About the course
Online Readings

Weird Wild Web

Other Courses

Midterm Review


Description of the Midterm Examination
A Catalogue of Themes in Ancient and Medieval Western Philosophy
1. Soul
2. Reason
3. Proofs for the Existence of God
4. History of the Idea of Creation
5. Being and Becoming, the One and the Many
6. The Problem of Evil
7. Possible Essay Topics

Description of the Midterm Examination

Here is an approximate description of the exam. It is an 80 minute, closed-book test consisting of 5 parts:

  1. Mark 10 of 12 (or 13) statements True or False, qualifying statements where you feel this is necessary. (20%)
  2. Fill in the blanks with appropriate words. (20%)
  3. Define 10 of 12 (or 13) technical terms in a single sentence. (20%)
  4. Write a crisp paragraph expounding 4 of 5 themes. (20%)
  5. Write an essay on 1 of 2 topics. (20%)

The aim is not to find out gaps in knowledge, but to enable students to demonstrate what they do know. For example, choice is provided in most sections of the examination. And the learning of dates is not required.

The exam is designed to be manageable by those for whom English is a second language. For them, the essay (Part 5) is the hardest part, but the review session will provide a list of possible essays to enable them to focus their preparation (see below.) They are also given a few minutes more than others to complete the examination.

There is something for everyone in the exam. Everyone—including people who are strong in memory related tasks and those better at judgment and understanding skills—will find areas of the examination suited to their strengths.

A Catalogue of Themes in Ancient and Medieval Western Philosophy

This review will cover a number of themes, drawing connections between the figures studied in the course to this point.

1. Soul

Many Presocratics talked of human soul as a kind of stuff like other things in the cosmos.

  • For example, Anaximanes spoke of soul as "airy"; Heraclitus as "fiery." Anaxagoras thought of soul as an intelligent substance.
  • Pythagoras conceived of the soul more spiritually and mystically, as the ground of human perception of and harmony with the mathematical-musical order of the cosmos.

Plato, owing something to the Pythagoreans, thought of human soul as an invisible, non-material reality that is embodied in human life.

  • Plato affirmed a tripartite soul, with an intellective part (reason), a spirited part (will), and an appetitive part (appetites, drives).
  • From this he developed a primitive psychology by which he explained many defective kinds of human beings by comparison with the well-ordered soul—one in which reason rules will, which in turn rules appetite.

Aristotle denied that soul was an invisible substance, and thought of it as the principle of unity of a thing, a part of its form.

  • Soul is possessed by all primary beings (they have matter + form, which includes a principle of unity, or soul), not just human beings.
  • Observation working with reason can detect a number of kinds of soul in primary beings. Four kinds are nutritive soul (determinative of plant substances), motive and sensitive soul (determinative of animal substances), and intellective soul (determinative of human beings).
  • Aristotle also argued that human soul has rational and irrational parts, corresponding to the organizing and organized aspects of human beings. He urged that the rational part must rule the irrational, accordingly, and used this to justify slavery and the denigration of women. Slaves, according to Aristotle, have no rational part, and the rational part of the souls of women is inactive, so they need to be ruled by men, whose rational part is active.

For Plotinus, Soul is the third primal process, and includes everything that emanates into temporal being from the One via eternal Mind.

  • The lower part of Soul is material.
  • Human soul is partly material and partly rational and spiritual, and so is located within the lower reaches of soul. It returns to Mind by freeing the rational, spiritual part from the material part.

Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius add to Plotinus the idea of theiosis, or divinization, which is a specification of the mechanism involved in the return of human beings to their final origin (the One, or God). They say that the rational, spiritual part of human beings is freed from their material part through union of the human soul with the soul of Christ.

Augustine’s view is much like the Neo-Platonic view, whereas Thomas’s is an interesting combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotle. Thomas:

  • affirmed the great scale of being, which can be found in both Neo-Platonism and Aristotle;
  • held that rational, spiritual soul is the characteristic feature of human beings, and in Aristotelian fashion derived from this fact that the natural purpose of human beings is to know God; and
  • conceived of the goal of human beings to know God as fulfilled only in the afterlife (a clearly Platonic understanding) through the beatific vision, in which humans (in accordance with their natures) know God as God knows the divine self.

