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


     We have now arrived at the greatest of the temptations that lay in wait for medieval thought, which set as its goal to support and ground - through rational argument - the revealed truth. With his customary perceptiveness, Gilson has very well discerned and masterfully described all the vicissitudes of that intense struggle which developed in the course of the Middle Ages between the Greek idea of an uncreated and eternal truth and the Judeo-Christian idea of God, the sole creator and source of everything that exists. As might be expected, this struggle was concentrated principally around the question of the relationship between faith and reason.

     Already in St. Augustine it is clearly established that faith is subject to the control of reason, that it almost seeks this control. Before one believes, it is necessary to determine whom one believes, cui est credendum. From this point of view, "reason precedes faith." Hence, the conclusion: intellige ut credas, crede ut intelligas (understand in order to believe, believe in order to understand). Speaking of himself, St. Augustine says more than once: "I should not have believed in the truth of the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me to it."[1]

     Always true to historical reality, Gilson characterizes the mutual relationships between faith and reason of the scholastic philosophy in the following terms: "It is not at all a question of maintaining that faith is a type of knowledge superior to rational knowledge. No one has ever claimed this. It is, on the contrary, self-evident that faith is a simple substitute for knowledge[2] and that, wherever the thing is possible, the substitution of knowledge for faith is always a positive gain for the mind. The traditional hierarchy of modes of knowledge, among the Christian thinkers, is always faith, understanding, seeing God face to face. 'The intellect which we have in this life,' writes St. Anselm, 'I take to be the middle between faith and seeing.'"[3] Indeed, the great majority of the medieval thinkers shared the judgment of Anselm of Canterbury. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: "For faith holds itself in the middle (between knowledge and opinion), going beyond opinion insofar as it has a firm assent but falling short of knowledge insofar as it does not have vision."

     As Gilson indicates, from St. Augustine on the study of the relationship between faith and knowledge had for its point of departure Isaiah VII, 9, in the Septuagint translation: Si non credideritis, non intelligetis (If you will not believe, you will not understand). St. Augustine "repeats these words endlessly." They represent "the exact formula of his personal experience." St. Thomas Aquinas repeats them also, though he knows not only that they translate the text of Isaiah incorrectly but quotes next to them [4] the correct translation: Si non credideritis, non permanebitis (if you will not believe, you will not endure). However, reason seeks evidence so avidly, aspires to universal and necessary judgments so passionately, that the Hellenized - that is to say, transformed into its opposite - strophe of the prophet speaks more to the soul of the Scholastic philosopher than the original text. Anselm of Canterbury joyously took up St. Augustine's reflections. "It is known from St. Anselm himself," Gilson recalls, "that the original title of his Monologium was "Meditations on the rationality of faith," and that the title of his Prosologion was none other than the famous formula: a faith which seeks understanding."

     Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), like credo ut intelligam (I believe that I may understand), were at the base of all of St. Anselm's reflections. "As soon as a Christian reflects on the obtaining of grace, he becomes a philosopher," says Gilson in another place.[5] But to what did this "reflection," according to the Scholastics, lead? Gilson answers thus: "If it is true that to possess religion is to have everything else, it is necessary to show it. An apostle like St. Paul can be content with preaching it, a philosopher would like to be sure of it."[6] Here, then, is how medieval philosophy understood its task, here is how it conceived the relationship between faith and knowledge. The apostle "contented himself" with faith, but the philosopher wished more - he could not be content with what preaching brings him ("the foolishness of preaching," as St. Paul himself puts it). The philosopher seeks and finds "proofs," convinced in advance that the proven truth has much more value than the truth that is not proven, indeed that only the proven truth has any value at all. Faith is then only a "substitute" for knowledge, an imperfect knowledge, a knowledge - in a way - on credit and which must sooner or later present the promised proofs if it wishes to justify the credit that has been accorded to it.

