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


     The violence and frenzy of Dostoevsky's speech when he talks of the self-evident truths sufficiently show that he felt the deep, indissoluble bond that exists, as the Bible tells us, between knowledge and the evil that rules in the world. Insofar as and for as long as the truth is bound to knowledge, the evil is indestructible, the evil appears to be inherent in being as such. Medieval philosophy, which indifferently passed by Tertullian and Peter Damian but piously preserved the "first principles" of the Greeks, excluded from its field of vision the very possibility of the problematic of the book of Genesis, the problematic of knowledge. So it was obliged - like all the wise men of antiquity - not only to reconcile itself to the evil but to justify it.

     The philosophers of the Middle Ages were as little sensitive to the Apocalypse and its storms, to the book of Job and its cries, as to the story of Genesis about the fall of man. And, indeed, is it possible to oppose thunder and cries to reason? Thunder as well as cries come before reason: reason will calm the storm and suppress the cries. Even if he is a Christian, the philosopher will find more in Boethius' De Consolatione than in the Bible; or, in any case, with the help of Boethius' wisdom, he will succeed in calming the anxiety that the passionate words of Job and the rolls of thunder of the Revelation of St. John arouse in him. The "out of the depths I cried unto Thee, 0 Lord" likewise passes to the second level in the philosophy of the Middle Ages. The Psalmist's word does not, indeed, at all harmonize with the general spirit of the ancient philosophy, which was born "out of wonder" according to the teaching of Plato and Aristotle, and which has always warned men against despair and measureless sorrow.

     Kierkegaard declared that the essential opposition between the Greek philosophy and the Christian philosophy comes from the fact that the former has for its source wonder and the latter despair. This is why the Greek philosophy, according to Kierkegaard, leads to reason and knowledge,[1] while the Christian philosophy begins where for the former all possibilities are ended, and puts all its hopes in the Absurd. Man no longer seeks to "know" and "understand"; he has become convinced that not only is knowledge impotent to help him but that it will demand that man worship it and see in its impotence something final, calming, mystical even. Kierkegaard returns to faith the position that the Bible had conferred upon it. It is only on the wings of faith that one can fly over all "stone walls" and the "two times two makes four" erected and apotheosized by reason and rational knowledge. Faith does not examine, it does not look around.

     The Middle Ages, for which the Greek philosophy was a second "Old Testament" and which believed that Socrates' "know thy-self" had fallen from the heavens just like the Audi Israel, regarded thought as a looking around. The thought of Abraham, of the prophets and the apostles did not appear sufficient to it but had to be completed and corrected. To tell all, it was not really thought. Of course, this was not openly expressed thus, but everything that could be done was done to bring the structure and content of the truths of the Bible as close as possible to the ideal of the truth which the Greeks had worked out and in which, from the very beginnings of Hellenic philosophy, the Aristotelian assurance "intellect is a substance completely separated from the soul and is one in all men," was transparent. The Scholastics fought desperately against Aristotle's intellectus separatus (remember the polemic of Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas against Siger of Brabant!); [2] but even in fighting it they allowed themselves to be seduced by it. The ideal of the "reason that is separated from everything, impassive, and constitutes activity by its very essence"[3] (in the newer German philosophy Bewusstsein überhaupt) responded to the deepest needs of the soul that aspires to knowledge and finds in it calmness and peace.[4]

     For God Himself one can find no greater praise than to represent Him under the aspect in which the intellectus separatus appears in Aristotle. By means of the Aristotelian "the poets lie," medieval philosophy pushed aside the stories of the Bible which show us God rejoicing, being angry, regretting, etc., only for the purpose of "raising" God to the intellectus separatus. What is best in us, "what alone is immortal and eternal in us,"[5] is that by means of which we participate in reason. All of the Scholastics' thoughts reflect the deep conviction that the divine in the universe and in man is finally only "the separable, impassive and pure reason." This is never said explicite, but implicite this conviction persists in all the philosophic constructions. All that the Scholastics have told us of the principle of contradiction and of the other principes of our thought (more exactly, of being) permit us to realize the role that Aristotle's intellectus separatus was destined to play in the development of the philosophy of the Middle Ages (and also of the new philosophy).