2. Reason

The Presocratics insisted that human beings can use reason to press for the "what" and the "how"—the structure and inner workings—of reality.

  • A mythic mentality preceded Presocratic philosophy. In myth, reason is sublimated in stories.
  • Parmenides was suspicious of the world of appearances and thought that knowledge could only be gained through the exercise of human reason. He invented logical argument of a clearly defined kind, moving from premises to a conclusion via steps that are recognized as valid (truth-preserving). He also developed the reductio ad absurdum form of argument.
  • Pythagoreans, Heraclitus, and others of the Presocratics thought of human reason as the presence in humans of the same logos that defined the order of the cosmos.

From the Presocratics, two opposed opinions about human reason developed.

  • The sophists (Protagoras) distrusted reason and relied on appearances.
  • Socrates (and then Plato) distrusted appearances and relied on reason.

Aristotle found an important middle way between these two views, using reason for some tasks, and observation for others.

The Neo-Platonists, and the Christian Platonists such as Augustine, continued the fundamentally Socratic line of suspicion of appearances.

Thomas Aquinas achieved a synthesis of the view of Aristotle and the Platonists, by showing how reason could be used in some tasks but was also inadequate in this world for the final, glorious knowledge of God for which human beings are intended. This shows up in:

  • Thomas’s distinction between revealed and natural theology;
  • Thomas’s expatiation of the beatific vision; and
  • Thomas’s specific argument that reason cannot decide whether the universe has an infinite age (Aristotle) or a finite age (an interpretation of biblical creation myths), but only that God created it in either case. Special revelation alone can settle the issue.

3. Proofs for the Existence of God

Ontological Proof (Anselm, owing a good deal to Plato). The strategy of the ontological argument is to discover knowledge of God through reflection on the nature of thought itself, apart from any information about the world.

The four large-scale steps of Anselm's ontological Argument in Proslogion II-IV are as follows:

  1. We can understand the phrase "that than which nothing greater can be thought" (which may be abbreviated as "X").
  2. If X exists in the understanding, then it must exist in reality, for that is greater. (Prologion II).
  3. If X exists at all, then it must exist necessarily, for that is greater. (Proslogion III).
  4. X is God (Proslogion IV).

The four small-scale steps of Proslogion II (the same logic applies to the argument of Proslogion III) are as follows:

  1. Let X be "that than which nothing greater can be thought"
  2. Suppose that X does not exist.
  3. An existent X is greater than a non-existent X.
  4. Contradiction: A non-existent X (step 2) cannot be that than which nothing greater can be conceived because a greater can in fact be conceived, namely, an existent X (step 3). Therefore, X exists (the assumption in step 1 was mistaken after all).

Cosmological Proof (Thomas, through Augustine, and owing a good deal to Aristotle). The strategy of the cosmological argument is to discover knowledge of God through reflection on the nature of the world, so information about the world is crucial.

The five ways of Thomas in Summa Theologiae are:

  • Argument from motion (to an unmoved mover)
  • Argument from efficient cause (to a first cause)
  • Argument from contingency (to a necessary being)
  • Argument from degrees of perfection (to a perfect being)
  • Argument from design (to an intelligent, comprehensive final cause)

There is another kind of purported proof for the existence of God, and it is an "inference-to-best-explanation" argument. That is, it is not so much a rational proof, so much as the result of producing a convincing metaphysics in which God plays an essential role. If that metaphysics is the best explanation of the world, then we may infer God’s existence as probable, accordingly. This is more widely used, even by thinkers who doubt that formal proofs for God's existence could ever be sound.

