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The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey: A. D. 200-1500

The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey: A. D. 200-1500

by Frederick B. Artz

"This is the third edition of a near standard survey of the intellectual life of the age of faith. Artz on the arts, as on philosophy, politics and other aspects of culture, makes lively and informative reading."—The Washington Post


"This is the third edition of a near standard survey of the intellectual life of the age of faith. Artz on the arts, as on philosophy, politics and other aspects of culture, makes lively and informative reading."—The Washington Post

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University of Chicago Press
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Third Edition, Revised
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(w) x (h) x 1.30(d)

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The Mind of the Middle Ages

An Historical Survey A.D. 200â"1500

By Frederick B. Artz, Third Edition

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1980 Frederick B. Artz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02840-8


The Classical Backgrounds of Mediaeval Christianity




SOCIOLOGISTS usually begin with the Flood and the Fijis; writers of history, with the Greeks. These "spoiled darlings of the historians," as they have been called, may often be allowed too dominant a place in world history, but their role in the story of mediaeval culture is fundamental. Indeed, present views not only tie modern times closer to the Middle Ages, but, at the other end, make mediaeval civilization a long chapter of later antiquity. There is, in this view, something of a return to the estimates of mediaeval men who, long before the Renaissance, thought of themselves as part of the world of the ancients. From Philo the Jew, in the days of Jesus and Saint Paul, to Pico della Mirandola in the fifteenth century it was commonly believed that the Greek philosophers—above all Plato—had imbibed their first inspiration from Moses and the Hebrew prophets. Mediaeval men, thus, were deeply aware of an organic relation among the various currents of history, though their chronology was usually muddled, and, like the wife of Disraeli, they never could remember "which came first, the Greeks or the Romans."

The civilizations of Greece and Rome influenced mediaeval culture in a multitude of ways, in religion and philosophy, in law, government, and social usage, in art and technology, in science and education, in language and literature, and in music. It is on the side of religion and philosophy that the connections between antiquity and the Middle Ages are deepest and the debt of mediaeval thinkers to their Greek and Roman ancestors is most profound. Interest here centers in the long story of the growth of asceticism, mysticism, and monotheism in the religious and philosophical experience of antiquity. So, like mediaeval men, who used from the riches of classical culture those parts that seemed germane, the author has, at this point, selected from the whole Graeco-Roman heritage only that part that influenced mediaeval religion and philosophy. Later on, he will have frequent occasions to discuss many other Greek and Roman influences in mediaeval civilization. The men of the mediaeval centuries were the inheritors of a long evolution of Greek and Roman culture, a culture that in spite of many common elements changed greatly in the eleven centuries between Homer and St. Augustine. In the fields of religion and philosophy, as in nearly every other branch of culture, the history of Roman civilization after about 300 B.C. began to merge with that of Greek culture; hence there is much justification for treating the story of Graeco-Roman civilization as a single development.


GREEK and Roman religion started independently with simple interpretations of the forces of nature which included methods of trying to make these forces work for man's good. The thought of primitive men everywhere lacks a sense of natural causation. There are no laws of nature, there are only unpredictable forces. These forces are in trees and springs and stones and animals; they are everywhere, and these forces are like men. If a primitive man hits his head against a tree in the dark, he says: "that tree meant to do me harm. It must be propitiated." So by prayers and ritual forms, the performance of certain acts, like a libation of milk or wine or burning a cake or an animal, and by taboos (the avoidance of other acts) the spirits that dwell in all things may be made to work for man and not against him. Here, close together, are the beginnings of religion, art, and music. These attitudes and experiences of primitive man are older than logic, and, even in highly civilized men, often remain stronger than logic.

Among all primitive peoples, a vast polytheism of many gods is built up, so numerous the ancients often said there were more gods than men. In the course of time these forces of nature were given personalities, and stories about them grew. Still later, some gods became more important than others and a hierarchy of divine forces was developed with Zeus or Jupiter as the chief of the great gods of Olympus. Besides the family gods of the fireside and the fields, and the gods of the city-state, there was added by Alexander the Great the worship of the ruler, and this cult was continued in the Hellenistic states and still later in the Roman Empire. Both these high gods and the innumerable lesser spirits are superior to men, not in spiritual or moral qualities, but only in outward gifts, strength, beauty, or immortality. There was no inward and spiritual relation of the individual with a moral force as in later religions and philosophies; it was a sort of contractual relation, to every god and spirit its due. Such a religion, common among all primitive peoples, knew little of the dark by-ways of mysticism. If men acquitted themselves of their obligations to these deities of the hearth, the field, and the marketplace, they would enjoy divine favor, or, at least, be unmolested.