     "It does not fall under God's omnipotence" is the decisive argument to which appeal is always made when it is a question of fundamental problems. Gilson's work testifies clearly to this. We have already seen how the Middle Ages interpreted the story of the fall. Having quoted the words of St. Paul which "echo the story of the book of Genesis" - "through one man sin entered the world" - Gilson writes, "Once more, in revealing to man a fact which by nature escapes him, revelation opens the way to the enterprises of reason."[6] But what does reason, placed before the truth that has been revealed to it about the fall of man, seek to achieve when it proposes to "understand" what it has learned from the Bible? Above everything, it must turn suspicion away from itself: it had, and still has, no part in the fall of the first man. Medieval philosophy, says Gilson, proposed "the most optimistic interpretation conceivable of a universe where evil is a fact whose reality cannot be denied."[7] The interpretation consists in the following: "Created ex nihilo, things are and are good because they are created, but their changeability is inscribed in their essence precisely because they are ex nihilo. Thus if one persists in calling the change to which nature is subjected as to an ineluctable law 'evil,' he must see that the possibility of change is a necessity that God Himself could not eliminate from what He had created, because the fact of being created is the deepest sign of this possibility itself."[8] And again: "It is not a question of knowing whether God could have made unchangeable creatures, for this would be more impossible than to create square circles. It has been seen that mutability is as co-essential to the nature of a contingent creature as immutability is co-essential to the nature of the necessary Being."[9]

     Where did medieval philosophy find all this? Certainly not in the Bible. In the same chapter, "Christian Optimism," Gilson indicates that the optimism of medieval philosophy has for its point of departure the words of the Creator at the end of each day of creation, "and God saw that it was good," and the words spoken when, contemplating His work at the end of the sixth day, He declared Himself fully satisfied: "And God saw everything that He had made and it was very good." The story of the Bible does not make the least reference to the presence, in the act of creation, of any defect or fault which would have made possible the appearance of evil in the world. On the contrary, according to the Bible, the act of creation guarantees us that the created can and must be good, and only good. The idea that the created as created already bears in itself the possibility of evil was found by medieval philosophy not in the Bible but in the Greeks. Having created the world, the Demiurge of the Timaeus sees that the world is very far from perfection and tries, as much as is in his power, to correct his work, even if only partially. Epictetus relates, always rather naïvely but frankly and honestly, what he had learned from his teachers. We read in him that Zeus admits to Chrysippus that his power is limited: it was not in his power to give men full possession of the world and their bodies. He could give all this to them only for a certain time, for everything that is created, having had a beginning, must have an end (such is the law of being, ineluctable even for the gods: birth (genesis) is necessarily bound to death (phthora); so he made them participants in the divine reason (intellectus separatus), thanks to which they would somehow manage to adapt themselves and live in the created world.

     So the Greeks thought: God, even for Plato, shares His power with Necessity. The act of creation inevitably introduced into the world imperfection and evil. But the position of the Bible is quite different: all possible perfections have for their single source the creative act of God. The Bible knows no power of Necessity and no insurmountable laws. It introduced into the world a new, unheard of idea - the idea of the created truth, the truth which the Creator rules as He wishes and which docilely accomplishes the desires of its master. How then could this truth change itself into an omnipotent law - this truth that was made to obey? Or must we admit that the Greek Demiurge was simply more perceptive than the Judeo-Christian Creator? The Demiurge realized immediately that there was something wrong in the universe, while the God of the Bible was content to repeat "very good" without suspecting that, by virtue of certain ineluctable laws which a mysterious hand had inscribed in the very essence of being, everything that is created cannot be "very good." In the final analysis, medieval philosophy discredited the creative act and admitted at the same time that God was not capable of estimating at its true value the world He had created.

     It cannot be assumed, of course, that the medieval philosophers would have risen deliberately against the testimony of the Bible, just as it cannot be assumed that they would have used, in regard to the Bible, the expression "the poets lie" which Aristotle used concerning Homer. But the fundamental principles that they had accepted from the Greeks did their work for them. The Scholastics were ready to discredit the act of creation and to doubt the omniscience of God, rather than admit that there could be a defect in reason. They spoke, as if it were nothing, of the "ineluctable law" inscribed in the being of the created, of the impossibility for God Himself to get rid of this law, risen one knows not whence - and imposed one knows not why - just as it is not given Him to create a round square. Every time they were convinced that they stood before an impossibility insurmountable even for God, it might truly be said that they felt, following Dostoevsky's expression, an almost mystical sense of satisfaction and inward peace: an impossibility, a stone wall, "two times two makes four" - consequently, one can and must stop.[10] That a round square is impossible - this truth, as irrefutable for God as for man, seems to be a gift fallen from heaven like the "know thyself" and other indisputable truths which, as also fallen from heaven, were gathered in ancient times by the Greeks: they guaranteed "knowledge."

