Medieval Christian Synthesis through the Present

Creation of Adam (detail) by Michaelangelo

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of 2 of Spiritual History 101: How Did We Get to the Edge? Part 1, which covered Periods 1 to 4, can be read here

 The Medieval Christian Synthesis

Christian virtue is not fundamentally different from Hebrew virtue, because not only Jews and Christians but nearly everyone innately knows what is right and wrong (religions do not differ much in their ethics, but in their theology) and because Jews and Christians believe in the same God, the author of the moral law.

But Christianity, unlike Judaism, is a proselytizing religion. It sent missionaries out into the Greco-Roman world to convert it, and the “it” that was there to be converted included Greek notions of virtue.

There were from the beginning three different attitudes on the part of Christians to the pagan world in general and to pagan notions of virtue in particular: (1) uncritical synthesis, (2) critical synthesis, and (3) criticism and antisynthesis. Different Christian thinkers accepted either (1) all, (2) some, or (3) none of the Greek ideals of virtue. The greatest and mainstream Christians, like Augustine and Aquinas, took the second way and have been criticized by extremists of both wings right up to the present day. They are labeled fundamentalists by the modernists and modernists by the fundamentalists.

Perhaps synthesis is the wrong word for the great tradition forged in the thousand years of the Middle Ages. It was rather a profound Christian reinterpretation of Greek philosophy and Greek morality. It was not like gluing a rabbit onto a carrot but like a rabbit’s eating and digesting a carrot.

 The Renaissance and the Reformation

Two forces separated the strands of the rope that the Middle Ages tied together. We no longer live in the Middle Ages, mainly because of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The Renaissance tried to return to the Greco-Roman classicism and humanism minus the medieval additions of scholastic philosophy and theology. The Reformation tried to return to a simpler, premedieval, New Testament Christianity, a Christianity minus the additions of Greek rationalism and Roman legalism and institutionalism which the reformers thought had corrupted the Catholic Church. From our vantage point today we call the Renaissance and the Reformation progressive movements because they led out of the Middle Ages into the modern world. However, thinkers in those times saw themselves as part of nostalgic or returning movements, purifying movements: the Renaissance returning to Hellenism, the Reformation to Hebraism.

The dichotomy is still with us. Hebraism and Hellenism, heart and head, will and reason, are still separated. Nietzsche’s unsuccessful attempt to find the unifying center of these two forces (which he called the “Dionysian” and the “Apollonian” after the Greek gods of earth and sky, darkness and light, vegetation and the sun) drove him insane. Along the road to madness, brilliance was thrown off, like sparks from a destructive fire. All this is true for our whole civilization as well as for Nietzsche. I am not glorifying a madman, but Nietzsche was a prophet and a mirror to the madness of our own civilization, and we can learn much from him.

The Enlightenment

The term is ironic; for spiritually the eighteenth century was the darkest ever. Scientism and rationalism replaced faith; the human heart narrowed and hardened in conformity with its own gods, the inventions of its own hands. G. K. Chesterton was profoundly right about the three eras of our history-ancient, medieval, and modern (pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian)—when he summarized all of Western history in three sentences: “paganism was the biggest thing in the world; and Christianity was bigger; and everything since has been comparatively small.”

Enlightenment rationalism cut the top off of Greek ideals and kept the bottom, cut off wisdom and kept logic, transformed reason into reasoning. With this new, streamlined tool, the world could be conquered. The scientific method became the tool for the new summum bonum, the new meaning of life: 66 man’s conquest of nature”. Alexander Pope summarized the faith of the Enlightenment in two lines:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

 Romanticism

Nineteenth-century Romanticism and its philosophical child, Existentialism, was the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, the reaction of heart against head. But just as the Enlightenment’s head was a trimmed-down and secularized head, Romanticism’s heart was a trimmed-down and secularized heart. It was sentiment instead of will, and it was in relationship to nature rather than to God.

The Present

Where do we go from here? Nearly everyone agrees that we are standing at the end of an age, perhaps at a new axial period. We have left modernity behind almost as surely as we have left antiquity behind. We are “postmodern”. But we do not yet know what that means.

From our unique experiment in living without a set of objective values, only two roads lie open: return or destruction. Once the sled is on the slippery slope leading to the abyss, we either brake or break; and no amount of rhetoric about “progress” can alter that fact. Crying “progress” as we die will not raise us from death.

