Athens and Jerusalem

Part III


Concupiscentia Irresistibilis

"If you wish to subject everything to yourself, subject yourself to reason."

      - SENECA

"...all these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me... Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve."

      - MATTHEW, IV, 9—10


      One of the latest works of Etienne Gilson, the eminent historian of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, is entitled L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale. Its subject, however, is much more comprehensive than one would assume from the title. Here, indeed, he speaks not only as a historian of philosophy but as a philosopher. Utilizing the rich historical and philosophical materials gathered in the course of long years of fruitful work, he raises with rare mastery and solves one of the fundamental and most difficult of philosophical questions: Was there a Judeo-Christian philosophy and - this is particularly important — how was such a philosophy possible and what novelty did it bring to human thought?

     At first glance it seems that the expression "Judeo-Christian philosophy" contains an inner contradiction, especially in the sense that Gilson confers upon it. According to Gilson, the Judeo-Christian philosophy is a philosophy which has as its source the biblical revelation. At the same time he believes that every philosophy worthy of the name is a rational philosophy which is based on evidence and leads, or at least tends to lead, to demonstrable, indisputable truths. But all revealed truths, Gilson insistently and even, one might say, joyously emphasizes, have disdained demonstrations. "Greek thought," he says, "did not attain the essential truth that the biblical word 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one' with one blow and without a shadow of proof proclaims."[1] And further, "Here again not a word of metaphysics, but God has spoken, the matter is settled, and it is the Book of Exodus that sets up the principle on which the whole Christian philosophy will henceforth be suspended."[2] And for the third time: "Nothing is better known than the first verse of the Bible, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' Here again not a trace of philosophy. God no more justifies in a metaphysical way the statement of what He does than the definition of what He is."[3] And so it is throughout Scripture: God does not justify Himself, does not prove, does not argue, that is, He delivers His truths quite otherwise than does metaphysics.

     Nevertheless the truths that He proclaims are as convincing as those that our natural reason succeeds in producing and, above all, they are self-evident. Gilson repeats this with the same insistence when he declares that the biblical truths are not at all concerned about their demonstrability. "The first of all the commandments is this: 'Hear, 0 Israel,'" he quotes Mark 12:29 and adds immediately, "But this 'I believe in one God' of the Christians, the first article of their faith, appeared at the same time as a rational, irrefutable self-evidence."[4] And then also: "In delivering in this simple formula - 'in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth' - the secret of His creative action, it seems that God gives to men one of those puzzling words long sought, of which one is sure in advance that they exist, that one will never find them unless they are given to us, and whose self-evidence nevertheless forces itself upon us with an invincible power as soon as they are given to us." [5] He quotes Lessing: "Without doubt, as Lessing profoundly said, when the religious truths were revealed they were not rational, but they were revealed in order to become rational." To be sure, he has to restrict Lessing's thought, and this is extremely significant: "Not all, perhaps, but at least certain ones - and here lies the meaning of the question to which the chapters that follow will try to find the answer." It is with this sentence that he finishes the first chapter of the first book.

     I could multiply quotations on this matter from Gilson's book, but this seems to me unnecessary. The sentences that I have already quoted show the reader in what direction Gilson tries to orient our thought: the revealed truth is founded on nothing, proves nothing, is justified before nothing and - despite this - is transformed in our mind into a justified, demonstrated, self-evident truth. Metaphysics wishes to possess the revealed truth and it succeeds in doing so: this idea, which constitutes in a way the leitmotif of Gilson's beautiful book, permits the author to establish a strict bond between medieval philosophy, on the one hand, and ancient and modern philosophy, on the other. Just as in Hegel, philosophy, in the course of its millennial history, remains one: the Greeks sought what the scholastics sought and what the father of modern philosophy, Descartes, sought; and all who followed Descartes never could and never even wished to escape the influence of the philosophy of the Middle Ages. Gilson quotes the phrase of Clement of Alexandria which shows that Christian thought in its beginnings already admitted two "Old Testaments" - the Bible and Greek philosophy;[6] he indicates that the philosophers of the Middle Ages believed that the Delphic "know thyself" had "fallen from heaven." It is therefore wrong, according to him, to believe with Hamelin that Descartes reasoned as if nothing had been done in the domain of philosophy after the Greeks. Not only Descartes but all of his successors, up to the most eminent representatives of modern philosophy, were strictly bound to the scholastics: Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant and all the German idealists followed the way traced by scholastic thought; they also considered Greek philosophy as a kind of second "Old Testament."

