Christendom existed as a pan-European theocratic practicality from the time of Charlemagne, crowned Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 A.D.. The centralized Church hierarchy based in Rome exerted senior supervisory control (more or less) from then until Henry VIII’s separation of the English Church in 1534: 734 years. Medieval Christendom began as a society fallen from the glories of the Roman Empire. The economy was subsistence farming characterized by tenant families bound within feudal contracts to specific pieces of land under the control of a military-estate family or a Church foundation. There was an intimate connection between military families and the Church because the ‘second sons’ who could not inherit the family’s noble title and lands would often go to school for a good education and then into the Church hierarchy. The rural-subsistence economy without much money was based on contractual and traditional obligations. Peasant farming families were at the mercy of wild nature, disease, and marauders, and nature was considered to be personified by disembodied spirits who might be anywhere, unseen and yet powerful.

Christian Relics

Ancient investments of effort in monument-creating, such as construction of the Egyptian pyramids, came from ideas about a supernatural stratum of existence. The pyramids were acts to connect with such a stratum, and they illustrate an economy of the supernatural in which earthly wealth is founded upon gods and spirits and the qualities of their world. That conception of wealth was still important in the European middle ages, during the construction of the Gothic cathedrals. Those magnificent fortresses of the faith were built in part to house, in suitable glory, bones of a saint or a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, considered to have supernatural power and influence. Something of the spirit of the dead saint was supposed to reside in the material remnant. Just as a reason for achievements in cathedral architecture was to house relics, the Crusades were expeditions for the looting of wealth in the form of relics from the holy land. Christianity was, at one level, a cult of relics, thought to be radiant with supernatural energy. Relics were high-status luxury goods and there was a lucrative commerce supported by the demand for them. Such were the treasures of those times.

Christians, like Stoics, believe the world of bodies manifests a providential divine will. Stoics considered the world to be eternal and uncreated, identical with Logos, whereas Christians believe nature to be the creation of a separate deity. For both of them, the common world of natural bodies has much to love, distinctly unlike the visions of Plato and ancient Zoroastrians, for example. Yet there is still a crucial transcendence in the Christian vision, since God’s separateness from His creation is exactly transcendence.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)

Medieval Christianity was by far a darker, harsher, spookier world view than that of the modern Roman Church. Catholic Christendom was characterized by a human-hating obsession with hereditary sin and an imaginary after-death world. The influential writings of Augustine of Hippo asserted that human nature is essentially evil because of Adam’s original sin, and the only way people can be good is by being forced to obey the laws of God and secular authorities. Virtue is obedience and self-denial. There is in Augustine’s view a form of anticipation of Freud’s theory of the superego, that moral behaviour originates outside the individual. In Freud the superego was internalized authority figures. For Augustine, the relevant authority figures were officials of the Church. Officials of religion believed that overpowering impulses to individual self-gratification were continually pulling social attachments apart, and any loss of a popular fear of hell and satan, or supernatural powers generally, would result in uncontrolled female sexuality leading to general social breakdown.

Confirmed in Dependence on the Church

The Church was happy to encourage most people to “be fruitful and multiply”, even though human flesh and its pleasures were considered tainted, because it confirmed the sinfulness of people and their resulting dependence on magical sacrament-performing priests. Strong institutional supervision of adults was required by Augustine’s assertion that people are normally vicious and/ or weak and so can behave virtuously only by means of strong and often harsh control by a powerful hierarchy of the religiously and militarily sophisticated. From roughly 800 A.D. to 1534 the Church’s claim to legitimate authority was persuasive to most people. The influence of Augustinian Christianity went well beyond religious practice as such. It pervaded the culture of western society generally as the common-sense idea of human nature and value. The resulting fear and gloom achieved a firm psychological grip. Soaring cathedrals of stone and glass were fortresses of the doctrine, intimidating symbols of wealth and dominance, presiding over the pessimistic gloom of Christendom. Eventually the Holy Inquisition (1233) was created to exterminate people with unorthodox thoughts.

