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History of Philosophy
Post-Nicene Fathers
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

The period extending from the Council of Nicaea (325) to the end of the fifth century was one of great literary and speculative activity in the Christian Church; for, although the definitions of the council stayed the progress of the Arian heresy, still the contest with the Arians was by no means ended. Day by day the theology of the Church was organized into a system which offered an impregnable front to heretic and schismatic, and, side by side with theology, there developed a stronger and more complete philosophy which, chiefly through the influence of the Latin Fathers, discarded the last remnants of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, and sought inspiration in the earlier and healthier form of Platonic teaching.

Among the Greek Fathers of this period are Athanasius of Alexandria (died 373) and the three Cappadocians, Gregory of Nyssa (331-394), Basil (died 379), and Gregory Nazianzen (born 330). These men devoted their energies to the defense of the Church in the great Trinitarian controversy, as did also Cyril of Alexandria (died 444) in the controversy with Nestorius concerning the personality of Christ.

Besides these writers there flourished, towards the end of the Patristic period, two others who devoted special attention to philosophy -- Pseudo-Dionysius and St. John of Damascus. [1]
[1] On Nemesius, bishop of Emesa (about A.D. 450), and his relation to St. John Damascene, cf. Domanski, "Die Psychologie des Nemesius," in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Bd. III, Heft I (Munster, 1900). Nemesius' works are printed by Migne, in the Patr. Graeca, Vol. XL. His most important treatise was translated under the title, The Nature of Man, by George Wither, London, 1636.
Pseudo-Dionysius. [2] The works entitled De Divinis Nominibus, Theologia Mystica, and De Coelesti et Ecciesiastica Hierarchia, which were at one time attributed to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom mention is made in the Acts of the Apostles, are now universally acknowledged to belong to the end of the fifth century. They contain the last exposition of Christian Neo-Platonism. The ineffable superiority of God with respect to the world, the emanations (processiones) of creatures from God, the arrangement of all created beings in a scale of gradual descent from God, the final return of all things to their first source, the return of man to God by means of contemplative ecstasy -- all these Neo-Platonic elements are present in the philosophy of Dionysius. There can, however, be no doubt that Dionysius understood these doctrines in a sense perfectly compatible with the teaching of the Church. The works of Dionysius, as well as those of his follower, Maximus Confessor (580-662), were translated by John Scotus Erigena at the beginning of the Scholastic era.
[2] For bibliography, cf. Fessler-Jungmann, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 635.
St. John of Damascus (end of the seventh century) composed a work entitled Fountain of Knowledge (pêgê gnôseôs) and a treatise De Fide Orthodoxa. In the former he gives an exposition of Aristotelian dialectic and ontology, or science of being. By some he is said to be the author of the saying, Philosophy is the handmaid of theology (ancilla theologiae). The phrase is probably of later origin. [3]
[3] Cf. Stöckl, Lehrbuch, I, 317.
Among the Latin Fathers of this period are to be mentioned St. Hilary (died 368), St. Ambrose (340-397), and St. Jerome (346 -420). They belong to the history of theology rather than to that of philosophy. It was in the writings of St. Augustine that Patristic philosophy attained the zenith of its course. Augustine is the greatest as well as the last of the masters of speculative thought who made it possible for the Patristic age to hand down to the Middle Ages a complete system of Catholic theology. At the same time he stands among the foremost of the world's great philosophers.


Life. Aurelius Augustinus was born at Tagaste, in Numidia, in the year 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan; his mother, Monica, was a most exemplary Christian. At Madaura and at Carthage, whither he went for the purpose of completing the education begun in his native city, Augustine was lured into the career of sin which he dercribes in his Confessions. During this period of his life it seemed to him that the Manichean sect offered the best solution of the enigma of existence. Later, however, when, after having completed his education, he taught rhetoric at Carthage and at Rome, the contradictions in which he perceived Manicheism to be involved drove him to the Academy, where he learned to be content with probability in lieu of certainty. There also he learned to study Plato, and it was Plato who first stirred within his soul the impulse to rise from the moral degradation into which he had fallen. To the influence of these studies must be added the prayers of his mother and the persuasive eloquence of St. Ambrose. Augustine was baptized in the year 387. After his conversion he devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures, to the refutation of Manichean and other heresies, and to the task of instituting a systematic philosophical inquiry concerning God and the human soul. In 395 he was made bishop of Hippo, in Africa; he died In 430, after thirty-five years of active episcopal administration.

