Christianity’s Content: (Neo)Platonism in the Middle Ages, Its Theoretical and Theological Appeal

In: Numen

The development of medieval Christian thought reveals from its inception in foundational authors like Augustine and Boethius an inherent engagement with Neoplatonism. To their influence that of Pseudo-Dionysius was soon added, as the first speculative medieval author, the Carolingian thinker Johannes Scottus Eriugena (810–877 ce), used all three seminal authors in his magisterial demonstration of the workings of procession and return. Rather than a stable ongoing trajectory, however, the development of medieval Christian (Neo)Platonism saw moments of flourishing alternate with moments of philosophical stagnation. The revival of the Timaeus and Platonic cosmogony in the twelfth century marks the achievement of the so-called Chartrian authors, even as the Timaeus never acquired the authority of the biblical book of Genesis. Despite the dominance of scholastic and Aristotelian discourse in the thirteenth century, (Neo)Platonism continued to play an enduring role. The Franciscan Bonaventure follows the Victorine tradition in combining Augustinian and Dionysian themes, but Platonic influence underlies the pattern of procession and return — reflective of the Christian arc of creation and salvation — that frames the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Echoing the interrelation of macro- and microcosmos, the major themes of medieval Christian Platonic thought are, on the one hand, cosmos and creation and, on the other, soul and self. The Dominican friar Meister Eckhart and the beguine Marguerite Porete, finally, both Platonically inspired late-medieval Christian authors keen on accomplishing the return, whether the aim is to bring out its deep, abyss-like “ground” (Eckhart) or to give up reason altogether and surrender to the free state of “living without a why” (Marguerite), reveal the intellectual audacity involved in upending traditional theological modes of discourse.

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