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


     I have not here the space necessary to point out, like Gilson, all that the Scholastics accomplished in the domain of philosophy or, more exactly, the results at which they arrived in trying, and insofar as they tried, to draw from the Bible eternal and unshakable truths by using the principles and methods of research that they had inherited from the Greeks. Before the tree of life and the tree of knowledge they, like the first man, did not have the power to overcome the temptation eritis scientes. For the Scholastics, as for the Greeks, the final source of truth was reason with its immutable laws. That is why, as we have seen, they so carefully protected the principle of contradiction and were even ready to sacrifice to it the omnipotence of the Creator. That is why St. Augustine granted that the will of the fallen man was free, notwithstanding that it subjected itself without protest to that law by virtue of which "in our world where evil is a given fact whose reality cannot be denied" evil must be "explained" and accepted. To argue with the Greeks was to condemn oneself in advance to defeat or, to put it better, it was possible to argue with the Greeks only after having once for all taken the decision to renounce their principles as well as their technique of thought.

     "If you wish to subject everything to yourself, subject yourself to reason." This was the summing up of the Greek wisdom, according to Seneca's formula. How could the Middle Ages reply to this maxim? Could they perceive here a temptation? Our entire experience of life and our entire reason are on the side of the Greeks. Philosophy in this respect is only the systematization and most complete expression of discoveries that each of us makes every day: one does not argue with facts, the fact is the final and definitive reality. The principle of contradiction and that law, just as unshakable, which holds itself under its protection and which says that what has been cannot not have been are inscribed in some way in the very structure of being, and the omnipotent Creator Himself is incapable of delivering being from their hold. It is only on condition of accepting and worshipping them that man, as Seneca, the disciple of the Greeks, tells us, can dominate the world.

     But in the Bible we hear something quite different. When the powerful and crafty spirit says, as if repeating Seneca: "All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me," he hears in reply: "Get thee hence, Satan, for it is written, 'Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve."' In other words, one does not even argue with reason, with its principle of contradiction, its "two times tWO makes four," its stone walls (that which has been cannot not have been; in the world where evil is a fact, its reality cannot be denied; man is descended naturally from the ape, etc.). One simply chases it away as a usurper - this reason to which he must submit in order to obtain any good.

     Such is the teaching of the Bible. When Dostoevsky rudely mocked the pretensions of reason and its universal and necessary truths, he was only following the Bible. And though human, all too human, it was nevertheless an imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ). Reason does not have and cannot have a single universal and necessary truth, and it is not given to it, any more than to anyone except the Creator, to inscribe its laws in the structure of being. It is not in vain, however, that Kant said that experience only "irritates" the philosopher; experience does not contain what rational philosophy seeks to obtain. Experience does not at all prove that the principle of contradiction "does not fall under God's omnipotence" or what has been cannot not have been. All the "stone walls," all the "two times two makes four" already constitute a certain addition to experience, and it is from this addition that the tempter drew his eritis scientes.

     Accordingly, the Bible sees in the eternal truths that are independent of the Creator only a lie, a suggestion, an enchantment. If the first man and all of us after him have not the power nor even the will to rid ourselves of these truths, this does not at all give us the right to consider them as something definitive and consequently calming, even mystical. On the contrary, this ought to be for us a source of unceasing, torturing, insurmountable anxiety. And it is certain that this anxiety has always persisted and persists still in the human soul, and that the Middle Ages knew it only too well. But it is no less certain that man fears anxiety above everything and makes every effort to choke it in himself. He is ready to accept anything whatsoever as definitive and forever insurmountable in fact and in right - matter, inertia, walls indifferent to everything - in order to be able to escape anxiety and cease struggling. Non lugere neque detestari - the Greek philosophy could never resolve to pass beyond the limits of this ideal. It is from this that the credo ut intelligam (I believe that I may understand) of St. Augustine, of Anselm of Canterbury and of all those who followed them comes. From this comes Spinoza's non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. Nietzsche himself, who overwhelmed minds with his "beyond good and evil" (which denied the fruits of the tree of knowledge though people did not realize it, any more than Nietzsche did), his morality of masters, his will to power (Deus omnipotens, ex nihilo creans omnia), ended by glorifying the "love of fate." The supreme wisdom consists in loving the inevitable. He forgot that it was precisely this that Socrates, whom he recognized as the fallen man par excellence, had taught. But the Stoics are descended from Socrates, and when Seneca writes, "I do not obey God but I agree with Him in spirit, nor do I follow Him because it is necessary," he was only repeating Socrates.

