Deity, that is, one directly interfering in human affairs; immortality of the soul with rewards and penalties beyond the grave (a recent theory among the Jews, yet one anterior to Christianity). As a moral system, Christianity brought something so novel and so beautiful that it is not very probable that humanity will ever surpass it, which may be imperfectly and incompletely summed up thus: love of God; He must not only be feared as He was by the pagans and the ancient Jews; He must be loved passionately as a son loves his father, and all things must be done for this love and in consideration of this love; all men are brethren as sons of God, and they should love one another as brothers; love your neighbour as yourself, love him who does not love you; love your enemies; be not greedy for the goods of this world, nor ambitious, nor proud; for God loves the lowly, the humble, the suffering, and the miserable, and He will exalt the lowly and put down the mighty from their seats.

Nothing like this had been said in all antiquity, and it needs extraordinary ingenuity (of a highly interesting character, by the way), to find in ancient wisdom even a few traces of this doctrine.

Finally, into politics, so to speak, Christianity brought this novelty: there are two empires, the empire of God and the empire of man; you do not owe everything to the earthly empire; you are bound to give it faithfully only what is needed for it to be strong and to preserve society; apart from that, and that done, you are the subject of God and have only to answer to God for your thoughts, your belief, your conscience; and over that portion of yourself the State has neither right nor authority unless it be usurped and tyrannical. And therein lay the charter of individual liberty like the charter of the rights of man.

As appeal to the feelings, Christianity brought the story of a young God, infinitely good and gentle, who had never cursed, who had been infinitely loved, who had been persecuted and betrayed, who had forgiven his executioners, and who died in great sufferings and who was to be imitated (whence came the thirst for martyrdom). This story in itself is not more affecting than that of Socrates, but it is that of a young martyr and not of an old one, and therein lies a marked difference for the imagination and emotions of the multitude.

THE SUCCESS OF CHRISTIANITY.--The prodigious rapidity of the success of Christianity is easily explicable. Polytheism had no longer a great hold on the masses, and no philosophic doctrine had found or had even sought the path to the crowd; Christianity, essentially democratic, loved the weak and humble, had a tendency to prefer them to the great ones of this world, and to regard them as being more the children of God, and was therefore received by the masses as the only doctrine which could replace the worm-eaten polytheism. And in Christianity they saw the religion for which they were waiting, and in the heads of Christianity their own protectors and defenders.

ITS EVOLUTION.--The evolution of Christianity was very rapid, and from a great moral doctrine with a minimum of rudimentary metaphysics it became, perchance mistakenly, a philosophy giving account, or desirous of giving account of everything; it so to speak incorporated a metaphysic, borrowed in great part from Greek philosophy, in great part from the Hebrew traditions. It possessed ideas on the origin of matter, and whilst maintaining that God was eternal, denied that matter was, and asserted that God created it out of nothing. It had theories on the essence of God, and saw Him in three Persons, or hypostases, one aspect of God as power, another as love, and the other as intelligence. It presented theories on the incarnation and humanisation of God, God being made man in Jesus Christ without ceasing to be God. It conceived new relationships of man to God, man having in himself powers of purgation and perfection, but always needing divine help for self-perfection (theory of grace). And this he must believe; if not he would feel insolent pride in his freedom. It had ideas about the existence of evil, declaring in "justification of God" for having permitted evil on earth, that the world was a place of trial, and that evil was only a way of putting man to the test and discovering what were his merits. It had its notions on the rewards and penalties beyond the grave, hell for the wicked and heaven for the good, as had been known to antiquity, but added purgatory, a place for both punishment and purification by punishment, an entirely Platonic theory, which Plato may have inspired but did not himself entertain. Finally, it was a complete philosophy answering, and that in a manner often admirable, all the questions that mankind put or could ever put.

And, as so often happens, that has proved a weakness and a strength to it: a weakness because embarrassed with subtle, complicated, insoluble questions wherein mankind will always be involved, it was forced to engage in endless discussions wherein the bad or feeble reasons advanced by this or that votary compromised the whole work; a strength because whoever brings a rule of life is practically compelled to support it by general ideas bearing on the relations of things and to give it a place in a general survey of the world; otherwise he appears impotent, weak, disqualified to give that very rule of life, incapable of replying to the interrogations raised by that rule of life; and finally, lacking in authority.

