Category: Philosophical theories

Medieval Dualist Heresies

Pessimistic dualist tendencies emerged in Western Europe between the 11th and 14th century; they seem to echo a Platonic antithesis between matter and spirit, perhaps mediated by Gnostic and Manichean views of the first Christian centuries.

Medieval dualist heretical communities recognized materiality as evil, so that man seemed ridiculed, trapped in the world as if in hell. The Sacraments of the Church were criticized as lacking salvific value, veneration of the Cross was condemned as idolatry, marriage was avoided in order for the endless imprisonment in the evil of materiality to stop.

Between the 12th and 14th century especially in southern Europe heretical communities developed, that the Roman Catholic Church included under the general name of ‘Catharoi’ (Cathars, Clean), known in France also as Albigensians —from the town of Albi, where the movement was particularly strong. Their ideological roots probably go back to the Paulicians of Armenia through the Slavonic heresy of Bogomils (‘Friends of God’), although latest research tends to doubt this association. Among themselves they were not called ‘Cathars’, but ‘Good Men’ and ‘Friends of God’ as being on the side of the good God of the New Testament against the supposedly evil God of the Old Testament, usually identified with Satan. In their thinking the opposition of spirit and matter was absolute and dominant, therefore to the good God they ascribed only the making of the spiritual reality.

There have been attempts for Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars to be connected with Buddhism and far-Eastern Manichaeism, but these attempts also remain doubtful. Dualist heresies developed like the non-dualist, as reactions against the corruption of the clergy. Without limiting themselves to specific objections, as happened later with Protestantism, they wished to deny completely the whole spirituality of the traditional Church, interpreting it as an evil trap.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) instigated a campaign against the dualists of France, which triggered further persecutions leading to their extinction. Internal causes contributed to this result not a little —moralistic austerity, the denial of motherhood and a separation in mild and absolute dualist sects. This heresy became the cause for the creation of the notorious ‘Holy Inquisition.’

The recognition of an evil origin and nature in material reality was not a result or side-effect of an increased confidence on the goodness of spirit, but of a weak consciousness of a unity which transcends whatever may appear contradictory in existence. This crucial property, after which the relevant heresies were called dualist, distinguishes them in the most absolute and fundamental way from platonism and neoplatonism.

Superiority of spirit over matter is recognized by Plato, becoming more intense in neoplatonism and the great Christian Churches; even the union of the soul with the body is recognized to some extent as an ‘imprisonment’ —but this contrast does not become an absolute conflict and an unbridgeable gap.

Materiality is not fundamentally evil in platonism, nor its Creator, as is evident characteristically by Plotinus’ criticism of the Gnostics of his time, whose spirituality was not very different from subsequent dualist heresies that developed in Christianity —regardless of the latter’s origin in the early Gnostics, a connection, however, that is denied by the relevant research.

A causal relationship of (whatever) Manichean tendency of the western spirituality with Plato or with neoplatonism is impossible, which explains why it has not and cannot be proved. This is also evident in a comparison with Byzantium, where Plato never ceased to exercise a great influence directly or through neoplatonism. Manichaeism —contrary to what might expect someone who would correlate it directly with platonism— did not have in Byzantium a greater intensity than in western Europe, but much less.

Author: George Valsamis
  • Benedetto, R., Duke, J.O. eds. The New Westminster Dictiona¬ry of Church History: The early, medieval, and Reformation eras . Westminster, 2008.
  • Evans, G.R, A Brief History of Heresy. Oxford, 2003.
  • Frassetto, M. Heretic Lives: Medieval Heresy from Bogomil and the Cathars to Wyclif and Hus. London, 2007.
  • Pegg, M.G. Journal of Medieval History 27. 2001.
  • Runciman, S. The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. Cambridge, 1947.
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