     On this point the Middle Ages could not and would not break with the tradition of Greek philosophy. It could not do this because it had borrowed from it the fundamental principles and technique of thought. It would not do it because this happens "not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." (Romans IX, 16.) Certain chapters of the second volume of Gilson's work are particularly instructive in this respect: L'Amour et son objet (Love and Its Object), Libre arbitre et liberté chrétienne (Free Will and Christian Freedom), Loi et moralité chrétienne (Christian Law and Morality). Medieval philosophy at times made extreme and desperate efforts to preserve the truth of revelation, while accepting the Greek wisdom.

     But all its efforts remained fruitless: the truth of revelation ended by completely resembling the natural truth. And this resemblance is expressed, above everything, in that it refuses to recognize its dependence on the Creator but wishes that the Creator obey it. From this comes the following unexpected and paradoxical result: when one reads the chapters mentioned above where, with his customary masterfulness, Gilson succeeds in giving an exposition in a relatively modest number of pages of the fundamental ideas of Scholasticism, it seems at times that it is not the medieval philosophy that is being discussed here but Spinoza's. and that the numerous quotations and references to the Bible must be taken in a figurative sense - or that there is to be seen here simply one of those annoying carelessnesses that even the greatest minds do not always succeed in avoiding.

     Be it a question of the peace of the soul, of the love of God, of virtue, of nature, of freedom - whatever be the theme of the medieval philosopher, one cannot fail to evoke the memory of the solitary Dutchman. There is the same aspiration towards a universal, rigorous and immutable order joined to an indifference, a scorn even, for all the goods of life (it is known that Spinoza reduced them to "wealth, honor and pleasures"); the same glorification of contemplation and of the spiritual joys which flow from it; the same freedom of the man qui sola ratione ducitur, who has adapted himself to the inescapable laws of the structure of being (homo emancipatus a Deo); and finally the amor Dei intellectualis which dominates everything.

     For medieval philosophy, says Gilson, "human love is only a finite participation in the love that God has for Himself."[1] And again, "God's love is only the generosity of the Being whose superabundant plenitude loves itself in itself and in its possible participations."[2] And in Spinoza we read: "For the mind's intellectual love of God is part of the infinite love with which God loves Himself"; [3] then, in the corollary, "hence it follows that, insofar as God loves Himself, He loves men, and consequently that God's love for men and the mind's intellectual love of God are one and the same." Whether Spinoza received his fundamental ideas directly from the Greeks or through the medium of the medieval philosophers is of no importance. What is important is that there is not and cannot be any trace in them of what animated and nourished the Judeo-Christian thought, no matter how we interpret the latter. The philosophy of Spinoza, as highly as we may value it, demands as conditio sine qua non that we renounce completely the truths of revelation. For Spinoza the Bible has nothing in common with the truth, just as the truth has nothing in common with the Bible. No one in the Seventeenth Century opposed to the stories of the Bible the Aristotelian "the poets lie" with so much frankness, rigor and courage as Spinoza.

     If it appears finally that the Scholastics were so close to Spinoza (one could show that the Scholastics' doctrine of being, founded on the Bible's "I am that I am" is not at all distinguished from Spinoza's doctrine of being), this would already entitle us to conclude that the Scholastics, as philosophers, were not inspired by the Bible, and that it was at the school of the maestro di coloro che sanno (master of all those who knew) that they learned to seek and find what they needed, not in the "foolishness of preaching" but in the self-evidences of reason.

     Gilson opposes Luther to the Scholastic philosophy and, in emphasizing this opposition, says that many of the reproaches made against the Scholastics should have been addressed rather to Luther. It is beyond doubt, indeed, that Luther's doctrine is completely contrary to what the Scholastics sought and obtained. And Luther did not hide this. St. Thomas, he writes, "wrote many heretical things and is the originator of the now ruling pious doctrine of the awful Aristotle." Here, furthermore, is just one of his milder judgments on St. Thomas. Gilson is also right when he says that a consistent Lutheran is a rara (I would even say rarissima) avis. And yet Luther is strictly connected to the medieval philosophy, in the sense that the very possibility of his appearance presupposes the existence of a Judeo-Christian philosophy which, setting as its task to proclaim the idea - hitherto unknown - of a created truth, continued to cultivate the fundamental principles and technique of the ancient thought.

     Luther is ordinarily not even considered a philosopher by those, in any case, like M. de Wulf, who identify philosophy with rational philosophy. It would be more just, however, to place oneself on other grounds and to ask oneself: does not Luther belong to the small number of those who have daringly tried to realize the idea of philosophy that is not rational but Judeo-Christian, of a philosophy which permits itself to submit to a new examination precisely those fundamental principles and those methods of discovering the truth which, as "things known of themselves," the Middle Ages had accepted from their Greek masters docilely and without verifying them? Luther's sola fide (by faith alone) and his tenebrae fidei, ubi nec lex, nec ratio lucet (the darkness of faith, where neither law nor reason shines) - are these not an obvious reaction to the systematic attempt of the Scholastics to submit the truth of revelation to the control and guardianship of the truths that are obtained naturally?