Sources. The principal works of St. Augustine which are of interest In the study of his philosophy are Contra Academicos Libri III, Soliloquia, De Immortalitate Animae, De Libero Arbitrio, De Civitate Dei, Confessiones, Retractationes, and his treatises against the Manicheans. The treatise entitled Principia Dialectices may be genuine, although the treatise Categoriae Decem, which is usually appended to it, is certainly spurious. [4]
[4] Cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vols. XXXII ff. To the bibliography given by Fessler-Jungmann, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 250, add Martin, Saint Augustin (Grands Philosophes series, Paris, 1901).

General Idea of Philosophy. The central ideas of St. Augustine's philosophical inquiry are God and the human Soul. "Deum et animam scire cupio. Nihilne plus? Nihil omnino." "Deus, semper idem, noverim me, noverim te." [5] On the problems of the existence of God and the nature of the soul, all philosophical science -- ethics, physics, dialectic -- is made to converge. Knowledge which cannot be brought to bear on the soul, teaching it to love God, is unprofitable; it is the knowledge which "puffeth up." Far from assenting to the maxim attributed to Tertullian, -- "Credo quia absurdum," -- Augustine viewed the relation between faith and reason in the light of the principles which the Scholastics formulated the maxims, "Credo ut intelligam," "Intelligo ut credam." He says, for example, in De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, [6] "Nullus quippe credit, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum," and in De Vera Religione, [7] "Nostrum est considerare quibus vel hominibus vel libris credendum sit." St. Augustine, however, does not define accurately the relations between philosophy and theology; [8] this was a task reserved for the master mind of the thirteenth century.
[5] Soliloquia, 1, 2, and II, 4.

[6] II, 5.

[7] XXV, 46.

[8] Cf. De Vera Religione, XXIV ff.
Theory of Knowledge. In his treatise Contra Academicos, St. Augustine begins by discussing the possibility of arriving at certain knowledge. The Academy maintained that a high degree of probability is the most that the human mind can attain. St. Augustine refutes this assertion, and proves by the following arguments that certitude is possible of attainment.

1. Probability supposes certitude; for that is probable which is like the truth. If there is no truth, there is no probability. [9]
[9] Contra Academicos, II.
2. No one can be happy unless he possesses wisdom; for all men desire wisdom, and no one is happy unless he attains that which he desires. To deny that wisdom is possible of attainment, is, therefore, to deny that happiness is possible. [10]
[10] Op. cit., III.
3. The alleged inability of man to attain certitude is not founded on fact. It is not true that the senses are altogether untrustworthy, nor is it true that thought is utterly dependent on the impressions of the senses. It would be absurd to suppose that intellect is not more reliable than sense. [11]
[11] De Immortalitate Anima, X.
4. The possibility of arriving at certainty may be proved by positive argument. For, whatever else is called in question, our own mental states are beyond the region of doubt. You may doubt whether you are one or multiple, you may doubt whether you are moving or at rest, but you cannot doubt that at this moment you think. [12] You may contend that I am deceived, but the very fact that I am deceived proves that I exist. "Quod si fallor, sum!" A man's doubt proves that he exists, "Quandoquidem etiam si dubitat, vivit." [13]
[12] Soliloq., II, 1.

[13] De Trinitate, X, 14.
This last argument certainly suggests the Cartesian "Cogito, ergo sum." It must, however, be remembered, that while Descartes, according to the commonly received view, intended his argument to be a demonstration (if, indeed, he intended the "Cogito, ergo sum" to be an argument at all), Augustine intended the "Quod si fallor, sum," to be merely an indirect refutation of the principles of the Academy, and not a direct demonstration of the existence of the thinking subject.

