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Platonic influences on the movement of Scholasticism

Aristotle has rightly been considered as part and parcel of medieval thought. A more careful examination of the medieval period proves that Plato’s philosophical works and the various versions of Platonic philosophy also left their indelible mark on the Middle Ages.

Availability of the texts

Latin-speaking West had access to only a small fraction of Platonic literature. Until the 12th century, only the Timaeus, the dialogue that defined medieval Platonism, was available in Latin and only as far as verse 53c, in Calcidius’ (4th century) translation. Calcidius had also composed a commentary on the section he translated, which he enriched with extensive passages from other Platonic dialogues, like Theages, Theaetetus, the Republic and Phaedrus. In the mid-12th century, Henricus Aristippus, archdeacon of Catania, translated Plato’s Meno and Phaedo into Latin. In the second half of the 13th century, William of Moerbeke (1215/35-1286) translated Proclus’ (412-485) commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. The text contained a significant portion of Plato’s dialogue. During the same period, a Middle Platonic summary of Plato’s major dialogues circulated in Europe under the title De Platonis pluribus libris compendiosa expositio (Summary Exposition of most of Plato’s Works).

Apart from the text themselves, Platonic philosophy spread in Western Europe through indirect sources and references. The works of many Roman authors abound in references to Platonic dialogues. On the other hand, Johannes Scotus Eriugena’s (800-877) commentary on Boethius’ (480-526) Latin translation of Porphyry’s Introduction (Isagoge) and the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (6th century) imparted distinctly Neoplatonist overtones to Plato’s philosophy. This tendency was further reinforced by a wave of translations in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the works of Nemesius, Themistius, Proclus, Simplicius and John Philoponus were translated into Latin. Platonic thought resembled an amalgam of Neoplatonist, Sceptic, Stoic and Aristotelian references lacking any cohesion.

Platonism in the West during the Middle Ages

In the 9th century, the torch of Platonism in the West passed to Eriugena. Eriugena had managed to track down the most important texts of Christian Neoplatonism, which he employed productively; combining them with the Platonism of Augustine (354-430) and Boethius, he succeeded in presenting a new philosophy. Through the pseudo-Dionysian corpus, Eriugena transformed the Platonic dialectics of the One into a theological approach to God, thus establishing the context of western mystical theology. In his most important work, the Periphyseon, he introduces a Christianized version of Plato’s ideas. Plato’s Timaeus was fundamental to Eriugena’s synthesis.

Plato’s works were also utilized by St. Anselm of Canterbury (Anselmus Cantuariensis, 1033-1109). His philosophy remains committed to both the Augustine tradition and the Platonism of Late Antiquity. His famous arguments for the existence of God seize upon the mutability of ideas and the superiority of eternity as compared to the finiteness of time. In this he too relied on the Timaeus (37d), although it is unclear whether Anselm had studied Plato’s text itself. In other parts of his work he seems to be commenting on passages from the Theaetetus.

The School of Chartres was central to medieval Platonism, where a circle of scholars formed mainly during the 12th century. Drawing upon Greek patristic philosophy and the work of Eriugena, they argued that nature is a source of divine light, which shines equally on all, pious and ungodly alike. Nature depends on heavenly archetypes, which become intertwined with matter because of Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity. The study of nature leads to knowledge of the divine mind. Thus, studying the Timaeus became of paramount importance to the scholars of the School of Chartres. The commentaries they wrote were not limited to matters of cosmology; making the text of Plato’s Timaeus their point of departure, they compiled a derivative body of knowledge that encompassed theology, ethics, politics, music, mathematics and medicine. During the same period, Peter Abelard (Petrus Abelardus, 1079-1142), the foremost philosopher before the ascendancy of Aristotelianism, quoted Plato frequently, although he did not Platonize.

Yet, Platonic tradition was not meant to persist in 13th century philosophical cosmogony. The marginalization of Platonic philosophy was largely induced by the contact of Western philosophy with Arabic thought. The influence of Averroes’ verdict on the superiority of Aristotelian over Platonic philosophy and the sheer breadth of the Aristotelian corpus had a catalytic effect. Although Platonic philosophy continued to be studied in the 13th and 14th centuries, its range was limited. The Timaeus continued to represent the main facet of Platonism. Beyond this, indirect references and sources seem to indicate that Albertus Magnus’ (1200-1280) psychological theory, Aquinas’(1225-1274) metaphysics, and John Duns Scotus’(1265/6-1308) realism, rely on central Platonic doctrines. During the same period, following the translation of Proclus’ Elements of Theology and other Neoplatonist texts, the Neoplatonist metaphysics of light surpassed in popularity all other aspects of traditional Platonism. The sole major 13th century philosopher to systematically draw on Platonism was Henry of Ghent (Henricus Gandavensis, 1217-1293); he defended Platonist views on the problem of universals against the medieval commentators of Aristotle.

But Plato, considering only the immateriality of the human intellect, and not its being in a way united to the body, held that the objects of the intellect are separate ideas; and that we understand not by abstraction, but by participating things abstract […] (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 85, art. 1)

Again, a single whole can only be made up out of a multiplicity either by the composition of parts which are of the same category, in the way that animal is made up of body and soul, or by the assemblage of a genus and one or more characteristics, as in the cases of body and man, or by the species and collection of properties, as with Plato. (St. Anselm of Canterbury, De grammatico, 4.72)
Author: Georgios Steiris
  • Hankins, JStrayer, J.R. ed. . Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York, 1987.
  • Hoenen, M.J.F.M., Gersh, S. eds. The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach. Berlin, 2002.
  • Gersh, S. Reading Plato, Tracing Plato, From Ancient Commentary to Medieval Reception. London, 2005.
  • Klibansky, R. The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages. London, 1939.
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