The Medieval Church – Power & Belief


The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, after which political and economic life became more local. Centralised authority was preserved by the Church, but it was beset for centuries by internal theological disputes. From a purely philosophical perspective, a rare light in the dark was the Italian aristocrat Boethius. Russell praises him for being free from the superstition and fanaticism of the time, combined with great learning and zeal for the public good. While Boethius was a Christian his work is purely Platonic. He said that the true philosophers were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and that the Hellenistic schools were usurpers. Blessedness (which is happiness) and God are both the chiefest good, and we are truly happy when we attain divinity. Boethius appears to stray into the heresy of pantheism here, i.e. the belief in many Gods. He says that when we attain divinity we feel and can be perceived as gods, but says that by nature there is only really one God. All men desire blessedness, but only the virtuous can achieve it, so the wicked will never be happy. Indeed, the wicked are unfortunate if they escape punishment, because just punishment will reform them and make them virtuous.


Monasticism had begun in the 4th century and was soon brought under Church control. The Church decreed that only priests could be monks, which minimised the occurrence of outbreaks of unorthodoxy and even heresy in monastic communities. Monks lived a life of austerity, initially as isolated hermits but increasingly within a monastery. They conceived of virtue as the absence of sin. The most famous monastic order was the Benedictine, named after St Benedict. He codified what was expected of monks and gave significant power to the Abbot. Perhaps the most famous Benedictine after the saint himself would be Pope Gregory the Great, who lived in the 6th century, and is most significant for bringing about a huge increase in papal power. Before his time the bishop of Rome, while being the most senior bishop was not considered to have any jurisdiction outside of his own diocese. Gregory wrote a book that became accepted as the guide to the duties of a bishop, and prolifically wrote letters to bishops and secular rulers throughout Europe. Russell remarks that except in his letters to the Eastern Emperor, Gregory’s tone is that of a headmaster, both commending and reproving, but confident in his right to give orders and instructions. One of the many things he reproved was evidence of learning beyond the study of the scriptures, and this attitude would remain prevalent within the Church until the 11th century.

John the Scot

John the Scot (an Irishman) is called by Russell the most astonishing man of the 9th century. He was far from orthodox – a Neoplatonist, Pelagian and pantheist, but escaped persecution thanks to the patronage of the king of France. He set reason above faith, and cared little for the authority of ecclesiastics. Ireland in the 9th century was a leading centre for learning. As Russell says, learned men through history have often been refugees. In the 5th century they fled from Gaul to England to escape the German tribes and in the 9th century from England to Ireland to escape the Vikings. John sided against St Augustine in supporting free will over predestination. This was a divisive issue within Christianity, but worse was that John argued that philosophy was superior to revelation as a source of knowledge. Reason and revelation are both sources of truth so should not conflict, but if they ever seem to then reason is to be preferred. In his work ‘On the Division of Nature’ John divides nature into four categories. The first is what creates and is not created, which is God. The second is what creates and is created, which are the Platonic ideas and are part of God. The third is things which are created and do not create, which are things in space and time. The fourth is what neither creates nor is created, which is God again, but as the end and purpose of all things rather than as creator. All things naturally strive to return to God, so God is the beginning and end of all things. God is not a separate entity but exists in all things. Sin has its source in freedom and began when humankind turned inwards and away from God. It is caused when we try to decide for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than following the will of God.

Pope vs. Emperor

The power of the Eastern Emperors over the Catholic Church declined in the 7th and 8th centuries as they lost their territories in Italy, predominantly to the Lombards in northern Italy. The Popes struck an alliance with the Franks to protect themselves from the Lombards, and in the process began to achieve independent for the Church. The Frankish King Charlemagne would later go on to conquer much of Italy and Germany, and be crowned Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire. This would lead to a power struggle between Pope and Emperor which lasted until the Popes were victorious in the 13th century, but during that period there was interdependence between both for legitimate power. Ecclesiastical reform on the 11th century increased the power of the church. Priests had already accrued unique and miraculous power, including the power to perform mass, and could determine if a person spent eternity in heaven or hell. This power rested on the belief that priests (and the Church in general) were morally superior to the laity. The ecclesiastical reforms aimed at reinforcing that belief, which included combating the sin of simony (purchase of religious title) that had become commonplace. This made priests appear all too human, made them focus on material concerns to recoup their outlay, led to promotion by wealth rather than merit, and generally meant priests were subservient to secular rulers who sold the titles. The advent of the Crusades also gave the Pope the power to compel the rulers of Europe to war, and whipped up religious zeal which also strengthened the Church.

The Ontological Argument

Finally it is worth giving consideration to St Anselm’s famous ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God. God can be defined as the greatest possible object of thought. If an object of thought does not exist then it must be based on a greater idea which does exist. Therefore if God is the greatest idea he must exist. This idea does not at first appear convincing but it interested such eminent philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and Hegel. There is an assumption here that good things are better if they exist (would you prefer a real £10 note or just the idea of one?). Another part of the premise is the belief that it would not be possible for the human mind to imagine the concept of God if God at least in some form did not exist. In other words, our thoughts never come entirely from our own imagination but rather are influenced at least partly by an external source. Few people would agree that our ability to conceive of mythical creatures such as unicorns and fairies is evidence of their existence, but such creatures are generally influenced by real creatures, and so perhaps aspects of them at least do exist. The ontological argument does not try to prove that God is exactly as we perceive him, only that in broad terms there must be a supreme being of some kind.

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