Having shown that certainty is possible of attainment, St. Augustine proceeds to inquire into the conditions of intellectual knowledge. There are two ways, he says, in which the human mind arrives at a knowledge of intelligible objects. The first is by rising from the data of sense to an understanding of the hidden causes of things, and, ultimately, to a knowledge of Him Who is the Highest Cause. This is the process of which St. Paul speaks: "Invisibilia Dei per ea qum facta sunt intellecta conspiciuntur." [14] The second method is one of introspection. "Noli foras exire," he says, "in te ipsum redi; in interiore homine habitat veritas." [15] The truth is indwelling in us. The most excellent means of attaining higher intellectual knowledge is the contemplation and study of our own intellectual life. For this, purity of heart and the practice of virtue are necessary. The purer the heart, the freer is the soul from all defilement, and the more perfectly will the mind mirror truth; for then it will mirror Him Who is the source of all truth. This leads to the next point in St. Augustine's theory of knowledge.
[14] De Genesi ad Litteram, IV, 32.

[15] De Vera Relig., XXXIX.
God is the source of all truth. This principle is proved as follows: "In order to know anything as good or beautiful or true, and to distinguish it from what is not good or beautiful or true, we must possess a rule, or standard, by which our judgment regarding the object in question is determined." Our standard, in order to be trustworthy, must be immutable, and in order to be available, it must be present to our minds. Such a standard -- absolute, immutable, omnipresent goodness and truth and beauty -- is God. [16] In this light, the light of eternal truth, is all truth known. Whether we rise in contemplation from the data of sense to the hidden world of intelligible objects, or from an introspective knowledge of self to a knowledge of higher truths, we do so in virtue of the illumination which is the light of the glory of God. In the Word of God, which is the wisdom of the Father, there dwell the unchangeable essences, the reasons of things (rationes rerum), the types according to which all things were made. To deny the existence of these archetypal forms would be to maintain that God created things irrationally. He, the all-wise Creator, made all things according to His wisdom, that is, according to the rationes aeternae indwelling in the Word: "Singula propriis creata sunt rationibus." [17] Corresponding to the ectypes in the world of concrete existence are the prototypes, whose locus is not a separate intelligible world, but the Divine Wisdom, the Logos, the Son of God. This, according to St. Augustine, is what Plato, inspired by biblical teaching, understood by the topos noêtos. [18]
[16] De Libero Arbitrio, II, 12, 16 ; cf. Stöckl, op. cit., I, 293.

[17] Quaestiones Octoginta Tres, Cap. 46.

[18] Cf. De Civ. Dei, VIII, II.
God is, therefore, the source of all truth and of all intellectual light. In Him are the essential types of truth; He it is Who illumines the ectypes so that from a knowledge of them we may rise to a knowledge of truth, and He it is Who illumines the soul itself from within, so that when we turn our thoughts inward on the soul, we may rise in contemplation to Him Who is the light of the soul, as the sun is the light of the physical world.