4. History of the Idea of Creation

1. Presocratics: previously regnant mythic mentality (which asked about the who and why of the cosmos and told stories in answer) gave way to curiosity about the what and how of the world. The question of ultimate origins was not raised, however. In fact, the previous cosmogonies (including that of the Jews in exile who compiled the creation myths of Genesis) emphasized the forming of unformed matter, a process in which order (logos) was imposed on chaos (matter). This basic idea remained in place until the idea of creation from nothing appeared.

Plato offered a more precise vision of this process of forming in the Timaeus, which was never intended to be more than probable speculation. In it, a pre-existent matter stuff is formed by a creator god (demiurge) according to the blueprint of the realm of forms.

2. Aristotle saw forms as in things, and denied that forms possessed independent existence. There was no creation, therefore, but reason could demonstrate that the universe was eternal, and dependent upon an unmoved mover for its orderliness, motion, and purpose. This advances the idea of dependence a step further, but denies creation at the same time.

3. Philo (a Middle Platonist at the turn of the eras) was concerned to combine the insights of Jewish scriptures about creation with Greek philosophy. Jewish scriptures affirmed that creation was good (in tension with Greek dualism) and created by God. Philo envisaged a larger, personal divine being whose ideas were the forms, and whose word caused creation to occur. The influential vision of the Timaeus is modified here to make forms and matter dependent upon God, rather than seeing forms, matter, and creator as three somehow independent principles.

4. Within Christianity, Justin (100-165) and Clement of Rome (c. 100) more or less accepted the Middle Platonic view, as developed by Philo and others. Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd century CE) was possibly the first to deny a preexistent chaotic stuff (matter), arguing instead that God creates from nothing. Gerhard May argues in Creation Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of Creation out of Nothing in Early Christian Thought (1995) that Theophilus’s idea came from Basileides, a 2nd century Gnostic thinker. It was, in any event, the natural next step in a process that was gradually articulating the dependence of the world on a divine creator.

5. Augustine is important in the process because he focused the meaning of creation from nothing to include the idea that time itself is created, so that it makes no sense to ask what God was doing "before creation."

Going further...

The following points are extra steps in the development of the idea of creation that do not need to concern you for the purposes of the midterm examination.

6. Emanation (the usual view of origins held by most Gnostics and Neo-Platonists) does not, strictly speaking, contradict creation from nothing. In Pseudo-Dionysius, for example, creation from nothing is affirmed by means of an eternal process of emanation.

7. Within the creatio ex nihilo camp, there are two views of the style of creation (emanation and the power of the word to create) and two views of the timing of creation (the cosmos has an infinite or a finite age). While each combination of style and timing is metaphysically possible, creatio ex nihilo gradually became most closely associated with the "power of the word" style and the "finite age" timing.

8. Because of this, Thomas was faced with a problem when he wanted to reconcile the rediscovered Aristotelian philosophy (cosmos is eternal) with creatio ex nihilo (now assumed to involve a cosmos with a finite age). He had to show that the eternality of the cosmos was not essential to Aristotle’s position, which he did by showing that Aristotle’s arguments were flawed. In fact, Thomas argued that reason could not decide the timing issue at all, and had to depend upon special revelation to settle the question. Thomas believed that special revelation stipulated a universe with a finite age, and so the meaning of creatio ex nihilo became tied to that idea.

9. Later thinkers have been unable to reproduce Thomas’s confidence that the biblical stories either affirm a creation with a finite age, or can be trusted to deliver a reliable judgment one way or another on this question. Thus creatio ex nihilo has in our own time generalized in meaning somewhat to include again all four possible positions on the style and timing of creation.

5. Being and Becoming, the One and the Many

Presocratics initiated the concern with the questions "what is being?" and "how can it be one?" and "how does it move?"

  • They answered the first by saying that everything that exists is composed of the four basic elements (earth, water, air, fire). Sometimes they found a way to affirm a basic stuff beneath those four elements (as in Aniximander’s apeiron, which Aristotle developed into his idea of matter-as-potential).
  • They answered the second by finding the unity in the common origins of diverse things in the basic elements. To increase the explanatory power of their theories with regard to saying how things could be one, they often made one element more fundamental than the others.
  • They answered the third by identifying the presence of the lighter elements, especially fire, as the cause of motion.

