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


     Under the aegis of the eternal truths there was introduced into medieval philosophy a profound distrust precisely toward the "notion, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth" that this philosophy, as Gilson so well says, was called by the very content of the Bible to proclaim to men. On the road that led to the created truth the principle of contradiction arose and opposed its veto. Gilson declares, it is true, that the notion of a created truth was preserved in Scholasticism and even stimulated modern philosophy: "The entire Cartesian system rests on the idea of an omnipotent God who somehow creates Himself and even more naturally creates the eternal truths, including those of mathematics!"[1]

     We shall return further on to the question of deciding whether we have or have not the right to affirm that the entire Cartesian system is founded on the idea of an omnipotent God who creates the eternal truths. But it is beyond doubt that Descartes did not recoil before such "paradoxes." He writes to Arnauld (29 July 1648): "But it does not appear to me that it is to be said of anything whatsoever that it cannot be done by God; since every ground of the true and the good depends on His omnipotence, I would not even be able to say that God cannot bring it about that there be a mountain without a valley or that one and two not make three; but I say only that He has given me a mind such that a mountain without a valley or a sum of one and two that does not make three cannot be conceived by me, etc."

     So Descartes spoke in his letters;[2] but in speaking so he departed from the medieval philosophy as well as from the rules of the Greek philosophy by means of which the Middle Ages tried to understand and justify the truth of the biblical revelation. We recall what Aristotle said about those who denied the principle of contradiction: one can say this but one cannot think it. We remember that St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and even Occam said that "what includes in itself a contradiction does not fall under God's omnipotence." But to assume that God can create a mountain without a valley, or bring it about that one and two not be equal to three, etc., is to recognize the independence of God in relation to the principle of contradiction. If Descartes really thought what he wrote to Arnauld and Mersenne, we are obliged to confess that the greatest rationalist of modern times broke with the ancient philosophy and took the road opened up by Tertullian and Peter Damian! Gilson quotes in a footnote a text of Peter Damian's that I believe is necessary to reproduce in extenso:[3]

"Can God bring it about that what has been shall not have been? If, for example, it is firmly established that a virgin was corrupted, would it be impossible that she become again unspotted? This, as far as nature is concerned, is certainly true, and the judgment stands... For contraries in one and the same subject cannot agree. This will further rightly be characterized as impossible if reference is made to the impotence of nature. Yet far be it that this be applied to the divine majesty. For He who gave nature its origin can, if He wishes, easily take away the necessity of nature. For He who rules over the created things does not stand under the laws of the Creator, and He who created nature turns the natural order according to His own creative will."
What difference is there between Damian and Descartes? In view of Aristotle's first principles, both affirm self-evident absurdities: one can say this but one cannot think it. The principle of contradiction is the "most unshakable of principles." If it is overthrown, the idea of knowledge no longer has any meaning. Damian, it is true, cites examples other than Descartes', examples that are more concrete and closer to real life.[4] Can God create a mountain without a valley or bring it about that one and two not be three - these, it seems, are theoretical, abstract questions which touch neither the fate of the world nor of man. But when Damian demands "if it is firmly established that a virgin was corrupted, would it be possible that she become again unspotted?," our interest is concentrated not on theoretical propositions but on what has immense, decisive importance for men. A virgo corrupta is a woman who has fallen, sinned, or been dishonored. As long as the principle of contradiction rules undividedly, as long as it remains "an eternal truth, a truth not subject to God," once the sin or dishonor has come into the world, it remains there finally and forever. No one in the world can return to the woman her honor and deliver her from the shame or sin of her voluntary or involuntary fall, for it is not given to anyone "to take away the necessity of nature." We must say the same of Job: the divine omnipotence itself cannot return to him his murdered children. And if the Bible tells us the opposite, the believing philosopher, like the unbelieving Greek, is obliged to see in these stories only a metaphor or allegory.

     Then, another question: Descartes affirms that judgments such as "one and two do not make three" or ideas such as "a mountain without a valley" appear contradictory to us only because God has given us an understanding incapable of thinking otherwise. But he himself admitted, at least as a hypothesis, that a powerful but malevolent and hostile spirit can deceive man through the self-evidences. One would think that such an assumption would have held the attention of a man who knew the Bible and considered it an inspired book once he was endowed, by some unknown miracle, with the thought that the self-evidences by themselves still do not bear witness to the truth. But this idea did nothing more than brush his consciousness and vanished without leaving any traces. He wished at all costs to preserve the self-evidences and the reason that is the source of the self-evidences. And he connected the "eternal truths" not with the malevolent spirit who deceives man but with God who, as he tried to prove to us, never deceives.