In St. Augustine's theory of knowledge the lines of thought are undoubtedly Platonic. The Ontologists, however, are mistaken when they understand the Platonism of St. Augustine to include the doctrine of immediate intuition of God, or of the divine ideas. When he teaches that we know the essences of things in rationibus aeternis, he is careful to point out that we rise from the data of sense or from a study of our own intellectual life to a knowledge of these essences. His meaning is that the essences of things could neither be, nor be known by us, unless they first existed and were known in the mind of God. That there is a divine element in our knowledge of created things, St. Thomas as well as St. Augustine maintained. It is God Who made the objects of our knowledge, Who endowed the mind with the power whereby it abstracts from the data of sense the necessary and universal element which is the object of thought, and Who cooperates in the act of the mind by which the potentially intelligible is rendered actually intelligible. In this sense does the Word illumine every man that cometh into the world. It is clear, then, that the Ontologists exaggerate the divine element in human knowledge when they maintain that we have immediate intuition of God and of the ideas contained in the Divine Mind. Such exaggeration was as far from the mind of the Plato of Christianity as it was from the mind of the great Christian Aristotle of the thirteenth century. It must be admitted, nevertheless, that the Platonic form of St. Augustine's teaching lends more favor to the Ontologist's interpretation than does the Aristotelian form in which St. Thomas expressed his theory of knowledge. [19]
[19] Cf. St. Thomas, Sum. Theol., Ia, LXXXIV, 5, c; St. Augustine, Quest., LXXXIII, Cap. 46; Piat, Quid Divini Nostris Ideis Tribuat Divus Thomas (Paris, 1890).
Theology and Cosmology. While admitting the validity of the teleological argument for the existence of God, as well as that of the argument from the testimony of conscience, [20] St. Augustine bases his whole system of theodicy on the argument derived from the immutability and permanence of the object of our intellectual knowledge. The argument is as follows: We know the truth and we strive for the good. But nothing is true or good in this world of change and imperfection except in so far as it participates in the absolute truth and goodness of Him Who never changes. Whoever denies that God exists must be prepared to maintain that knowledge and virtue have no object. The existence of God is, therefore, the essential condition of the moral and intellectual life.
[20] De Lib. Arbitr., II, 12, 16.
God cannot be comprehended by the human mind. He is above all predicates and all categories. When, therefore, we speak of Him, we are nearer to the truth when we say what He is not, than when we say what He is: when we speak of God we are little children lisping a language which we do not understand. "Deus melius scitur nesciendo," and again, "Venus, enim, cogitatur Deus quam dicitur, et venus est quam cogitatur." This truly Christian humility in presence of the great problems of theodicy we shall find to be as characteristic of the great masters of Scholasticism as it is of the greatest of the Patristic philosophers. The Fathers and the schoolmen were as willing as any modern agnostic is to admit the inability of the human mind to grasp the truth of God's nature and the inadequacy of human language to express our thoughts about God.

God is immutable, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely devoid of potentiality or composition. He is form without matter, essence unparticipated.

In his account of the origin of the universe, St. Augustine maintains that God from all eternity designed to create the world. God did not create matter, however, until the beginning of time; for before matter existed, time did not exist. God is the cause of matter as well as of intelligible being. He made it out of nothing (creation); it did not proceed from the substance of God (emanation). [21] Together with matter all things else were created at the beginning: "Creavit omnia simul." Creation was the act of an instant, the Mosaic account of the six days of creation being merely a description of the six orders or grades of perfection in which things were created. Not all things. however, were created in the full possession of what came to be called their specific perfection. Augustine distinctly admits a process of development, as when, in the treatise entitled De Genesi ad Litteram, he says: "In semine, ergo, illa omnia fuerunt primitus, non mole corporeae magnitudinis sed vi potentiaque causali" (V, 23). Here he is alluding to the seminariae rationes, of which he speaks elsewhere as destined ("cum data fuerit opportunitas temporalis et causalis") to develop (prorumpere) into their proper species. [22]
[21] De Civ. Dei, XI, 4 ff.

[22] Cf. Gonzalez, Historia de la Filosofia (segunda edición, Madrid, 1886), II, 80.
God is not the author of evil; He merely permits it. The order of the universe and the gradation of beings require that some things should be less perfect than others. God would not permit evil if He could not draw good from it. Moral evil alone is opposed to the Divine Will. [23] Man is a microcosmos, a compendium of the universe. He is the only being that mediates between God and matter; for, while Augustine admits the existence of ministering angels, he rejects the whole celestial and terrestrial hierarchy of the Neo-Platonists.
[23] De Civ. Dei, XI, 17, 18.
Psychology. The soul is simple, immaterial, spiritual. It is devoid of quantity: it has no extension in space. In his proof of the immateriality of the soul, St. Augustine has recourse, among other arguments, to the following, which was formulated before his time by Plotinus: If the soul were not immaterial, it could not be in all parts of the body at the same time. Now the soul is in all parts of the body at the same time, for wherever an impression is made upon the body, the soul perceives that impression, and it is not part of the soul that perceives, but the whole ego. Therefore, the soul is immaterial. [24]
[24] Ep. CLXVI ad Hieronymum.
The soul is essentially individual: the notion of a universal soul is absurd. Equally absurd is the doctrine of transmigration; for that which is immaterial cannot enter into composition with that which is material and irrational. Mortality is the only bond of kinship between man and brute. The angel, like man, possesses a body; but the angelic body is immortal. The brute possesses a mortal body, but the soul of the brute is irrational. Man is, therefore, unique in this, that he is an animal rationale mortale.

