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In European history, the term medievalism is instantly synonymous with religion (Christianity) and God.  Most of medieval theology and philosophy revolved around the conception of a God and the religion that accompanied it as a principle of legitimation for the exercise of power that kept society together under one unequivocal authority.  This was deemed necessary in a society that had come into being out of the remnants of an all powerful older society, the Roman Empire, which crumbled gradually over a period of time.  A clue to how this happened can be found in the work of James L Wiser who has worked extensively on the Roman Empire and the causes of its disintegration.  For him “as the Roman Power expanded throughout the region it effectively destroyed the remnants of once flourishing local civilizations.  Yet having overwhelmed such indigenous cultures, it was then faced with the task of replacing them with some alternative set of social and cultural practices.  That challenge was not easily met.  A conservative attempt to revivify local customs made little sense in view of the traditional society’s reduced stature vis a vis the new imperial order.  On the other hand, a progressive attempt to create a new imperial civilization was extremely difficult, since the empire itself was basically an external order imposed upon the people and thus essentially unrelated to their shared experiences and also traditional life styles”.[1]

This means that the Roman Empire was caught in a piquant situation.  While it displayed great efficacy as a military and political organization, it somehow failed to become a substantive society and so it became hollow and even meaningless.  The organic and the spontaneous unity were missing.  It also means that the spread of the Roman Empire did not represent the particular beliefs, customs and practices of a single concrete society.  It was instead, a multi-civilizational empire.  It exhibited a Universal form, but it did not represent a Universal Civilization.  “Thus similar to Alexander’s Macedonian Empire, its pragmatic successes did not imply a spiritual meaning which could inspire its citizens and hold them together without coercion.  As it extended throughout the Mediterranean, it appeared to have no purpose other than its own further expansion”.[2]  Thus it appears that with no content of any particular civilization to carry forward, the Roman Empire tried to be a power in the service of no particular cause, except the needs of power itself.  Hence, there arose a situation when more power was need to keep power intact.  In the words of Eric Voegelin, the Roman Civilization became “a grave yard of societies, including those of the conquerors, rather than a society in its own right”. [3]

The monstrosity that was the Roman Civilization showed signs of disintegration for it was soulless; it had no spiritual direction or any bonds of unification.  It was time for some other culture to emanate from this culture and this new culture had to succeed where the Roman Civilization failed.  Since what was missing was essentially ‘spiritual’ there was a spate of growth of different religions and cultural diversifications within the precincts of the grand Roman Empire.  Even when the Empire was flourishing there were different religious societies each with a definite purpose.  All of them began as local churches and religious societies, each with a doctrine of its own and claiming to become cosmopolitan and propagated their own doctrines all over the world.

These religions mostly came from the East, and Christianity too began there.  Of all these Eastern religions the most significant for the West was Christianity.  It succeeded in expansion like no other religion.  In fact, its initial expansion though beset with problems of repression and torture at the hands of the Romans, is very much comparable to the expansion of the Roman Empire itself.  The nature of expansion was different.  In many ways the Christian ideal was the anti-thesis to the Roman reality, but all the same there are grounds for comparison when it comes to actual physical proliferation.  Just as the Roman Empire brought together diverse ethnic  and geographical groups by imposing a common organization upon them, so too, did Christianity claim to unite all humanity in a common spiritual community.  Although rooted in Galilee, the Christian religion claimed to represent the Universal teachings of a world transcendent God.  As such its God was not to be identified with the history or customs of a particular locality.  Similarly, its teachings were not intended to separate one group from another by establishing distinctive practices or cults but rather were meant to unite all people under one law of divine love.  As a consequence Christians were not necessarily members of a particular tribe or ethnic group.  They were instead, participants in an open spiritual community which extended throughout time for all human kind.  The pre-eminent expression of this belief in a Universal Community of humankind is found in the Christian concept of the mystical body.  “For the Christians the mystical body was the true community of humanity.  It was composed of all those who shared in the spirit of Christ.  Thus living or dead, Jew or Gentile, all people belonged together in that common order effected by the soul’s submission to God”.[4]