     St. Thomas Aquinas did the same thing: in order to save Aristotle's "first principles" from all attacks, he asserts that "the knowledge of the principles known naturally is inspired in us by God, for God Himself is the author of our nature."[5] The thought of Peter Damian follows a different route. Gilson expresses it briefly thus: "The life of a Christian has only one goal - to bring about his salvation. Salvation is achieved through faith. To apply reason to faith is to dissolve it... In sum, it is the devil who has inspired men with the desire for knowledge and it is this desire that has caused the original sin, the source of all our evils.[6] And he quotes immediately afterwards these few lines of Damian's work De sancta simplicita: "Furthermore, he who wished to introduce the hosts of all vices installed the lust for knowledge as commander and so, through it, let loose on the unhappy world all the hosts of iniquities."

     The difference between Descartes and Damian appears clearly: Descartes is afraid, even in his letters, to offend reason: "What altar will he who offends the majesty of reason build for himself?" as Spinoza was later to say. But for Damian there is not, there cannot be, any place for other majesties besides the "divine majesty," and he is prepared to rise up against anyone who would dare to limit the omnipotence of God. He remembers the "you will be like God" that the Middle Ages had completely forgotten, and he is not afraid to refer to the Book of Genesis at the risk of provoking the mockery of the unbelieving and hearing Aristotle's ironic "the poets lie." But from the philosophic point of view, Damian and Descartes finally say the same thing: the "first principles" inherited from the Greeks are not at all principles, for in the world created by God there are not and cannot be any first principles, that is, principles absolutely independent and sufficient by themselves. As for our certainty that there cannot be a mountain without a valley and that one and two cannot but make three, we must see here only temporary suggestions: if they come from the Creator they are not dangerous and can even be beneficial; if they come from the enemy of the human species they are doubtless deadly. But in any case, as conditioned and relative, they have no right to the predicate of eternity and must sooner or later disappear. And then the metaphysics of knowledge that is in harmony with the Judeo-Christian revelation will show that the reason that aspires eagerly to universal and necessary judgments is not at all worthy of having altars built to it.

     Such is the meaning of Damian's thought, and this is what Descartes also tells us in his letters. Both of them destroy the foundations of the Socratic thought that one must not disdain reason, one must put nothing above the good, not even God. Both of them, if you wish, realize the synthesis of Plotinus' "soaring above knowledge" with Duns Scotus' "schlechthinnige und regellose Willkür." To be sure, it is impossible to defend this thesis through the methods that are used to defend other truths. It is a truth of "revelation." Like David in the Bible before the gigantic Goliath armed from head to foot, it remains invisible even to the "eyes of the mind," unarmed and defenseless before the innumerable army of all historic philosophy's arguments. It does not even have the sling possessed by the young shepherd, the future great king and psalmist. And yet, weak as it was, it entered into combat with "the wisdom of the century." "The unlearned rise and storm heaven," as Saint Augustine with amazement exclaimed. And Saint Thomas Aquinas echoed him: "But it would be more wonderful than all signs if the world were brought to believing such hard things, executing such difficult things, and hoping for such exalted things by simple and unlearned men without miraculous signs." And indeed, the Bible was brought to the world by simple, ignorant people who were absolutely incapable of defending it by the methods which learned people use to attack it.

     But this Bible did not satisfy the philosophers. Even Saint Bonaventura, whose "Adam, as Brother Alexander of Hales said of him, did not seem to have sinned," wished to obtain "demonstrated" truth. Even the saints no longer escaped the consequences of the original sin: the doctor ceraphicus (angelic doctor), the spiritual heir of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had overcome all earthly passions, is nevertheless possessed, like all of us, with the cupiditas scientiae (lust for knowledge) and cannot overcome this passion. He wishes to "defend" the truth of revelation, to make it self-evident. Temptation lies in wait for us just where we least expect it. Our Greek teachers put our vigilance to sleep by suggesting to us the conviction that the fruits of the tree of knowledge were and must be the principle of philosophy for all time. Even the doctor subtilis allowed himself to be tempted, as we have seen. He believes, but faith is not enough for him. He asks of God permission to taste the fruits of the tree of knowledge. All the most remarkable and influential representatives of the philosophy of the Middle Ages repeat endlessly: credo ut intelligam.

