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Exploring the Foundations of Catholic Philosophy

Interested in Catholic philosophy? This guide provides a thorough introduction to its history, principles, and major thinkers. Start your journey today.

What is Catholic philosophy?

Catholic philosophy is a branch of philosophy that is grounded in Catholic theology and tradition. It seeks to understand the nature of reality, the purpose of human existence, and the relationship between God and humanity. Catholic philosophy draws on a wide range of philosophical traditions, including Aristotelianism, Thomism, and phenomenology, and has been shaped by the contributions of many influential thinkers throughout history.
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Exploring the Foundations of Catholic Philosophy

CATHOLIC philosophy, in the sense in which Bertrand Russell
 would use the term, is that which dominated European thought from Augustine to the Renaissance. There have been philosophers, before and after this period of ten centuries, who belonged to the same general school. Before Augustine there were the early Fathers, especially Origen; after the Renaissance there are many, including, at the present day, all orthodox Catholic teachers of philosophy, who adhere to some medieval system, especially that of Thomas Aquinas. But it is only from Augustine to the Renaissance that the greatest philosophers of the age are concerned in building up or perfecting the Catholic synthesis. 

In the Christian centuries before Augustine, Stoics and Neoplatonists outshine the Fathers in philosophic ability; after the Renaissance, none of the outstanding philosophers, even among those who were orthodox Catholics, were concerned to carry on the Scholastic or the Augustinian tradition.

The period with which we shall be concerned in this article differs from earlier and later times not only in philosophy, but in many other ways. The most notable of these is the power of the Church. The Church brought philosophic beliefs into a closer relation to social and political circumstances than they have ever had before or since the medieval period, which we may reckon from about A.D. 400 to about A.D. 1400. The Church is a social institution built upon a creed, partly philosophic, partly concerned with sacred history. It achieved power and wealth by means of its creed. 

The lay rulers, who were in frequent conflict with it, were defeated because the great majority of the population, including most of the lay rulers themselves, were profoundly convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith. There were traditions, Roman and Germanic, against which the Church had to fight. 

The Roman tradition was strongest in Italy, especially among lawyers; the German tradition was strongest in the feudal aristocracy that arose out of the barbarian conquest. But for many centuries neither of these traditions proved strong enough to generate a successful opposition to the Church; and this was largely due to the fact that they were not embodied in any adequate philosophy.

The history of Catholic philosophy.

The history of Catholic philosophy can be traced back to the early Church Fathers, who sought to reconcile Christian theology with Greek philosophy. Over the centuries, Catholic philosophy has been shaped by the contributions of many influential thinkers, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and René Descartes. Today, Catholic philosophy continues to evolve and adapt to new challenges and perspectives, while remaining grounded in the rich tradition of Catholic theology.

A history of thought, such as that upon which we are engaged, is unavoidably one-sided in dealing with the Middle Ages. With very few exceptions, all the men of this period who contributed to the intellectual life of their time were churchmen. The laity in the Middle Ages slowly built up a vigorous political and economic system, but their activities were in a sense blind. 

There was, in the later Middle Ages, an important lay literature, very different from that of the Church; in a general history, this literature would demand more consideration than is called for in a history of philosophic thought.

 It is not until we come to Dante that we find a layman writing with full knowledge of the ecclesiastical philosophy of his time. Until the fourteenth century, ecclesiastics have a virtual monopoly of philosophy, and philosophy, accordingly, is written from the standpoint of the Church. For this reason, medieval thought cannot be made intelligible without a fairly extensive account of the growth of ecclesiastical institutions, and especially of the papacy.

The medieval world, as contrasted with the world of antiquity, is characterized by various forms of dualism. There is the dualism of clergy and laity, the dualism of Latin and Teuton, the dualism of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, the dualism of the spirit and the flesh. 

All these are exemplified in the dualism of Pope and Emperor. The dualism of Latin and Teuton is an outcome of the barbarian invasion, but the others have older sources. The relations of clergy and laity, for the Middle Ages, were to be modelled on the relations of Samuel and Saul; the demand for the supremacy of the clergy arose out of the period of Arian or semi- Arian emperors and kings. 

