ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

Patristic Philosophy.


93. General Features of Patristic Philosophy. -- The advent of Christianity gave a new direction to speculative studies. The Fathers of the Church had to indicate what were the dogmas of the Christian Religion and to preserve them from the heretical alloy of Jewish and Pagan doctrines; just as in another department they had to protect from schism the unity of discipline and ecclesiastical government. Bearing in mind that this was the chief aim of all Patristic speculation, we can understand at once that philosophy held only an incidental and secondary place in it, and that the choice of the questions discussed was usually determined by the exigencies of polemics.

Hence it is that Patristic philosophy is a religious philosophy, -- subservient to dogma: not only in the sense that dogma excels philosophy as revelation excels reason, but also in the sense that philosophy is considered to have no other general function than that of assisting dogma with its own proper teaching. This attitude merely continued the tradition of the contemporary Neo-Platonic schools, which in like manner confounded philosophy with religion (cf. 85, 86).

The Fathers study preferably the problems connected with Christian dogma. Although Christ is not regarded as the head of a school of philosophy, still the religion He founded offers us solutions on quite a number of the questions which philosophy proposes and solves by other methods.{1} We may note, for example: God's supremacy over the world; creation; providence; the essential dependence of man on God; the individuality of things; the finality of the universe; the distinction of soul and body; personal immortality.

Owing to the very fact that their philosophic labours were fragmentary and incidental, the Fathers of the Church never succeeded in building up a harmonious system of organically connected doctrines. We have no Patristic synthesis to compare with the later Scholastic synthesis. Of course the new teachings of Christianity on a few of the problems discussed by philosophy found credence with all, and so far constituted a unifying element. But those few points were unable to effect a general synthesis moreover, in the interpretation even of them we can perceive a wide diversity of thought.

Patristic Philosophy was propagated in a civilization permeated with Grecian ideas, and was influenced by them. In this way it became attached to a waning world-view ; it fostered and perpetuated an old-time mentality. Its writers were influenced, in varying degrees, by the then prevalent doctrines of the Neo-Platonists. Through the medium of these latter they inherited more or less of Plato's spiritualism, which they endeavonred to interpret consistently with Catholic doctrine. They took isolated tenets from Aristotle, but, in the main, distrusted or repudiated his theodicy, physics and psychology. They also borrowed theories from Pythagoras and Socrates, from Seneca, Cicero and Philo Judaeus.

{1} This is true of every religion, for many questions dealt with hy religion also belong to the domain of philosophy. The material object, in the case of philosophy and religion, is in part common to both.

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