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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Has Christianity Been An Aid Or A Hindrance To The Development Of Western Philosophical Thought?

For nearly 1500 years prior to the Enlightenment, as well as during it, Christianity held a stranglehold on Western philosophy throughout most of Europe. Nearly all philosophy which emerged within this period was contextualised within Christianity. Very few philosophers survive who supported secular, agnostic or atheistic characterisations of the world prior to the Enlightenment, and those who did were often persecuted viciously for their transgressions. Nevertheless, Christianity did help develop scholarly and intellectual thought in some key respects. This essay looks at the years before the Enlightenment in which philosophy and Christianity were inexorably linked and comes to a conclusion about how Christianity has both aided and hindered the development of such philosophy.

For a millennium after the writings of St Augustine, nearly all of the Western philosophical canon focused upon, or at least considered, the idea of a Christian God, and was inexorably tied to Christianity. This is in large part due to the positive contributions of Christianity. Throughout much of Europe, the Church itself acted as the main vehicle through which academia and philosophical thought were promoted. For the first millennium after the death of Christ, there was very little writing generally outside of the Church, and this meant that outside of the Church, very little philosophy was developed. This writing is a prerequisite to the survival of such philosophy in its form so that it can be built upon by successors. The Church was the main institution with the resources to preserve its writings, and thus very little philosophy outside of the Church has survived in order to ‘develop’ philosophy in a manner in which it can be built upon.

Moreover, most of the schools and education in the early and middle ages were developed by the Church, one of the few institutions with the resources and will to further education. Churches and monasteries served as bastions of free thought. This education allowed more complex thinking which stood as the basis for the philosophy of the day. The scope of philosophy within such early medieval periods may have been slightly limited, as it was mainly focused upon religion and the philosophy of religion, how,ever it can be considered generally beneficial to the development of Western thought.

A second manner in which the church helped develop philosophy is the logical and rational method employed frequently by church academics starting around the medieval age. Scholasticism, a movement beginning in roughly the 1100s and lasting until the Enlightenment, was a movement in Christianity which encouraged rigorous method, placing a strong emphasis on dialectal reasoning and critical thought. Scholasticism as a doctrine perhaps best exemplifies the manner in which academic religious thought within the Christian Church contributed towards the development of philosophy. It originated within Christian monastic schools and was perpetuated through the Church. Scholasticism built up a base of philosophical and analytical method which modern philosophers were able to use. Examples of scholasticism include, most famously, the works of Thomas Aquinas, as well as a range of others, and served as the main way in which logical, scholarly philosophical method was able to occur until Descartes brought about modernism in philosophy. Scholasticism also resuscitated and revived the importance of prior and classical philosophy in many key ways. It is unlikely philosophers such as Descartes could have built up such a methodically rational modern philosophy if not for the foundations laid by scholasticism, as it helped incubate the analytical scholarly method which modern philosophy utilises.

Many scholastic theologians/philosophers built upon classic philosophy to develop their own ideas. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the manner in which Aquinas was very strongly influenced by Aristotle and revitalised the discussion around Aristotelian philosophy. Scholasticism is deeply tied to the introduction of philosophical ideas from Greece, such as Aristotelian philosophy, which was preserved in Arabian archives at the time. It is likely these might not have been utilised to preserve such philosophy and integrate it with Western ideals so as to develop the Western philosophical canon if not for the scholastic method taking place within religious institutions and medieval universities. The broad discussion of classic philosophy through the scholastic method allowed philosophy which may not have been previously discussed to return to relevance. Therefore, through scholasticism, Christianity can be considered to have helped develop philosophical analytical and logical manners of thinking, as well as to have helped proliferate and sustain the ideas which were brought from other nations and contribute them towards Western thought.