     It is here that the consequences to which the symbiosis of Greek philosophy with the truths of the Bible had to lead appear most clearly. The principles and technique of the ancient philosophy wrapped themselves around the Judeo-Christian revelation and choked it, as the ivy chokes the tree. Faith became a substitute for knowledge. The whole world openly admitted it, all the more so in that thus the mocking of the unbelievers was avoided. Scripture, it is true, was opposed to this conception of faith, but it is always possible to "interpret" Scripture. And as every interpretation presupposes a technique of thought, and this technique as well as the principles of thought were sought and discovered among the Greeks, it was clear in advance that the Bible, interpreted, would locate faith in the place suitable to it, below knowledge. The efforts of Duns Scotus and Occam to protect the domain of the credibilia against the invasion of reason did not turn medieval philosophy away from its effort to transform the revealed truths into self-evident truths. And such a transformation appeared and still appears the essential work of the Judeo-Christian thought.

     We recall that Lessing affirmed that sooner or later all the truths of revelation would become truths of reason, and that Gilson was obliged to check his pious ardor. Not all, he says in the name of medieval philosophy, but only some. Here is something very significant. Why only some? And what shall we do with those that will never succeed in justifying themselves before reason? Will we not be forced to hide them in order to avoid railleries and wounding reproaches? Will we not even be obliged finally to renounce them if it appears at last that not only can they not count on the protection of reason but that their very existence is a defiance of reason? The prophet Isaiah and St. Paul have warned us that human wisdom is foolishness before God and that God's wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of men. And this, above all, because the source of the revealed truth is faith, which is not located on the level of rational comprehension. Faith cannot be changed and does not even wish to be changed into knowledge. The faith of which the Bible speaks to us delivers man, in an incomprehensible way, from the chains of knowledge, and it is only through faith that it is possible to overcome the knowledge that is bound to the fall of man. So that when we transform a truth given by faith into a self-evident truth or understand it as such, it is a sign that we have lost this truth of faith. "I know that God is one" means something other than "I believe in one God" and than that Audi Israel of the Bible that has found its expression in credo in unum Deum.

     Gilson declares that monotheism was alien to the Greek philosophers. I cannot here examine this question and will content myself with recalling that, from its beginnings, Greek philosophy always sought to discover the single principle of the universe, beginning with Thales who proclaimed that the principle of everything was water. Aristotle ends the twelfth book of his Metaphysics (which Gilson uses precisely to prove that monotheism was strange to him) with this verse of Homer: "the rule of many is not good, let there be one master only." And Saint Thomas Aquinas, citing this passage, writes:... 'Aristotle concludes from the unity of order in existing things the unity of the ruling God."[7] I do not at all mean by this that Aristotle's God is the God of the Bible. On the contrary, it is proper here to recall Pascal's words: "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not the God of the philosophers." If one could demonstrate clearly that the Greek philosophers were monotheists, this would not at all mean that they had had a premonition of the biblical revelation. The one God whose existence appears evident in the ordering of the universe resembles as little the God of the Bible as the dog, the barking animal, resembles the constellation called the Dog. Reason perceives a single principle. It must find him who, according to Pascal's expression regarding Descartes, gives the first fillip. Reason wishes to understand. It is not for nothing that Hegel so ardently defended the ontological argument against Kant. The God who seeks and obtains the protection of the principle of contradiction is certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac and of Jacob. Of course, Hegel could admit such a God in all tranquility. A "proven" God could defend himself against Aristotle's logic as well as Voltaire's sarcasms.

     But "faith" - again, naturally, the faith of the Bible - concerns itself neither with understanding nor with proofs. It requires something else, something completely different - something, as we shall see, that excludes once for all "understanding" and "proofs."

[1] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 14.
[2] Cf. his letters to Mersenne of 15 April and 27 May 1630. We read in the latter: "He (God) was also free to bring it about that it not be true that all the lines drawn from the center to the circumference of a circle are equal, just as He was free not to create the world."
[3] Cf. the fragment of Tertullian quoted above.
[4] Damian in another place says: "As we can therefore rightly say that God could bring it about that Rome, before it was built, not have been built, so we can say no less without contradiction that God may also bring it about that Rome, after it was built, not be built." It is also interesting that he allows himself to argue with Saint Jerome, from whom he borrows the example of the virgo corrupta: the hand of God means more to him than Saint Jerome.
[5] I, VII.
[6] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 238. At the end of his second volume (pages 214-218), Gilson returns once again to the idea of the biblical serpent and to those who wished to create a philosophy that should not be bound by the Greek principle and declares "the object of their wishes does not belong to the order of the possible." This, of course, is certain if one admits in advance that it is given to the Greek speculation to determine once for all the limits of the possible and that the biblical "revelation" does not pass beyond the limits of what appeared possible to the Greeks.
[7] Sum. Th., I, Q. 47, 3 ad pr.

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