     It is beyond doubt that Gilson expounds correctly the position of medieval philosophy on the relationship between faith and knowledge. The principles for seeking truth that it had received from the Greeks demanded imperiously that it not accept any judgment without having first verified it according to the rules by which all truths are verified: the truths of revelation do not enjoy any special privilege in this respect. Defending himself against Luther who calls down the fire of heaven on reason, Denifle, one of the best specialists in the history of medieval philosophy, cites in his book, Luther and Lutheranism, these remarkable words of St. Bonaventura: "The truth of our faith is in no worse situation than other truths, but in the case of other truths every truth that can be attacked by reason can and must also be defended by reason; so similarly the truth of our faith." And immediately afterwards, Denifle reproduces a no less characteristic sentence of Matthew of Aquasparta: "To believe against reason is blameworthy."[7] And Denifle was right; such indeed was the goal that medieval philosophy set for itself: the truths of faith can and must be defended by the same means that are employed to defend all truths, otherwise they would find themselves in "a worse situation." And St. Thomas Aquinas from his side warned us: "No one should decidedly adhere to an exposition of Scripture that with sure reason is ascertained to be order that, from this, Scripture not be derided by the infidels."

     Harnack then was in error when he declared that "one of the heaviest consequences of the doctrine of Athanasius the Great was that, after him, people forever renounced clear and rigorous concepts and accustomed themselves to contradictions. What contradicts reason became - not immediately, it is true, but little by little - the distinctive character of the sacred."[8] Certainly the Fathers of the Church, like the medieval philosophers, could not avoid contradictions, just as Plato and Aristotle did not succeed in ridding themselves of them in their systems; but these contradictions were never exposed to the light of day and no one ever boasted of them. On the contrary, people always tried to shade and hide them more or less cleverly by having recourse to a rigorous, though apparent, logic. Contradictions were admitted only in a very limited number, and it was not permitted anyone to multiply them according to his arbitrariness and fancy.

     A small number of contradictory but unchanging notions which always repeated themselves were accepted by all the world not, however, as contradictory but as rigorously logical, and it is for this reason precisely that they were recognized as true. In his polemic against the Arians, St. Athanasius himself carefully avoided everything that might permit his adversaries to reproach him with lack of logic and especially, of course, boulêsis (desire or willing): "Just as opposed to desire is that which is reasonably chosen, so what exists by nature precedes and is superior to free choice." It is obvious that one for whom, as for St. Athanasius, God's nature is anterior to and independent of His will, not only cannot seek but still less will admit anything that troubles the eternal and immutable order of being. If despite this, Harnack perceives contradictions in St. Athanasius' doctrine, this does not at all prove the indifference of the latter to the principles and technique of thought of the Greeks.

     Still less do we have the right to suppose that the medieval philosophers tried to rid themselves of the principle of contradiction. On the contrary, almost all (there were some exceptions but they were very rare) were deeply convinced that "it is blameworthy to believe against reason." In addition to what Gilson and Denifle have reported to us, one could quote many other texts which show that the Scholastics were deeply concerned to safeguard the rights of the principle of contradiction, even going to the point of limiting the divine omnipotence for its sake. St. Thomas Aquinas Writes: "Only that is excluded from the divine omnipotence which contradicts the reason or essence of being, that is, that something at the same time be and not be; and something that is of a similar nature is that something not have been that has been." [9] And again: "That which contains a contradiction does not fall under God's omnipotence." And in Article 4 of the same question 25 he repeats: "that that which has been should not have been - with the contradiction that it implies - is not subject to the divine power," and relies on St. Augustine and Aristotle: "and the philosopher says: this only God is powerless to do - to make that which has been not to have been." Even in Duns Scotus, who defended so passionately the omnipotence of God against all limitations, we read the following: "It is firmly to be held that for God everything - except what is manifestly impossible ex terminis, or the impossibility or contradictoriness of which is self-evidently deduced - is possible."[10] Even the impetuous Occam humbles himself before the principle of contradiction and seeks to obtain its approval and protection for his judgments that are of such provocative daring: "It is an article of faith that God assumed human nature; it involves no contradiction for God to assume the nature of an ass, and with equal reason He could take on the nature of stone or wood."

     From where does the Judeo-Christian philosophy draw this unshakable conviction that the principle of contradiction cannot be overcome? Not from the Bible, surely. The Bible takes no account of the principle of contradiction, just as it takes no account of any principle, of any law, for it is the source, the sole source, and master of all laws. But if the principle of contradiction "is not subject to the divine omnipotence," then it exists of itself and is independent of God. And we must be prepared to admit that the truth of revelation is quite different from the truth of natural reason. So it is that we read, for example, in Duns Scotus: "With absolute power God can save Judas; on the other hand, with ordered power He can save this or that sinner, though he may also never be saved; but He cannot make stone or wood blessed either with absolute or with ordered power." But in the Gospel it is written: "For I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham."[11]

