Pagans and Philosophers

The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz

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John Marenbon
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Pagans and Philosophers, John Marenbon discusses a unifying problem of Christian thought during the long Middle Ages (c. 400-1700 CE), which he designates the “problem of paganism.” The problem is threefold: what to make of pagan knowledge concerning divine truth, whether pagans can be virtuous, and whether pagans can be saved from divine judgment. The problem of paganism, then, has as much to do with Christianity as it does with pagans themselves, because it is most basically a negotiation of the meaning of exclusivist claims made in Christian scriptures and standardized within the Latin churches by the time of Augustine of Hippo.

Paganism usually referred to those who did not adhere to one of the Abrahamic faiths, although Islam was often also included within the sphere of paganism. The souls and systems of thought that remained in question, then, ranged from biblical personalities like Melchizedek and Job, to Greeks and Romans living before Christ like Homer, Socrates, and Lucretia, to the more fraught situation of pagans living amidst the preaching of the Christian gospel who either rejected its message or had no occasion to hear it. This category of pagans included the Roman emperor Trajan who, according to legend, was plucked from Hell by the retroactive sympathy of Gregory the Great; the philosopher Seneca, who was believed (incorrectly) to have corresponded with Paul the apostle; or non-Europeans such as the Chinese Neo-Confucian literati with whom the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci made it his life’s mission to find common ground. Each of these cases presented a different predicament, some more easily overcome than others. The basic problem for pagans was that Christianity’s universal messianic claims established an absolute religion (to use an anachronistic but not entirely unhelpful description), seemingly exclusive of other claims to wisdom, virtue, and salvation.

Marenbon divides the variety of approaches to pagans into three main categories that come to the fore by the thirteenth century in scholastic disputes about Aristotle following his transmission to the Western Church by means of the Muslim philosopher Averroes. The “unity” approach was represented by Thomas Aquinas and some Aristotelians in the nascent arts faculty who believed that the Aristotelian system could and should be incorporated into Christian doctrine to the fullest extent possible. Where there was more friction with orthodoxy (for instance, the eternity of the world), the unity position took prevaricating approaches. Aquinas, for instance, first questioned whether Aristotle actually affirmed an eternal world, and later suggested that God actually could have created an eternal world if he had elected to do so (141).

Those who advocated a “selective rejection” of Aristotle stood opposed to any significant adoption of Aristotelian philosophical stances, although they did readily adopt pagan terminology. This stance is best exemplified by theologians such as Bonaventure, Robert Grosseteste, and Henry of Ghent. While the unity approach of Aquinas gained dominance and has retained it ever since, selective rejection of pagan philosophy remained a strong force especially where the Augustinian tradition was privileged, from Jansenists to most Protestant theologians.

Marenbon calls the third and most interesting approach to paganism “relativism.” Boethius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant, both arts masters in Paris, sought to accommodate the new Averroism by distinguishing levels of discourse about natural philosophy and theology that dissolved disagreement about the nature of reality. A physicus may affirm that the world is eternal because a supernatural beginning to the world contradicts the first principles of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that the physicus qua Christian would deny the beginning of the world in God’s creation, but only that “whatever the natural scientist denies or concedes, he does according to natural principles, and there is no contradiction between asserting a proposition, and denying the same proposition ‘according to something.’” (146)

This sort of relativism has proved to be immensely important for problems related to absolute religious claims, including and beyond the problem of paganism. Marenbon mentions the coexistence of Newtonian physics and the theory of relativity as a possible modern example of how relativism about truth claims might be understood. (146) One might also add that Martin Luther’s famous 1539 disputation picks up this relativist thread in its claim that “the Word was made flesh” is true as a theological assertion, but absurd within the philosophy faculty. Nietzschean perspectivism, and Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria also betray a family resemblance, if not direct influence, to this canny solution for relating Christian to non-Christian truth.

I have highlighted above a central section of the book (127-87) because this thirteenth century struggle is what allows Marenbon to most fully flesh out his three categories of uniting, rejecting, and relativizing tendencies among Christian thinkers. The scope of the book is actually much broader, however. Nor are theologians and philosophers the only Christian interpreters of possible pagan integration. The best known case we have of a pagan in limbo (literally!) is Dante’s Virgil. Marenbon also considers William Langland’s reworking of the Trajan story in Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s contextualized discussion of pagan culture in his Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde. We see this originally literary relativism reflected in early modern encounters with the Americas, and the description of pagan customs in Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals. And none of this even touches on the earlier chapters about Boethius (not of Dacia) and Abelard, the most obvious medieval writers for those familiar with Marenbon’s research oeuvre. Between Augustine’s negative account of pagan virtue in his City of God and the complex situation of thirteenth century Paris, Boethius and Abelard along with Alcuin, John of Salisbury, and a few others introduced new options for epistemological, ethical, and theological continuity between the pagan world and Christendom.

Marenbon’s study very effectively trains the intellectual history of Christianity on a single clarifying dilemma. This focus draws out a near perennial anxiety within Christian self-reflection, and opens up helpful vistas for understanding European Christian responses to cultural and religious otherness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is Theological Librarian at the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four DimensionsThe Oxford Handbook of Medieval PhilosophyThe Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.


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