In this selection from his Floating University lecture, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education,” Jeffrey Brenzel, Philosopher and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University charts the development of Christian thinking through the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther and Milton.
Jeffrey Brenzel: If you happen to be a Christian what you think of Christianity, the very concepts and ideas that form the basis for Christianity actually turn out to owe a great deal to Plato and Aristotle.
Virtually everything that Christianity teaches about God, about human nature, about human fulfillment arises from what the historians of religion like to call the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens that is the marriage of Greek and Jewish thinking. One big moment for this process comes about eight centuries after Plato and Aristotle, four centuries after Christ when a man named St. Augustine writes a truly monumental work in the history of western thought, a real classic, The City of God. He writes this book just as the Roman Empire is collapsing around his ears from invasion of barbarians. Augustine was very influenced by platonic thinking even though he wasn’t all that familiar directly with Plato’s works and he sets the course of Christian thinking for a very long time. In fact, if you’re knowledgeable about the history of Christian doctrine or Christian theology you’ll know that Augustine is influential right up to the current moment.
Then another 800 years after St. Augustine a priest around the year 1250 named Thomas Aquinas rediscovers many of the lost works of Aristotle. To put this very briefly, he puts together the thought of Aristotle with the thought of Augustine, comes up with a new synthesis for Christian thinking and it turns out to be a game-changer. The result is for the most part, what the Roman Catholic Church teaches to this very day. St. Thomas Aquinas is the primary orthodox theologian of Catholicism.
Meanwhile, the Italian poet Dante who lives one generation after Aquinas reads Aquinas, is influenced by his work and as one of the three or four greatest poets ever to live presents us with his own view of human nature, fulfillment and human destiny when he writes his three epic poems about hell, purgatory and heaven. You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.
So now fast forward another 250 years and we come to about the year 1500, Martin Luther in Germany. Now Luther gets very angry about a lot of things that are happening in the Catholic Church. He goes back and rips Aquinas apart. He trashes Aristotle and he returns for his inspiration to the game-changing works of St. Augustine and St. Paul. By doing this Luther also starts a process that splinters Christianity into a million pieces, game-changers.
Another hundred or so years after Luther we have John Milton. Milton is an English poet. He takes his inspiration from the reforming of Christianity, the Protestant reformation and he writes the greatest epic poem in the English language Paradise Lost. It gives his own picture, the Protestant picture of human nature, human history, human destiny, God’s will.
So if you happen to be a Catholic and you believe that the Catholic Church teaches the same thing always and everywhere and has from the very beginning or if you’re an Evangelical Protestant and you believe that all of your own views come directly from a plain, straightforward reading of New Testament texts in either case you could not be more mistaken. The very teachings of the Catholic Church or the very ways that a Protestant Christian interprets the words of the Bible, the scripture results from speculations and collisions taking place among ideas that involve Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther and Milton.