Transcendence is the link between philosophy and religion. In Christendom the culture of transcendence, which had been a minority report in ancient Greece, was made into a legal obligation by the theocratic Church of Rome. In that sense philosophy as ideology of transcendence had taken control of society, but Christianity removed the decisive power from individual intelligence at the same time as it reversed the philosophical project of understanding nature as an impersonal system. The Church taught the best way to live based on a claim of divine revelation to officials, but the work of rational proof was also considered important to confront heresy and convince the skeptical. The literate class, especially within the universities, were dedicated to recapitulating ancient achievements of rational sophistication. In the panorama of ancient and medieval thinking, a tainted nature was an enemy with humans firmly in its claws. Christianity deified cosmic evil in the demonic figure of Satan, the devil. Whereas the philosophical portal out was transcendence through a non-mystical form of individual mental focus, the Christian transcendence, greatly influenced by Augustine, was collective and corporate, a merging with the body of the Church in return for an eventual transcendent afterlife.

Individualism, Original Sin, and Augustine

The idea of original sin is profoundly anti-individualistic. It means that all human beings share in the same single, sinful, nature. Individual persons are not original on this view but merely new eruptions of one nature. So, in spite of Augustine’s Confessions exploring individual psychology in an original autobiographical way, the effect of Augustine’s teaching was not individualistic, but the opposite. His conclusion was that, although an individual might be able to figure out what is right and even want to do right, rationality is never powerful enough to overcome original sin, appetites, and selfish ambitions of the passionate and lower part of human nature. People will want to do right, but never just yet.

In the Christian tradition the individual is a bearer of generic original sin as well as bearer of responsibility for moral choices in day to day life. If there is no person there is no local sin, no specific responsibility, and not much justice in punishment or reward. So, although the Church emphasized generic human nature and the human collective, the individual could not be completely negated because reward and punishment applied at the level of the individual, and reward and punishment were core values and instruments of the Church.

In the Christian world view, the after-death world was more important than the tangible world, and the reflective sense of individuality was not highly developed. Generalized ‘human nature’ was more in focus culturally, and it was considered tainted by the original sin which resulted in human exile from Eden. That is an echo of the pre-Christian sense of taint on the world of nature. The taint applied in Christendom mainly to human nature, from original sin, but the rest of nature did not escape. After all, the world in which humans find themselves is a veil of tears, a long way down from Eden.


There was an ancient sense of taint effectively rejecting the world of the senses as pervaded by an evil power. Nature, represented by the human body and the impulses and pains of the body, was still effectively hated and feared in Christianity. In Christendom a conception of spirituality replaced rational thinking as the portal to transcendent freedom beyond demonic nature. Focus on the world to come after the death of the body seemed to offer the only such portal of escape. Official spirituality demanded blind trust in, and obedience to, the Church’s teachings on the rewards of the afterlife. Christianity also promised freedom from nature and the body through exercises which enabled a transcendent other-worldly spirituality. Prayer, penance, and various exercises could be practiced in the effort to invoke divine Grace. Once again, as in ancient thinking, freedom and experience of a higher state of being were a glorious possibility for people, but achieved only through special and arduous efforts and trials, removed from ordinary day to day living. Connecting with eternity was still a crucial achievement.

Among the educated in the Church, knowledge was thought to be mental illumination from God, the revelation of something like a Platonic Ideal Form uncovering the character of something at a particular time and place. There is an echo here of Aristotle’s “active intellect”, a single divine entity which participated in the rational mental process of each individual. The Christian theory of knowledge required such acts of divine illumination, and it was the same with freedom. The Church taught freedom of the will to make moral actions, that is, actions which are ‘self’-denying or contrary to original sin or natural impulse, but it was freedom by divine Grace. Humans were made ‘in God’s image’ by a broad original act of Grace, but some extraordinary intervention was required for a specific act of real ‘self’-denial, real freedom from tainted nature. In general people needed the grim guidance of Church authorities displaying their use of the scourge, rack, and stake. In this context freedom of the will was a weak flame largely overpowered by original sin.

Christian Collectivism

The hard-won classical advances in honouring individual subjectivity, as in Stoicism and Epicureanism, stood as a dangerous threat to the totalitarian ambitions of the Church, and the Church devoted considerable resources to burying them. When rules of living are dictated by an omnipotent god, being ethical depends entirely on compliance with the god’s dictates. Treatment of other beings is unimportant in itself. During the Theocracy of Christendom the Church claimed special possession of God’s truth and exclusive ability to teach and evaluate everybody’s compliance. The Church promoted an “other-world” focus which incorporated misery in “this world” into its myth. The other-world focus and the doctrine that human nature is intrinsically evil, condoned gross social injustice. The Catholic God was seen concretely in the feudal social order just as much as in the images collected in or carved into the structure of churches. The message was that the feudal order had to be accepted and preserved as it was, and hope placed in life-after-death. God supposedly acted through the Church to enforce the social order. The Church thus enforced a collectivism around its sacraments, rituals, art, architecture, and hierarchy. The doctrines of the Church transformed the internal individual-to-god connection characteristic of Stoicism, for example, into an external and objectified individual-to-Church-to-social-order-to-god relationship.