SCHISMS AND HERESIES.--Right or wrong, and it is difficult and highly hazardous to decide the question, Christianity was a complete philosophy, which was why it had its schisms and heresies, a certain number of sincere Christians not resolving the metaphysical questions in the way of the majority. Heresies were innumerable; only the two shall be cited which are deeply interesting in the history of philosophy. Manes, an Arab (and Arabia was then a Persian province), revived the old Zoroastrian doctrine of two principles of good and evil, and saw in the world two contending gods, the God of perfection and the god of sin, and laid upon man the duty of assisting the God of goodness so that His kingdom should come and cause the destruction of evil in the world. From him proceeded the Manicheans, who exerted great influence and were condemned by many Councils until their sect died out, only to reappear or seem to reappear fairly often in the Middle Ages and in modern times.

Arius denied the Trinity, believing only in one God, not only unique, but in one Person, and in consequence denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. He was perpetually involved in controversies and polemics, supported by some Bishops, opposed by the majority. After his death his doctrine spread strangely. It was stifled in the East by Theodosius, but was widely adopted by the "barbarians" of the West (Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards). It was revived, more or less exactly, after the Reformation, among the Socinians.

ROME AND CHRISTIANITY.--The relations of Christianity with the Roman government were in the highest degree tragic, as is common knowledge. There were ten sanguinary persecutions, some being atrocious. It has often been asked what was the cause of this animosity against the Christians on the part of a government which tolerated all religions and all philosophies. Persecutions were natural at Athens where a democracy, obstinately attached to the local deities, treated as enemies of the country those who did not take these gods into consideration; persecutions were natural on the part of a Calvin or a Louis XIV who combined in themselves the two authorities and would not admit that anyone in the State had the right to think differently from its head; but it has been argued that they were incomprehensible on the part of a government which admitted all cults and all doctrines. The explanation perhaps primarily lies in the fact that Christianity was essentially popular, and that the government saw in it not only plebeianism, which was disquieting, but an organisation of plebeianism, which was still more so. The administration of religion had always been in the hands of the aristocracy; the Roman pontiffs were patricians, the Emperor was the sovereign pontiff; to yield obedience, even were it only spiritually, to private men as priests was to be disobedient to the Roman aristocracy, to the Emperor himself, and was properly speaking a revolt.

A further explanation, perhaps, is that each new religion that was introduced at Rome did not oppose and did not contradict polytheism, the principle of polytheism being precisely that there are many gods; whereas Christianity denying all those gods and affirming that there is only one, and that all others must be despised as non-existent, inveighed against, denied, and ruined or threatened to destroy the very essence of polytheism. It was not a variation, it was a heresy; it was more than heretical, it was anarchical; it did not only condemn this or that religion, but even the very tolerance with which the Roman government accepted all religions. Hence it is natural enough that it should have been combated to the utmost by practically all the Emperors, from the most execrable, such as Nero, to the best, such as Marcus Aurelius.

CHRISTIANITY AND THE PHILOSOPHERS.--The relations of Christianity with philosophy were confused. The immense majority of philosophers rejected it, considering their own views superior to it, and moreover, feeling it to be formidable, made use against it of all that could be found beautiful, specious, or expedient in ancient philosophy; and the ardour of Neoplatonism, which we have considered, in part arose from precisely this instinct of rivalry and of struggle. At that epoch there was a throng of men like Ernest Havet presenting Hellenism in opposition to Christianity, and Ernest Havet is only a Neoplatonist of the nineteenth century.

A certain number of philosophers, nevertheless, either on the Jewish-Christian side or on the Hellenic, tried some reconciliation either as Jews making advances to Hellenism or as Greeks admitting there was something acceptable on the part of Sion. Aristobulus, a Jew (prior to Jesus Christ), seems to have endeavoured to bring Moses into agreement with Plato; Philo (a Jew contemporary with and surviving Jesus Christ and a non-Christian), about whom there is more information, throughout his life pursued the plan of demonstrating all the resemblances he could discover between Plato and the Old Testament, much in the same way as in our time some have striven to point out the surprising agreement of the Darwinian theory with Genesis. He was called the Jewish Plato, and at Alexandria it was said: "Philo imitates Plato or Plato imitates Philo."

On their side, later on, certain eclectic Greeks already cited, Moderatus, Nicomachus, Nemesius, extended goodwill so far as to take into account, if not Jesus, at least Moses, and to admit Israelitish thought into the history of philosophy and of human wisdom. But, in general it was by the schools of philosophy and by the ever dwindling section of society priding itself upon its philosophy that Christianity was most decisively repulsed, thrust on one side and misunderstood.

CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHERS.--Without dealing with many others who belong more especially to the history of the Church rather than to that of philosophy, the Christians did not lack two very illustrious philosophers who must receive attention--Origen and St. Augustine.

