The Patristic Philosophy




by Fr. Raymond Taouk


I. General introduction (cent 2nd - 5th) 


1.    What is characteristic of the Patristic philosophy is, for the first time, the marriage between faith and reason. The Fathers unite the Greek philosophy with the Christian Revelation. This union opens new horizons to the philosophical panorama and reaches the foundation of Metaphysics. Formerly unknown natural problems are studied. Everything is looked upon in the light of the virtual Revelation, which creates the supernatural science of theology.


2.    The Christian philosopher must admit truths without which he would not be a Christian philosopher. Reason, illumined by faith, teaches the four natural truths : the creation ex nihilo; the soul substantially united to the body and created ex nihilo; the existence of God, infinite and distinct from the world; the moral order with its future sanction.


3.    The philosophers of the first centuries, contemporaneous of the mystical philosophers, have recourse to the doctrines of Plato and of the Neoplatonicians to fulfil their role of Christian thinkers (theologians). This was bec. such systems seemed more in harmony with Christianism than others thanks to its elevated spiritualism and its Stoic morality. However, with regard to philosophy, the patristic period is only a remote and indirect preparation to the flourishing of the rational wisdom of the Scholastics.


4.    Among the Fathers, St. Augustine retains the prominence, as a Neoplatonist and as exercising a major influence on the Scholastic philosophy, far beyond all his contemporaries. Besides, in other thinkers, it is difficult to separate their philosophical system from their theology, whereas St. Augustine explains things rationally and can be said to have produced the first Christian philosophical system strictly speaking. This is why we shall dedicate this period to the exclusive study of St. Augustine, leaving to Patristics the study of other authors.



ii. life and works of st. augustine


1.    His life (354 to 430) is divided into two periods : before his conversion - a time of doctrinal fluctuations - and after his conversion of 387 - a time of truth during which he published his works and acted as a bishop. Yet, he was always searched for truth and light. Age 19, the reading of Hortensius of Cicero, an exhortation to search the immortal wisdom, shows him that this is the only true happiness. The problem of finding it will pursue him until his conversion, age 33. Before that, he will be Manichean, profess the Ciceronian probabilism of the New Academy, which is rather sceptic, but he was not really convinced either.


2.    His reflections lead him to the solution, i.e. to accept all the truths divinely revealed as the writings of the CC present them. He does this in a double syllogism :

·      To deny that man can be saved and know the truth necessary for salvation would be a denial of God and His Providence.

But men, by their sole reason, are impotent in fact to reach the truth ncssy for salvation.

·      Therefore, reason has a preparatory and secondary role in reaching the full truth and there must exist an exterior revelation which shows us the way of salvation.

·      To see that a perfect society has conquered the world while falsely pretending to hold the true revelation would be a denial of God and His Providence.

But, such is the Catholic Church.

Therefore, the Catholic Church, which is the only society to have gained this universality, possesses the revelation of salvation and the full truth : ‘Securus judicat orbis terrarum’.[1]


3.    As he converts, he seeks to penetrate, synthetise and order his new belief. He reads Platonic books (Phorphyry, Plotinus etc.), and he discovers the full speculative solution. To them he owes :


·      Doctrinal elements

·      the intelligible world is identified with the Logos of St. John, the Logos Creator, source of being and of the ontological truth of creatures, source of the logical truth as illuminator of minds.[2]

·      the invisible spiritual realities are more precious than the visible ones.

·      happiness consists in attaining the intelligible God.

·      Evil is not an independent substance (which, having real being, would be produced by the good God). It is a privation and evils are explained by the fact that they concur to the universal harmony.

·      Dialectic process of the Platonists

·      He starts with the intuition of the intelligible world.

·      He follows the theory of the purification necessary to reach the truth.

·      He progressively moves from an imperfect form to the idea of the absolute perfection.


1.    He is opposed to any theory in contradiction with Revelation : polytheism; the naturalism of the mystic theory of Plotinus; the pantheism latent in the necessary emanation.


