The Philosophical Thread

Plato and Socrates

Although the Renaissance is credited with the ‘rebirth’ of the classical worldview, in fact, the Middle Ages were permeated by the ideas of Plato and Socrates. The documentary considers the contributions of the ancient world to Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The short film presents Aquinas through the lens of modern Catholic teaching.

Edward Tivnan is the author of two books for Simon & Schuster, The Lobby (1987) and The Moral Imagination: Confronting the Ethical Issues of Our Day (1995); he co-authored Escape from Slavery, a story of modern slavery (St. Martin’s: 2003). A veteran journalist, author and screenwriter, Tivnan was a staff writer for Time Magazine and a writer/producer for the ABC newsmagazine 20/20.  As a freelancer for more than 40 years, he has written major features for such national publications as the New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine and The Nation; co-produced TV documentaries, including two for the BBC; and has collaborated on 10 other published books, including Hernando de Soto’s global best-seller, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Has Triumphed in the West and Failed Everywhere Else. Tivnan has also written for ten different dramatic television series, including “Miami Vice,” “The Client” and “New York Undercover.” He has degrees in classics and ancient history from Amherst, Oxford, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton.

In the course of the seminar on October 7 Ed Tivnan referenced several books which were of interest to the participants. Following is an annotated bibliography from Ed:

Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown – a masterpiece of historical writing (published in 1967 and reissued in 2000) by the former Oxford classicist and historian who left Britain for Berkeley in the 1970’s and then moved on to Princeton where he continues to hold a chair.  He has written a series of brilliant books on late antiquity and early Christianity, including The Body and Society, an eye-opening account of marriage and sexual practices in the Eastern Mediterranean area of the late Roman Empire – discussing promiscuity and chastity, asceticism and monasticism, along with the ideas of Ambrose, Augustine and other Christian writers. Brown is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.  

Saint Augustine, Garry Wills – a brief (150 pages) but intelligent essay on Augustine’s life and ideas in the “Penguin Lives” series by the veteran journalist, author, polymath and former Jesuit seminarian.

Paul the Convert, Alan Segal – a well written look at the man who delivered the gentiles to Christianity by a Jewish scholar who is also an expert in early Christianity.

Pagans and Christians: Robin Lane-Fox – a fascinating look at the Second to Fourth Century Roman Empire when Romans were embracing Christianity.  Another Oxford ancient historian, Lane-Fox is also the author of a major biography of Alexander the Great, which was the basis of the 2004 Oliver Stone blockbuster movie. He also wrote an entertaining takedown of the Bible: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Lane-Fox has moonlighted for decades as the gardening columnist for the Sunday edition of the Financial Times of London.

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation: Paula Frederikson. Published in 2018, this is an amazingly learned effort to recreate the world of the Jews who followed Jesus during the decades after the crucifixion. A well known scholar of religion, the author disrupts many conventional views of the New Testament and the divinity of Christ, and is controversial among traditional Christians.

Elaine Pagels’ books:

The Gnostic Gospels. A popular account of the discovery of the Nag Hammdi library discovered in the Holy Land of the writings of this ascetic, Christian sect, which won the National Book Award in 1980 – by the former head of the Dept. of Religion at Barnard, who moved to Princeton in the 1980s, where she still teaches.

Adam and Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity(1989). Very good on Augustine’s battle over the Church’s teaching on sexuality and chastity with the British Christian intellectual Pelagius.  

The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics (1995) Fascinating account of the origins of anti-Semitism, which, she argues (controversially) began first among competing Jewish sects (e.g. traditional Jews attacking the ascetic Jews who founded the Essenes – who seemed to influence Jesus and his followers.

Rome: An Urban Barometer — Passion, Plagues, Piety-The World of the Middle Ages

The population of Rome provides an excellent measure for the Southern European region’s overall health and stability. Although the term “Dark Ages” has fallen out of favor, during the Medieval era it appeared that the Eternal City might be headed towards extinction. I find it incredible that, during the glory days of the Empire, Rome’s […]

Rome: An Urban Barometer — Passion, Plagues, Piety-The World of the Middle Ages

David Macaulay, Illustrator

David Macaulay is a British-American illustrator who has recreated ancient worlds, looked into the future, and portrayed everything from the grand to the mundane. A MacArthur grant recipient and Caldecott medal winner, David will give us a unique look into the bones of medieval buildings.

Davi’s books are usually found in in the Children’s section of the library and, indeed, he tells his complex stories in a simple direct fashion. This PBS special provides insights into the construction of a cathedral and a fictional recreation of life in this the Medieval world.

Another resource-Susan Wozniak spotted an excellent documentary on castle construction. Modern workers use traditional methods to build a replica of a castle.