     One can find in the Bible many statements of this kind that have broken through the Chinese wall of impossibilities raised by the principle of contradiction; and every time the medieval thinkers found themselves face to face with them, they were obliged to retreat before the invincible logic of the natural reason. "In St. Augustine's thought the work of creation was an instantaneous fiat, which means not only that the six days of which the account of the Book of Genesis speaks are an allegory and are in fact reduced to a moment, but also that from that moment on the work of creation was really finished."[12] The six days of creation are an allegory - here is a very seductive idea, one of those bridges constructed by Philo of Alexandria thanks to which we can pass so easily above the abyss that separates Athens from Jerusalem. But this idea, which at first blush is so completely innocent, gives the victory to the serpent whose venom, if it did not forever kill, at least for centuries paralyzed, the revealed truth. It means, indeed, that everything that does not agree with Greek thought, everything that can resist a verification effectuated according to the criteria established by this thought, must be rejected as false.

     One cannot but remember, writes Gilson, "the innumerable biblical expressions that picture God as offended, irritated, vengeful or appeased. No one is unaware that such images do not authorize us to ascribe human passions to Him. Assuredly the Judeo-Christian God is not similar to the gods of the Greek mythology. He does not feel anger or regret; His inner life is no more troubled by our insults than gladdened by our praises. In this sense it is not Homer but Aristotle who is right."[13] Once more we must agree with Gilson. When the philosophers of the Middle Ages read in the Bible that God became angry or was glad or that He intervened in the daily affairs of men (the miracle of the marriage at Cana which Hegel later mocked), in the depths of their souls there was doubtless born the very same thought that the reading of Homer aroused in Aristotle: "the poets lie a great deal." To be sure, none of them ever, like the pious Philo, dared to pronounce these blasphemous words even to himself. They did not say "they lie a great deal" but "it is an allegory." I repeat, however, that this word "allegory" was only the egg from which was to be hatched the scorn of European thought for revealed truth.

     By means of the allegorical method of interpretation modern thought ended by completely "purifying" philosophy of the "gross prejudices" that the old book had introduced into the sublime kingdom of wisdom. Hegel already was not afraid to recall, in connection with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the miracle of the marriage at Cana, Voltaire's cynical sarcasms about the God who concerned himself with the establishment of places for easing oneself. The Aristotelian "the poets lie" or, to put it better, the fundamental principles of the Greeks and the Greek technique of thought had done their work. These principles wished themselves to judge, to teach, to be really the "first principles" and admitted no power above themselves. "The mark of the philosopher is that he can judge about everything," Aristotle firmly declares.[14] Or again: "The wise man must know not only what follows from the first principles but also the first principles themselves in order to possess true knowledge." [15] One can believe only what is acceptable to these principles. Faith must obtain the blessing of the first principles, and the faith that has not obtained this blessing has no right to existence.

     The first educated Greek who rose up against the Judeo-Christian doctrine (at the time of Celsus Judaism and Christianity were still hardly distinguished from each other but rather almost identified) showed himself particularly indignant over the fact that the new doctrine constantly and exclusively insisted on a faith which not only had not succeeded in justifying itself before reason but even pretended insolently to do without this justification. In the eyes of Celsus this was a sin against the holy spirit; everything will be forgiven but this. For, before believing, the reasonable man must first take account of whom it is he believes. We have seen that this question, which did not exist not only for the first Christians but also for the Jews, always troubled the Fathers of the Church. They wished, as St. Bonaventura was later to say, that the truth of their doctrine not be in a worse situation than all other truths; they wished that it be founded on unchanging and indisputable first principles. We recall that Anselm of Canterbury was "possessed," following Gilson's expression, by the idea of finding a proof for the existence of God which rests only on the principle of contradiction.

     If we ask ourselves whence this "possession" came, why the philosophers of the Middle Ages aspired so eagerly to the "demonstrated" truth, we shall find no other answer than that already given by Gilson: the principles of the Hellenic philosophy and the technique of Hellenic thought held them in their power and bewitched their minds. For Aristotle, who had in a way drawn up the balance of all his predecessors' work, the principle of contradiction was not only a principle (archê) but "the most unshakeable of all principles," as he more than once says. Some people judge, he declares in several places of his Metaphysics, that Heraclitus did not admit the principle of contradiction. Aristotle tries to prove that such a judgment is absurd, as Protagoras' "against every reason stands another reason" is absurd. It is true that his objections come down to the statement that he who denies the principle of contradiction recognizes it in this very denial. It is true also that one can turn his objections around and say that, in arguing with Heraclitus and Protagoras who deny the principle of contradiction, Aristotle argues as if they recognized the principle. But he holds in reserve still another argument (if one can call it an argument) that is, in his opinion, invincible: "For what a man says, he does not necessarily believe." [16] That is, Heraclitus and Protagoras themselves did not take what they said seriously. Aristotle declared with the same assurance - and let us recall that St.