The fight of Christianity was less against the great gods who dwelt on Olympus or, among the early Germans, in Walhalla, less against Zeus and Apollo, Odin and Thor, than against this vast multitude of lesser deities, a fight that the church lost. For the early Christian missionaries soon found the belief of the people in these spirits that would help in specific situations so deeply rooted that they early developed the cult of the saints and the cult of relics to take its place. "Remember," said Pope Gregory the Great, "you must not interfere with any traditional belief or religious observance that can be harmonized with Christianity." The theologians of the church never gave these saints any role except that of mediators between man and his God, but the masses made no such fine distinctions; they took the heroes of the new faith to their hearts, embraced them, and worshipped them as deities.

The view of life of the average man of classical antiquity was confined to this world. It accepted this world and was largely indifferent to the promise of a future life. The growth of conscience, a sense of sin and shortcoming, and any great longing for a future life were of slow development. The traditional religion of the family and the state had no founder, no prophets, no inspired leader, no sacred books, no fixed theology or rules of orthodoxy, no religious caste. It did not produce a comprehensive code of ethics nor did it place emphasis on the need of right living. It was largely concerned with forms and outward acts of devotion. The need of peace with the gods produced a sort of religious legalism. Only in minor religious currents connected with the cults of Dionysus, of Orpheus, and of Demeter was there any indication of a mystical desire for moral purity and for union with the god. The formal and legal side of religion is what is meant by paganism. The old traditional religion of the family and the state lived on, at least among the masses, for centuries; it even survived the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. When St. Benedict in the sixth century climbed the hill at Monte Cassino to found what was to become the mother house of his great monastic order, he discovered the inhabitants of the village all turned out for a feast of Apollo, and his eyes fell on a scene similar to the one Keats saw on the Grecian urn. The persistence of the ancient cults was due to the natural conservatism of all men in matters of religion and to the great inertia which any long-established usages possess. The old cults recalled the glories of the past, the ritual was attractive, and the state worship was the mother of art, literature, and music, and was all tied up with them.

In the course of centuries these traditional religious ideas and practices were modified by the poets, artists, and philosophers, and by a steady growth of mystery cults. The writers and the artists, for example, created the concept of Zeus as the creator and sustainer of a moral order in the universe and connected the gods with ethical ideals. As a result of these currents of art and literature, and of philosophy and the mystery religions, the old traditional paganism was overlaid, but it never disappeared. The old cults failed to satisfy certain classes who reached out toward a monotheistic view of religion; they were inadequate in that they paid little attention to matters of morality; they showed little concern for the problems of an after life and they failed to touch the hearts of many individuals or to satisfy their minds. Religious thinking came to exist on a number of levels at once, and the story of Greek and later Roman religion, from about 600 B.C. on, must be considered as proceeding in a sort of polyphonic manner. The new comes in alongside the old, but the old does not disappear.


THE LEGACY of Greek philosophy to the Middle Ages was enormous, and in the long centuries when Greek science, art, and literature were as good as forgotten throughout much of the West, the work of the Greek philosophers and of their Roman commentators formed the basis of Christian theology and the learning of all mediaeval schools.

Greek and Roman philosophy, like the rest of classical culture, went through a long evolution; its story from Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras to St. Augustine and Boethius is the greatest single chapter in the history of man's adventurous mind. Philosophy and science among the Greeks began together about 600 B.C., over two centuries later than Homer. They began together as an approach other than religion to explain the nature of things. Thales of Miletus was the first of a series of thinkers who were interested in astronomy, physics, and mathematics, and who tried to explain man and the universe on purely mechanical and rational lines. Thales believed "all came from water and to water all returns," The universe is explained chiefly on the basis of the processes of the weather. Ignoring old ideas, these thinkers were indifferent rather than hostile to religion. They explained the universe in the processes familiar to the farmer, the smith, and the sailor. They were eminently practical; Thales, for example, was later (falsely) reputed to have foretold an eclipse, and to have introduced from Egypt the methods of land measurements and founded geometry. Anaximander probably invented the sun-dial. Practical as they were, they were also the first thinkers who raised the basic questions of philosophy: What, in the final analysis, is real? What is the character of being?

This school of Miletus founded not only Western philosophy in general but, more specifically, a current of that philosophy that has remained more or less mechanistic in outlook. This mechanistic current came to its first adequate presentation in the philosophy of Democritus, an older contemporary of Plato, who reduced all reality to atoms and a void. In him we have the first clear statement of philosophic materialism in its modern meaning. His reduction of all reality to quantitative difference ultimately made possible that application of mathematics to the treatment of phenomena which is essential to the modern notion of scientific law. These theories of Democritus were later taken over by the Epicurean school and formed the basis of the magnificent philosophic poem of Lucretius, the De Rerum Natura of 55 B.C. This mechanistic current in ancient philosophy, important as it was, had no great influence on thought until the sixteenth century.