The arguments which St. Augustine adduces in favor of the immortality of the soul savor of Platonic influence. They are as follows: [25]
[25] Soliloq., II, 2 ff.
1. That in which the imperishable exists must be imperishable. Imperishable truth dwells in the soul. Therefore the soul is imperishable.

2. The soul is inseparable from reason; for reason and the soul are not united in space, and it is only in space that separation can take place. But reason is imperishable, because the principles of reason are immortal. Therefore the soul cannot perish.

3. The body is animated, that is, endowed with life. The soul, on the contrary, is life. To maintain, therefore, that the soul could be deprived of life would be to say that life is not life or that the soul is not the soul. [26]
[26] Cf. superius, pp. 111, 112.
With regard to the origin of the soul, St. Augustine teaches that the soul of Adam was created at the beginning: "Creavit Deus omnia simul." At some subsequent time the soul of Adam was united to the body, not because of any sin on the part of the soul, but because the soul requires the body. The souls of the descendants of Adam come into existence at the moment of their union with the body. As to how they come into existence, whether by an act of creation (creationism), or by virtue of the generative process by which the body originates (traducianism), St. Augustine is unable to decide. [27]
[27] Cf. Stöckl, op. cit., I, 301.
The soul and body together form one substance, -- man. The soul gives being and species to the body. It acts on the body. The body, however, has no independent power of acting on the soul: whatever power the body possesses is conferred on it by the soul itself. Between soul and body is interposed a subtle element, partaking at the same time of the material nature of the body and of the spiritual nature of the soul: it is analogous to light and air. The function of this element is to mediate between the soul and the organs of the body, and to unite, in some mysterious manner, soul and body in one substance. [28]
[28] Cf. De Immort. Animae, Cap. 15; De Quantitate Anima, Cap. 30.
The faculties of the soul are thus classified:
  • Faculties of sense
    • Appetite
    • Knowledtge
      • External senses
      • Internal senses
        • Sensus communis
        • Imagination, or vis spiritualis
        • Sensuous memory
  • Faculties of the soul as spirit
    • Will -- Voluntas, Liberum Arbitrium
    • Knowledge
      • Intelligence
        • Intuitive -- Mens
        • Discursive -- Ratio
      • Intellectual memory
St. Augustine attaches special importance to the idea of will. "Voluntas est quippe in omnibus, omnes nihil aliud quam voluntates sunt." [29] It is the will that moves the intellect to action, and it is the element of will in the act of faith that makes faith meritorious. Free will is the proximate cause of moral evil.
[29] De Civ. Dei, XIV, 6.
St. Augustine's discussion of free will in its relation to grace and predestination belongs to the history of theology.

Ethics. The supreme good of man consists in the eternal contemplation and love of God in the life to come. Here on earth man's duty is so to act that he may attain the happiness which is reserved for him beyond the grave. The path of duty is clearly marked out by the Divine Law. The destiny of the human soul and the law of God are, therefore, the determinants of moral good.

To fulfill the law, man must practice virtue. Virtue is defined, "Ars bene recteque vivendi." [30] Virtue does not imply apathy, as the Stoics taught: the emotions are not to be destroyed or eradicated, but to be kept under control and restrained within the limits prescribed by the Law of God. Now the Law of God is the Law of Love. Man should love God above all things; he should love himself with a rational love, seeking what is best and doing what is best for himself in the light of his eternal destiny; he should love his fellow-man, desiring what is best for him and aiding him to attain it. Charity, therefore, which is love, is the foundation of all virtue: on this foundation are built prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. [31]
[30] Op. cit., XIV, 9.