     But what difference is there between a round square and that mountain without a valley of which Descartes spoke? The mountain without a valley sets a bound only to human thought and does not in any way limit the divine omnipotence; why, then, should the round square enjoy such a privilege? Or must we consider what Descartes said merely a metaphor? He also did not believe that God was capable of creating a mountain without a valley and did not grant that the medieval philosophy, from which he had received the Bible that proclaims the possibility of mountains without valleys and round squares, had ever admitted any such thing: one can say this but one cannot think it, as the maestro di coloro che sanno expressed it. The eternal truths are not created by God, they are drawn both for men and God from the intellectus separatus. It is Aristotle who judges the Bible and not the Bible that judges Aristotle: the principle of contradiction is "the most unshakable of principles." Without demanding authorization from anyone whomsoever, it inscribes whatever it pleases in the book of being and the Creator Himself is incapable of opposing it. We shall be obliged to return to this, but I would here cite the testimony of Leibniz who says that evil which, according to the doctrine of the Greeks, had its origin in matter flows, according to the "Christian doctrine," from the ideal, uncreated principles, from the eternal truths which, as we already know, were introduced into the mind of God without taking any account of His will.

     We are convinced that, in the problem which was central for it, the philosophy of the Middle Ages rejected its task, which consisted in bringing to the world the idea, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth. It could still be assumed that God had created the universe - this Plato had also taught. But the truths are not created by God, they exist before Him and without Him and do not depend on Him. It is true that we meet also among the philosophers of the Middle Ages the idea of eternal, created truth. They thus acquired, in a way, the right to speak of conditions of being and existence that are invincible" and "insurmountable" even for God. But they bought this right at the cost of an inner contradiction: for, if the truth is created, then, as we have just heard, it cannot be eternal and immutable - even if God wishes it. Yet to the created truth an indulgence is shown that the living man seeks in vain to obtain. The created man is necessarily imperfect and cannot pretend to eternal existence. But when it is a question of truth, the principle of contradiction shows itself disposed to renounce its sovereign rights: it grants to the created truth that immutability which is refused to living beings, without taking account of the precept "to believe against reason is blame-worthy."

     And it was with the same heedlessness that medieval philosophy accepted the doctrine of the Greeks which affirmed that evil is only privatio boni (the privation of good). To him who wishes to "understand" evil, such an explanation appears satisfactory, for it more or less attains its goal. Evil arose "naturally" in the world; what other explanation can one then demand? All honor to the philosophy which could make the ineluctability of evil self-evident! Does not "to understand" and "to explain" consist in establishing that what is cannot be other than it is? In the knowledge that what is is inevitable ("everything that is real is rational," according to Hegel's formula), Greek philosophy succeeded iN finding a solution, "something pacifying and even mystical." Yet the Judeo-Christian philosophy, insofar as it participated in the revealed truth, had as its task not to strengthen but finally to overcome the idea of inevitability. Gilson speaks to us of this many times. Evil explained does not cease to be evil. Evil as privatio boni is quite as repugnant and inadmissible as evil that has received no explanation. And the attitude of the Bible towards evil is quite different. It does not wish to explain evil but to destroy it,to tear it out of being by the roots: before the face of the God of the Bible evil is changed into nothingness.

     One can say that the very essence of the God of the Bible consists precisely in the fact that in "a world where evil is a given fact whose reality cannot be denied" there arises before Him in a mysterious way the possibility of what Gilson calls a "radical optimism": the metaphysics of knowledge of the Book of Genesis refuses, contrary to the Greeks, to see in the "given fact" a reality that it is impossible to deny. It raises in its own way the question of what is a "fact," a "given," "reality" and, recalling "God saw everything that He had made and it was very good," it asks audaciously whether the "fact," the "given," the "real" actually possess the "final" character that we, not daring to dispute with reason and the principle of contradiction produced by reason, attribute to them. For Aristotle this is pure madness. He knows with certainty that the given is "the first and the beginning."[11] We today also say: one cannot argue with facts. And indeed, he who "knows" does not argue; he prostrates himself before facts. Knowledge paralyzes his will, and he accepts everything that it brings him, convinced in advance that knowledge will make him like the gods (eritis sicut dei scientes).