Contemporary with the work of Thales and his followers was that of Pythagoras, who is the founder of the great current of ethical and religious philosophy out of which ultimately came the Jewish, Christian, and Mohammedan philosophy of the Middle Ages. Ernest Barker once remarked: "The Middle Ages begin with Plato"; he might better have said: "The Middle Ages begin with Pythagoras." Pythagoras grew up in Ionia from whence had come the philosophy of Thales and his followers, and he was thoroughly trained in the best science of the period, in mathematics, physics, astronomy, music, and medicine. From these studies he conceived of a great world order, apart from man, perfect and harmonious in form and embodying principles of order and justice. It was the work of the Greek idealist philosophers to find a way of life for man that accorded with this world order. The early success of the Greeks in mathematics, physics, and astronomy is the determinant element in the growth of Greek idealism from Pythagoras to Plotinus.

Besides the influence of Ionian science, Pythagoras was also early influenced by Orphism, an ascetic and mystical Greek religious movement. Orphism held that the soul (the life-breath) was imprisoned in the body, that "the body is the tomb of the soul," and that this life is a preparation for life hereafter. The aim of life is redemption from the wheel of rebirth by a system of purifications. The soul can escape and rejoin the original divine essence only by death. It is possible, however, to anticipate this reunion by virtue of a religious mystery or ceremony that temporarily delivers the soul from its bodily prison and brings it into communion with the divine essence. What men call life is really death. The soul is divine and immortal, but through the sins of his ancestors, the Titans, man has fallen from his earlier high estate and must be released through a series of reincarnations. The mystic union with the hero Orpheus, including the eating of an animal which embodied his spirit, was one of the means of purification and of an eventual return to a higher level of existence. The initiate enjoyed the privilege of knowing divine things. Wicked souls live after death in men or in darkness under the earth; good souls, after many reincarnations, go to a blessed land. Here is the idea of the war of the soul on the body, a sense of weakness, sin, and shortcoming, and the idea of winning immortality partly through the moral effort of the individual, as, for example, abstaining from eating meat, and partly by a mystic identification with a divine savior. Here was a religion that could satisfy both the head and the heart. Orphism, in its various forms, not only inspired Pythagoras but it had a deep influence on Plato, and through him on Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and early Christian theology—systems in which knowledge is no longer a desire for power over nature, but a means of virtuous living identified with the well-being of the soul.

Pythagoras combined the science of his time with elements of the various religious currents he knew and created something that he was the first to call philosophy, literally "the love of wisdom." He founded a religious order in southern Italy and for it laid down elaborate rules for the study of science and music, for a life of stern renunciation on the one hand, and on the other, a contemplation of the divine order of the world in which all was law, proportion, order, and harmony. Pythagoras' aim was to find a way of life by which the soul could escape from the body and return to its maker. With all the Greek philosophers before Plato, including Pythagoras, we cannot be certain that we have anything they themselves wrote, and we must reconstruct their thought from fragments they are supposed to have written and from descriptions of their ideas in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and later Greek philosophers. From such sources we can see that Pythagoras had an elaborate philosophic system that included a metaphysics and a system of ethics. He was the first to discover, by experimenting with a vibrating cord, that the intervals of the scale which seem to the ear concordant are associated with definite proportions of one string to another. He had a strange theory that everything could be explained in a system of numbers that corresponded to the tones in a musical scale, which in turn corresponded with a pre-existing harmony in the universe. This number symbolism had a great appeal to mediaeval men and was much used for centuries as a means of attempting to solve ethical and scientific problems. In Pythagoras we see the beginning of an idealistic, mystical, and ascetic philosophy that was later developed by Plato, the Stoics, and the Neo-Platonists, and from them entered Jewish and Christian thought.

The intervening generations between Thales of Miletus (d. ca. 546 B.C.) and Pythagoras (d. ca. 497 B.C.) and Socrates and Plato (d. 347 B.C.), a period of about a century and a half, saw a brilliant series of Greek thinkers concerned with trying to adjust the rival claims of science and ethics, of popular religious ideas, and purely mechanical explanations. Philosophy now became the center of education, where it remained through all the later phases of Greek and Roman antiquity and during the Middle Ages. The idea of a single force—the logos Heraclitus called it, Parmenides named it the One, and Anaxagoras nous or mind—that created and sustained the universe, and the idea of an ordered cosmos were the chief contributions of the thinkers between Pythagoras and Socrates. As Xenophanes wrote: "One God there is, midst God and men the greatest; in form not like to mortals; he without toil rules all things; ever unmoved in one place he abideth."


Excerpted from The Mind of the Middle Ages by Frederick B. Artz, Third Edition. Copyright © 1980 Frederick B. Artz. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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