Some examples of Christian Persecution of Philosophers

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

From the earliest days philosophers were critical of Christianity. They found no substantial arguments, and pointed out a number of weaknesses in Christian reasoning. Christians for their part were suspicious of philosophy which they regarded as at best unnecessary and at worst the work of Satan. As one authority writes of Tertullian’s Accusations of the Gentiles:

He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false.

As soon as they had the power to do so, Christians destroyed books of philosophy. This is why so little pagan philosophy has survived – those works of philosophy were not really “lost” – they were sought out and burned by zealous Christians. This is why we know next to nothing about atheist philosophers such as Diagoras of Melos (known as the Atheist of Milos) and Theodorus the Atheist. As soon as Christians were able to do so, they sought the destruction of living philosophers as well. Sopater of Apamea was a distinguished Neoplatonist philosopher. He was put to death by the Bishop of Bishops, Pontifex Maximux, His Holiness the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, sometime before 337. Sopater had had the temerity to critisise the dissolute lifestyles of the emperor and a powerful Christian called Ablabius. He was apparently accused of practising magic. This accusation would become the standard accusation against philosophers who made any criticism of Christianity – like mathematicians, genuine philosophers were thought to be in league with the devil and to consort with demons.

Hypatia of Alexandria was particularly hated by Christians because she was not only a philosopher and a mathematician, but also a woman. She contravened biblical teaching about the role of women and consequently was murdered by a Christian mob, led by a bishop, in March 415. Here is another bishop’s account of her murder:

And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate – now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ – and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a [teaching] chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus’; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.

You can read the full text by John, Bishop of Nikiu, here. (He omits some of the gory details of her death, which we have from other sources).

The bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, later used his bands of violent monks to influence Christian”orthodoxy” and is now considered a saint. The death of Hypatia signaled a Christian uprising against the ‘learned scholars’ of Alexandria, and the end of the city as a centre of knowledge throughout the ancient world. Her murder is generally held to mark the end of classical philosophy.

In about 520 the philosopher Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) to Theodoric the Great. Boethius was a man of science, a dedicated Hellenist keen on translating all the works of Aristotle into Latin and harmonizing them with the works of Plato. For reasons unknown, but apparently politico-religious in nature, Theodoric, an Arian Christian, ordered Boethius killed. Boethius was executed at the age of 44 years on 23rd October, 524, after a period in prison during which he wrote his most famous work, Consolation of Philosophy.

For a thousand years the only philosophers in Christendom were those the Church would allow. Many thousands of men pursued “Scholasticism” – a philosophical dead end that is now of interest only to historians. A few individuals investigated philosophy for themselves and were condemned as magicians or heretics for doing so, many of them dying in mysterious circumstances after their condemnation, or less mysteriously burned at the stake.

Peter Abélard was a philosopher with original ideas – probably the finest clerical philosopher of the 12th Century. His fame won him much animosity from his fellow scholastics and he was repeatedly tried for heresy.

He was charged with the heresy of Sabellianism at a provincial synod at Soissons in 1121, and his teachings were official condemned. He was made to burn his book before being shut up in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons. Later, in 1141 a Church council at Sens arraigned him on a number of new charges of heresy. His condemnation was confirmed by Rome a year later. He died on his way to Rome, intending to appeal.

Pietro d’Abano (c. 1257– 1316) (aka Petrus De Apono or Aponensis). d’Abano was an Italian philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and professor of medicine in Padua. He was charged with practising magic: the specific accusations being that with the aid of the Devil, he got back any money he paid out, and that he possessed the philosopher’s stone. His real crime seems to have been that he had “acquired the knowledge of the seven liberal arts” and denied the role of angels and demons in controlling nature.

He was twice brought before the Medieval Inquisition. On the first occasion he was acquitted (notable academics like d’Abano sometimes were acquitted). But inquisotors were rarely satisfied by an acquital, and he died in an Inquisition prison in 1315 before his second trial was completed. He was found guilty, even though already dead, and his body was ordered to be exhumed and burned; but a friend had secretly removed it, and the Inquisition had to content itself with the public proclamation of its sentence and the burning of Abano in effigy.

Michael Servetus (1511 – 1553). Servetus was a Spanish humanist. He was a polymath versed in mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, cartography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, as well as jurisprudence, translation, poetry and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine. He was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation.

He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later became a Unitarian. For denying the Trinity, he was condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike. On 4 April 1553 he was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities, and imprisoned in Vienne. Servetus escaped from prison three days later. An effigy and his books were burned in his absence. Fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva, where Calvin and his Reformers had denounced him. He was arrested in Geneva and on 17 June, he was convicted of heresy, “thanks to the 17 letters sent by Jehan Calvin” and sentenced to be burned. French Inquisitors asked that Servetus be extradited to them for execution, but Calvin preferred Servetus to be executed by Protestants. He was burnt at the stake as a heretic on 27 October 1553 by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.

Erasmus (1466? – 1536). Desiderius Erasmus, known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Dutch was a classical scholar, Renaissance humanist thinker, social critic, writer and teacher. He was born illegitimate, his father, Gerard, being a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda. Illegitimacy was a bar to ordination, so his family had to buy an exemption for him. Erasmus was an early proponent of religious toleration, and enjoyed the sobriquet “Prince of the Humanists”; He prepared new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation.

He was critical of the widespread abuses within the Catholic Church. Among the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault on Church excesses were the tenets of life in Religious Orders. Members of the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus as having “laid the egg that hatched the Reformation.” His scholarship and enormous popularity ensured his personal safety, but all of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV.

Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600). Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. He developed and wrote about mnemonic systems which enabled him to perform prodigious feats of memory. Although the techniques were clearly documented, some of his contemporaries attributed them to magical powers.

He was an outstanding scholar, teaching in many of the leading European universities. He spent most of his life under suspicion and was arrested by the Church authorities. Among the numerous charges of blasphemy and heresy brought against him in Venice, was his belief in the plurality of worlds. Bruno defended himself skillfully. The Roman Inquisition asked for his transferal to Rome. After several months the Venetian authorities consented and Bruno was sent to Rome in February 1593. Bruno proposed that the Sun was essentially a star, and, that other stars were solar systems, with an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. He also held that matter was the essentially the same throughout the universe, made up of discrete atoms and obeying the same physical laws. In technical terms, Bruno’s cosmology is marked by infinitude, homogeneity, and isotropy, with planetary systems distributed evenly throughout – all of which contradicted Church teaching. In addition his ideas were distinctly Pantheistic. Furthermore, a copy of the banned writings of Erasmus, annotated by Bruno, had been discovered.

He was imprisoned for seven years in Rome, during his trial. Some important documents about the trial are mysteriously “lost”, but a summary of the proceedings was rediscovered in 1940. The numerous charges against Bruno, based on some of his books as well as on witness accounts, included blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology, philosophy and cosmology. The charges reduced to:

holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith (five counts);
claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into animals,
dealing in magics and divination.

Pope Clement VIII declared Bruno a heretic. The Roman Inquisition issued a sentence of death. On February 17, 1600 in the Campo de’ Fiori, a central Roman market square, “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words” he was burned at the stake. His ashes were dumped into the Tiber river. All of his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603.

Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715 – 1771). Helvétius was a French philosopher. Descended from a line of celebrated physicians, he had a large fortune which he dispensed in works of benevolence. Attracted by reading Locke he devoted himself to philosophy and retired to a country estate, where he employed his fortune in the relief of the poor, the encouragement of agriculture and the development of new industries.

In August 1758 he published a work On the Mind (De L’Esprit) which contained ideas considered utilitarian, materialistic and atheistic. According to Helvétius all human faculties may be reduced to physical sensation, even memory, comparison, and judgment. Our only difference from the lower animals lies in our external organization. There is no such thing as absolute right. Ideas of justice and injustice change according to customs. The ends of government are to ensure the maximisation of pleasure. Public ethics have a utilitarian basis, and he insisted on the importance of culture and education in national development. Education is the method by which to reform society, and there are few limits to the social improvements that could be brought about by the appropriate distribution of education. His atheistic, utilitarian and egalitarian doctrines caused an outcry from the Church. The Sorbonne condemned the book, while the priests persuaded the court that it was full of dangerous atheistic doctrines. The book was declared to be heretical and was condemned by both Church and State. It was condemned by Pope Clement XIII on 31 January 1759, and burnt by the order of the French Parliament on 6 February 1759.

Terrified at the storm he had raised, Helvétius wrote three separate and humiliating retractions. But times had changed. Most educated people regarded him as saying nothing new, merely repeating obvious truths. It was only saying things out loud that caused a fuss. In Paris salons his ideas were already widely accepted. Mme. du Deffand said “he told everybody’s secret.” Madame de Graffigny claimed that all the good things in the book had been picked up in her own salon. As a result of the publicity Helvétius became a celebrity across the continent. His book was republished in Amsterdam and London, and translations were made into all the main languages of Europe. The age of Persecution by Christians was almost over.

As it became increasingly unacceptable for the Church to burn scientists and philosophers, the Catholic Church contented itself with forbidding and burning the written works of philosophers.

A list of all philosophers, with references and photos at

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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