John Wycliffe (1328-84) and Vernacular Literacy

The Universities of Christendom, beginning from Bologna around 1088, did not monopolize literacy in Latin, partly because they did not confine their high-end scribes within their walls as monasteries did. Universities projected Latin literacy outward into their communities in the form of graduates: lawyers, medical doctors, (Latin) grammar teachers, and theologians. It is still remarkable that a European movement for popular vernacular literacy began even prior to the invention of the printing press. The beginning of the movement seems to have been the campaign by John Wycliffe, based at Oxford University, for universal vernacular literacy and translation of vernacular Bibles. That was to be the foundation of a world-changing ideal of equality in the European cultural system.

The modern notion of equality has much to do with the medieval European institution of social class (aristocracy, clergy, and peasantry) which looms as a spectacular paradigm of inequality. It was a set of laws and customs which institutionalized systematic and random insults and injuries to the peasantry, who became increasingly alienated and resentful of them. In medieval society land ownership was the main foundation of inequality, since aristocracy was defined in terms of military culture (Chivalry) and land ownership. As mere labourers in the economy of agriculture, peasants were treated as property also, attached to the land. Another crucial feature of medieval inequality was the special power of priests of the Roman Church. Since the Church owned keys to the divine realm and eternal life, there was a set of critical ‘check-points’ in every person’s life, such as joining the community as an infant, coming of age, marriage, and death, which had to be sanctioned by the presence of a priest performing the appropriate sacrament, specific bits of ritual magic. The ability of aristocracy to acquire religious relics, sometimes to donate to the Church for something like naming rights to a chapel, made them participants to some extent in the exclusionary economy of the supernatural.

The drive to make the Voice of God, as manifested in the Bible, available directly to each individual was based on a notion from humanist philosophy, now translated into a ‘proto-protestant’ attitude, in which every individual on his or her own was considered competent and worthy to understand the Voice of God and be elevated by it. Given the importance of the Bible in that culture, access to it was a profound equality and dignity that would influence every other aspect of culture. Suddenly all people, each individually, could have a really transcendent mental power in literacy. Writing is an engraving of voices, and widespread literacy vastly enlarges the cultural presence and weight of individual voices, and with that the recognition of personal intelligence. The movement was recognized as revolutionary by the Church at the time and was violently resisted. The Church restricted both vernacular literacy and direct popular access to Bibles because of the emphasis on original sin injected into Christian culture by Augustine: that individuals have such evil within them that they cannot be trusted to themselves and can be saved only by institutional supervision and control. However, in spite of official resistance to vernacular literacy, important progress was made and soon aided by the spread of printing technology, and then by protestantism.

Movable Type

Johann Gutenberg ( c. 1398-1468) of Mainz, Germany, introduced the printing press into Western culture in the 1440’s. Gutenberg’s major printing project, a Latin Bible, appeared around 1455. It was printer/ publishers trained by Gutenberg who first published vernacular Bibles, a German translation, in the 1460’s. It was duly banned by officials of the Church in 1485, but it illustrates the spread of the movement for vernacular literacy across the European cultural system. The printing press enabled a culture of written conversation outside churches and universities and independent of them, the ‘Republic of Letters’. Universities are often conservative places, as the term “scholastic” has come to mean, preserving an elite orthodoxy. The influence of church schools and universities was important, but widespread literacy outside institutions was the crucial novelty. The emergence of newspapers and a book press outside church, state, and university expanded the consequences of literacy in all aspects of society. People who read, write, and think about profound questions can do so as independent adventurers, under no authority but their own. The Republic of Letters was and is a voluntary and informal communication arrangement, carried on in writing. It wasn’t middle class literacy which ignited the fires of modernity but proletarian literacy, aided by the printing press.