It seems that a very interesting situation had emerged.  While the Roman Empire was a Universal Pragmatic Community there emerged a new tradition that purported to be a ‘Universal Spiritual Community’.  The problem then is that one Universal based on artificial unity and physical power cannot incorporate the other based on spontaneity, peace and brotherhood; and these two refused to co-exist peacefully.   The inevitable result of this imbroglio was the soon the relationship between these two different but nevertheless Universal Communities created problems for those who were responsible for the administration of each. Very interestingly there were some new developments as a consequence of this.  Till then religious persecution was not a traditional Roman practice, but with the development of the conflict between the two Universal Communities this practice was introduced. 

The Emperor Trajan (AD 98 – 117) passed a law which permitted persecution if and when necessary.  He apparently acted in this way because of the refusal by the Christians to participate in the practice of ruler worship.  Throughout the second century, most Roman Emperors ignored the Christian sects.  But in the third century AD, Christianity became popular among the Emperors soldiery itself and this generated a fear among the Emperors that this trend would eventually undermine the loyalty of the military to the Empire itself.  In response, the Roman Emperors began a ruthless campaign of persecution, but this actually produced results contrary to what the Roman Emperors wanted.  “When the Roman Empire emerged from the convulsions of the third century almost entirely deprived of moral authority and relying upon force alone, it was confronted by the Christian church fully armed in the organization which had been voluntarily accepted by her adherents……The Church had proved itself stronger than her adversary”.[5]

What is now imperative is that by the beginning of the fourth century imperial rule had begun bowing to Christian reality; the Roman Emperors were finally forced to accept the Christian Church and soon a policy of toleration was announced by 313 AD by the co-regents: Constantine and Licinius.  This new trend found its crowning in a total ban on paganism from Rome by Emperor Theodosius by the year 391 AD.  The intention behind the act was to unite the hitherto separate communities of Church and Empire into one singe ecumenical order.  Christianity was even made the official civil religion of the Roman Power. Though this was a triumph for Christianity it was nevertheless not a total victory when seen from the internal logic and aims of Christianity itself.  The first problem was that it wanted to become Universal geographically or spatially.  Therefore, it found it difficult to be tied down only to the Roman Empire.  More importantly, the marriage between the Church and the Empire brought about by Theodosius went contrary to what Christianity wanted.  Most definitely Christianity did not shy away from functions which were social, cultural and political, but it could not be content with just those.  It wanted to be an all encompassing religious system whose essential concern was with humanity’s relationship with God.  If seen from the Christian point of view of social, cultural and political aspects though important, could not be given autonomy.  Therefore, they had to be subsumed to a larger and more omnipotent system which happened to be religion.  Hence, it would be misinterpretation if we were to infer that the Christian Church wanted a divorce between religion and politics.  Here it would be pertinent to see some of the ideas of Christian Platonists like Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria.  Clement had opined that philosophy prepared for theology just as in Plato’s system mathematics prepared for philosophy.  For Clement philosophy is not opposed to religion but something that is subsumed into theology.  Thus begins the construction of a Unity with religion at the apex.  This holds new vistas for the faith vs reason controversy.  “Religion demands faith, for we cannot rationally prove the truths of revelation, but religious faith is not thereby irrational or blind since it is about the truth on the authority of God who is the primal Truth.  Reason is not the creation of the Devil, it is rather the creation of God and is the image of God in man and as such is man’s highest and most noble attribute”.[6]

