7 From Ancient to Modern Philosophy

From Ancient to Modern Philosophy

About 2000 years elapse between the ancient Greek philosophy and the modern classical period.

The rise and fall of Rome follows the golden age of ancient Greece. Greek philosophical traditions undergo assorted transformations during this period, but Rome is not known for making significant original contributions to either philosophy or science. Intellectual progress requires a degree of liberty not so available in the Roman Empire. Additionally, the intellectual talent and energy available in ancient Rome would have been pretty fully occupied with the demands of expanding and sustaining political power and order. Rome had more use for engineers than scientists, and more use for bureaucrats than philosophers. Christianity becomes the dominate religion in Rome after emperor Constantine converts in the 4th century A.D., Also in the 4th century, the great Christian philosopher Augustine, under the influence of

Plato, formulates much of what will become orthodox Catholic doctrine. After a rather dissolute and free-wheeling youth, Augustine studies Plato and find’s much to make Christianity reasonable in it. With the rise of the Catholic Church, learning and inquiry are pursued largely exclusively in the service of religion for well over a millennium. Philosophy in this period is often described as the handmaiden of theology. The relationship between philosophy and theology is perhaps a bit more ambiguous, though. As we’ve just noted in the case of Augustine, much ancient Greek philosophy gets infused into Catholic orthodoxy. But at the same time, the new faith of Christianity spearheads an anti-intellectual movement in which libraries are destroyed and most ancient Greek thought is lost to the world forever.

Through the West’s period of Catholic orthodoxy, most of what we know of Greek science and philosophy, most notably Aristotle’s thought, survived in the Islamic world. What remains of the complete works of Aristotle covers subjects as far ranging as metaphysics, ethics, politics, rhetoric, physics, biology, and astronomy, and amounts to enough writing to fill 1500 pages in the fine print translation on my bookshelf. But even this consists largely of lecture notes and fragments. Most of his polished prose is lost forever.

The crusade were a series of conflicts between the Christian and Islamic world towards the end of the middle ages. This conflict between Christianity and Islam was also an occasion for cultural exchange, and the Crusades led to the re-introduction of Aristotle and other ancient Greek scholarship to the west. Aristotle’s philosophy and science was too carefully reasoned, systematic, and subtle to be dismissed as pointless pagan speculation. Instead, Christian thinkers in the west set out to understand Aristotle and interpret him a manner that would cohere with Catholic doctrine. St. Thomas Aquinas is the most famous philosopher to engage in this work of Christianizing Aristotle. He found ways to harness Aristotle’s metaphysical arguments in the cause of advocating the existence of a Christian God.

Aristotle’s views about the natural world quickly come to be received as the established truth in the Christian world. Aristotle’s physics, for instance becomes the standard scientific view about the natural world in Europe. Aristotle also wrote about the methods of science, and he was much more empirical than his teacher Plato. Aristotle thought the way to learn about the natural world was to make careful observations and infer general principles from these. For instance, as an early biologist, Aristotle dissected hundreds of species of animals to learn about anatomy and physiology. The Scholastics who studied Aristotle obviously did not adopt the methods Aristotle recommended. But some other people did. Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Copernicus were among the few brave souls to turn a critical eye to the natural world itself and, employing methods Aristotle would have approved of, began to challenge the views of Aristotle that the Scholastics had made a matter of doctrine. Thus begins the Scientific Revolution.

Where the Renaissance is the reawakening of the West to its ancient cultural and intellectual roots, the Scientific Revolution begins as a critical response to ancient thinking, and in large part that of Aristotle. This critical response was no quick refutation. Aristotle’s physics might now strike us as quite naïve and simplistic, but that is only because every contemporary middle school student gets a thorough indoctrination in Newton’s relatively recent way understanding of the physical world. The critical reaction to Aristotle that ignites the scientific revolution grew out of tradition of painstakingly close study of Aristotle. The scholastic interpreters of Aristotle were not just wrongheaded folks stuck on the ideas of the past. They were setting the stage for new discoveries that could not have happened without their work. Again, our best critics are the ones who understand us the best and the one’s from whom we stand to learn the most. In the Scientific Revolution we see a beautiful example of Socratic dialectic operating at the level of traditions of scholarship.

Europe also experiences significant internal changes in the 16th century that pave the way for its intellectual reawakening. In response to assorted challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church and the decadence of 16th century Catholic churchmen, Martin Luther launches the Reformation. The primary tenet of the reformation was that faith concerns the individual’s relation to God who is knowable directly through the Bible without the intermediary of the Catholic Church. The Reformation and the many splintering branches of Protestant Christianity that it spawns undermines the dogmatic adherence to a specific belief system and opens the way

for more free and open inquiry. The undermining of Catholic orthodoxy brought on by the reformation combined with the rediscovery of ancient culture in the Renaissance jointly give rise to the Scientific Revolution and, what we often refer to as the Modern Classical period in philosophy. The reawakening of science and philosophy are arguably one and the same revolution. Developments in philosophy and science during this period are mutually informed, mutually influencing, and intermingled. Individuals including Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes are significant contributors to both science and philosophy.

Review and Discussion Questions:

  • Explain Protagoras’ epistemic relativism.
  • How does Socrates oppose epistemic relativism?
  • What is the Socratic Method?
  • How does Socrates respond to Euthyphro’s suggestion that the pious is what is loved by all the gods? How does his response point us towards a critique of Divine Command Theory? What is the problem with the view that what is pious is pious because it is loved by the gods?
  • What are Plato’s forms? Why does Plato take the forms to be the most real sorts of entities?
  • What is temperance and why is it a virtue in Plato’s view?
  • How is Plato’s vision of justice non-egalitarian and anti-democratic?
  • How do Plato and Aristotle’s views on form differ?
  • What is the difference between essence and accident?
  • What does it mean to say that Aristotle held a teleological view of the world?
  • Explain Aristotle’s four causes as principles of explanation.
  • What is the role of Aristotle’s philosophy and science in leading to the scientific revolution?


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