Martin Luther (1483-1546): Doubt and A Personal Leap of Intelligence

Until his break with the Roman Church, Luther was a monk in the Augustinian order, and that grounding persuaded him that humans have no power at all since the exile from Eden, and are absolute slaves to the devil except by God’s whimsical Grace through which some are predestined to have faith and virtue. Both Calvin and Luther show strong Augustinian influence. Calvinism emphasized the intrinsic evil of people, as Augustine’s Catholicism did. However, Luther’s Protestants combined humanist beliefs with the acceptance of original sin and distrust of the body. Luther’s published statements about the German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-25) make it clear he was no crusader for full social equality, and it was not his intention to interfere with the other-world focus of theocratic society. Like most philosophers, Luther’s messages were inconsistent and many of their consequences were more or less unintended.

Luther had the ancient teachings of Hellenistic philosophical sects to draw upon, the Stoics and Epicureans already mentioned, and was proud of that humanist education. He applied the basic humanist insight of self-possession to the credibility of religious claims. The humanist competence of self-development revealed a special importance in the context of those most profound questions of knowledge. Luther discovered that the competence of self-development included the power to make creative leaps, which did not turn speculation into knowledge, but rather revealed God’s image in the leaper.

Christianity as a Mental Process: Luther and Doubt

On October 31, 1517 Luther posted a list of 95 theses on his church door in Wittenberg, Germany, including a defense of “justification by faith alone.” Luther’s emphasis on faith is often put in the context of a removal of emphasis from good works, but a better way to understand it is to put faith in the context of doubt. Luther’s doubt was based on courageous honesty about the impossibility of being certain of the teachings of Christianity, among other knowledge claims. Christian certainty was breaking down, and in the process preparing the way for the breakdown of Christian gloom.

Luther became a new model of the mental process of being Christian. In public debate with Church authorities Luther was continually confronted with the question of how his individual wisdom could match the accumulated store from the whole history of the Church. Luther could well have quoted Socrates: “I know only that I know nothing.” For Luther the mental process of being Christian was an intensely personal struggle against anguished uncertainty, against doubt and the dread that comes from it. For Luther the internal focus and struggle was an obsession. He confronted the impossibility of knowing human and individual destiny, even in the light of the divine revelation of Christianity, and his response pioneered an alternative to skepticism, namely a personal leap of faith. If I take the leap of faith in full rational awareness that it is absurd, it is a declaration of my freedom from ‘laws of thought’. Manifesting that freedom is actualizing human life in the image of God since God’s image is precisely freedom.

Luther’s inner struggles with doubt in the face of desperate need for certainty introduced a thread of ‘existential’ subjectivity into the culture of intellectual debates. Personal doubt and anguish are markers of a thinking and emotional entity, a subjective intelligence with powers of acting from judgments of probabilities, extending into the increasingly remote future. Luther had faith in Truth, but was convinced that Truth could not be known with certainty, so individuals must get along with what innocent subjectivity makes available to them. Basing a sense of identity on knowing, on certainty, makes individuals passive and it loses something crucial in Luther’s inward faith, which is not a knowing and must be active to be authentic. Exactly because it is not knowing, faith is distinctly a person’s act, a personal self-declaration and self-creation, something like “I choose faith, so I exist in the freedom which is the image of God.”

Luther’s relationship with the university at Wittenberg was an important part of the framework of his work. His writing expressed the role of a university scholar at an advancing edge. In that context it is remarkable that Luther’s thinking was personal in contrast to Medieval scholastic logic. Luther’s mental condition as a Christian defined a profoundly individual subjective (existential) state. At the same time, Lutheran inwardness was not mystical, not an abandonment to cosmic wholeness or to the love of a God who is a person. Mysticism is never individual, but instead all encompassing. Faith for Luther was a personal and reasoned decision which removed magical, cultish, and mystical features of religion.

Protestant Christianity offered a model of inward subjective value by emphasizing individual piety, ultimate justification by faith. Faith, and so virtue, is a personal, inward accomplishment, available equally to all and not just the gifted, privileged, or heroic. The thrust of Protestantism is strong and equal individualism, justification by an internal accomplishment which is socially invisible. You cannot tell who is ‘in Grace’ by social position, property, family, cash flow, physical beauty, or overt giftedness of any kind. That was the Lutheran revolution, an overthrow of “establishment” control and supervision by discovery of elemental value in individual subjectivity. Freedom of conscience placed emphasis on a personal inward process of decision. Subjectivity is the ultimate revolutionary force because it bypasses all incentives and rewards under the control of a supervising elite or an ideology. The Church became irrelevant when each individual found direct personal communication with God through his or her own competence.