ORIGEN.--Origen was a native of Alexandria at the close of the second century, and a pupil of St. Clement of Alexandria. A Christian and a Platonist, in order to give himself permission and excuse for reconciling the two doctrines, he alleged that the Apostles had given only so much of the Christian teaching as the multitude could comprehend, and that the learned could interpret it in a manner more subtle, more profound, and more complete. Having observed this precaution, he revealed his system, which was this: God is a pure spirit. He already has descended one step in spirits which are emanations from Him. These spirits are capable of good and evil. When addicted to evil, they clothe themselves with matter and become souls in bodies;--which is what we are. There are others lower than ourselves. There are impure spirits which have clothed themselves with unclean bodies; these are demons. Now, as the fallen brethren of angels, we are free, less free than they, but still free. Through this freedom we can in our present existence either raise or lower ourselves. But this freedom does not suffice us; a little help is essential. This help comes to us from the spirits which have remained pure. The help they afford us is opposed by the efforts of the utterly fallen spirits who are lower in the scale than ourselves. To combat these fallen spirits, to help the pure spirits who help us, and to help them to help us, such is our duty in this life, which is a medicine, the medicine of Plato, namely a punishment; sterile when it is not accepted by us, salutary when gratefully accepted by us, it then becomes expiation and in consequence purification. The part of the Redeemer in all this is the same as that of the spirits, but on a grander and more decisive plane. King of spirits, Spirit of spirits, by revelation He illumines our confused intelligence and fortifies our weak will against temptation.

ST. AUGUSTINE.--St. Augustine of Tagaste (in Africa), long a pagan exercising the profession of professor of rhetoric, became a Christian and was Bishop of Hippo. It is he who "fixed" the Christian doctrine in the way most suitable to and most acceptable to Western intelligence. Instead of confusing it, more or less intentionally, more or less inadvertently, with philosophy, he exerted all his great talents to make the most precise distinction from it. Philosophers (he says) have always regarded the world as an emanation from God. Then all is God. Such is not the way to reason. There is no emanation, but creation; God created the world and has remained distinct from it. He lives in it in such a way that we live in Him; in Him we live and move and have our being; He dwells throughout the world, but He is not the world; He is everywhere but He is not all. God created the world. Then, can it be said that before the world was created God remained doing nothing during an immense space of time? Certainly not, because time only began at the creation of the world. God is outside time. The eternal is the absence of time. God, therefore, was not an instant before He created the world. Or, if it be preferred, there was an eternity before the birth of the world. But it is the same thing; for eternity is the non-existence of time.

Some understand God in three Persons as three Gods. This polytheism, this paganism must be rejected. But how to understand? How? You feel in yourself several souls? No. And yet there are several faculties of the soul. The three Persons of God are the three divine faculties. Man has body and soul. No one ought to have doubts about the soul, for to have doubts presupposes thought, and to think is to be; above all things we are thinking beings. But what is the soul? Something immaterial, assuredly, since it can conceive immaterial things, such as a line, a point, surface, space. It is as necessary for the soul to be immaterial in order to be able to grasp the immaterial, as it is necessary for the hand to be material in order that it can grasp a stone.

Whence comes the soul? From the souls of ancestors by transmission? This is not probable, for this would be to regard it as material. From God by emanation? This is inadmissible; it is the same error as believing that the world emanates from God. Here, too, there is no emanation, but creation. God creates the souls in destination for bodies themselves born from heredity. Once the body is destroyed, what becomes of the soul? It cannot perish; for thought not being dependent upon the senses, there is no reason for its disappearance on the disappearance of the senses.

Human liberty is an assured fact; we are free to do good or evil. But then God has not been able to know in advance what I shall do to-day, and in consequence God, at least in His knowledge, has limitations, is not omnipotent. St. Augustine replies confusedly (for the question is undoubtedly insoluble) that we have an illusion of liberty, an illusion that we are free, which suffices for us to acquire merit if we do right and demerit if we do wrong, and that this illusion of liberty is a relative liberty, which leaves the prescience of God, and therefore His omnipotence, absolute. Man is also extremely weak, debilitated, and incapable of good on account of original sin, the sin of our first parents, which is transmitted to us through heredity and paralyses us. But God helps us, and this is what is termed grace. He helps us gratuitously, as is indicated by the word "grace"--if He wishes and when He wishes and in the measure that He wishes. From this arises the doctrine of "predestination," by which it is preordained whether a man is to be saved or lost.
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