“The Medieval Jew”

Norman Cantor was one of the most widely read 20th Century historians of the Middle Ages. This hour-long lecture shows Cantor at his best as his growly voice details 1000 years of Jewish history. Cantor is talking to a large audience before dinner and he knows to paint his history in broad strokes. Muslims, Christians, and Jews are put under a microscope.

The Two Faces of Islam

For Christian dominated Western Europe Islam represented an frightening wave that threatened to dominate the continent. Though the initial influx was repelled at the Battle of Tours, the stage was set for a centuries-long conflict. The Crusaders’ attempts to recapture Jerusalem led to endless, often inconclusive wars.

Despite the on-going conflicts, another facet of Islamic culture contributed directly to the rich intellectual life of the High Middle Ages. Muslim scholars transmitted the core of classical Greek and Roman philosophy, science, and literature to Western humanists. A very good documentary gives an overview of the complexity of the Muslim world.

Monastic Life in the 40th Century

A Canticle for Leibowitz was the first book that enabled me to truly understand the world of monasticism. Written 1959 at the height of the Cold War, Canticle depicts a 40th Century, post-apocalyptic world. Monks picking through the ruins of a civilization evoke determination amidst horrors.

Miller’s cautionary novel substitutes nuclear Armageddon for the fall of Rome and barbarian Wrath of God. Divided into three Cantos this story spans three era; meta-Medieval, new Modernity, and surreal future. The common thread is a Catholic Church that has metamorphosed in fantastic ways.

The Barbarians

The Romans fought against the ‘barbarians’ for the entire lifespan of their Empire. Caesar’s Gallic Wars detailed endless campaigns against European and English tribes. By the 5th C. AD/CE Rome was exhausted and barbarian depredations menaced the Eternal City itself. Terry Jones a British popular historian has a multiple series on the full history of barbarians. He uses humour and good visuals to present a sprawling history. If you have a few hours you can binge on barbarians throughout the Middle Ages. Start here

Why Did Rome Fall

Professor Alexander Demandt in his 1984 epic Der Falls Rom offers reasons cited by researchers. 210 of them…

Professor Alexander Demandt’s Der Falls Rom (1984) 

Abolition of gods, 

abolition of rights, 

absence of character,


agrarian question, 

agrarian slavery, 






attacks by Germans, 

attacks by Huns, 

attacks by nomads on horseback.

Backwardness in science, 




blockage of land by large landholders, 

blood poisoning, 


bread and circuses, 




change of capitals, 

caste system, 





citizenship (granting of), 

civil war, 

climatic deterioration, 



concatenation of misfortunes, 




crisis of legitimacy, 

culinary excess, 

cultural neurosis.


decline of Nordic character, 

decline of the cities, 

decline of the Italic population, 



degeneration of intellect, 


depletion of mineral resources, 

despotism, destruction of environment, 

destruction of peasantry, 

destruction of political process, 

destruction of Roman influence, 


differences in wealth, 


disillusion with state, 

division of empire, 

division of labour.



egoism of the state, 

emancipation of slaves, 



 equal rights (granting of), 

eradication of the best, 

escapism, ethnic dissolution, 

excessive aging of population, 

excessive civilization, 

excessive culture,

 excessive foreign infiltration, 

excessive freedom,

 excessive urbanization, 



Fear of life, 

female emancipation, 



gladiatorial system, 







hothouse culture,



Immoderate greatness,




imprudent policy toward buffer states, 

inadequate educational system,







integration (weakness of), 


Jewish influence.

Lack of leadership,

 lack of male dignity, 

lack of military recruits, 

lack of orderly imperial succession, 

lack of qualified workers, 

lack of rainfall, 

lack of religiousness, 

lack of seriousness, 

large landed properties, 



levelling (cultural), 

levelling (social), 

loss of army discipline, 

loss of authority,

 loss of energy, 

loss of instincts, 

loss of population, 



 marriages of convenience, 

mercenary system, 

mercury damage, 


monetary economy, 

monetary greed, 

money (shortage of), 

moral decline, 

moral idealism, 

moral materialism, 

mystery religions, 

nationalism of Rome’s subjects, 

negative selection.


outflow of gold, 



paralysis of will, 







plutocracy, polytheism,

 population pressure, 


professional army, 



prostitution, psychoses, 

public baths.

Racial degeneration, 

racial discrimination, 

racial suicide, 


refusal of military service, 

religious struggles and schisms,

 rentier mentality, 


restriction to profession,

restriction to the land, 


rise of uneducated masses, 

romantic attitudes to peace, 

ruin of the middle class, 

rule of the world.







of trade routes, 


Slavic attacks, 

socialism (of the state), 

social tensions, 

soil erosion, 

soil exhaustion, 

spiritual barbarism, 




structural weakness, 



pressure of terrorism, 

tiredness of life, 




two-front war, 


useless diet, 

usurpation of all powers by the state, 


villa economy,