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Where is Medieval Philosophy Going?

Alain de Libera
p. 11
Cet article est une traduction de :
Où va la philosophie médiévale ?

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 13 February 2014
Source: La lettre, no. 38, June 2014

Texte intégral

1We come to the Middle Ages with questions, only to discover other ones. After more than forty years of teaching and research, I must admit that I have given up most of my predecessors’ questions: Christian philosophy, theology of history, and philosophy of religion. On the other hand, another one has imposed itself on me with growing acuteness: how to do history in medieval philosophy?

2The difficulty stems first from the nature of the object, medieval thinking, that is said to be torn between reason and faith, and second, from the status of the discipline itself, the history of philosophy, which is challenged by philosophers and historians alike.

3To that I will simply answer today that one cannot do history of medieval philosophy without doing medieval philosophy. The Chair that has just been recreated is not a cenotaph. The object exists and only asks to live. When it comes to philosophy, whether or not Deslandes and Le Gendre like it, the Middle Ages are not the longest parentheses in the history of human thought. They are nevertheless long, even longer than we think; and it is also true that, although central, they are relatively remote from everything else. Yet their limits are variable, or rather, dependent on one’s view of history as much as philosophy.

4When did medieval philosophy begin? When did it end? One might say, is it not self-evident that it began and ended with the Middle Ages? That is incorrect. Or rather, it depends on one’s answer to other questions. For a long time the historian’s Middle Ages started with the fall of Rome in 476, with the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman Emperor in the West, and ended in 1453 with the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed II and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. This ending of the Middle Ages, a political and religious event internal both to the Roman world and to Christianity, also culturally marked the beginning of a period of revival, the “Renaissance”, driven by the exile of Byzantine humanists in Italy. As we can see, there is no purely historical periodization: political history is closely entangled with cultural history, and the latter with literary history, which can weave two narratives with contradictory meanings on the same weft. The same is of course true of the history of philosophy.

5Medieval philosophy can lead only to an event for philosophy: here, the closing of the Neo-Platonic School of Athens in 529 by the Christian Emperor Justinian, which led to the exile in Persia of the last pagan philosophers, from Damascius and Simplicius to Isidore of Gaza. For whom was the closure of the Athens School an event? For us, and not for the Eastern Christians, who for a long time had baptized philosophy, making “philosophy according to Christ” the real philosophy, be it Christian life as such or its perfect form, monastic life. Neither was it an event for the Latins, who for a long time could say with Augustine: “Versus philosophus est amator Dei.” Closure, exile, and conversion: that was the first episode. What was the last one? Ernest Renan argues that everything changed when, “on 4 April 1497, Nicholas Leonicus Thomaeus took up the Padova Chair to teach Aristotle in Greek”. The creation of a Chair of Philosophy free from the tutelage of the scholastics’ Arabized Latin, from their “emaciated categories” and their “untamed jargon”: this is what might mark the end of the Middle Ages in philosophy. The thesis is precise, even excessive, but it draws attention to an essential point: the entry of Greek, and at the same time of then oriental Greece, into the European fold.

6Between the closing of the Athens School and Leonico Tomeo’s accession to the Chair, there is more than one “Middle Ages”. There are several continuations from Late Antiquity, several changes of language, several phases of discontinuity, re-
arrangement and reshaping, several renaissances, reversals or interruptions, in all sorts of environments and geographic, cultural, religious, and institutional spaces. The historian of philosophy must simultaneously preserve their particular characteristics and identify their similarities. A sixth-century student of Olympiodorus or of Stephanus of Athens is not a twelfth-century Parisian ecclesiastical scholar, but apart from the diversity of places, environments and idioms, both had a highly significant point in common, they read the same philosophical texts: Aristotle’s Categories and Porphyrus’ Isagoge. They were actually philosophically closer than are those who today argue “the futility of reading a philosophical article more than ten years old”.

• A video of the Lecture can be found at, on the professor’s page.

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Référence électronique

Alain de Libera, « Where is Medieval Philosophy Going? », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Alain de Libera

History of Medieval Philosophy

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