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Medieval Philosophy

The Carolingians

Stephen Stewart on a forgotten golden age of philosophy.

Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo in the visual arts. Bruno, Machiavelli, Erasmus and Thomas More in the world of philosophy. With names like that, it is little wonder that the Renaissance, spanning some three hundred years from the 14th to the 16th centuries, is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of western European thought and culture, heralding the modern era. But an earlier, often overlooked, flourishing of learning in the eighth and ninth centuries called the Carolingian Renaissance, is arguably just as interesting, hugely influential and certainly worthy of study.

Thinkers such as Alcuin of York (c.735-804) and John Scottus Eriugena (c810-c877) are not as well known as their later counterparts. However, their substantial role in the history of philosophy should not be ignored or underestimated. Critics may say that they contributed little of originality and merely transmitted the philosophical musings of the ancient Greeks and others. Such jibes do Alcuin et al a great dis-service and smack of the hackneyed adage that the history of western philosophy is but ‘footnotes to Plato’.

For Deirdre Carabine, the learning of the ninth century directly contradicts the notion of the so-called Dark Ages. She wrote:

“The long reign of Charlemagne, a Christian monarch in the new mold and legitimized by divine grace, represents a bright period in the history of Western philosophy and culture.

“Charlemagne was the first of a trinity of ‘priestly kings’ to whom the intellectual life of the West is hugely indebted; his son Louis and his grandson Charles complete the trio.”

Alcuin was the prime mover behind the educational revival of Charlemagne’s time. After entering the court of the King of the Franks who ruled from 754 to 814, the philosopher became what we would nowadays term an education czar. Under Alcuin, knowledge was delineated into the seven liberal arts: the verbal arts of the trivium, namely grammar, logic and rhetoric and the mathematical arts or quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. According to David Luscombe, this classification of knowledge served as a cradle in which subsequent philosophical thought was nurtured.

As with all philosophers, Alcuin was influenced by his predecessors, especially Augustine, but his thinking is more original than it is usually given credit for. John Marenbon describes this originality in his chapter on Carolingian thought in the encyclopedic Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation edited by Rosamund McKitterick. He said:

“As in Augustine, the liberal arts reflect the underlying structure of true knowledge. However, this is now seen to be grasped, not by the workings of reason itself, but through the interpretation of scripture. The liberal arts then are not, as Augustine would suggest himself in later works, such as De Doctrine Christiana, bare techniques which happen, as a matter of fact, to be valuable for the faithful. Rather, they reflect reality as it is made accessible to Christians through revelation.”

In other words, Alcuin began applying the rigours of logic to the minutiae of Christian dogma and reality. He also helped establish a thorough grounding in the arts as a prerequisite for the educated classes for centuries. As a result, while ever more fractious theological disputes broke out about the nature of souls, predestination and free will, philosophical concepts would increasingly be put into good use.

As Marenbon said: “So far as the content of logical theory is concerned, it was a time of assimilation, not innovation. Yet Alcuin and his successors in the ninth century were novel in the importance they gave to logic within the curriculum – an importance connected with the close links they made between logic and the discussion of Christian doctrine. Although they could look to Augustine and Boethius for precedents, they transformed what was merely a strand in late-antique thought into a regular framework for teaching and speculation. Medieval philosophy and theology were shaped by the consequences of this initiative.”

It was also Alcuin who saw to it that the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius became a central part of the arts curriculum, ensuring a central role for the subject, according to Carabine. She wrote: “...the emphasis on reason in Christian education signalled the beginning of a tradition that was to come to its full blossoming in the works of the thirteenth-century master Thomas Aquinas.”

The greatest scholar of his day and another major figure in the intellectual flourishing of the Carolingian period, was John Scottus Eriugena, the Irish philosopher and theologian, regarded as the interpreter of Greek thought to the Latin West.

Alcuin, as I’ve said, was a trusted adviser to Charlemagne and John ‘the Scot’ Eriugena played a similar role to the Emperor’s grandson, Charles the Bald (823-877). Eriugena referred to the likes of pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor but for commentators like Marenbon, he ‘thinks through his sources’ and manages to contribute something new.

He develops the notion of negative theology which he attributed to pseudo-Dionysius and explores the idea that descriptions of God can only be held to be true when they are negated. God is by his very nature unknowable, even by himself – for if he was to know himself, he would be in a sense circumscribed and limited.

Eriugena’s works On Predestination and the Periphyseon had a huge influence and have proved remarkably fresh and accessible to a modern audience. Indeed, he was a man well ahead of his time, and as a result his thought had the whiff of heresy about it. His Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature) used the dialectical method to address theological questions at a time when that took considerable bravery, as theologians were extremely reluctant to allow a secular science into their privileged domain.