Parmenides (Eleatic philosopher) argued that plurality and change are illusory, and that ultimate reality is changeless, unitary being. He did this using reductio ad absurdum arguments (inspiring Zeno’s paradoxes) that showed the impossibility of plurality and change.

Plato affirmed the doctrine of hylomorphism, that every existent thing is a mixture of matter and form. He used this to explain change and plurality while protecting the unity and changelessness of the ultimate. It stressed

  • a dualism between the rational and matter; and
  • a hierarchy of being, in which the higher levels had more intense being.

Aristotle defined primary beings (e.g. plants, animals, human beings) as a mixture of matter and form, where their form was understood to include a principle of unity (soul). Every existent thing was the actualization (form) of some potential (matter). A thing was understood when four questions could be answered about it (the four causes: formal, material, efficient, and final). This led to:

  • an explanation of the diversity-in-unity of nature by means of a great scale of being in which the more complex primary beings had higher (more intense) being; and
  • an explanation of motion in terms of accidental change of unchanging substances, where the changes had both efficient and final aspects—for both of which God as unmoved mover and ground of Aristotle’s teleology was a crucial component.

Neo-Platonism did not advance the question of motion, but produced a powerful explanation of how the Many could be One by means of a theory of emanation (and return). This involved:

  • the affirmation of the One as beyond being and not-being;
  • a distinction between three primal hypostases (the One, eternal Mind, and temporal Soul); and
  • a theory of nature, and anthropology, and an interpretation of being through a vast philosophical story of emanation and return.

6. The Problem of Evil

Platonic philosophy of most stripes affirms that matter is the problem, which leads to metaphysical and ethical dualism. This is done in two main ways, with many variations:

  • matter is a positive force toward chaos that needs to be subdued by orderly reason (the dominant approach through Plato, and strongly affirmed in Gnosticism);
  • matter is an confusing environment for rational beings because the radiant glory of Being is only barely discernible there—evil is thus the result of distance of matter from the One (the typical Neo-Platonic approach, in which emanation is the key principle of explanation); and

Manichaeism is the ultimate dualist solution, personalizing the principle of evil and making it co-equal and co-eternal with God (almost co-equal, in other versions). This is a strong explanation of evil, but abandons entirely the attempt to understand all of Being as One.

Jewish theology affirms that matter is good because creation is good, and this has sponsored two views of a good God:

  • God as absolute monarch, allowing evil so long as it suits his purposes but committed to wiping it out eventually (more like Philo and Middle Platonism—strong on God’s power, weak on saying how we can be sure God is good); and
  • God as a struggling participant in the creative process, very much a personal being whose mind can be changed through negotiation, and who can make mistakes of judgment (more like the Hebrew Scriptures—strong on God’s goodness, weak on saying how we can be sure that God is powerful enough to keep things under control and defeat evil in the end).

Augustine (and Christian Platonism after him) held that evil has no positive power of its own, but is the result of some privation of (natural or moral) good (showing indebtedness to the Jewish view of creation as good). This could be considered a third way under Platonism, but is important enough to be singled out. Specifically:

  • the explanation of natural evil takes the Neo-Platonic line (imperfection of material nature); and
  • the explanation of moral evil takes advantage of the free-will defense (human will is deformed through human weakness).

This is an explanation designed to get God of the moral hook (theodicy), but begs the question about how there can be privation of moral good, and is no better than Neo-Platonism on the question of natural evil.

7. Possible Essay Topics

Essays call for students to defend a point of view, so be prepared. Two of the following four questions will be on the exam; you will have to write on one of them.

  1. The comparative influence of Plato and Aristotle on Christian theology.
  2. The problem of human reason, and its impact on Christian theology.
  3. The problem of evil, and its impact on the Christian understanding of God.
  4. The problem of the One and the Many, and its impact on the Christian understanding of God.

The information on this page is copyright 1994-2010, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.