Yet our diagnosis gives us reason to hope. We came from a place closer to home; therefore it is possible to return. Our illness is not wholly hereditary. There is, of course, a far deeper illness in us that is hereditary. It is called “Original Sin”, and for that a remedy far deeper than philosophy is needed, and in fact has been provided, and that is “the greatest story ever told”.

But there is also a cure, a hope, a home to return to on the natural level. It is our own human nature. The four cardinal virtues, are the heart of natural morality, and they lie embedded and ineradicable in our very nature. That nature is weakened and perverted by sin, but it is not obliterated. Natural virtue cannot save our souls, but it can save our civilization, and that is no mean feat. But it can save us only if we both know it and practice it.

On the supernatural level there is also hope because there too is a home from which we came—Paradise—though the road back is only by grace. Since we were once home, there is home and thus a hope, a possibility of return—or even something better. The road to Paradise is supernatural virtue, the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the blessedness, or beatitude, that flows from them

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10 Responses to Medieval Christian Synthesis through the Present

  1. toadspittle says:

    .
    “G. K. Chesterton was profoundly right about the three eras of our history-ancient, medieval, and modern (pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian)—when he summarized all of Western history in three sentences: “paganism was the biggest thing in the world; and Christianity was bigger; and everything since has been comparatively small.” “

    To be sure fat boy Gil was writing nearly a century ago, so he didn’t see Islam coming. Perhaps we need a fourth era?

    “The Enlightenment: The term is ironic; for spiritually the eighteenth century was the darkest ever.”

    I would suggest the term is not ironic to anyone but a believer in God.
    In any case, by Kreef’s own terms of “spirituality”, surely the 20th century was considerably darker?
    Matter of opinion, I suppose.

  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Sorry, but I find the article to be amateurish and poorly researched.

    I mean really — chop up the entire history of human philosophical development into nice and easy bite-sized chunks, having very little to do with the actual metaphysical and religious realities that these snippets are supposed to be representing ???!?

    The following, for example : There were from the beginning three different attitudes on the part of Christians to the pagan world in general and to pagan notions of virtue in particular: (1) uncritical synthesis, (2) critical synthesis, and (3) criticism and antisynthesis. Different Christian thinkers accepted either (1) all, (2) some, or (3) none of the Greek ideals of virtue. The greatest and mainstream Christians, like Augustine and Aquinas, took the second way and have been criticized by extremists of both wings right up to the present day. They are labeled fundamentalists by the modernists and modernists by the fundamentalists. is just complete gibbering nonsense !!!

    The underlying fallacy in this man’s approach appears to be that he takes an a posteriori point of view for historical analysis — and whilst such a point of view can be valid in some cases for a philosophical critique or a literary analysis, it is quite hopelessly inadequate to accurately understand systems of thought belonging to the past, and no longer actually extant in the modern world.

    To start with — the notions of critical versus uncritical are, obviously, completely ALIEN to mediaeval psychology, as is the notion of synthesis (or even more bizarrely, antisynthesis !!!!!), the first three having been formalised not prior to Descartes, the last being some sort of ludicrous post-structuralist claptrap having no meaningful relationship to any non-Marxist or non-post-Marxist ideology.

    I’ve no idea why so many trendy Westerners think that reading the likes of Bakhtin or Chomsky will fill their minds with anything but dangerous mental confusion if they actually take any of it seriously.

  3. JabbaPapa says:

    Pah !!! — italic html tags fudged again !!!

  4. JabbaPapa says:

    “The Enlightenment: The term is ironic; for spiritually the eighteenth century was the darkest ever.”

    I would suggest the term is not ironic to anyone but a believer in God.

    I would not gratify the term with any so grandiose adjective as “ironic” — I’m more liable to think of it as the “Slapping-oneself-on-the-back-tenment” — and think of the self-regarding delusions of all of those tedious 21st century online atheists and their continual childish ranting on about how “more rational” they are than everybody else …

  5. teresa says:

    I find instead the article of Prof. Kreeft quite clearly put. And when somebody says “synthesis”, he doesn’t necessarily mean Hegelian philosophy. What Dr. Kreeft means is that Hellenic philosophy (and also classic Roman learnings) is integrated into Christianity by great thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and that medieval thinking systems provides us with a good balance of philosophical rationality and Christian religion.