     For our reason faith is darkness, it is the lower degree which must be transcended in order to obtain clear and distinct knowledge. The apostles and the prophets were content with faith; the philosopher wishes more - he wishes to know. The apostles and the prophets awaited their salvation from on high; the philosopher finds his salvation through wisdom founded on stable knowledge, hopes to obtain the good will of the gods by means of his wise life, and wishes even that this wise life should guarantee him salvation: "God does not deny grace to him who does what is his."

     All this had been borrowed by the Scholastics from the Greeks. In the preceding chapters I have quoted many passages from Plato and Aristotle on this subject, and these quotations could be multiplied. But as for Luther, he fled from Athens. He feared, as Dostoevsky instinctively feared, the eternal truths; his entire being aspired to Jerusalem. Reason, which we consider our natural light, leads us to our ruin. The law, on which we rely as on an unshakable rock, in reality only multiplies the crimes. "Because man is presumptuous and imagines himself to be wise, righteous and holy, it is necessary that he be humbled by the law, that thus that monster - the illusion of his own righteousness - without whose killing man cannot live, be put to death."

     Homo non potest vivere is, in Luther, an objection against the self-evident truths that are revealed to us by the light of reason and the law. Similar objections were, for the Greeks, something completely new or, to put it better, simply could not find a place on the level of Greek thought. To obtain the truth, we must "kill" the self-evidences. "The righteous shall live by faith." This is the point of departure of what Kierkegaard was later to call "existential philosophy" and which he opposed to the speculative philosophy that we have inherited from the Greeks. Hence comes the implacable hatred that Luther had for Aristotle,[4] hence come Luther's sola fide and servum arbitrium (the bound will).

     Luther's enslaved will is that enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel of which Pascal speaks. "Nothing is more strongly opposed to faith than law and reason, nor can these two be overcome without great effort and labor; yet they must be overcome if you wish to be saved." When and for as long as man puts his hope of salvation in them, our knowledge and our virtues are only "instruments and weapons of that infernal tyrant, i.e., sin, and through all these you are forced to serve the devil and to promote and augment his kingdom." Having tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge, man has lost faith, and with faith freedom. Our will is bound by sin - it is paralyzed, plunged into a "deep dizziness" (Kierkegaard), almost dead. Knowledge has handed man over to the power of the truths that are uncreated or freed of God, and his virtues simply testify that he has exchanged God's "it was very good" for "the good and evil by which we are praiseworthy or blameworthy," that is, the fruits of the tree of knowledge.

     Such is the terrible and fateful consequence of the fall of the first man. He cannot escape from that slumber of the spirit which is altogether like death. The eritis scientes has enchained his intelligence as well as his consciousness; it has permeated and cast a spell over his entire being. Man aspires to knowledge, he is persuaded that knowledge is the same thing as salvation. Even more: if it appeared that knowledge is not salvation and that man had to choose between the two, he would prefer knowledge to salvation - as Clement of Alexandria said. This was, for Luther, the profound meaning of all the searchings of the Scholastic philosophy. But going further still, Luther had to recognize, terrified, that every man - and he himself before all - is in the power of that "infernal tyrant," i.e., sin, and that not only has he not the power to rid himself from this spell but that his fallen being continues to see in the eritis scientes and in the "walls of stone," the "two times two makes four," and the other self-evidences introduced by the eritis scientes, a solution - something calming and even mystical. Hence Luther's furious attacks against reason and its knowledge, against human wisdom and its virtues.

     Gilson says: "To encounter a De servo arbitrio, we must go to Luther. With the Reformation there appeared for the first time that radical conception of a grace which saves man without changing him, a justification which redeems corrupted nature without curing it."[5] Luther, indeed, was the first who spoke of the enslaved will; but he spoke of it precisely because he saw in our knowledge the original sin and became convinced that the Scholastic philosophy, instead of trying to deliver the will paralyzed by the sin of knowledge, followed the Greeks and did everything in its power to take away from man every possibility of regaining his original freedom. It taught, indeed, that knowledge is the highest degree of faith and that the wisdom founded on knowledge is the way to salvation. It concerned itself, then, with something quite other than restoring man and healing him from his frightful sickness. It declared that everything could still be put in order through good will and with the help of the Greek wisdom.

