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Introduction to Philosophy and Medieval Philosophy

Classical Philosophy

The material in this packet is taken from the following sources/periods:

1. Greek Classical writers: Plato and Aristotle

2. Medieval writers influenced by classicism such as Aquinas

3. The above mentioned critic, Arthur Lovejoy (Harvard philosophy professor)whose work The Great Chain of Being is considered one of the most important books in the history of philosophy.

ISSUE ONE: The nature of reality (metaphysics). The philosophy in this packet concerns two important introductory matters: a) the chain of being, and 2) the problem of the one and the many.

PLATO: You have often heard that the greatest thing to learn is the idea of the good by reference to which just things and all the rest become useful and beneficial...The good differs in its nature from everything else in that the being who possesses it always and in all respects has the most perfect sufficiency and is never in need of any other thing.

LOVEJOY: There was plainly implicit in this idea of the good, a strange consequence which was to dominate the religious thought of the west. If by God you meant the being who possesses the good in the highest degree, and if the good meant absolute self-sufficiency,...then the existence of the entire sensible [our world of ordinary sense perception] world in time can bring no addition of excellence to reality.

[What is the obvious problem Lovejoy found in Plato?]

EDITOR COMMENT: The problem Plato raised was recognized by Plato himself: PLATO: the objects of knowledge [in our world of sense perception] not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it.

LOVEJOY'S REACTION: [the above problem]...gave rise to many of the most characteristic internal conflicts. the opposite strains which mark its history--the conception of (at least) Two-Gods-in-One, of a divine completion which was yet not complete in itself, since it could not be itself without the existence of beings other than itself and inherently incomplete; of an Immutability which required, and expressed itself in, Change; of an absolute which was nevertheless not truly absolute because it was related, at least by way of implication and causation to entities that were not its nature and whose existence...were antithetical to its immutable substance.

EDITOR COMMENT: How many beings (the many) should be created by the (one)? PLATO: The sensible counterparts of every one of the ideas. LOVEJOY'S REACTION: The fullness of the realization of conceptual possibility in actuality [sense perception world] is called the principle of plenitude. The implication is that the world of ideas would be deficient without the world of sense perception. For the absolute good to give rise to anything less than the complete world in which the model [the totality of forms or ideas] would be less than the ideal counterpart would be a contradiction.

EDITOR QUESTION: What serious problem concerned Medieval philosophers based on the assumptions discussed so far?...

EDITOR COMMENT (TRANSITION TO ARISTOTLE): Aristotle spoke of creatures giving rise to, in Lovejoy's words, "...a linear series of classes. And such a series tends to show a shading off of the properties of one class into those of the next rather than a sharp-cut distinction between them."

ARISTOTLE: Nature for example passes so gradually from the inanimate to the animate that their continuity renders the boundary between them indistinguishable...Plants come immediately after inanimate things; and plants differ from one another in the degree in which they participate in life. And the transition from plants to animals is continuous; for one might question whether some marine forms are animals or plants, since many of them are attached to the rock and perish if they are separated.

EDITOR COMMENT: Everything except God has some measure of privation or imperfection and the further away from God, the more the privation.




MAN --why unique on chain?


Influence on Medieval Philosophy


Since from the supreme God mind arises, and from mind, soul, and since this in turn creates all subsequent things and fills them with all life and since this single radiance illumines all and is reflected in each, as a single face be reflected in many mirrors placed in a series, and since all things follow in continuous succession, degenerating in sequence to the very bottom of the series, the attentive observer will discover a connection of parts from the supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break.


That living light [GOD]
Through his own goodness reunites its rays
In new substance as in a mirror,
Itself eternally remaining one.
Thence it descends to the last potencies,
Downward from act to act becoming such
That only brief contingencies it makes.

EDITOR COMMENT: A very serious question with ethical implications derived from the above is whether God made the best of all possible universes for us? The issue raised is the PROBLEM OF EVIL/ IMPERFECTION:

ABELARD: If we assume that God could make either more or fewer things than he has, we shall say what is derogatory to his goodness. Goodness can produce only what is good. Hence it is the most true argument of Plato whereby the proves that God could not in any wise have made a better world than he has made:

God desired that all things be good and nothing
bad...out of disorder he brought order, con-
sisting that this was in every way better than
the other. Let us suppose the world to be the
very image of that whole...

God neither does nor omits to do anything except for some rational and supremely good reason, even though it be hidden from us, as that other sentence from Plato says, "Whatever is generated is generated from some necessary cause, for nothing comes into being except there be some due cause and reason antecedent to it." To such a degree is God in all that he does mindful of the good.

It is not to be doubted that all things, both good and bad, proceed from a perfectly ordered plan [the chain of being]. Thus Augustine: Since God is good, evils would not be unless it were a good that there should be evils. As a picture is often more beautiful...if some colors in themselves ugly are included in it, that it would be if it were uniform and of a single color, so from a mixture of evils the universe is rendered more beautiful and worthy.

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS: Now that the essence [God's divine perfectness] is not augmentable or multipliable in itself but can be multiplied only in its likeness which is shared by many. God therefore wills things to be multiplied in as much as he wills and loves his own perfection...all things in a certain manner preexist in God by their types [rationes]. God therefore in willing himself wills other things. The best thing in creation is the perfection of the universe, which consists in the orderly variety of things...thus the diversity of creatures does not arise from diversity of merits, but was primarily intended by the prime agent [God].


1. cannot be God
2. can be metaphysical evil
3. can be bad choices--disruption of the chain

Guide to Medieval Philosophical WEB Sites
Labyrinth: Georgetown