Sophie's World (pp.162-184)

Sophie on the Middle Ages:

Chronology of the Decline of the Roman Empire:

  • 150 CE   St. Paul's Missionary Journeys begin.
  • 313 CE   Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire.
  • 330 CE   Constantine moves the capital of the Empire to Constantinople.
  • 380 CE   Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire.
  • 395 CE   The Roman Empire is divided (Rome vs. Constantinople) 
  • 410 CE   Rome is plundered by barbarians.
  • 476 CE   Western Empire disintegrates. [The Eastern Empire would survive until 1453 when the                        Turks conquered Constantinople.]
  • 529 CE   The Church closes Plato's Academy. (Gaarder 167-68)

The "Dark Ages" 

The "Dark Ages" is a misnomer for the period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance of the 14th century. The era instead should be considered a time of germination and growth.

For instance, during the 9th c. AD the first church schools were founded, and these schools  would develop into the first universities by the 12th. c. AD. Europe produced a rich cultural tradition during the Middle Ages. Think of it as the era of fairy tales and folk songs, of Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Ivanhoe, and the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It was the era of chivalry, knights and their damsels, of the crusades, of witch burnings, and of monasteries and the great cathedrals.(Gaarder 169)

400- 700 AD 

These three centuries were the time of the true Dark Age in Western Europe. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the infrastructure of that civilization disintegrated: not only the great buildings, but also the roads, aqueducts, sewers, public baths and libraries. International trade collapsed, and the population declined. People reverted to a local, barter economy. (Gaarder 169-70) 


Feudalism eventually emerged as the predominant economic system in this culture wracked by constant warfare. Wealth was defined purely in terms of land ownership. Noble landowners offered armed protection to peasants who in turn worked the lands for no pay. Instead, the peasants "paid off" landowners by surrendering all of their crops and by laboring on the great master's building projects. Peasants eventually deteriorated into "serfs": laborers with no rights who were tied to the land on which they worked, completely at the service and mercy of the local landowner.

The Greater Mediterranean World

Three Separate Cultures emerged in the larger Mediterranean world:

  • In the west a Latinized Christian culture was centered in Rome.
  • In the east a Byzantine Christian culture was centered in Constantinople.
  • And from 632 CE, with the death of the prophet Muhammad, Islamic culture emerged in the Middle East in the Holy Cities of Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina. Islam spread throughout Northern Africa and into Europe on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). This Arab culture inherited Alexandria, the scientific center of Hellenistic culture, so throughout the Middle Ages, Arabs predominated in math, chemistry, astronomy and medicine.(Gaarder 170-71)

Greek philosophy diverged into three streams:

  • Roman Catholic Culture: Neoplatonism
  • Byzantine Culture: Platonic
  • Islamic Culture: Aristotelean

The Renaissance (or rebirth) of European philosophy would await the re-convergence of these three streams of thought in Northern Italy during the 14th c. CE. (Gaarder 171)

Medieval Philosophy

The great objective of medieval philosophers was the reconciliation of Greek philosophy's emphasis on reason with Christian faith in revelation as the path to truth. Medieval philosophers tried to make knowledge and faith compatible. (Gaarder 172)

Sound familiar? You've already written twice before about this kind of philosophical project:

Ionian Materialists + Eleatic Idealists = Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Hellenistic Reason + Hebrew Prophecy = Jesus' New Covenant

St. Augustine's Solution to the Problem of Evil (354-430 CE)

St. Augustine was a North African who lived most of his life in the cities near ancient Carthage. His philosophical quest was to explain how evil could exist in a universe created by a benign God. His answer was to combine Plato's philosophy with Christianity.

Think about how previous thinkers and prophets have struggled with the same philosophical problem:

Age of Mythology

Life and Death are united in one Ironic Truth.


Evil is ignorance; the Soul is innate and good.


Evil is innate and ineradicable.


Evil is pain; goodness is pleasure.


Evil is fear: the fear of death.

Ancient Hebrews

Evil stems from human disobedience (free will)


Evil is unavoidable, but grace is possible.

St. Augustine was not originally a Christian. As a young man, he experimented with the different religions that thrived in his region. At first he was a Manichean: Manichaeism was a religion which asserted that a cosmic war was being waged in the universe between forces of good and evil, light and dark, spirit and matter. But this explanation of evil did not satisfy Augustine: he could not understand how evil could derive from a good source. (Gaarder 172) He turned next to Neo-Platonism which taught that all existence is divine in nature. There is only light-- and the absence of light. St. Augustine sought to reconcile this Platonic notion of good and evil with Christianity. (Gaarder 173)

Follow his theological reasoning:

  1. You cannot escape from Plato's Cave with reason because Christian truth can only be perceived through faith.
  2. The Platonic Ideals (Forms) of Perfect Truth, Perfect Beauty and Perfect Justice exist with God.
  3. Evil is the absence of God. Since only good can come from God, evil derives from human disobedience, from falling away from the light.
  4. The Universe is dualistic, divided between a perfect heaven and the corrupt physical world.
  5. Human nature is similarly dual: our physical bodies are corrupt but our souls can know God.
  6. All humankind was lost to corruption with Man's disobedience (The Fall of Adam), but through God's grace and Christ's sacrifice, certain people have been chosen to be redeemed. (This is not a humanistic vision!) 
  7. Predestination: Those who have been damned and those who have been saved have been preordained, YET we still possess free will, and we should strive to imitate Jesus. (We have free will, but God knows what we will do.) (Gaarder 176)

Original Sin and Predestination: 

"each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regenerationso was it in the human race as a whole. When these two cities began to run their course by a series of deaths and births, the citizen of this world was the first-born, and after him the stranger in this world, the citizen of the city of God, predestinated by grace, elected by grace, by grace a stranger below, and by grace a citizen above." (St. Augustine, City of God)

The City of God: A Linear Vision of History

Through this sequence of thought, St. Augustine built the theology which would dominate Roman Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. The Universe is divided into the elect and the damned, into the City of God and the City of the World, and the struggle between the two unfolds in the history of civilization. God's triumph is assured. Eventually, the Day of Judgment will come at the end of time, and perfect justice will be achieved.(Gaarder 175)


800-1200 AD

During the long Dark Age, ancient learning was preserved in the scriptoriums of monasteries. In the 9th c. AD, schools were formed in these convents which eventually developed into the cathedral schools of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of the 11th and 12th c. AD. These schools founded the first great universities to exist in Europe since Plato's Academy was closed. (Charles University in Prague, Oxford University in England).  (Gaarder 177)

In the cathedral schools in Northern Italy during the 12th c. AD, a vital moment in the History of Ideas transpired. Visiting scholars from Islamic Spain lectured on the scientific theories of Aristotle, long lost to Western thought. A new interest in the natural sciences sprang up, and with this interest a new philosophical problem emerged: how can the study of science (which in St. Augustine's view focuses on an irredeemably corrupt world) be reconciled with Christianity? (Gaarder 177)

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) and the Birth of the Renaissance

This Italian monk christianized Aristotle. His synthesis of knowledge with faith made the study of our world legitimate again and helped open our culture to the possibility of a Renaissance.

Follow his chain of theological reasoning:

  1. There are two paths to the truth. Faith enables a direct connection to God, but reason can provide a different route towards the same truth.
  2. Aristotle was on the right path, but his reason could only reveal an aspect of the truth whose complete shape can only be discerned through faith.
  3. Therefore, we can trust logic and the use of our senses to reveal a divine purpose inherent in the natural world. (Gaarder 178-79)

The Natural Hierarchy:


Pure Reason




Sense and Reason



Appetite, Sense and Reason




Appetite and Sense



Pure Appetite