     But modern philosophy could not have accomplished what it did without the scholastics, who succeeded in joining to the Bible and to the truths revealed by the Bible the self-evident truths discovered by the Greeks. The very title of Descartes' basic work, "Meditations on metaphysics, wherein the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated" and "the kinship of his proofs for the existence of God with those of St. Augustine and even those of St. Thomas" are already sufficiently persuasive in this respect. It is especially important to indicate that all the Cartesian system "rests on the idea of one omnipotent God who somehow created Himself, even more naturally created eternal truths - including those of mathematics - , who created the universe ex nihilo." No less significant is the conclusion of Leibniz's Discours metaphysique that Gilson quotes in its entirety and of which he says: "These are not the words of a man who believed himself to have come after the Greeks as if nothing had been between them and himself."

     According to Gilson, one could say the same of Kant, "if people did not so often forget to complete his Critique of Pure Reason with his Critique of Practical Reason. One could even say as much of our contemporaries." So he finishes his introductory remarks on the role of medieval philosophy in the history of the development of modern philosophical thought. And he declares no less categorically in the final chapter of the second volume of his work, "It will not suffice for a metaphysical thesis to have forgotten its religious origin to become rational. It would then be necessary to expel from philosophy as well as from its history - along with the God of Descartes - the God of Leibniz, of Malebranche, of Spinoza and of Kant, for no more than the God of St. Thomas would these have existed without the God of the Bible and the Evangelist."

     At the same time Gilson is not at all inclined to minimize the importance of the influence Greek philosophy exercised on medieval philosophy, as a less learned historian and one more preoccupied with apologetic than with the philosophical problems he has raised would have tried to do. I do not mean by this that Gilson does not have his own clear and determinate conception of the meaning and importance of the work accomplished by the Judeo-Christian philosophy and that, under the cover of historical questions, he tries to avoid the heavy responsibility that falls necessarily on one who must express himself openly on the very essence of the matter. On the contrary, I repeat, he attacks with noble audacity questions of principle and, if for this he utilizes historical materials, it is only insofar as he can count on finding in history data that will permit us to bring into clarity an extremely complex and confused situation - the situation in which European thought found itself when it recognized the necessity of incorporating into the truths drawn at the price of long and painful effort by the ancient world the "revelations" which suddenly fell on the world from the heavens when the Bible was disclosed to it. Gilson declares unhesitatingly, "Philosophy, in making itself more truly philosophy, becomes more Christian."

     Here finally is the basic thought of his work and, far from hiding it, he sets it in the foreground. "The conclusion which results from this study or, rather, the axis that traverses it from end to end, is that everything happens as if the Judeo-Christian revelation had been a religious source of philosophical development, the Latin Middle Ages being, in the past, the testimony par excellence of this development."[7] And yet he shows himself so objective and at the same time so convinced of the correctness of the conception he defends that he declares with the same assurance: "One could legitimately ask if there would ever have been a Christian philosophy if Greek philosophy had not existed."[8] And again: "If it is to the Bible that we owe a philosophy that is Christian, it is to the Greek tradition that Christianity owes the fact that it has a philosophy."[9] Whereas Plato and Aristotle have sunk into the past of history, "Platonism and Aristotelianism continued to live in a new way by collaborating in a work for which they did not know themselves destined. It is thanks to them that the Middle Ages could have a philosophy. It was they who taught the idea of "the perfect work of reason"; they pointed out, along with the master problems, the rational principles which govern their solution and the techniques through which they are justified. The debt of the Middle Ages to Greece is immense..."[10]

     Such, in a few words, are the essential ideas of Gilson's remarkable work. Without the ancient philosophy which set out from self-evident truths discovered by natural reason, medieval philosophy would not have existed; and without the medieval philosophy, which assimilated to itself the Bible's revelations, there would not have been any modern philosophy. It is clear that the problems raised and resolved by Gilson transcend the limits indicated by the relatively modest title of his book. It is not a matter of the spirit of medieval philosophy - in other words, of determining and characterizing in a more or less complete and detailed fashion what the most remarkable and influential thinkers of the Middle Ages did. To be sure, such a subject would have presented exceptional interest, especially treated by a specialist in the material and a writer like Gilson; his work would have been valuable even if he had held simply to the promises of his title. But the question the author has actually raised excites us even more. Revelation, he himself has told us, never proves anything, is founded on nothing, and is never justified.

     Now rationalism consists essentially in the fact that it founds, proves and justifies each of its assertions. How, then, could medieval philosophy discover a metaphysics in the Book of Exodus? The essential thing for metaphysics is not only to present us with truths but to do it in such a way that these truths are irrefutable and that there be no place beside them for other truths contradicting them. Can there, then, be a metaphysics where all proofs, on principle and once for all, are rejected? All the fundamental truths of revelation have come to man without "a shadow, without a trace of proof," as Gilson has told us, speaking in his own name and in the name of medieval philosophy. Even more, we read at the end of the third chapter of the second volume: "The metaphysics of the Book of Exodus penetrates to the very heart of epistemology, in that it makes the intellect and its subject dependent on God, from whom both draw their existence. What it brings us here that is new is the notion, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth, spontaneously ordained to the Being who is at the same time the end and the beginning, for it is by Him alone that it exists, as He alone can perfect and fulfill it."

     That the metaphysics of the Book of Exodus is precisely such is beyond doubt: the God of Scripture is above the truth as well as the good. When Descartes says this he is only expressing what every line of the Bible asserts. But can this "new thing" which the Bible brought find any place in that conception of metaphysics that the ancient world had elaborated? And can Greek philosophy help the medieval thinker participate in such a truth? Greek philosophy set as its task the searching out of self-evident truths which, being self-evident, are also irrefutable. When Kant wrote at the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason (First Edition), "Experience indeed teaches us what is but it does not say that what is must be precisely so and not otherwise; that is why experience does not give us true universality, and reason, which aspires avidly to this kind of knowledge, is irritated rather than satisfied by experience," he was only summing up in a few words what modern philosophy had inherited from ancient philosophy. Aristotle expresses himself similarly in his Metaphysics: "For the practical man well knows the 'that' but not the 'why'; but the theoretical man knows the why and the causal relationship."[11] Empirical knowledge consists in knowing how things happen in reality (to hoti) but it is not yet the knowledge why (to dioti kai hê aitia) what happens must happen precisely so and could not happen otherwise.[12]

     Among the Greeks the idea of knowledge was indissolubly bound to the idea of necessity and constraint. And this is also true in the case of St. Thomas Aquinas: "The meaning of knowledge is that, of what is known, it is believed impossible for it to be otherwise."[13] Is it to be assumed that one can succeed in subjecting to the fundamental principles of Greek thought, or to reconciling with them, the metaphysics of the Book of Exodus which makes truth dependent on the will (the Greeks would have said - and rightly - the arbitrariness) of God? And then, how does one know to whom it is given to resolve this question: must we submit to the metaphysics of the Book of Exodus and accept its epistemology or, on the contrary, must we verify and correct the epistemology of the Book of Exodus by making use of the rational principles that Greek philosophy has transmitted to us? Descartes, we know, wholly accepted the "new thing" that the Bible had brought men: he declared that the self-evident truths had been created by God.

     I shall return to this later, but I believe that it is well to recall in this connection now that Leibniz, who had quite as much right as Descartes to the title "Christian philosopher" and whose philosophic genius was no smaller than that of Descartes, was horrified to see Descartes abandoning truth to "arbitrariness" even if it were the arbitrariness of God. This fact alone shows us the tremendous difficulties that are met by every attempt to force on the Biblical philosophy the principles on which the rational philosophy of the Greeks was founded and on which the rational philosophy of modern times is still founded. Who will settle the argument between Leibniz and Descartes? The philosophy of the Book of Exodus tells us that truth, like everything that exists, was created by God, that it is always in His power and that it is in this precisely that its high value and its superiority in relation to the uncreated truths of the Greeks consists. Descartes acknowledged this, Leibniz was indignant over it. The situation seems to have no way out and we, it seems, are then obliged forever to renounce any Judeo-Christian philosophy. No one can settle the argument between Descartes and Leibniz. For Leibniz, who all his life tried to reconcile reason and revelation, it was absolutely clear that the Cartesian solution radically denied the rights of reason: Descartes, however, who was no less perceptive than Leibniz, did not even suspect that he was ruining the sovereign rights of reason.

     The situation becomes still more complicated by the fact that when medieval philosophy - which tried to draw from Scripture, according to the principles elaborated in Greece, the metaphysics of which it had need - found itself faced with the epistemological problem (I prefer to say, the metaphysics of knowledge), it appeared completely to have forgotten the passages of the Book of Genesis which relate directly to this problem. I am thinking about the story of the fall of the first man and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we wish to participate in the biblical epistemology or, to speak more exactly, in the metaphysics of knowledge, we must above all else realize as precisely as possible the meaning of this story.

[1] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 49. (Italics mine - L.S.)
[2] Ibid., p. 54.
[3] Ibid., p. 71.
[4] Ibid., p. 50.
[5] Ibid., p. 71.
[6] One could also refer to the passage of the Stromata where Clement says that if the knowledge of God could be separated from eternal salvation and if he had to choose between them, he would decide for the knowledge of God.
[7] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 205-06.
[8] Ibid., I, p.213.
[9] Ibid., I, p. 224.
[10] Ibid., II, p. 224.
[11] Metaphysics, 981a, 26.
[12] Cf. Eth. Nic., 1140b, 31: "Scientific knowledge is intellectual perception of the universal and necessary." That is why "all true knowledge can be taught and its content transmitted to others." (Ibid., 1139b, 25.)
[13] Summa Th. II, 1, 5, ad quartum.

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