2.    Yet, he will accept as a fundamental principle the solution of Plotinus, the One, transcendent and simple, which he corrects by means of the revealed Truth. The Augustinian principle is the following : The Divine Truth is the unique and perfect cause which is immediately explicative of all being in its different modalities of nature and of action.


iii. existence of truth


To free himself from Scepticism, SA proves the ex. of an intelligible world, foundation of all certitude and philosophy. This intelligible world is God. In God/Truth is the attribute of all beings.


1.    The Intelligible World. Each philosophy starts with the certain intuition of the intelligible world or truth, which is revealed to the mind with full evidence without having to pass through senses, ie. without  doubt possible.

·      indirect proof. The New Academy presents itself as wisdom and doubts of ever reaching the truth. It is contradictory.

·      direct proof. The universal doubt is

·      impossible bec. there can be no doubt without truth.

·      illegitimate. Simple reflection and my conscience assure me that I have immutable and true judgements. E.g. the rules of moral wisdom and logic teach me how to live and reason properly. They do not pass through the senses. The intuition of my own thinking (including my doubt) is immediate : ‘If I doubt, if I dream, if I err, I am. How could I err by saying that I exist when it is certain that I exist if I err?’ [3]

·      Conclusion. An intelligible world does exist, which needs no demonstration bec. it is self evident. Also, sense data controllable by the int. exists bec. sense data are faithful messengers of truth.[4]


2.    The Existence of God

·      Complete proof

·      Starting from the indubitable fact that ‘I exist’, and from the existence of the sensible world and its perfections, SA demonstrates that the soul can know the world and its own conscience.

·      There are diverse perfections in the world : being, life, knowledge, and within ourselves, the interior senses and reason. Above and beyond them, there are the eternal truths. This hierarchy follows the principle of regulation : whatever is judged and regulated is inferior to the rule which judges and regulates it.

·      From the existence of the eternal truths in the mind, he arrives at the existence of God by the principle of participation : Whatever participates in the eternal and immutable presupposes the existence of the source per se of eternity and immutability.

·      Short proof

·      Consciousness : If there is a reality which dominates our reason (which dominates the universe), then this reality exists (God, supreme Governor). But there exist ideal truths of the intelligible world which dominate our reason.

·      the sensible world : If there is participation and inferior degrees, there must exist the source participated, the supreme degree. But, in the universe, there exist many perfections participated in degrees and in variety, there are many beauties which cry to us : ‘We are not God, He is the one who made us.’


3.    The Nature of God

·      The subsistent Truth in whom all perfections are included and identified. God is the source of the logical truth (source of our knowledge) and the ontological truth (perfections in the world).

·      Particular attributes (God not only has these perfections, but is them):

·      Existence, (Exodus) based on the Greek Patristics.

·      simplicity, bec. there is identity of perfections in God. God is whatever He has. Every quality is substantially and essentially His.

·      unity, bec. the way stg is the way it is one. Source of harmony and beauty.

·      immutability, bec. whatever receives a new form must be in need of it.

·      eternity, bec. time is the measure of change.

·      immensity, beyond space, non-extended, incorporeal. ‘Habitat lumen inaccessibile.’

·      Value of our knowledge of God :

·      ‘Nothing said of God is said with complete conformity’. This applies firstly to terms which imply human imperfection (anger, penance, jealousy), but also of pure perfections (justice, love) which exist in another mode in God.

·      The terms, once purified, give of God a true and positive knowledge, based on the principles of participation and exemplarism.



iii. the work of truth (creation)


Whereas STAq builds his philosophy as distinct from the faith by means of the inductive and experimental method, SA uses faith to better understand philosophy, and he uses the a priori method since he explains the creatures by the influence of the Creator. He begins with the beings closest to the Creator, then men, then the purely material world.


