Boethius to Erigena to Abelard

On from Augustine to the Dark Ages

Boethius c480-c525


A. [Affirmatively] the mind begins with the most universal statements, and then through intermediate terms (proceeds) to particular titles, [thus beginning with] the highest category. (Pseudo-Dionysius) 

B.[Negatively the mind proceeds by denying of God those things which are farthest removed from him, e.g., `drunkenness or fury,’ and proceeds upwards progressively denying of God the attributes and qualities of creatures until it reaches `the super-essential Darkness’. (FC: 95) 

C.[C]reatures in so far as they have being are good and come from the Good, and in so far as they are deprived of the Good, neither are they good nor have they being. (Pseudo-Dionysius)

 The World is Corrupt {1}

  did not die with immediate bang early Christians expected

 seemed to be dying with a prolonged whimper

 The glory that was Rome was fading

 and blighted -- take slavery . . . PLEASE 

 Otherworldliness {2}

 Be in the world but not of the world

 irony of the Church's worldly ascendancy

 The dark ages

 The Church one light in that darkness

 That the Church put all other lights out partly to blame for the length and depth of the darkness?

 Downgraded concern for the natural visible world 

 little interest in charting its regularities and kinds: dearth of science (among other things)

 interest in MIRACLES

 Supernatural concern with "invisible" transcendent reality (contrast invisibility of atoms: in the world, just too small to see)

  knowledge of basic premises comes from revelation (compare: reason [math] and perception [science]){5}

 received revelations

 recorded in Scripture

 handed down from Fathers of the Church

 ongoing revelation

 papal pronunciations


 visions of the saints

 received revelations (dogma)

 creation from nothing

 Divine Fatherhood


 micromanagement: Providence & miracles


  loving & benevolent

  Incarnation: Jesus Christ was God 


  Adam and Eve's sin

  communicated like a disease (of deficiency!)

  sacrifice of Jesus &resurrection are the cure

 when rightly accepted

 Damnation: eternal torment for the unredeemed

         Otherworldliness as Inwardness

 Augustine's Platonism {3}

 Augustine: nothing really good or bad except will -- the one thing in our power … an unmoved motion?

         Discussion: Freedom, Sin & Damnation {4}{5}{C}{7}

 God made Eve with a certain amount of willpower

 insufficient to resist, as God foreknew {8}

 God allowed her to be tempted

 God seems responsible

 could've given her more willpower or less temptation

 "deficient cause?": then He sins by omission!

1.  You must know that the world has grown old and does not remain in its former vigour.  It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun's warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the husbandman is falling in the fields, the sailor on the seas, the soldier in the camp, honesty in the market, and justice in the courts, concord in friendships, skill in the arts, discipline in morals. This is the sentence passed upon the world, that everything which has a beginning should perish, that things which have reached maturity should grow old, the strong weak, the great small, and after weakness and shrinkage should come dissolution.(Cyprian)

2.  Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.(1 John 1:20)

3.  In order to know what Divine Mind is you must observe Soul and especially its most God-like phase. One certain way to this knowledge is to separate yourself from your body and very earnestly put aside the system of sense with desires and impulses and every other such futility, all settling definitely toward the mortal; what is left is the phase of Soul which we have declared to be an image of the divine intellect, retaining some light from that Sun, just as the region about the sun . . . is radiant with solar light.(Plotinus)

4.  He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills.. . .Wherefore, our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have; and therefore whatever power they have, they have it within the most certain limits; and whatever they are to do, they are most assuredly to do, for he whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it, and would do it.(Augustine)

5. I do not know in order to believe, I believe in order to know.(Augustine)

6. Hence evil inheres not in devils or in us as evil, but only as a deficiency and lack of perfection of our proper virtues. (Pseudo-Dionysius)

7.  If God beholdeth all things and cannot be deceived, that must of necessity follow which His providence forseeth to be to come. Whereof, if from eternity He doth foreknow not only the deeds of men, but also their counsels and wills, there can be no free-will. (Boethius)

8.  [God’s vision] which is always present concurs with the future quality of an action. (Boethius)

9. [God] without any change, by the exercise of a will known only to Himself, determined of Himself to form the world and brought it into being when it was absolutely nothing, not producing it from His own substance. (Boethius)

Faith vs. Reason

John Scotus Erigena, c800-c880


A. [N]o Christian ought in any way to dispute the truth of what the Catholic Church [teaches].But always holding the same faith unquestioningly, he ought himself so far as he is able . . . to seek the reasons for it.(Anselm)

B. The authority of the sacred scriptures must be followed in all things. (Erigena) 

 Perils of Heterodoxy: John Scotus Erigena {A}{^9}

Youthful indiscretion {A}

 book on the sacraments bordering on Pelagianism

  if the will is an unmoved motion then I – not grace – must be the cause of my willing aright.

  condemned &burned (no copies survive) & John Scotus recanted

  Practiced discretion

 translated works supposedly by "St. Dionysius the Aeorpagite" an early Athenian convert of St. Paul (really a later (5th century) work by a Neoplatonist since known as Pseudo-Dionysius

  On the Division of Nature 

 Two ways {^A} {^B} 

  Four types of Being: Uncaused/causative; caused/causative; caused/uncausative; uncaused uncausative.

