In the Middle Ages Europe Christianity, namely Catholicism, was the prevailing religion. What is more, it was the only religion recognized and generously financed by the state. Having such robust support, the church has become a dominating institution having a powerful influence on the lives of both noblemen and peasants. During this period of history, the Christian societies in the European West underwent great changes in the belief system to develop the Catholic intellectual tradition.
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The Catholic intellectual tradition was based on the theistic view of the world and universe, i.e. the belief that there is only one God, “the Great Architect of the world”1, who created the universe and who is the only ruler of it and the source of life as well as death. Together with that, the universe was viewed as the unity of different aspects of human life whether social, material or natural. Understanding such unity of the universe necessarily leads to understanding the nature of everything that happens. That means that if the person recognizes God as the creator and the only ruler of the universe and the unity of every single aspect of human life than there are bigger chances of apprehension of the world order.
That said, the Catholic intellectual tradition is seen as the accumulation of knowledge of the antecedent generations. That means that all that was found to be true is not denied but accepted and believed and people keep developing, and the main goal of this development is to find out the truth about nature and the universe. The final objective of finding this truth is that people through “the holiest cult of God, become able to bear the effulgent splendor of the noonday sun”2. It means that all the knowledge is gained in believing in one and only God, and the one who has discovered the truth should become a prophet and share it with the other people so that the level of the accumulated knowledge continues to grow together with the background of people.
Furthermore, the Christians in the European West borrowed most of their knowledge from the Greco-Roman thought. The most prominent example is the Bible – Greek New Testament – that was adopted as a primary book of the Christian Church teaching people how to live and treat each other. More than that, they took a lot from Greco-Roman philosophers, such as Plato, Heraclitus, Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, and others.
For example, the concept “know thyself”3 preached by Zoroaster and Plato calls upon understanding oneself more through self-knowledge and thus getting closer to God, i.e. strengthen one’s faith. What is even more important is that this idea motivates a person to study the surrounding world after realizing that humanity is part of the world and nature. Another good example of a similar sagacity is “feed the cock” taught by Pythagoras that was borrowed by the West European Christians to stress the necessity to feed one’s soul with faith and knowledge as it is necessary to give food and water to the cock.
Except for sententious sayings, what Christian theology borrowed from the Greek philosophers is the idea about soul and death taught by Platonists. According to this theory, a soul is locked inside the human body and because of its horridness, it cannot undertake the true joy of life and belief. A soul, under this belief, can use human body organs to free itself but at that moment a person becomes insane and that the only true liberation is death4. Furthermore, Christian ideology teaches that death is what should always be borne in mind and that every person should be ready to die, i.e. prepare his or her soul to become free, by leading a life of virtue.
Moreover, not only intellectual tradition but also everything about how one should live his life was defined by the concept of theism. It means that there has to be a balance between faith and reason. What is more important there has to be harmony between the two. One should remember that faith is the source of reason to search the knowledge and understanding of revelations, but it exceeds the revelations and leads the believer towards the desire to understand the universe and find out what the meaning of his life is and what is that that the faith teaches.
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More often than not there was no balance between faith and reason but a conflict between the two. That said, “a humble knowledge of yourself is a surer way to God than a deep search after knowledge”5 that means that a person was more welcome to spend a life in prayer and studying scriptures to become closer to God than chase after the knowledge about nature and the universe and trying to figure out whether what the religion taught was true.
Nevertheless, hunger for knowledge was not criticized but leading a simple life of virtue was more welcome than studying. People believed that “learning is not to be blamed … but a good conscience and a virtuous life are always to be preferred before it”6. During that period of history, the society lived under the stereotype that the more knowledge people have, the higher the possibility of the wicked thoughts and deeds and conflicts between people as well as knowledge is the source of doubt while focusing on one’s inner self and staying close to God in thoughts and actions is the source of peace in the community.
So, as we can see, the Catholic intellectual tradition in Europe started to develop during the Middle Ages. It was strictly religious and based on the belief in single God, the beginning and the end of everything in the world. It was strongly affected by the Greco-Roman philosophers, especially various sententious sayings that were given the religious context, and theological texts, such as the New Testament teaching people how to live and treat each other. What is more, the Catholic intellectual tradition was always characterized by an inner conflict between faith and reason with faith being more greeted and praised as a guarantee for peace in society.
Erasmus, Desiderius. In Praise of Folly. Translated by John Wilson. New York, NY: Cosimo, 2010.
Kempis, Thomas à.The Imitation of Christ. Translated by John Wilson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1958.
Mirandola, Giovanni pico della. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Translated by A. Robert Caponigri. Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Company, 1956.
- Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, trans. John Wilson (New York, NY: Cosimo, 2010), 67.
- Giovanni pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Company, 1956), 32.
- Ibid., 28.
- Erasmus, 68.
- Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. John Wilson (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1958), Book I, ch. III.
- Ibid., Book I, ch. III.