     But the Bible says something else. God does not do this or that because it is good, but this or that is good because it was created by God. We know that this doctrine of Duns Scotus was rejected by medieval philosophy just as by modern philosophy. For our intelligence it is even more unacceptable than Plotinus' "beyond reason and knowledge"; or, to put it better, Plotinus' "beyond" frightens us because we feel that it hides within itself just that which Seeberg calls "arbitrary, lawless and boundless." Nevertheless, terrible as this may appear to us, the God of the Bible is not bound by any rule, by any law; He is the source of all rules and all laws just as He is master of the Sabbath. The tree of knowledge was planted by God near the tree of life, but not in order for man to feed on its fruits. The opposition of good and evil or, more exactly, the appearance of evil, bears no relation to the creation of the world; then everything was "very good," but only up to the moment of man's fall. Before then nothing limited the divine freedom and the human as well. Everything was good because it was made by God; everything was good because it was made by man, who was created in the image and likeness of God.

     This is precisely what this "very good" that is so mysterious to us means. Freedom as the possibility of choosing between good and evil, that freedom which the Greeks knew and which passed into medieval and modern philosophy, is only the freedom of the fallen man, freedom deformed by sin. It allowed evil to penetrate into the world and is powerless to drive it out. Thus, the more man clings to the idea that his salvation depends on "knowledge" and the possibility of distinguishing good and evil, the more deeply sin penetrates and roots itself in him. He turns away from the Bible's "very good," just as he turned away from the tree of life, and puts all his hopes in the fruits he gathers from the tree of knowledge.

     "Good and evil by which we are praiseworthy or blameworthy" - so the Pelagians expressed themselves: praise or blame for good or evil actions become, in the eyes of man, not only the principal but the only spiritual value. Thomas Aquinas - and in this he does not at all distinguish himself from the other philosophers of the Middle Ages - demands calmly, without apparently suspecting what he is doing, "whether to believe is meritorious." But is not faith a gift, the greatest gift that man can receive from the Creator? I recall once more "nothing shall be impossible for you." (Matthew XVII, 20) What can our merits and the praises of him who kept watch over the tree of knowledge do here? Is it not he who still suggests such questions to men today?

     To be sure, if freedom is only the possibility of choosing between good and evil and if faith is the result of such a choice when conditioned by the good, then one can speak of man's merits and even assume that our merits cannot but be recognized by God's judgment. But the judgment where our merits decide our fate or have even only a certain influence on the way in which our fate is decided, the judgment where virtues will be rewarded and vices punished, is not the "final judgment" of the Bible but the moral judgment of the Greeks that is perfectly understandable to man. In the Bible preference is given to the sinner who has repented over ten righteous men, there is more rejoicing over the return of the prodigal son than over the constancy of the faithful son, the publican takes precedence over the pious Pharisee. In the Bible the sun rises indifferently on the good and the evil. But even St. Augustine, who denounced Pelagius so unpityingly, can hardly bear the immorality of the Bible and allows a sigh of relief to escape when, dreaming of another world, he can allow himself to say: "there the sun does not rise over the good and evil, but the sun protects only the righteous."

[1] It would not be exaggerated to regard Kierkegaard as the spiritual double of Dostoevsky. If in my former writings I have not mentioned Kierkegaard in speaking of Dostoevsky, it is only because I still did not know him; I have known Kierkegaard's works only in the last few years.
[2] Cf. de Wulf, Histoire de la philosophie médiévale, p. 474: "The tone of his (St. Thomas') refutations in the De Unitate Intellectus is of a vehemence that is not elsewhere met in his works."
[3] De Anima III, 430a, 17.
[4] When St. Thomas Aquinas writes (S.Th. I, 16, 7): "no created truth is eternal, but only the truth of the divine intellect which alone is eternal and from which its truth is inseparable" or "it must be said that the laws of the circle and that two and three make five have eternity in the divine mind" etc., it is difficult not to see in this the intellectus separatus (or emancipatus) a Deo.
[5] From this comes Spinoza's "we feel and experience ourselves to be eternal."
[6] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, I, 123.
[7] Ibid., I, p. 124.
[8] Ibid., I, p. 117. Italics mine (L.S.).
[9] Ibid., I, p. 124. Italics mine (L.S.).
[10] As in Spinoza: "Contentment with oneself can arise from reason and that contentment which arises from reason is the highest possible."
[11] Eth. Nic., 1098b, 2.

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