The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.
The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77
While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.
Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.
76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.
The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.
One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.
Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75
69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).
70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.
71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).
74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).
75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, http://www.piousfabrications.com/2013/04/aquinass-uncomfortable-synthesis.html (accessed 20 April 2013).
The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.
62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).
63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1
64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1
65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1
66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2
67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.
68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.