1) emanation in general


1.    Creation. All realities of the universe depend on Truth for their existence, i.e. they are created.

·      Same proof as for that of God’s ex. : by the principle of participation which explains that the limited being is caused by the unlimited Being.

·      This creation is an emanation of things according to their entire being, productio ex nihilo. It is a creation sensu stricto, the production of the universe in one instant from nothing (vs. Plotinus).

·      It is also a conservation, a continuous creation by which things depend on God not only as to their becoming but also as to their being in duration.


2.    Exemplarism. Only God, Subsistent Truth, by means of the exemplary ideas, can be the immediate source of the hierarchy of beings.


·      Exemplary ideas exist because God exists, identified with the ideal world (the div. Word contains the int. ideas of all things). Truth cannot create without knowing its work, and it knows it through the ideas. These ideas are the first forms or reasons of things, stable and immutable, unreceived and remaining eternally identical to themselves. They are formal extrinsic causes of things but also efficient causes. Agst Plato, the intelligible world does not subsist apart fr. God.

·      Creation is not a natural and necessary act (Plotinus), but a free and independent act of God. This is because : a) if God had need of creating, He would be lacking stg; b) to find a cause outside the free will of God would demand a cause superior to God.

·      Creation is the proper of God. He alone can produce things without pre-existing matter (ST says that the proper cause of being must be Self Subsistent Being-Ipsum Esse Subsistens).

·      Creation produces a harmonious hierarchy. God is like a focus whose radiation extends to great length and, with the distance, loses its intensity and richness by progressive degradation.


3.    Providence. The Subsistent Truth is necessarily Providence, ie. the conscious and benevolent source of order, justice and good.

·      There is a Providence. This supposes that God knows perfectly the universe and its necessities, and that He wishes efficaciously the good of the universe. In fact, the universe possesses everywhere order and beauty.

·      Evil exists, but does not take away Providence. SA resolves the problem with the doctrine of emanation. Evil is not a god, participation of God, of being and of goodness. Evil is a privation and we need not find its cause in God,[5] who produces only being and goodness. But God may want the physical evil (which comes from the limitation of corruptible creatures) and He only permits the moral evil (work of the free creature) without detriment to His Providence. God makes everything work out for the universal harmony.


2) the spiritual world : the human soul


As God gives beings their perfection and conserves them in time, He is the foundation for the proper operations of each of them and their ultimate explanation. The more a creature depends on God, the more it is perfect. This is the extreme opposite of occasionalism. SA has also a proper psychology and cosmology. The question of angels is studied but rather in the framework of theology.[6] In psychology, although the soul is naturally united to the body, the study of man is essentially the study of the soul.


1.    Life.  The h. soul is an incorporeal substance whose main activity is to animate (give life) and move the body. The same soul produces the diverse operations of man (vegetative, sensitive, intellectual life). He refuses to consider the soul as the only constitutive of the whole essence of man, ‘Homo est anima rationalis mortali atque terreno utens corpore.’


2.    Sensation. It is the activity of the soul which, through impressions originating out of the body, becomes conscious of the universe and forms within itself a representative image of it. It involves 3 phases : the corporeal reception (bec. senses are passive); the conscious reaction (production of an image of the conscious and spiritual order); the psychological organisation (by the common sense, imagination and memory).


3.    Intellection. It dominates the concrete world and liberates from the body, bec. it is an immediate participation in the div. Intellect which is the Subsistent Truth. God must intervene to explain the fact that I possess the truth since the senses alone do not suffice :

·      Sensation is necessary to obtain the object of sciences (things human and concrete), but not the object of wisdom (knowl. of div. things,of tgs participating in the eternal Reasons of the Word).