However, the ways Christianity facilitated the development of philosophy as mentioned above does not portray the full picture. Christianity, in one key respect above all, significantly hindered the development of philosophy. For most of its existence, Christian thinkers and the institutions of the church would often harshly clamp down upon those who had differing opinions (as Christian institutions still do in some parts of the world). Reasons for this vary, from a genuine belief that the eradication of contrarian opinions would help communities become more morally pure and worthwhile, to the significantly more sinister desire for Christian communities and the Church to cement power and remove those who questioned their judgement and could threaten their power. Philosophy, at its base level, aims to epistemologically question dogmas and beliefs. It fundamentally questions the reasoning and logic used within accepted doctrines and beliefs and highlights the flaws within arguments. This in turn means that philosophers would often question the soundness of both premises and logical chains presented by philosophers in the medieval church. This questioning often either posed a grave risk or was perceived to do so by institutions of Christianity. Thus, philosophers were repeatedly persecuted throughout the lifespan of Christianity, and Christianity often served as a justification for the eradication of their ideas.

The persecution of philosophers by Christian institutions and leaders can be traced all the way back to 415, when Hypatia, the great mathematician and philosopher was flayed alive for promoting mathematics and philosophy, conflicting with traditional Christian doctrine. In 529, the symbolically extremely important and historically rich ‘academy’ founded by Plato a millennium earlier was closed due to vague claims of ‘paganism’ and ‘insanity’. The general belief that philosophy and philosophers were immoral, facilitated by Christianity’s innate proselytising nature led to a strong persecution drive. Religious institutions often actively encouraged the killing or silencing of philosophers. Christianity, at least in the way it was interpreted for most of the middle ages, was fundamentally opposed to the development of free-thinking philosophy beyond the bounds of religious scholasticism.

It is not clear quite how much philosophy would have survived beyond the existing canon if there had not been persecution by many Christian institutions and leaders. However, in the absence of Christian persecution, it is likely philosophy would have developed into modernistic philosophy beyond Socrates and Plato far earlier. Without the influence of the Christinity, it is likely more philosophers would have survived within the canon and developed complex ideas earlier. There would be more secular philosophy emerging from the period. The persecution complex displayed within early Christianity can very clearly be considered to have limited the philosophical canon and development of philosophy which we have in a significant manner. The causal reason why philosophy before 1000 AD is primarily focused upon religion and philosophy is not only because Christianity in some sections promoted education and scholarly thought, but also because nearly all philosophy disagreeing with the accepted doctrine of the Church was eradicated. Even afterwards, heading into the modern period of the philosophical canon, numerous philosophers from Hobbes to Kant had to deal with governmental and Church authorities who opposed their practices and philosophy due to its contrast with religion and ‘heretical’ nature. It is almost certain there are a wide range of other philosophers whose works could have potentially been instrumental to modern philosophy but were silenced by religious authorities. The destruction of philosophical texts and persecution of philosophers can thus be considered extremely damaging to the development of Western philosophy. It meant that numerous philosophers who could have contributed to Western philosophy had their texts destroyed.

Thus, the question becomes to what extent the negative effects of the persecution were offset by Christianity’s positive contributions towards philosophy. Christianity did in some ways help to develop western philosophy. Through its various movements, most notably scholasticism, it laid the groundwork upon which modern philosophy would be built. However, these positive benefits are offset by how Christianity, in its various denominations and forms, generally obstructed the spread of philosophy and philosophical ideas throughout its existence. The manner in which Christianity has benefited the development of philosophy is less impactful, as the philosophy it helped develop was primarily the philosophy of religion, whose impact, whilst useful, is less meaningful than the manner in which Christianity limited the development of secular philosophy. Through the repeated persecution of secular and even religious philosophers, Christianity nearly entirely eliminated secular philosophy for a millennium. The philosophy which does survive focused excessively upon religon. Even modern philosophers such as Descartes had to make provisions for God and religion. In doing so, the Church closed off numerous branches of philosophy such as existentialism or atheistic rationalism for nearly 1500 years. This limitation is more significant than the way in which Christianity helped develop philosophical thinking, as such development would have likely happened to a somewhat lesser extent outside of the Christian Church, if not for Christian obstruction. Thus Christianity, and Christian ways of thinking, due to its excessive conservatism and clamping down on free thought, can be considered overall harmful to the development of philosophy throughout history, although they nevertheless aided it in some key respects.


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