[31] Cf. Stökl, op. cit., 1, 306; English trans., p. 281.
Historical Position. Even from this summary sketch of the philosophy of St. Augustine it is possible to glean something of the vastness of his system of speculative thought. His inquiries cover the whole range of speculation; he synthesizes the best elements of pagan philosophy into a system of Christian thought; and wherever his inquiries lead him he exhibits that spirit of coherent system, that perfect grasp of his subject, that sublimity of thought and language which distinguish him among all the philosophers of Christian times as the Plato of Christianity. And when we remember that St. Augustine was as distinguished among theologians as he was among philosophers, we realize that his was a mind almost superhuman in its transcendent power of synthesis.

The debt which philosophy owes to St. Augustine includes, besides many original contributions to the definition of the Christian concept of God, of the human soul, and of the destiny and duty of man, the first essay on the part of a Christian philosopher to discover and expound the philosophy of human history. In the treatise De Civitate Dei he appears as the exponent of the "law of progress which governs the history of humanity, and of which even those who fight against it become instruments in the hands of Providence according to the Divine plan." [32]
[32] Cf. De Civ. Dei, I, 8.
It is scarcely necessary to call attention to the preponderance of the influence of Plato on the philosophic thought of St. Augustine. Like all the other Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine esteemed Plato more highly than Aristotle. The latter he styled "Vir excellentis ingenii, et Platoni quidem impar, sed multos facile superans." [33] Although, however, the era of Christian Platonism virtually came to an end with Augustine, the Scholastic era, in which the importance of Aristotle grew until it reached its maximum in the thirteenth century, was not oblivious of the debt which Christianity and philosophy owe to the man who first Christianized the teachings of Plato.
[33] De Civ. Dei. VIII, 12.
The period between the death of St. Augustine and the rise of Scholasticism is one of comparatively little intellectual activity. Throughout Europe, men like Claudianus Mamertus (middle of fifth century), Boethius (470-526), Cassiodorus (468-575), St. Isidore of Seville (seventh century), and Venerable Bede (674-735) labored merely to preserve what the past had bequeathed and to transmit the legacy to times more favorable for the growth and development of Christian speculation. [34]
[34] Cf. Stewart, Boethius (London, 1891).
Retrospect. Patristic philosophy exhibits all the characteristics of the age to which it belonged, -- the era of the struggle and triumph of Christianity and of the first adjustment of Christian thought to pagan civilization and culture. To the period of struggle belongs the work of the Apologists; to the first centuries of triumph belong the earliest constructive attempts of the Alexandrian school; while to the later centuries of the period intervening between the triumph of Christianity and the invasion of the barbarians belongs St. Augustine's systematic effort to harmonize Christian teaching with the greatest achievements of pagan thought. After the time of St. Augustine, the condition of Christian Europe was not favorable to speculation, and it was not until the dawn of the era of Neo-Latin civilization that in new circumstances, and in a different social and political climate, the schoolmen completed the task begun by the Fathers. Patristic philosophy is fragmentary and devoid of unity. It belongs to an epoch in which everything except religion was decadent and in which religion itself, though vigorous, had not yet succeeded in infusing the Christian ideal into the life and thought of Europe. Scholastic philosophy will begin with the opening of the new era; it will grow into the new life of Christianized Europe, and will attain the golden age of its development whenever and wherever the ideal of the Christian life shall have transformed the social and political conditions into an atmosphere most congenial to Christian speculation. The Fathers defined, at least provisionally, the intellectual basis of the dogmatic system of the Church; they protested successfully against the gnostic, which was in reality the rationalistic, subordination of revelation to reason, and they stated the question which Scholastic philosophy took up and answered: How can reason and revelation be shown to be distinct and, at the same time, consistent sources of truth?


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