The dualism of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is found in the New Testament, but was systematized in Saint Augustine City of God. The dualism of the spirit and the flesh is to be found in Plato, and was emphasized by the Neoplatonists; it is important in the teaching of Saint Paul; and it dominated the fourth and fifth centuries. 
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Philosophy in the middle ages

Catholic philosophy is divided into two periods by the dark ages, during which, in Western Europe, intellectual activity was almost non-existent. From the conversion of Constantine to the death of Boethius, the thoughts of Christian philosophers are still dominated by the Roman Empire, either as an actuality or as a recent memory. 

The barbarians, in this period, are regarded merely as a nuisance, not as an independent part of Christendom. There is still a civilized community, in which all well-to-do people can read and write, and a philosopher has to appeal to the laity as well as to the clergy. Between this period and the dark ages, at the end of the sixth century, stands Gregory the Great, who regards himself as a subject of the Byzantine emperor, but is lordly in his attitude to barbarian kings. After his time, throughout Western Christendom, the separation of clergy and laity becomes more and more marked. 

The lay aristocracy creates the feudal system, which slightly tempers the prevailing turbulent anarchy; Christian humility is preached by the clergy, but practised only by the lower classes; pagan pride is embodied in the duel, trial by battle, tournaments, and private revenge, all of which the Church dislikes but cannot prevent. With great difficulty, beginning in the eleventh century, the Church succeeds in emancipating itself from the feudal aristocracy, and this emancipation is one of the causes of the emergence of Europe from the dark ages.

The first great period of Catholic philosophy was dominated by Saint Augustine, and by Plato among the pagans. The second period culminates in Saint Thomas Aquinas, for whom, and for his successors, Aristotle far outweighs Plato. The dualism of The City of God, however, survives in full force. The Church represents the City of God, and politically philosophers stand for the interests of the Church. 

Philosophy was concerned to defend the faith, and invoked reason to enable it to argue with those who, like the Mohammedans, did not accept the validity of the Christian revelation. By this invocation of reason the philosophers challenged criticism, not merely as theologians, but as inventors of systems designed to appeal to men of no matter what creed. In the long run, the appeal to reason was perhaps a mistake, but in the thirteenth century it seemed highly successful. 

The thirteenth-century synthesis, which had an air of completeness and finality, was destroyed by a variety of causes. Perhaps the most important of these was the growth of a rich commercial class, first in Italy, and then elsewhere. The feudal aristocracy, in the main, had been ignorant, stupid, and barbaric; the common people had sided with the Church as superior to the nobles in intelligence, in morality, and in capacity to combat anarchy. 

But the new commercial class were as intelligent as the clergy, as well informed in mundane matters, more capable of coping with the nobles, and more acceptable to the urban lower classes as champions of civic liberty. Democratic tendencies came to the fore, and after helping the Pope to defeat the Emperor, set to work to emancipate economic life from ecclesiastical control.

Another cause of the end of the Middle Ages was the rise of strong national monarchies in France, England, and Spain. Having suppressed internal anarchy, and allied themselves with the rich merchants against the aristocracy, the kings, after the middle of the fifteenth century, were strong enough to fight the Pope in the national interest. 
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The papacy , meanwhile, had lost the moral prestige which it had enjoyed, and on the whole deserved, in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. First by subservience to France during the period when the popes lived at Avignon, then by the Great Schism, they had unintentionally persuaded the Western world that an unchecked papal autocracy was neither possible nor desirable. 

In the fifteenth century, their position as rulers of Christendom became subordinate, in practice, to their position as Italian princes, involved in the complex and unscrupulous game of Italian power politics.  And so the Renaissance and the Reformation disrupted the medieval synthesis, which has not yet been succeeded by anything so tidy and so apparently complete. 

The mood of thoughtful men, throughout the whole period, was one of deep unhappiness in regard to the affairs of this world, only rendered endurable by the hope of a better world hereafter. This unhappiness was a reflection of what was happening throughout Western Europe. The third century was a period of disaster, when the general level of well-being was sharply lowered. After a lull during the fourth century, the fifth brought the extinction of the Western Empire and the establishment of barbarians throughout its former territory. 

The cultivated urban rich, upon whom late Roman civilization depended, were largely reduced to the condition of destitute refugees; the remainder took to living on their rural estates. Fresh shocks continued until about A.D. 1000, without any sufficient breathing space to allow of recovery. The wars of Byzantines and Lombards destroyed most of what remained of the civilization of Italy. 