     Thomas Aquinas refers to him in this connection - that what had once been could not not have been and that this principle puts a limit to the omnipotence of the gods. No one dreams of denying that these "first principles" are the condition of the possibility of knowledge; everyone is likewise agreed that they did not "fall from the heavens," that Aristotle obtained them by his own powers here on this earth, and that not only do they not demand "revelation" but that all revelation must justify itself before them, for the gods themselves are subject to them. The discovery of truths independent of God's will - veritates emancipatae a Deo -was for Aristotle the greatest of victories; so he realized his ideal, the idea of the philosopher who can think "freely," and obtained autonomy for knowledge, just as the Pelagians, thanks to their homo emancipatus a Deo, realized the ideal of ethical autonomy. We shall see later that Leibniz also welcomed with enthusiasm "the eternal truths that are in the mind of God independently of His will."

     One would think that the religious philosophers of the Middle Ages should have seen that it was precisely this question of the eternal truths, the truths independent of God, that hid in itself the greatest dangers, and that they should consequently have strained all their powers to defend Jerusalem against Athens and recalled in this connection the warning of the Bible against the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Some of them did remember it. Gilson quotes in a footnote Peter Damian who affirmed that cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge) was for men "leader of the flock of all vices," but Gilson realizes that no one listened to Peter Damian; Bonaventura himself found these words strange. The enchantment of the fruits of the tree of knowledge always persists: we today aspire as eagerly to the eternal truths as the first man.

     But what is it that seduces us in these truths that depend neither on ourselves nor on God, and why is it that we base our best hopes on the principle of contradiction or on the idea that what has once been cannot not have been? We do not even raise this question - as if the independence of the eternal rational and moral truths were the guarantee of our own independence. But it is just the opposite: these truths condemn us to the most repugnant slavery. Being independent of God's will, they themselves have neither will nor desire. They are indifferent to everything. They are not at all concerned with what they will bring to the world and to men, and automatically actualize their limitless power with which they themselves have nothing to do and which comes to them one knows not whence nor why. From the "law" - what has once been cannot not have been - may flow for us a good but also an evil - a horrible, insupportable evil; but the law will accomplish its work without caring about this. One cannot persuade the eternal truths, one cannot move them to pity. They are like the Necessity of which Aristotle said that "it does not allow itself to be persuaded." And despite this - or precisely because of this - men love the eternal truths and prostrate themselves before them. We can obtain nothing from them, consequently we must obey them. We have not the power to escape them, we see in our impotence an "impossibility," consequently we must worship them. This is the true meaning of the cupiditas scientiae: a puzzling concupiscentia irresistibilis carries us toward the impersonal, indifferent to everything, truth that we raise above the will of all living beings.

     Is it not clear that we are in the power of that terrible, hostile force of which the Book of Genesis speaks to us? We have seen that all the commentators believed that the sin of the first man consisted in an act of disobedience: Adam wished "to be free," he refused to submit. In reality it is just the opposite that happened: having tasted of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, man lost the freedom that he possessed on leaving the hands of the Creator and became the slave of "the eternal truths." And he does not even suspect that the eritis scientes (you shall know) by means of which the tempter bewitched his soul led to his "fall." He continues to the present day, indeed, to identify his eternal salvation with knowledge. And when he hears the apostle's word, "for the creature was made subject to vanity not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected him," and that a day will come when he will be delivered from the "bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God," [17] he takes refuge in Aristotle who declares, "One can say this but one cannot think it" or even "the poets lie a great deal." The principles of the Greek philosophy have accomplished their work: we all prefer the peace of submission to the dangers and uncertainties of struggle. The work of Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae, which was so attractive to the Middle Ages, is particularly characteristic in this respect.

