Medieval ethics

The Characteristics of Medieval Ethics

The main characteristic of medieval ethics is that it is grounded in the Christian worldview.

It is therefore distinguished from ancient Greek ethics in the following respects:

  • Distancing from the things of the world: in medieval Christian ethics, man’s ultimate end is no longer in this world. Medieval philosophers held that love for God was the main condition for man to reach moral perfection;
  • Valuing subjectivity: medieval ethics emphasizes the human subjective aspect, so concepts such as freedom and intention will be fundamental to it. Unlike ancient ethics in which the Greek man was strictly related to the polis, Christian ethics will value the relationship between individuals and God.

The Influences of Medieval Ethics

Christian philosophical ethics did not come out of nowhere. Medieval philosophers were greatly influenced by the great pagan Greek philosophers and philosophical schools such as Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Platonism.

Christian philosophers welcomed the ancient ethical theories that could be harmonized with the Christian faith. We can therefore say that Christian ethics is a synthesis of Greek philosophical thought with Christian thought.

Medieval Christian philosophers adopted the classical ethical concepts of the Greeks, such as:

  • happiness;
  • soul;
  • good;
  • evil;
  • virtue;
  • freedom;

These Greek concepts and many others were adapted with the ethical and religious concepts of Christianity such as sin, grace, salvation, charity, etc.

Anthropology and the Fall

In the Middle Ages, men considered laws and rules to be established by God. To do evil was, according to the Christian ethical view, to disregard God’s commandment.

Medieval Christian ethics held that man was a fallen being due to original sin, committed by Adam.

The human will, therefore, was weak to perfectly fulfill the divine laws. As a fallen being, it was up to man to live a holy life to achieve salvation.

The main representatives of medieval ethics

  • St. Augustine: this important medieval philosopher was mainly influenced by Plato’s philosophy;
  • St. Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor, as Thomas is called, developed his philosophy based on Aristotle’s philosophy;
  • Peter Abelard: a renowned medieval logician, Abelard innovated Christian ethics by emphasizing the individual’s intention, not only the action.

St. Augustine: free will

The most important ethical concept developed by St. Augustine is that of free will.

God gave man the gift of freedom. Human actions are not determined by fate, but by one’s will.

The idea of free will is also important to explain how evil can exist in the divine creation, since God is infinite goodness. Augustine argues that evil exists precisely because of freedom.

Man can choose to draw near to or move away from God. The estrangement from God is, for Augustine, evil.

Evil, which is an action contrary to the Divine will, will be defined as sin. The sinner is that person in whom the body dominates the soul. Furthermore, Augustine states that he who lives in sin misuses his freedom, becomes a slave; whereas he who follows a life fulfilling God’s will is truly free.

For Augustine, the soul is God’s creation and is superior to the body. The soul must dominate the body for the practice of good.

The notion of free will shows us how subjectivity is of great importance for medieval ethics. Freedom in ancient ethics was focused on the relationship between man and society. In Christian thought, freedom is understood as a means for the individual to act according to divine norms.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest medieval philosophers, he managed to harmonize Aristotelian philosophy with Christian thought, so much of his ethics is due to Aristotle.

Thomas agrees with Aristotle that man’s ultimate end is happiness, but he does not agree that happiness is achieved through contemplation. For the medieval philosopher, God is the source of that happiness.

Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard’s ethics is called “Ethics of intention”.
For him, all human actions should be considered neutral, indifferent. What will determine whether an action is good or bad is the individual’s intention. For example, if someone does an act of charity with a view to vainglory, he is acting immorally.

The action matters little in Abelard’s Ethics, it is only the intention that determines an action.

Someone who is forced to perform an evil act does not sin if her intention is not to do so. Sin, therefore, arises from consenting to the action performed.


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