Eriugena also had the audacity to question the shibbolleths of the great Augustine and shaped Christianity with a bold infusion of Neo-Platonism, uniting eastern and western philosophy. The influence of the “generality of scope and unaccustomed ideas” in his thought has been far-reaching. Marenbon said:

“Many valuable studies have been written which, on this principle, examine John’s ideas within the context of the Platonic traditions, pagan and Christian. Other historians have preferred to place Eriugena within a broader tradition of idealist philosophy, stretching back to Plato and forward to Hegel and the German Idealists. Indeed, the most recent of these writers has argued that Eriugena transformed his Neo-Platonic sources, changing their realism into an idealism which had few precedents before the nineteenth century.”

Eriugena has attracted a modern following not least because his worldview is less austere than that of many of his medieval counterparts. Carrabine points out that he portrays God’s creation as returning to its source “to receive a theophany of God that reflects the kind of life lived.”

A conference in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, in 1970 led to the founding of a Society for the Promotion of Eriugenian Studies (SPES) which through its activities has gone some way to giving the Irishman his rightful place in the history of philosophy. According to no less an authority than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“(He) is the most significant Irish intellectual of the early monastic period. He is generally recognized to be both the outstanding philosopher (in terms of originality) of the Carolingian era and of the whole period of Latin philosophy stretching from Boethius to Anselm. Eriugena is also, though this parallel remains to be explored, more or less a contemporary of the Arab Neoplatonist Al-Kindi. Eriugena’s uniqueness lies in the fact that, quite remarkably for a scholar in Western Europe in the Carolingian era, he had considerable familiarity with the Greek language, affording him access to the Greek Christian theological tradition, from the Cappadocians to Gregory of Nyssa, hitherto almost entirely unknown in the Latin West.”

Writers have pointed out that Eriugena manages to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, laying forth the relation between God and creation in an ingenious way which preserves both divine transcendence and omnipresence.

Some have said his “theory of place and time as defining structures of the mind anticipates Kant, his dialectical reasoning prefigures Hegel. But above all, Eriugena is a mystic who emphasizes the unity of human nature with God.”

Alcuin and Eriugena were two of the foremost thinkers and educationalists of their time. But the Carolingian Renaissance was remarkably rich; other (relatively) obscure thinkers who made their mark include Remigius of Auxerre, Hincmar, Ratramnus of Corbie and Gottschalk of Orbais.

The intellectual richness and dynamism of medieval thought drew on the glories of the past and the Romano-Christian tradition cast a long shadow over the Carolingians. But even this was not as straightforward as it may seem with Rome meaning different things to different people. For some it meant the classical tradition, for others pagan and Christian Roman imperial ideas, and for all it meant papal authority as the ultimate guarantor of religious authority.

A canon of knowledge laid out in the Carolingian monasteries, would as we have seen, lay the foundation for education and scholarship across the Middle Ages raising questions which are still part of the philosophical landscape today. Another gift to western culture from the Carolingians, was the enshrinement of the supremacy of Latin, allowing access to the intellectual realm of antiquity and providing a universal language for intellectuals for centuries. Much had changed in the Latin language over the centuries, and Charlemagne helped standardize it. New words, phrases, and idioms were now introduced into the language, giving us what we know now as medieval Latin.

The Holy Roman Emperor’s reign had many other ramifications. Before his time, manuscripts were written in uppercase letters and without punctuation. Charlemagne wanted unity above all in the Frankish Church and by the ninth century, most monasteries had writing rooms or scriptoria. In these scriptoria, Charlemagne instituted a new standard scholarly language making manuscripts more legible. This standard writing called the Carolingian minuscule, was written in upper and lower case, with punctuation and words separated. The new script was obviously easier to read and is the one we still use to this day.

The Carolingian Renaissance meant more than uniform religious practices, the elevation of education, standardised coins, reformed handwriting and the development of scholarly Latin. And it would be wrong to think that it was surrounded by an intellectual and philosophical abyss. The tenth century may not have been as dynamic as either the ninth or the 14th century but there was still a great deal of activity in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England as well as the spread of Christianity and Latin culture to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. Carolingian culture and philosophy had the strength to endure despite the fragmentation of the political and social structures which had supported it.

A full and detailed assessment of the Carolingian impact on philosophy and cultural life is required but according to Rosamond McKitterick:

“Nevertheless, even our present and partial understanding of Carolingian culture is of a diverse legacy of great power and an outstanding contribution to the continuity of creative endeavour within human society. The Carolingians imparted to future generations with their emulation and invention in all aspects of culture, the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

It is doubtful that the likes of Eriugena will ever hold as great a position as Renaissance thinkers such as Macchiavelli either in the popular mind or in the pantheon of western philosophy. However, to ignore them and their contribution is to distort the history of philosophy and the lasting legacy of the Carolingians.

© Stephen Stewart 2005

Stephen Stewart is an acclaimed journalist with The Herald newspaper and a historian with a particular interest in philosophy and medieval history.

Further Reading

• Deirdre Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena (2000).
• David Luscombe, Medieval Thought (1997).
• R. McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (1994).
• A. Schoedinger, Readings in Medieval Philosophy (1994).

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