    Synthesis is an old term of logic, and can be found as early as in the Elements of Geometry of Euclides.

    Anyone who knows a little about Hegel and so Marxism as a leftist derivation of Hegelianism knows that Hegel borrowed his terminology from the old logic and bestowed it with his own meanings. So the term is old and Dr. Kreeft, as professor for Philosophy at Boston University, is certainly acquainted with the Port-Royal logic before the era of Kant’s Criticism.

    As for critical and uncritical, the word is old, it comes from the Greek word “krinei”, there is nothing wrong in saying that medieval thinkers took up Ancient thinkings in a critical way or an uncritical way.

  6. JabbaPapa says:

    What Dr. Kreeft means is that Hellenic philosophy (and also classic Roman learnings) is integrated into Christianity by great thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and that medieval thinking systems provides us with a good balance of philosophical rationality and Christian religion.

    Woah !! I can’t remember disagreeing with his position, and pointing out that his article is structured around some extremely dubious intellectual shortcuts does not mean that I’ll be disagreeing with what you have taken from it.

    But you see, you’re making the same paradox, by suggesting (even negatively) that Hegel might somehow be relevant to the contents of mediaeval thinking taken in and of themselves.

    OK, in the terms of general philosophy it’s perfectly normal that people can take a critical point of view regarding the philosophies of the past, but in terms of describing the contents of those philosophies, the a posteriori approach is hideously inadequate.

    Synthesis is an old term of logic, and can be found as early as in the Elements of Geometry of Euclides.

    Except that its Ancient meaning is non-identical to either the Modern or the Mediaeval ones.

    As for critical and uncritical, the word is old, it comes from the Greek word “krinei”, there is nothing wrong in saying that medieval thinkers took up Ancient thinkings in a critical way or an uncritical way.

    I disagree entirely — the basic method of mediaeval analysis, at least in the West, was the pro et contra — which was typically resolved either by the victory of one or the other party, or by fundamental disagreement and stalemate, and procrastination and deferral to a later debate. Pro et contra is neither “critical” nor “uncritical”, due to the non-existence of these mental constructs during the Middle Ages.

    The notion that the truth might be a matter for compromise is an (re-)invention of the Renaissance — but the notion is entirely foreign to the mediaeval aesthetics.

  7. teresa says:

    Pro and Contra has nothing to do with “analysis”, pro and contra is a teaching method of providing arguments for and against a statement, as often used in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, the aim is, surprise, Jabba, to find a Synthesis between the two positions. It goes back to the Sic et Non of Peter Abaelard, who applied a method of dialectics. Yes, Dialectics existed already during the medieval times.

    And I didn’t say that Hegel is of any relevance to mediaeval thinking. Please read what people write more carefully. I said that Synthesis doesn’t always mean the synthesis in Hegelian Dialectics and that Dr. Kreeft is totally justified to use synthesis in his article. That said, I am off to do some work. Have a nice evening.

  8. toadspittle says:

    .
    “It was not like gluing a rabbit onto a carrot but like a rabbit’s eating and digesting a carrot.”

    ..and Hegelian Synthesis is, in so many words, gluing a carrot onto a rabbit.

    That, at least, we can all agree on.

  9. JabbaPapa says:

    Pro and Contra has nothing to do with “analysis”, pro and contra is a teaching method of providing arguments for and against a statement,

    EW !!!

    It’s certainly NOT just a teaching method, it’s part and parcel of the basic mediaeval interpretative methodology !!! You’re right that it evolved into a teaching method mainly, after its fundamental flaws had become far to exposed for comfort, but in the High Mediaeval period, well before Aquinas, it was certainly not viewed as a method to achieve any sort of synthesis, but as a method of argument to resolve two apparently irreconcilable positions in order to discover the truth of the one or the other, exclusive of compromise.

    It goes back to the Sic et Non of Peter Abaelard, who applied a method of dialectics. Yes, Dialectics existed already during the medieval times.

    Ah ! I was searching for a word in my earlier post, and that word is “dialectics”. Cheers.

    Mediaeval exegetics provide multiple interpretations of singular texts or other contents, rather than multiple opinions providing any synthetic commonality.

    X means simultaneously a, b, c, and d — but these various meanings are separate in and of themselves, and their sum total does not add up to X alone.

  10. Mimi says:

    Soft day, thank God.

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