  Immanent vs. Transcendent deity?

 world an emanation of God who is the substance of this world {1}{2}{3}

 and a creation from nothing! {5}

  Sin is not real -- just apparent (a la Stoicism)? {^6}

Avoided condemnation by invoking the authority of "St. Dionysius" {B} {6}

1.       Therefore God is rightly called love, because he is the cause of every love and he is diffused through all things, and collects all things into one, and returns to himself by an ineffable regression, and terminates the amatory motions of the whole creature in himself.(Erigena)

2.       [God] makes all things, and is made in all things, and is all things. (Erigena)

3.       [E]very authority … which is not confirmed by true reason seems to be weak, whereas true reason does not need to be supported by any authority. (Erigena)

4.        When we hear that God makes all things, we should understand nothing else but that God is in all things, i.e. is the essence of all things. (Erigena)

5.        [Nothingness means] the ineffable and incomprehensible and inaccessible brightness of the divine goodness. (Erigena)

6.        [Authority is] the truth found by the power of reason and handed on in the writings of the Fathers.(Erigena)


Abelard (1079-1142) and Universals


A. At present, . . . I shall refuse to say concerning the genera and species whether they subsist or whether they are placed naked in our understandings alone or whether subsisting they are corporeal or incorporeal, and whether they are separated from the sensibles or placed in sensibles and in accord with them.(Porphyry)


B. Some have the idea that the words themselves are the genera and species. (St. John of Salisbury)

 The objects of reason -- of thought and discourse

 knowledge v. perception

  perception is of particulars: "There's Bill" my cat asleep there on the mat

  knowledge involves generalities (even perception -- insofar as there's cognitive uptake -- does)

 Bill's a cat that's asleep

 that there's a mat

 All cats sleep

 discourse and thought have meaning

 maybe `Bill' just means Bill (its referent)

 but 'cat', 'mat', and 'sleep' express universals 

 properties or states (<>classes)

 that various objects can have or be in

 Problem of Universals (c.f. Plato's forms)

 Philosophical problem, perhaps above all others, that continued to be freely debated throughout the medieval era (perhaps due to its very abstruseness) {A}

 Realism {3} vs. Nominalism {4}

 Extreme Nominalism {B}

 are no universals -- just words and the many things (classes) that they pick out

 problem: how to get along with just this: possible theological ramifications {2}

 Realism -- absent Aristotelian leaven especially -- borders too closely for entire theological comfort on Platonism {3}

 individuals (particulars) being mere appearances

 our sins -- particulars deeds -- illusory? (Erigena)

 Conceptualism (Abelard)

 Against realism: universals do no subsist {5}

 neither beyond the particulars (Plato)

 nor in each thing of a kind (Aristotle)

  Against nominalism: not just words either {6}

 The "universals" that general words express are just concepts – like mental images – formed from experiences by abstraction and comparison {7,8,9}

  Critique of Conceptualism 

 If there are objective similarities underlying our conceptions -- real similarities out there -- that's realism

 if not then the classifications our conceptualizations make seem haphazard and arbitrary -- as with nominalism.

          Makes an important distinction: re 'man', e.g.

    Sense (conception): rational-mortal-animal

    reference (nomination): Socrates, Plato, Heloise, etc.

1.  [G]enera and species are in individuals, but, as thought, are universals.… [They] subsist in sensible things, but are understood without bodies. (Boethius)

2.  How can we expect anyone who does not even understand that many men are one man to comprehend how several Persons, each of whom is Himself a God, can yet be also one God? (Anselm)

3.  Geometrical bodies, whether they be formed in phantasies of memory or in some sensible matter subsist in their rational ideas . . . above all that is perceived by bodily sense or fashioned in memory.(Erigena)

4.  [L]et us inquire here into the common nature of universals. . ., and let us inquire also whether they apply only words or to things. (Abelard)

5.  The opinion that is held that absolutely the same essence subsists at the same time in diverse things lacks reason entirely.(Abelard)

6.  [U]niversal nouns ['rose'] . . . their things [roses] having been destroyed . . . would nevertheless be significative by the understanding, though it would lack nomination; otherwise there would not be the proposition: There is no rose.(Abelard)

7.  The conceptions of universals are formed by abstraction . . ..The understanding considers separately, by abstraction, but does not consider as separated.(Abelard)

8.  [W]hen I hear man or . . . white I do not recall from the meaning of the noun all the natures or properties which are in the subject things, but from man I have only the conception, though confused, not discrete, of animal and rational mortal.(Abelard) 

9.  For, when I consider this man only in the nature of substance or of body, and not also of animal or of man or of grammarian, obviously I understand nothing except what is in that nature, but I do not consider all that it has. (Abelard)