With Protestantism there was a radical change of what counted as moral action, away from “good works”, which normally involved a transfer of wealth to the Church, to private grace in exercising freedom. Faith for Luther was in contrast to payment of money to the Church for certificates of forgiveness (indulgences) with specific expiry dates. So the nub of Protestantism was a rejection of overt, outwardly observable accomplishments and a concentration on individual inwardness: faith. Luther’s essay The Freedom of a Christian emphasizes a distinction between individual mental “inwardness” and “outward” appearances. That was an essentially Stoic distinction. Morality and sin no longer had to do with observing the sabbath, priestly sacraments, dietary laws, formal sacrifices and prayers, or performing correct rites of purification or charity, but with realizing God’s image in freedom of the individual will. Since God’s relation to his creation is exactly transcendence, that mental process, which recapitulates the image of God in a creative act of freedom, is an experience of transcendence.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Descartes was an amateur genius in mathematics who had been spotted as gifted as a child and educated to be a lawyer. Next after theology, law was the most esteemed of the university faculties. Descartes never worked professionally as a lawyer nor as a university professor, but sometimes as a military aide. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) started the year Descartes turned 22 and continued until he was 52, merely two years before his death. The war raged along during all but a tiny portion of his adult life, and so military work was widely available. When Descartes was a child of 4 the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was executed in Rome. Bruno’s execution by burning alive, by order of the Roman Inquisition, had a profound effect on subsequent generations of philosophers, Descartes among them. Bruno was savagely executed for nothing other than his philosophical thoughts and writings, and far more brutally than Socrates had been. Bruno’s killing clarified the Roman Church as the mortal enemy of philosophy and inspired a fierce determination in an underground movement for “freedom to philosophize”.

Descartes liked to get lost, and found, in thought, and became active in the republic of letters, writing in academic Latin. Descartes’ thinking was moved by doubt, as Luther’s was, and doubt was a crucial act of intelligence for Descartes. For Descartes, doubt was the matrix of personal freedom in thinking. Descartes’ “thinking substance” and “extended substance” follow fairly closely the inward-outward dualism presented in Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian. Luther had no influence on Descartes’ mathematics or science, but the philosophical side of Descartes’ work fits perfectly into the cultural context created roughly a century earlier by the existential doubt explored and made famous internationally by Luther. The demystifying force of Descartes’ science was also in the tradition of reducing magic advanced by protestantism.

Doubt is distinctly individual, in fact definitive of subjective individuality, having the peculiar existence of intelligence rather than of objects. Descartes’ presentation of his method of thinking was a demonstration of the freedom of thinking. Descartes conceived ‘thinking substance’ as individual thinking persons: “I doubt, therefore I exist.” That discovery was fundamental for Descartes, so he intended no scientific dismissal of thinking. The thinking illustrated by Descartes was propositional reasoning, the action of an enduring self with a continuity of language competence, mathematical competence, logical competence, and of voice. In Descartes the “I” or subjective entity of intelligence encounters extended substance, nature, and exerts power in discovering the laws and shapes of nature. So Descartes extended Luther’s vision of subjectivity in a secular direction, but Luther merits considerable credit for beginning the progress of modern philosophy. There is much of Luther’s specific influence in Descartes’ work, as well as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Soren Kierkegaard.

Luther had a strong focus on individual mentality, of which faith was one feature and doubt a closely related feature. According to Luther, people had the mental power to make a creative leap in the absence of sufficient reason or evidence. Western people had gained intelligence in a new cultural way on the basis of Wycliffe’s campaign for popular literacy focused on reading the Bible. The value so placed on mental processes was a foundation on which Luther built. Following Luther, reading the Bible was a requirement for normal protestant piety, and so literacy spread with protestantism. Literacy brings the power to write, to invent original communications and self-expressions, as well as the power to gain awareness of the voices of others. Vernacular literacy, the printing press, and the protestant reformation raised the profile of personal intelligence in the private lives of an uncontrolled portion of the community. Broadening the base of literacy enabled cultures of written conversation, the republics of letters, to develop outside institutions, and subsequently enabled the ‘Enlightenment’ in eighteenth century Europe, when the literate portion of the population became the majority. That rationalist enlightenment was directly inspirational for the American and French revolutions, the most effective events of a spiral of revolt that extended back 400 years to Wycliffe’s work in the immediate aftermath of the Great Plague. When literacy is a minority skill it can be an effective technique of domination by a ruling elite. Universal literacy has been a profound inspiration for equality.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.