The Pathos of Politics (20-1) The Church in Medieval European Politics 1


One of the most paradoxical aspects of medieval life was the contradiction between the deep yearning for unity in religious and philosophic ideas and the pluralism of extant institutions. The feudal period represented the hallmark of diversity and decentralization in western civilization. This starkly contrasts with medieval thinking on religious and secular affairs, which took the principle of unity for granted.

The oneness of God, and of divine law and reason, was presumed to permeate the whole universe. The diverse plurality that existed in the world was subordinate to a higher unity.

Both imperialist and papalist partisans were loath to abandon unification of church and state. Their disagreement was of priority, not of principle.

The medieval mind drew its nourishment from 2 fountains: Christian religious inspiration and the intellectual heritage of antiquity. Reconciling these 2 sources was fairly easy early on. The major ideological conflicts in the early Middle Ages were between the church and heretics, not between theology and philosophy.

Besides, the church practically had sole possession of the classical philosophic heritage in its monasteries. Plato was the dominant influence. Until the mid-12th century, Aristotle was known only from a few treatises on logic.

As Augustine amply illustrated, Plato’s conceptions of morality and ideas as the essence of reality, his ideals of a society in which spirituality would rule, as well as his tendency toward mysticism, were easily woven into the fabric of early Christian thought.

Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand. ~ Augustine

From the 9th to 13th century, medieval scholasticism strove to meld theology and philosophy, to unite revelation and knowledge. The guiding principle was the primacy of religion over philosophy, of revelation over empiricism, of faith over knowledge, of dogma over science.

The church’s outlook changed entirely as it became a political organization struggling for hegemony in the western world. The Augustinian conception of a Christian community faded. The intellectual need of the institutional church was not of mystic personal visions, but systemic analysis of all traditional thought and emerging forces with portent.

Armed with the best-trained scholars and bureaucracy, the ecclesiastical domination of scholasticism was assured. As most philosophic writers were clerics, nurtured on church doctrine and subject its discipline, underlying all speculation was that reason never contradicted faith.

Papal power reached its peak in the 13th century, correspondent with scholasticism achieving its golden age. The synthesis of theological doctrine, honed over a millennium, was one cornerstone. The rediscovery of Aristotle – the consummate conservative realist – was the other.

While only a few of Aristotle’s writings on logic were known in the West until the mid-12th century, the Aristotelian tradition had never been abandoned in the East. Constantinople in particular remained a nexus of Greek scholarship. From there, Greek studies spread to the Near East, which were then carried to Spain by Arab and Jewish scholars. Latin translations made their way to Paris and Oxford, which were the liveliest clearinghouses for philosophic scholarship in the 13th century.

The church was wary of Aristotle at first and sought to stem the tide of Aristotelianism. Its attitude gradually changed through the work of many men, but above all Thomas Aquinas.