     But, in Luther's eyes, this was proof that not only is our will bound but that it has even lost the memory of what freedom is. It loves its dependence on the eternal truths emancipated from God with that love with which, according to the great commandment of the Bible, it should love God alone. From this enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel, to repeat once more Pascal's words, there is no salvation but through a help that is also supernatural. Our knowledge nourishes "that monster without whose killing man cannot live." Only the foolishness of faith, which does not ask anything of anyone, can awaken man from that torpor into which he sank after tasting the fruits of the tree of knowledge.

     Luther's doctrine of the law and redemption is bound to sola fide and de servo arbitrio. We imagine that the law exists in order to direct man and to punish him: the Greeks always and everywhere sought, and taught us to seek, laws in order to submit to them. But the Bible tells us something else: when Moses was on the mountain face to face with God he had no law, but when he descended from the mountain he began to govern the people by means of law. Where God is there is no law, there is freedom. And where freedom is not, God is not. Redemption, according to Luther, consists in man's deliverance from the domination of sin, from the domination of the truths and laws that enslave him; the freedom of innocence, of ignorance, is returned to him. Sin not only does not exist in the present, it has also not existed in the past. "In a universe where evil is a given fact whose reality cannot be denied," Deus omnipotens ex nihilo creans omnia shatters by His word the fundamental principle of the ancient thought: that which has been cannot not have been.

     "All the prophets saw this in the spirit," writes Luther, "that Christ would be the greatest robber, thief, blasphemer, murderer, adulterer, etc., such that no greater would ever be in the world." [6] Several pages further [7] Luther "explains" this shaking "truth" in a series of images that are even more terrible because they are more concrete: "God sent his only begotten son into the world and threw upon him all the sins of all men, saying, "Be thou Peter, that denier; Paul, that persecutor, blasphemer and violent man; David, that adulterer; that sinner who ate the apple in paradise; that robber on the cross - in short, be thou the man who committed the sins of all men." These words of Luther's are for the Greek and medieval philosophy the worst of absurdities. God cannot overcome the principle of contradiction, for "it does not fall under God's omnipotence." God does not possess any magic word capable of rooting out of the past the sins of Peter, Paul and David and bringing it about somehow that the original sin, the sin of Adam, from which all the other sins flowed, never existed. The "eternal truths, truths emancipated from God" here automatically set a limit to the divine omnipotence. And it is still less possible and thinkable that the sins of David, of Peter, of Paul, and even of Adam should not be their sins but the sins of God - that God be a criminal "such that no greater has ever been in the world." To say such things is to defy and to outrage the Greek philosophy and the whole of the Greek wisdom.

     Yet the task of the Scholastics, the task of the Judeo-Christian philosophy, consisted precisely in making all truths dependent on the Creator. Luther was not afraid to force "the most unshakable of principles," the principle of contradiction, as well as the self-evident truth that flows from it (what has been cannot not have been), to retreat before the divine omnipotence. It is only thus that one can radically heal man's fallen nature, it is only thus that one can destroy to the root the evil which entered the world along with sin and lead men back to the divine valde bonum (very good), to return to them that freedom which is not the freedom of choosing between good and evil with their praises and condemnations but the freedom to create the good, as He who made man in His own image creates it. Can one say that Luther speaks of the grace that saves man "without changing him, without curing him?" And does not the fallen man's complete and final restitutio in integrum consist precisely in the restoration of his freedom from the "eternal truths" and in the annihilation of sin not only in the present but also in the past (for as long as sin exists in the past it continues to rule in the present)?

     So then Luther, with his sola fide, made a mad, desperate attempt to realize the very thing that the Judeo-Christian philosophy considered its essential task. History, it is true, has seen to it that men should not listen to Luther, as they have not listened to other thinkers who aspired to create a Judeo-Christian philosophy without taking account of the problems, principles or technique of the thought of the Greeks and who dared to oppose the "faith" of Jerusalem to the "knowledge" of Athens in order to overcome the latter through the former. But can history be considered the final court?

[1] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 70.
[2] Ibid., p.71
[3] Ethics, V, XXXVI.
[4] Gilson cites (II, 222 and 278) some examples of the crude fashion in which Luther treated Aristotle. But we must not forget that Luther was the son of the declining Middle Ages and that the writers of the Middle Ages expressed themselves very crudely. We read, for example, in Duns Scotus: "What the Saracens, the most common swine, the pupils of Mohammed - as their scriptures make clear - expected when they awaited beatitude is that which is appropriate to swine, namely, gluttony and whoring."
[5] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 221.
[6] ad Galatas, II, 14.
[7] Ibid., p. 18.

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC