Athens and Jerusalem \  Part III  \ On the Philosophy of the Middle Ages


     This task is much more difficult than might appear at first blush. Gilson is certainly right: like the men of the Middle Ages we have inherited from the Greeks both the fundamental philosophical problems and the rational principles for their solution, and also the entire technique of our thought. How shall we succeed in reading and understanding Scripture not according to the teaching of the great Greek masters, but as they who have transmitted to us, by means of the Book of Books, that which they called the word of God wished and demanded of their readers? As long as the Bible was exclusively in the hands of the "chosen people," this question did not arise: it could at all events be assumed that men, when they listened to the words of Scripture, did not always find themselves under the dominion of rational principles and of that technique of thought which has somehow become our second nature, which we consider - without even realizing it - as the immutable conditions for the grasping and possession of truth. Gilson sees correctly also when he says that the medieval thinkers always tried to retain the spirit and letter of Scripture. But is good intention sufficient in this instance? Is a man educated by the Greeks capable of preserving that freedom which is the condition of the right understanding of what the Bible says?

     When Philo of Alexandria undertook to present the Bible to the cultivated world of the Greeks, he found himself obliged to have recourse to the allegorical method: it was thus only that he could hope to persuade his listeners. Impossible indeed to contradict before educated people the principles of rational thought and the great truths that Greek philosophy, in the person of its most remarkable representatives, had brought to mankind! Furthermore, Philo himself, who had assimilated Greek culture, could not accept the Bible without first verifying it through the criteria which the Greeks had provided him for distinguishing truth from error. The result of this was that the Bible was "raised" to such a philosophic plane that it could amply satisfy the demands posed by the Hellenistic culture.

     Clement of Alexandria assumed the same role as Philo; it is not for nothing that Harnack calls him the Christian Philo. He set Greek philosophy on the same plane as the Old Testament and not only obtained the right to affirm (as we recall) that knowledge (gnôsis) is inseparable from eternal salvation but that if they were separable and if he, Clement, were offered the choice, he would have given the preference not to salvation but to gnôsis. If one takes account even only of Philo and of Clement of Alexandria, it is clear in advance that neither the Fathers of the Church nor the philosophers of the Middle Ages could accept the account of original sin as it is found in Genesis, and that, in the face of this account, the thought of believers was placed before the fateful dilemma: either the Bible or the Greek "knowledge" and the wisdom founded on this knowledge.

     Indeed, what is the content of these chapters of Genesis that concern the fall of the first man? God planted in paradise the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and He said to man: "From every tree of paradise you may eat; however, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die." While God ordinarily proclaims His truths "without any trace of proof," this time His prohibition is accompanied not by His sanction, as we have tried to believe in order to simplify the problem, but by His motivation: the day you taste the fruits of the tree of knowledge you shall surely die. A relationship is thus established between the fruits of the tree of knowledge and death. God's words do not mean that man will be punished for having disobeyed, but that knowledge hides in itself death.

     This appears beyond doubt if we recall the circumstances in which the fall took place. The serpent, craftiest of the animals created by God, asks the woman, "Why has God forbidden you to eat of the fruit of all the trees of paradise?" And when the woman replies to him that God had forbidden them only to eat of the fruits of a single tree that they might not die, the serpent answers, "You shall not die, but God knows that the day you eat of these fruits your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." "Your eyes will be opened," says the serpent. "You shall die," says God. The metaphysics of knowledge in Genesis is strictly tied to the metaphysics of being. If God has spoken truly, knowledge leads to death; if the serpent has spoken truly, knowledge makes man like God. This was the question posed before the first man, and the one posed before us now.

     It is not necessary to say that the pious thinkers of the Middle Ages could not even for a moment admit the thought that truth was on the side of the tempting serpent. But the Gnostics declared openly that it was God and not the serpent who had deceived man. In our age Hegel was not at all embarrassed to say that the serpent had spoken the truth to the first man and that the fruits of the tree of knowledge became the source of philosophy for all time. If we ask on what side the truth is, and if we admit in advance that our reason is called to pronounce the final judgment in the argument between God and the serpent, no doubt is possible: it is the serpent who triumphs. And as long as reason remains "prince and judge of all," we cannot expect any other decision. Reason is the source of knowledge: how can it then condemn knowledge? On the other hand - we must not forget this - the first man possessed a certain knowledge. In the same book of Genesis it is said that when God created all the animals, He led them to the man in order that he might give a name to each.

     But the man, seduced by the serpent, was not content with this knowledge: the "that" (hoti) did not suffice for him; he desired the "why" (dioti); the "that" irritated him just as it irritated Kant. His reason aspired avidly to universal and necessary judgments; he could not feel satisfied as long as he had not succeeded in transforming the truth that was "revealed" and situated above both the universal and the necessary into a self-evident truth that certainly deprives him of his freedom but protects him against the arbitrariness of God. Certain conscientious theologians, concerned no doubt with defending man against the arbitrariness of God, have tried to derive the Greek word alêtheia (truth) from a-lan-thanô (to open up, to reveal). In this way revelation was inwardly related to truth: revelation consisted in opening up the truth, and so there was no reason to fear that God could have abused His limitless freedom: the universal and necessary truth dominates God as well as man. It came finally to the same result as in Hegel: the serpent did not deceive the man. But it ended there not explicite but implicite. The theologians avoided Hegel's frankness.

      The situation of the medieval philosophers who found themselves placed before the obligation of transforming the truths received from God "without any shadow of proof" into proven truths, into self-evident truths - as the principles of the Greeks demanded of them - differed in no way basically from that in which the first man found himself standing before the tree of knowledge. Gilson admirably shows us the almost superhuman efforts made by the philosophers of the Middle Ages to overcome the seduction of "knowledge" and also how this seduction took stronger and stronger hold on their minds. The thought of Anselm, he writes, "was long obsessed by the desire to find a direct proof of the existence of God, one that was based on the single principle of contradiction."[1] In another place he speaks of the emotion of the same Anselm, of St. Augustine and St. Thomas at the memory of these moments when "the opacity of faith suddenly gave way in them to the transparency of intelligence."[2]

     And the "most subtle intellect" of Duns Scotus himself who, with an incomparable daring, declared the total independence of God in relation to the highest and most immutable principles was even for him incapable of tearing out of his soul the concupiscentia irresistibilis (irresistible desire) which impelled him to replace faith with knowledge. Gilson quotes from his De rerum prima principia the following confession that is truly worthy of being reproduced in full: "Lord our God, when Moses asked you, as of a very truthful teacher, what name he should give you before the children of Israel, you replied: 'I am who I am.' You are then the true being, you are the total being. This is what I believe but it is this also - if possible - that I would wish to know."

     One could, in this connection, reproduce still many other passages from scholastic thinkers quoted or not quoted by Gilson: the "knowledge" by means of which the serpent succeeded in seducing the first man continued to attract them with an irresistible force. "Experience" does not satisfy but rather irritates them, just as it was later to irritate Kant; they wish to know - in other words, to be convinced that what is not only is but cannot be other than it is and must necessarily be what it is. And they seek guarantees not from the prophet who brought God's word to them from Sinai nor even in God's word itself: their intellectual longing will be satisfied only when the word of God brought by the prophet will have obtained the blessing of the principle of contradiction or some other principle that is as immutable and impassive as the principle of contradiction. Now this is precisely what the first man wished when he stretched forth his hand to the tree of knowledge; it is this by which he let himself be tempted. He also wished "to know," not "to believe"; he saw in faith a kind of diminution, an injury to his human dignity, and he was certain of this when the serpent told him that after he had eaten of the fruits of the forbidden tree he would become like God - knowing.

     I repeat: The medieval philosophers who aspired to transform faith into knowledge were far from suspecting that they were committing once again the act of the first man. Nevertheless it is impossible not to agree with Gilson when he writes, regarding the attitude of the Scholastics toward faith: "Faith as such suffices for itself, but it aspires to transmute itself in the understanding of its own content; it does not depend on the evidence of reason but, on the contrary, it is faith that engenders reason." And further, "This effort of the truth that is believed to change itself into the truth that is known is truly the life of Christian wisdom; and the body of rational truths that this effort gives us is the Christian philosophy itself."[3]

     It may be supposed that the first man, when he heard the tempter's words, thought likewise: it seemed to him, too, that there was nothing dangerous or condemnable in his desire to know, that this desire was good. It is a remarkable thing: most of the great scholastic thinkers (there were, however, some exceptions: Peter Damian and his followers of whom we shall speak later) never wished to see and never came to understand that the original sin consisted in the fact that man had tasted of the fruits of the tree of knowledge. In this respect the mystics hardly distinguished themselves from the philosophers. The unknown author of the famous Theologia deutsch declares openly: Adam could have eaten twenty apples - no evil would have come of it; the evil was in his disobedience to God. St. Augustine says the same thing but in a less trenchant way: "For in that place of so much happiness God did not wish to create and plant evil. But obedience was inculcated by the commandment - a virtue that in the rational creature is, so to speak, the mother and keeper of all virtues, for the creature was so made that it is useful for it to be subjected to God but injurious for it to do its own will and not the will of Him by Whom it was created."[4] And so perceptive an eye as that of Duns Scotus did not succeed in distinguishing (or perhaps did not dare to distinguish) the true significance of the biblical account. "The first sin of man... according to what Augustine said, was an immoderate love of union with his wife." In itself Adam's act, the eating of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, was not evil.

     Gilson very finely characterizes the attitude of the Middle Ages toward the biblical account of the fall: "This is why the first moral evil receives in the Christian philosophy a special name which extends to all the faults engendered by the first: sin. In using this word a Christian means always to signify that - as he understands it - moral evil, introduced by free will into a created universe, puts directly at stake the fundamental relationship of dependence which unites the creature with God. The prohibition, so light and - so to speak - gratuitous, which God imposes on the perfectly useless use by man of one of the goods placed at his disposal[5] was only the sensible sign of this radical dependence of the creature. To accept the prohibition was to recognize the dependence; to break the prohibition was to deny it and to proclaim that what is good for the creature is better than the divine good itself."[6]

     The medieval philosophers never stopped reflecting on sin; moreover, they were not content with reflecting on it, they suffered from it. But they could never resolve to connect the fall of man with the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How could they resolve to do this since all -and we also, for that matter - have at the bottom of our hearts only one thought, only one care: "I believe, Lord, but if it is also possible, it is this that I would wish to know." They knew well that "obedience is the mother and keeper of all virtues," but they did not for an instant admit that the knowledge to which they aspired so eagerly could conceal sin within itself and were only astonished that the first man should have been incapable of submitting himself to a prohibition so insignificant, so easy, as not eating the fruit of one of the trees that grew in Eden. Yet the biblical story spoke to them clearly and distinctly of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, while only the truths that had come to them from the Greeks testified to obedientia.

     The Greeks, indeed, placed obedience above everything else. Seneca's phrase is well known: "The Creator and Ruler of the world Himself once commanded, always obeys." For the Greeks there was always something suspicious in the jubere (commanding): it contained, in their eyes, the germ of limitless freedom, that is, a detestable arbitrariness, while the parere (obedience) was the principle and promise of the good. And they established on the parere the knowledge that puts an end to unbridled freedom. It is enough to recall the dispute between Callicles and Socrates in Plato's Gorgias, which passed on to St. Augustine, the Fathers of the Church, Duns Scotus, and to all medieval philosophy the extraordinary, exclusive value that they accorded to the parere as well as to the knowledge that is based on the parere, and from which they also drew, along with this knowledge, the opposition between good and evil which, as Gilson has just told us, could not exist even for a moment without the idea of obedience. A breach occurred in the central or fundamental idea of the philosophy of the Middle Ages which aspired so passionately, so violently, to become Judeo-Christian: the Bible warned man of the horrible danger involved in tasting the fruits of the tree of knowledge, Greek philosophy considered gnôsis (knowledge) as the spiritual nourishment par excellence and saw the supreme dignity of man in his faculty of distinguishing between good and evil. Medieval philosophy was incapable of renouncing the Greek heritage and found itself obliged in the face of the fundamental problem of philosophy, the problem of the metaphysics of knowledge, to ignore the Bible.

[1] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 63. The remarkable works of Meyerson are particularly significant in this respect. He also represents the human reason as being "obsessed" by the desire to subordinate everything to the principle of contradiction. Reason knows that this task is unrealizable, it knows that to wish the impossible is madness, but it is incapable of overcoming itself. This is no longer the raison déraissonable of Montaigne - it is reason somehow become mad.
[2] Ibid., I, pp. 43.
[3] Ibid., I, pp. 35 - 36.
[4] De Civ. Dei, XIV, 12.
[5] Italics mine (L.S.).
[6] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 122.

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