It is now time for us to shift attention to some of St. Augustine’s views on this subject.  Although in many respects Augustine simply sums up the ideas of the early Christian Fathers on the relationship of faith and reason, the very powerful strain of the neo-Platonic religious intellectualism that was present in this thought gives his position an original twist.  “For Augustine reason has a value of its own, independently of its help to faith, for by implanting reason in man God has made him superior to the rest of the creation.  In fact, we could not believe unless we had rational souls.  And again, reason can persuade the mind to rise to faith.  This function of reason is anterior to faith and is contrasted with another function of reason, posterior to the act of religious belief, seeking to understand what is believed by faith”.[7]  Clearly reason for Augustine has a two pronged purpose, one to rise to faith and then to comprehend what faith permits.  For Augustine “the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world are made visible by works he has made”.[8]

Augustine uses philosophy boldly and extensively in defending the truths of faith against anti-Christian and heretical adversaries, and also in the elaboration of Christian doctrines.  For example “Augustine is anxious to affirm the possibility of rational speculation about God prior to and independent of supernatural faith in God.  In his own writing, he devotes a great deal of attention to what were later to be called the ‘preambles’ of faith – the possibility of knowing God as the ground for rational certitude, the nature of the soul, freedom of the Will – and it is not too much to say that he sees a ‘natural theology’ or a philosophical theology.  Theology as an important propaedeutic to theology proper”.[9]

John Scotus Erigena is the best introduction to the philosophical pre-occupations of the theologians of the period.  Erigena was not a mere compiler of commentaries even though he translated the works of Dionysius the Aeropagite and Maximus the Confessor.  He had a mind sufficiently strong and independent to enable him to use his sources without being enslaved by them.  His system was a carefully considered reply to some of the awesome questions that were to dominate all thinking during the Medieval period.  His famous work De divisione naturae sees a “procession from God to his creature, then the return from the creature to God; or moving through from God as principle to God as an end.  This simply denotes the division of nature according to all logical differences, as if reality were nothing but the logical division of a genus into its species.  First comes nature that Creates and is not created, or God as the principle of things, then comes nature that is created and Creates or the word that is engendered by the principle and that produces the sensible world; then comes nature that is Created and does not Create, or the sensible world; last comes nature that is neither Created nor Creative, or God as the supreme end in whom the motion of thieves in search of perfection is terminated”.[10]But beneath these differences it is not very difficult for us to detect the Unity that is being portrayed.  For Erigena, God is at the same the beginning principle, the middle term and the end.  It is now evident that Erigena also like Augustine uses philosophy to prove the existence of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas is the other great thinker of medievalism and his works assumed two great syntheses.  The organization of religious truths accomplished by the twelfth century sententiaries and the philosophical synthesis of Aristotle.  In part of his works, in his Summae, one can find the rhythm of the sentences, which has its origins in rational philosophy: for instance, the Summa Contra Gentiles first discusses God, then hierarchy of Created beings that proceed from Him, then the destiny of man and his return to God in the eternal life.  In another part of his works, he analyses and annotates the works of Aristotle.  “The relationship that Aquinas sees between the theological synthesis of revealed truths and the philosophical synthesis of truths accessible to reason brings him a sense of tranquility and contentment and makes him much less zealous and passionate for inquiry than men like St. Anselm and Abelard.  Whereas they defined the relation between reason and faith in a manner that might be termed dynamic, subjecting the truths of faith to reason, as truths to be progressively and endlessly illuminated, St. Thomas defines it statically.  Here are the truths that belong to faith and which definitely transcend human intelligence, and there are philosophical truths which are accessible to human intelligence, but there is no way of progressing from to the other”.[11] This means that if at all reason plays a part in matters of faith, it is merely drawing consequences from truths belonging to faith when the latter are posited as premises, never by demonstrating such truths.  For example, the necessity of divine grace can be demonstrated by showing that without it the supernatural destiny of man would be impossible, but the existence of supernatural destiny must first be revealed to us by faith. 