·      God illumines man, by giving him a greater influx of being at the time of creation, and making him participate in the immutable perfection of Truth itself. It must come from God himself because the eternal Reasons are found neither in the sensible realities (bec. there is no proportion betw. them) nor in our soul (ignorant and changing). There is betw. God and the soul an unceasing action and participation, a union, a contact, an impression of God.[7]

4.    Liberty. Through God’s help, not only does this power make us master of our own actions, but it even gives us full perfection. The divine influence is called the victorious pleasure of the good, and it is the only way we are fully free, since grace prevents a depravation of liberty.[8]


5.    Immortality. Given its union with the immutable Truth, the soul cannot cease acting & cannot die. Re. the origin of souls, SA hesitates between creationism (God alone creates each soul), and spiritual traducianism (the soul of the parents produces the soul of the child together with God). This last solution facilitates the universal propagation of the original sin, but SA wonders whether an act so close to creation is proportionate to creatures.[9]


3) the corporal world


1.    Matter. It  is a reality deprived of all determination, last reflection of the subsisting Truth, source of motion and of time ‘nihil aliquid, ens non ens’.


2.    The seminal reasons. The world has received from the beginning the active principles of its development as ordered by divine Providence. These active principles are the seminal reasons and causes of all tgs. SA starts from the fact of the evolution of the world as explained in the Bible, when God created ‘omnia simul’ Eccli xviii 1, and the work of the 6 days of creation is the development and evolution of the riches of the universe which could have lasted for centuries and continues before our own eyes. Thus the new beings (5th, 6th days) are not properly created but were already contained in semine within the initial creatures of the 1st day, like the tree is contained in the seed.[10]


v. the possession of truth


1.    The principle of return. Our love participates in the Subsisting Goodness so that it is God whom we love in creatures. Thus, the voluntary movement cannot terminate but in God Himself since finite good only brings disenchantment.

2.    Happiness. The supreme happiness, end of all h. activity, consists in the vision which is loving, immediate, satisfying and definitive, of the subsisting Truth, God. The means by which we possess God is the vision of God through the intellect, by an immediate intuition in which God gives Himself to the soul and fills it with the personal Truth. This vision is ncssly accompanied with a proportionate love of God, ‘Deo frui’.

3.    Virtue is the perfection of the rational life by which one loves what must be loved accdg to order.

4.    The law (cf. Cicero) : supreme reason which commands what must be done, forbids the opposite.

5.    Politics is that of the City of God. He speaks of authority, war, relation betw. Church and State.


Conclusion : In SA, there is a certain fusion of philosophy and theology. From this fusion comes his psychological theory of the divine illumination, the identity of the soul and its faculties, the substantial independence of body and soul, his hesitations re. the origin of the soul; in Cosmology he sustains the actuality of matter, the seminal reasons, the non-possibility of eternal matter.




[1] This sentence was decisive to lead John Newman to the Catholic Church.

[2] This thesis is opposed to the Manichean materialism and the doubt of the Academics.

[3] De Trinit. XV, cp. xii, 21. This is different from Descartes’cogito bec. SA’s ‘cogito’ is not the only truth and fount of all truth.

[4] De Vera Religione, xxxiii, 62 : If someone sees the stick as broken in the water, his eye does not deceive him : ‘Non malum habet nuntium, sed malus est iudex.’

[5] ‘Non est causa efficiens, sed deficiens mali, quia malum non est effectio, sed defectio’ De Civ. Dei, xii, c. vii.

[6] SA accepts as plausible, without affirming absolutely, the doctrine of the spiritual matter which will be famous in the M.Ages.

[7] The div. illumination of SA made him abandon the innate ideas, which had become useless.

[8] STAq follows SA in so far as he submits the human free acts to the divine premotion.

[9] STAq will show that the soul being ttly spiritual can be produced only by creation, ie. exclusively by God.

[10] ‘Sicut matres gravidae sunt foetibus, sic mundus gravidus est causis nascentium’. It reminds us of an evolutionism quite distinct from that of Darwin, who pretended to explain the greater by the less. SA’s evolutionism is that of a force of expansion which, together with God, can produce more perfect beings. The recourse to God saves the exigencies of the first principles of causality and finality. (Transformism)