Introduction To Western Philosophy (3): Medieval To Enlightenment



In Part Two of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. Philosophy in general though has followed three core areas of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology (see Part One). In Part Three I will now outline the important Medieval, Renaissance, and Pre-Modern thinkers, and provide basic notes on their ideas. As I have in the past, I mostly use only the surname of the philosopher, as Baruch Spinoza (also known as Benedict De Spinoza), for example, is commonly referenced in conversation and much writing as just “Spinoza”. So I have stuck with this convention, for the sake of simplicity.


Plotinus (205 C.E – 270 C.E): Founder of NeoPlatonicism (Plato’s thought turned more mystical): an individual’s soul ascends from physical existence through a (hierarchical) series of spiritual levels until it merges with The One, the metaphysical potentiality behind all things without which no possibilities or actualities can occur (neither material nor the sum of all material). These were discussed in his (six) Enneads, works complied by his student Porphyry. NeoPlatonism was both a rival of, and influence on, Christianity for centuries afterwards.

Iamblichus of Syria (245 – 325): “What can be known depends on the knower’s capacity.” Systematically formalized Neoplatonism, and expanded upon its premises, e.g. one’s Soul is embodied in Matter, and thus Matter is as divine as the Soul, a departure from earlier Neoplatonists (Matter is a lesser concept).

St. Augustine (354 – 430): “God is not the parent of evils.” Latin Philosopher, theologian, “the original city” – the Catholic Church is the ‘City of God.’

Boethius (480 – 525): “God foresees our free thoughts and actions.” Roman philosopher, Christian aristocrat, and music theorist. The Consolations of Philosophy – a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who teaches him that virtue is one’s treasure and that fame/fortune are subject to the vicissitudes of life, ergo transientTCoP is the last great work in the manner of Western Classical philosophy.

Pseudo-Dionysus the Aeropagite (c. 480 – c. 545): “God is not being, but more than Being”. Christian theologian/philosopher. Often confused with the Athenian Christian named Dionysus the Aeropagite (converted by the preaching of Apostle Paul).


Often, in both philosophical and Biblical studies, one sees the Areios Pagos or “Areopagus” mentioned in connection to Greek law. The Areios Pagos is a rocky hilltop near the Parthenon in Athens where an ancient high court of appeals was held for both civil and criminal cases. It also functioned as a (pre-Classical) site of meeting for the Athenian council of elders before the fifth century B.C.E. Also referred to as ‘Mars Hill’ by the Romans, the Areopagus is known to Christians for also being the site where Apostle Paul delivered his ‘Unknown God’ sermon to the city elders and some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18-33).

While in Athens to perform and attend a conference I had the chance to visit the Areopagus, and take the picture above. The X-ray machines at the Athens and Paris airports must have messed up my film on the way back, because my Acropolis and Areopagus film roll came out messed up – so I had to un-fade/colour correct them as best I could.


The hillside leading up to the Areopagus on the opposite side of the Acropolis has a scattering of soft mossy spots and small trees under which one can stop and meditate, or just relax. Considering the balmy weather, and the beauty of the area (and the structure of Greek language) – it is no wonder that the early Greeks were masters of thought. They had the most pleasant spots to sit and ponder things! Ελλάδα είναι υπέροχη!


Alcuin the Latinist (740 – 804): Church historian/apologist and architect, who brought Latin scholarship and liberal arts education to Charlemagne and the Franks.

Al-Kindî (801 – 873): “Philosophy is compatible with science and Islam. The first Arab peripatetic and the Father of Islamo-Arabic Philosophy. His work would be overshadowed by later interest in Al-Fârâbî.

Al-Fârâbî (872 – 951): Persian philosopher/musician, considered by his peers to be the second ‘Great Teacher’ after Aristotle. Rationalist: pure reason as a source of justification or knowledge is not incompatible with Islam. Negative Theologian (Apophatic theology): “God cannot be known, but he can be known, to a degree, by what he is not”. Though it dealt with Persian music theory and music’s influence on the soul, his Book of Great Music (Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir – كتاب الموسيقى الكبير) is often considered a tome on Arab music, as it was written in Arabic.

Avicenna (980 – 1037): (a.k.a Ibn Sînâ) – Persian polymath within the Arabic tradition of philosophy. “The Soul is distinct from the body.” Created the Canon of Medicine – a summary of all medical knowledge of humanity to that point in history.

St. Anselm (1033 – 1109): The Ontological Argument: just by thinking about God we can know he exists, without needing any physical proof in the world. This is because: If the greatest possible being (God) exists in the mind, then it must also exist in reality; if it only exists in the mind, something greater is possible in Reality ergo a being that exists in the mind and reality.

Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111): Persian poet/mystic. Considered by some to be the single biggest historical detriment to Islamic intellectual progress through his promotion of faith over science. The Incoherence of the Philosophers – the material world is an insufficient explanation for causality, everything ultimately stems from God’s will (Islamic Occasionalism).

Averroes  (1126 – 1198): (a.k.a Ibn Rushd) Spanish Muslim polymath; defended Aristotleian philosophy against al-Ghazali’s influence (philosophy is an affront to Islam, i.e. Averroes claim that there is one truth but two ways (philosophy/religion) to reach it, or that the soul has both an individual and a divine part.

Maimonides (1135 – 1204): Jewish Aristotelian. Guide for the Perplexed: any attribution of human characteristics (anthropomorphism) to God is faulty, and borderline blasphemous. Merkaba Mysticism: the chariot imagery in Exekiel is deeply mystical and profound, and must not be discussed/interpreted/taught by anyone less than rabbis/scholars. GFTP discusses the Merkaba (chariot) and thus some called the GFTP heresy and banned/burned it.

Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294): Doctor Mirabilis, scholasticism – academic thought that defended orthodoxy (Bacon: Franciscan friar). Scholastics trained men to be scholars, doctors, and layers.

William of Ockham (1288 – 1348): scholastic monk. “Ockham’s Razor” (lex parsimoniae) – the statement/idea/thought (amongst many others) that makes the fewest assumptions and offers the simplest explanation of its effects is the one a person should choose. The first “Nominalist” – there are only generalities, no universal types or qualities exist).

Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308): Doctor Subtilis, Catholic theologian, “haecceity” (thisness) – the property in each thing that makes it a specific individual, “formal distinction” – differentiating between different aspects of the same thing.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274): Doctor Universalis, “The Universe has not always existed.” Aquinas proposed a created universe long before the Big Bang Theory (based on Genesis 1:1): the heaven and the earth being synonymous with the Universe in general. Thomism – truth is true anywhere it is found, the world can be known, God is the First Principle of everything – all that is good is of God. Huge influence on philosophy and Catholicism ever since.

Petrarch (1304 – 1374): Father of Humanism, reaction to Scholasticism. Taught the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy) to the citizenry for their civic virtue. Developed the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’. His revival of Cicero (arguably) began the Renaissance.


Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536): Dutch Renaissance humanist/Catholic priest. “To know nothing is the happiest life.” In Praise of Folly – moral satire (about the complete corruption of the Catholic Church) featuring Folly being praised as a goddess, then Folly herself praising self-deception, madness, and pious Catholic superstitions. Pope Leo X, rather than being outraged, was highly amused by IPoF, as he thought it was a critique of Catholicism under his predecessor Pope Julius II.

But to Eramus there is a kind of folly that is an ideal state for humans, a kind of “benign naivety” in which we are happy and content, unburdened by too much knowledge (in reference to the Biblical passage Ecclesiastes 1:18, “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow: the more knowledge, the more grief.”). Part of Eramus’ reasoning for this also lay in the very idea of reasoning itself, as true belief to him was faith-based. This emphasis on simple, humble faith over the intellectualized (Hellenistic) theological arguments of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas was Eramus’ way of resisting what he saw as a corruption of Christianity by Platonic and Aristotelian influences.

Michel De Montaigne (1533- 1592): French Renaissance philosopher and inventor of the essay. In his essay On Solitude, Montaigne lays out his most potent idea: that our personal well being (tranquility) depends on detachment from the opinion of others, which we need to be famous. Thus, we cannot be famous and tranquil. Also if we care too much for the approval of others we will end up imitating whose who are evil or be consumed by our hatred for those same people and lose our ability to think and reason clearly.

Instead, we should behave as if some great and noble being is with us, observing our actions and intentions. By thinking and doing thus, we will be objective, tranquil, rational, and truly free. Having witnessed the insane mob violence of the French religious wars of the late 16th century, Montaigne sought to be the opposite of those around him lost in dogma and lust for glory. Quote: “Many times I have seen (fame and fortune) step out ahead of merit… and often a long way ahead“.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626): Father of Empiricism – developed methodologies for scientific inquiry.

Hobbes (1588 – 1679): helped found Modern Political philosophy. Leviathan – what are the appropriate relations between individuals and government (social contract theory)?

Descartes (1596 – 1650): Father of Modern Philosophy, Cartesian Dualism – body/soul separate but connected (by the pineal gland). Morals are a science. “I think, therefore I am”.


Spinoza (1632 – 1677): Rationalist: Truth is intellectual and deductive. Laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. Opposed and intellectually destroyed medieval philosophy in his Ethics.

Locke (1632 – 1704): Father of Classical Liberalism. His Theory of Mind (philosophy of mental events) established the modern concepts of identity and the Self. The first to define the Self in terms of continuity of consciousness. We are born without innate ideas (tabula rasa) and gain all knowledge through sense experience. Locke also argued vigorously for the separation of church and government in A Letter Concerning Toleration.

Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727): Father of Classical Mechanics (how objects move when acted upon by various forces). Super science/math genius. Newton revolutionized how people understood and saw the world, and inspired humanity to pursue scientific investigation with great passion. After Newton’s death, some began trying to apply such scientific (mechanistic) thought rather rigidly to all forms of human behavior and knowledge, which was not Newton’s intention, giving rise to counter-Enlightenment thinkers and great resistance by the Catholic church.

Leibniz (1646 – 1716): Rationalist. Optimism – our universe is the best possible one potentially created. There is no material world (!), only infinitely diverse subtle substances measured in basic units of perceptual reality (monads).

Berkeley (1685 -1753): “To Be is to be perceived.” Idealism – Reality is fundamentally mental. Immaterialism – tables aren’t real, they just exist in the imagination and can’t exist without perception (“to be is to be perceived”).

Voltaire (1694 – 1778): French writer/philosopher (real name: François-Marie Arouet). Inventor of the conte philosophique, the “philsophical tale”: fiction –  from short stories to long novels – that explores complex philosophical questions; as Voltaire described them, works “that say more than they seem to say”. The central theme of the conte philosophiques is that the constants of human nature are self-deception, the inevitability of the abuses of power, and that superstition and fanaticism eventually join with self-interest and this leads to misery and suffering.

His extensive body of work was so influential he was world renowned, and garnered both extreme praise and intense dislike. Common subjects = civil Liberties advocate, freedom of expression/religion, separation of church/state, hugely influential on the American/French revolution. Voltaire was highly critical of religious dogma: having studied the Bible extensively and finding much error, mythology, chronological inconsistencies that he believed the Bible was a product of humanity. After the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Voltaire questioned how the suffering of the Portuguese people could be reconciled with the goodness of God, and why He (being Omnipotent) could not create a world without earthquakes?

He was also critical of the atheism of the his time, as he thought it was dangerous for atheists to believe that ultimately no one judges their actions: bringing about the destruction of ethical philosophy (if a natural law of brotherhood/peace doesn’t exist, then in what will we base our ethics and morals?). “The secret to being boring is to reveal everything…”.

Hume (1711 – 1776): Empiricist (knowledge comes from the senses). Desire governs human behaviour. Psychology is the basis of human nature.

Rousseau (1712 – 1778): Composer, philosopher. Natural Humanism: Mankind is neutral (in a sense morally naïve, knows nothing of good or bad) until societal contact creates in him self-love, which leads to human greed, suffering, war, etc. Thus humans are fundamentally good (free and happy) until society educates them and imposes laws on them. For example, Rousseau argues that man began to be corrupted when the first piece of land was enclosed and considered “property”, and as more and more people had properties there had to be laws regulating ownership and thus structured societies arose; civilizations bringing their inevitable hierarchies (rich and poor). Education plays a part int his and thus Rousseau advocated against intellectual education in favour of an education of the senses (ergo of the heart, and thus he criticized the adverse effects of both religion and atheism).

Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784): a major contributor to the philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers: co-founder, chief editor and major contributor to A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, otherwise known as the Encyclopédie (“Encyclopedia”) published between 1751 and 1772. Diderot, Voltaire and others became known as the philosophes: public intellectuals who gathered in coffee houses and cafes to debate and dispute the Enlightenment ideals of reason, tolerance, and progress, free from the more intellectually stifling actions/beliefs of various universities, monarchies, and/or churches. Diderot was also a major critic of slavery and the purposeful denial of knowledge and understanding to the masses by those with power (kings, priests, noblemen). In the entry for “Encyclopedie” in the actual Encyclopedie itself, he writes: “the general mass of the species is made neither to follow nor to know the march of the human spirit.” Having been denied education and human rights, the people are thus “too idiotic, too beastly, too miserable, and too busy to enlighten itself“, which he wrote in a letter to Sophie Volland (1759). Diderot, though, did not anticipate or live to see the very people he discusses rise up and win their rights back from the monarchy in the bloody French Revolution a few years later in 1789 to 1799.

Charles Batteux (1713 – 1780): French philosopher whose work The Fine Arts Reduced to The Same Principle (Fr: “Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe”formally introduced the world to the idea that works of beauty and taste in writing, music, painting and so on could be categorized as “fine arts”, as they were “assemblages of rules for doing well”. Before Batteux, such arts were generally considered separate subjects, e.g. music was a subject closer to math due to its basis in acoustics and intervallic measurement. Batteux also suggested that the point of the fine arts was to imitate nature, and in the imitation create perfected or ideal examples of nature for aesthetic enjoyment.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s