It is important to note at this juncture that Aquinas does not borrow his static concept from the theological tradition but he develops it from his doctrine of knowledge which is based in Aristotelian theorisizing.  “The human intellect is incapable of apprehending the substance of God Himself through its natural virtue, for our knowledge in our present mode of life has its source in the sense organs; that is why anything that does not fall under the senses cannot be apprehended by human intelligence unless it is inferred from the senses, things cannot enable our intelligence to see what divine substance is, for they are effects and do not equal the power of the cause”.[12] This illustrates that for Aquinas God is ‘the’ cause and rest are effects of the cause and hence not as powerful.  Logically then, they cannot and should not investigate into the ‘nature’ of the cause.  This means that he like many of the Christian thinkers before him acknowledges the presence of reason as n important attribute of man but then subsumes it to faith.

All that has been seen so far demonstrates that God, religion and morality are subjects that are quite central to political discourse since these are the definite variables that have shaped the emergence of the present understanding of politics and the subjects of politics.  Commenting on the unique nature of medieval political thought Otto Von Gierke says “Political thought when it is genuinely medieval starts from the Whole, but ascribes an intrinsic value to every Partial whole down to and including the Individual.  If it holds out one hand to Antique Thought when it acts the whole before the parts and the other hand to the modern theories of Natural Law when it proclaims that intrinsic and aboriginal rights of the Individual, its peculiar characteristic is that it sees the Universe as one articulated whole and every Being – whether a Joint-Being (Community) or a Single Being as both a part and a Whole: a part determined by the final cause of its own”.[13] On the one hand every ordering of the a human community must appear as a Component part of that ordering of the World: the world exists because God exists, and every earthly group must appear as an organic member of the Civitas Dei, which actually comprehends both the heavens and the earth together.  On the other hand, the eternal and the other worldly aim and object of every individual should either be directly or indirectly, to determine the aim and object of every group that the individual enters.  “To every Being is assigned its place in that Whole, and to every link between Beings corresponds a divine decree.  But since the world is one organism animated by one spirit, fashioned by one ordinance, the self-same principles that appear in the structure of the world will appear once more in the structure of its every part.  Therefore, every particular Being, in so far as it is a whole, is a diminished copy of the World: it is a Micro-cosmos or a Minor Mundus in which the Macro-cosmos is mirrored.  In the fullest measure this is true of every human individual, but it also holds good of every human community and of human society in general.  Thus, the Theory of Human Society must accept the divinely created Organization of the Universe as a prototype of the first principles which govern the construction of human communities”.[14]

It can now be seen that medievalism paints a picture of harmony and the maintenance of that harmony depends upon the faculty of reason bestowed to the human being by God.  The limits that have been imposed upon the use of reason by the Christian thinkers is what generates notions of philosophy and politics.  This is very much contrary to the understanding of the individual as well as the nature of politics and philosophy.  What is of importance here is that while vulgar and made easy notions of science and modernism reject everything that is medieval as being retrograde; nothing can be farther from the truth.  Most of modern political thinking and philosophy continues to dig deep into conceptions generated by medievalism and that much is evident in Immanuel Kant’s and the German Enlightenment’s thinking where God, Primary Cause,  and Will hold a centrality of place in their discourse.


A. V. Satish Chandra, Ph. D

Associate Professor,

Department of Political Science,

Osmania University

Hyderabad – 50007

Andhra Pradesh, India.

[1]  Wiser, James L, Political Philosophy: A History of the Search for Order, Englewood Cliffs, N.J, USA, Prentice Hall Inc, 1983, p.86

[2]  ibid

[3]  Quoted in ibid, p.87

[4] Ibid p. 88

[5] Ibid p.89

[6] Charlesworth, M J, Philosophy of Religion: The Historic Approaches, Exeter, England, Macmillan Press Limited, 1972, p. 49

[7] Ibid p.p 51-52

[8] Ibid p. 52

[9] Ibid p. 53

[10] Brehier, Emile, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Chicago, USA, The University of Chicago Press, 1967, p.p 19-20

[11] Ibid p .137

[12] Ibid p. 138

[13] Gierke, Otto, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.7

[14] Ibid p.8