     De consolatione philosophiae is the Book of Job written by a man who, though a Christian, belonged to the Graeco-Roman culture. Hardly had philosophy approached Boethius' bed than it set itself the duty of chasing away "the Muses who stand at my bed dictating words to my weeping. Who, says philosophy, let these stage prostitutes, who not only do not alleviate his pains through any remedy but further nourish them with sweet poisons, come to this sick man?" Before offering its help, philosophy, like Job's friends, demands that the man who suffers be silent and cease to complain and call for help: Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere (not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand) as Spinoza was later to put it. It is only on this condition, that is, that man renounce everything, that philosophy can come to his aid by conferring upon him its intelligere (understanding). De profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi (out of the depths I cried unto thee, 0 Lord) must be rejected, forgotten forever. It obstructs the road that leads to the wisdom founded on rigorous knowledge. Philosophy certainly acts honestly: "the most beautiful maiden in the world cannot give more than it has given." It can only "explain" to Boethius that what happened to him happened because it could not be otherwise. As for saving him from prison and the torture that awaits him, this philosophy cannot, as it assuredly knows (Zeus himself says this to Chrysippus), do; no one in the world can do more.

     Job's friends said the same thing to Job that Boethius' philosophy said to him; knowing well that they could not help him, they also proposed to him that he seek consolation in "wisdom" or, to put it differently, in submitting to the inevitable. Philosophy succeeded in convincing Boethius; he accepted its "consolations." As for Job, he did not chase away the Muses, he drove out his friends - "You are miserable comforters" - and resolved to oppose his lugere et detestari to the intelligere that philosophy offered him. There can surely be no doubt on the matter: the principles of the ancient philosophy and of the Greek thought would have taken the side of Boethius and not of Job, and rigorous logic does not permit human sorrow to raise its voice when it is a question of the truth. Job demanded that what had been should not have been, that his murdered children should not be murdered, that his burnt up wealth should be intact, that his lost health should not be lost, etc...

     In other words, he demanded what "does not fall under God's omnipotence," what God Himself cannot accomplish because the principle of contradiction, "the most unshakeable of all principles," will not authorize it. It is true that in the Bible something else is said: according to the Bible, philosophy was covered with shame while the Muses, with their lugere et detestari and the De profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi, triumphed over the intelligere and over all the eternal uncreated truths obtained by the intelligere. God returned to Job his flocks, his health, his children. God brought it about that quod fuit non fuisse (what had been had not been), without concerning Himself with any laws whatsoever. But, of course, one cannot demand of a learned man that he believe all these stories, just as one cannot demand of him that he accept the God of the Bible who rejoices, becomes angry, regrets what He has done, transforms water into wine, multiplies loaves of bread, leads the Jews across the Red Sea, etc. All this must be understood allegorically or metaphorically. More exactly, as long as the "the most unshakeable of all principles," the principle of contradiction, will not have been overthrown, as long as it commands God rather than obeys Him, and as long as man will not resist the temptation to transform the revealed truth into a self-evident truth, it will be necessary to protect oneself against all these stories by means of the words (or exorcism?) del maestro di coloro che sanno (of the master of all those who know): "the poets lie a great deal." Human groans, curses and supplication must be silent before the unchangeable principles of being.[18]

[1] And, referring to St. Augustine, Duns Scotus wrote: "The books of the holy canon are not to be believed except insofar as one must first believe the church which approves and authorizes those books and their content."
[2] Italics mine (L.S.).
[3] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 37.
[4] Summa Th. II, Q. 4, 8, 3.
[5] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 220.
[6] Ibid., I, p. 24. Italics mine (L.S.).
[7] This is perhaps the moment to recall Kierkegaard's words: "to believe against reason is martyrdom."
[8] Dogmengeschichte, II, 226.
[9] Summa Th. I, Q. 25, 2.
[10] Cf. Eth. Nic. 1139b, 9.
[11] Matthew, III, 9.
[12] Gilson, L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 140.
[13] ibid.,II,p. 133.
[14] Metaphysics, 1004a, 34.
[15] Eth.Nic., 1141a, 17.
[16] Metaphysics, 1005b, 25.
[17] Romans, VIII, 20 - 21.
[18] I call attention in this connection to Kierkegaard's remarkable book, Repetition. When Kierkegaard found himself confronting the question of the limits of God's omnipotence, he left the famous philosopher Hegel who was also "maestro di coloro che sanno" and went to the "private thinker," Job. That Kierkegaard dared to include Job among the "thinkers" already appears to us as a gross presumption. But through Job Kierkegaard arrived at his Absurd and at the fundamental principle of his existential philosophy: God - this means that all things are possible.

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