The Arabs conquered most of the territory of the Eastern Empire, established themselves in Africa and Spain, threatened France, and even, on one occasion, sacked Rome. The Danes and Normans caused havoc in France and England, in Sicily and Southern Italy. Life, throughout these centuries, was precarious and full of hardship. Bad as it was in reality, gloomy superstitions made it even worse. It was thought that the great majority even of Christians would go to hell. 

At every moment, men felt themselves encompassed by evil spirits, and exposed to the machinations of sorcerers and witches. No joy of life was possible, except, in fortunate moments, to those who retained the thoughtlessness of children. The general misery heightened the intensity of religious feeling. The life of the good here below was a pilgrimage to the heavenly city; nothing of value was possible in the sublunary world except the steadfast virtue that would lead, in the end, to eternal bliss. 

The Greeks, in their great days, had found joy and beauty in the every-day world. Empedocles, apostrophizing his fellow-citizens, says: "Friends, that inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Acragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbour of honour for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail." In later times, until the Renaissance, men had no such simple happiness in the visible world, but turned their hopes to the unseen. Acragas is replaced in their love by Jerusalem the Golden. When earthly happiness at last returned, the intensity of longing for the other world grew gradually less. Men used the same words, but with a less profound sincerity.

In the attempt to make the genesis and significance of Catholic philosophy intelligible, I have found it necessary to devote more space to general history than is demanded in connection with either ancient or modern philosophy. 

Catholic philosophy is essentially the philosophy of an institution, namely the Catholic Church; modern philosophy, even when it is far from orthodox, is largely concerned with problems, especially in ethics and political theory, which are derived from Christian views of the moral law and from Catholic doctrines as to the relations of Church and State. In Græco Roman paganism there is no such dual loyalty as the Christian, from the very beginning, has owed to God and Caesar, or, in political terms, to Church and State. 

Major thinkers in Catholic philosophy.
Catholic philosophy has a rich history of influential thinkers who have contributed to its development and evolution. Some of the major figures in Catholic philosophy include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Newman. These philosophers have explored a wide range of topics, from the nature of God and the human soul to ethics and political philosophy. Their ideas continue to be studied and debated by scholars and students of philosophy today.
most famous catholic philosophers

Greatest catholic philosophers 

The problems raised by this dual loyalty were, for the most part, worked out in practice before the philosophers supplied the necessary theory. In this process there were two very distinct stages: one before the fall of the Western Empire, and one after it. The practice of a long line of bishops, culminating in Saint Ambrose, supplied the basis for Saint Augustine's political philosophy. 

Then came the barbarian invasion, followed by a long time of confusion and increasing ignorance. Between Boethius and Saint Anselm, a period of over five centuries, there is only one eminent philosopher, John the Scot, and he, as an Irishman, had largely escaped the various processes that were moulding the rest of the Western world. But this period, in spite of the absence of philosophers, was not one during which there was no intellectual development. 

Chaos raised urgent practical problems, which were dealt with by means of institutions and modes of thought that dominated scholastic philosophy, and are, to a great extent, still important at the present day. These institutions and modes of thought were not introduced to the world by theorists, but by practical men in the stress of conflict. 

The moral reform of the Church in the eleventh century, which was the immediate prelude to the scholastic philosophy, was a reaction against the increasing absorption of the Church into the feudal system. To understand the scholastics we must understand Hildebrand, and to understand Hildebrand we must know something of the evils against which he contended. Nor can we ignore the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire and its effect upon European thought. 

For these reasons, the reader will find in the following paragraph much ecclesiastical and political history of which the relevance to the development of philosophic thought may not be immediately evident. It is the more necessary to relate something of this history as the period concerned is obscure, and is unfamiliar to many who are at home with both ancient and modern history. 

Few technical philosophers have had as much influence on philosophic thought as Saint Ambrose, Charlemagne, and Hildebrand. To relate what is essential concerning these men and their times is therefore indispensable in any adequate treatment of our subject.

Applying Catholic philosophy to modern issues.

While Catholic philosophy has a long history, it is still relevant to modern issues and debates. Many of the principles and ideas put forth by Catholic philosophers can be applied to contemporary ethical and political issues. For example, the Catholic concept of the common good can be used to guide discussions about social justice and the role of government in promoting the well-being of all members of society. Additionally, Catholic ideas about the dignity of the human person can inform debates about issues such as abortion and euthanasia. By studying Catholic philosophy, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of these issues and contribute to ongoing discussions about them.

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