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The Medieval Synthesis

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. By Etienne Gilson. Translated by A. H. C. Dowries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.50.

Fifteen centuries ago St. Augustine diagnosed the difference between the pagans and the Christians. The former fell into error in the ordering of their knowledge because they assigned to each science and subject of inquiry an independent domain. The Christian, on the other hand, can recognize the affinity of the sciences to each other, for he is aware that they are unintelligible save in view of their source. In the midst of our own mania for “specialization” it would be a hopeless quest for anyone to seek such a unity in the contemporary scene. But the eminent French scholar, Etienne Gilson, has sought and found this specifically Christian philosophy in the middle ages. In his “Spirit of Medieval Philosophy,” he sets forth a well rounded and compact account of this otherwise obscure and inaccessible background of our tradition.

At first sight, this book might seem devoted to a thesis of merely historical and academic interest. But this is far from being the case. For we have here an intelligible picture of the structure of medieval thought whose gothic unity embraces in its proper perspective all that is of interest to man’s most lowly needs, yet points beyond to their infinite end and meaning. In contrast with this unity, our modern

chaos is revealed in the full force of its pagan disintegra-

I tion.

Probably the most familiar point of contact which the modern spirit has with the intellectual temper of the middle ages is the common meeting ground of humanism. Seen in this perspective, the intricate problems of the human drama can be reduced to three major themes, ever recurring throughout the divine symphony. For their contrapuntal developments and harmonic interweaving, Gilson’s book must be studied; only their bare statement is possible here.

The first theme concerns the nature of man, and raises the question, What is his essence? how is he constituted? The answer lies in the doctrine of creation. God, the principle of absolute Being, Goodness, and Truth, by a loving act of His intellect and will created a realm of contingent beings which exhibit relative truths and goods. The created realm is patterned after the archetypal ideas in God’s mind, so that each thing in its own way is an expression of the Divine intellect, however remote that likeness may be from its source. Now man, since he is not only a corporeal nature, but has in addition an intellect and a will, is to that extent created in God’s image. As one created thing among others, it is this more direct similitude to God which differentiates him specifically from the rest of creation, and defines his essential humanity. The remaining aspects of his nature he shares with other created things—sensations and passions with the animals, nutrition and life with the plants, and corporeality with the clod. The more he resembles these, the less he achieves his essential humanity. But the more he resembles God, the more he fulfills his nature, which is precisely to be an image of God. This doctrine of analogy is the foundation of Christian humanism, and defines man’s first actuality of being.

The second major theme concerns man’s natural end, which he desires of necessity, and this is his happiness. Man, born of carnal desire, by nature loves himself primarily and desires other things in creation in so far as he can use them to satisfy the heeds of his own self love. But the fact is that such gratifications may be desirable, but none ever suffices. For created things are good only relatively, each in its own contingent way. The human error and tragedy consists in mistaking them for absolute goods. For example, a stone is good, contingent upon our need to build a wall but not absolutely, because if our need is to satisfy hunger, then a stone is evil. In like manner the contingent things of creation are good, but only provided we do not use them in an attempt to satisfy man’s hunger for his ultimate good.

So when we say that by “nature” man loves himself and other things in so far as they satisfy his selfish desires, we are referring to him in so far as he shares in the nature of other created things. Now since a man is essentially human only to the extent that he is an image of God, then it is clear that in selfishly loving other things which are only a remote likeness of God, he is untrue to his own essence. Consequently, to love himself properly, a man must love that perfect Being in whose image he is created, and therein lies his ultimate happiness and satisfaction. Moreover, if a man love in this way, he loves himself no longer with a selfish love, and can now love other created things with a disinterested love in God and enjoy their relative goodness without frustration.

The third theme concerns the proper object of man’s intellect. Just as the proper object of man’s will is God, wherein his essential good consists, so the proper object of his intellect is also the Supreme Being which is the source of Truth itself. “By intelligence the soul is capable of truth; by love it is capable of the Good; its torment arises from the fact that it seeks it without knowing what it is that it seeks and consequently without knowing where to look for it.” Just as fallen man begins by loving the things which least resemble God, so he begins by knowing other created things. Thus we have a successful science of nature and of man in so far as he is a part of created nature. But these sciences must remain silent in the face of questions concerning man’s ultimate goal and destiny. People are beginning to ask: “What does it profit a man to gain a knowledge of the whole world if he lose a knowledge of himself?” For in order to know himself, a man must know his essential nature, namely, his similitude to God. Therefore truly to know himself, he must know God.

Nor does this knowledge seek to evict these natural sciences and install itself in their place; rather it completes and clarifies them by adding on a knowledge of their end and good use. To the extent that they are seen from the point of view of their more ultimate end, to that extent they are no longer fragmentary and isolated, but will fall into their proper places in a unified schema. Just as one purpose must be subordinated to another, and the immediate means is inferior to the more remote in attaining an end, so is one science of means dependent upon another and all are submissive to the science of man’s final end. It is not by a pious convention that one science is the handmaid of another, but this relationship inheres in the very nature of things, just as it is necessary for one process to be subject to another in manufacturing any raw material into the finished product. Neither is this knowledge on the level of what often passes today for “religious belief.” In this book we see Christian philosophy presented as a rational system containing faith not as an ingredient but as its starting point and as defining its aim. Understanding is the middle term between faith and the visio Dei.

“The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy” should provide welcome nourishment for those who are disillusioned by a religion that is too often presented as a means to pleasant social relationships or as a glorified life insurance for the hereafter. And it presents a timely challenge also to the modern scientific spirit: How much longer shall we pursue the illusion that science without unity can satisfy the demands of the human intellect, or that the pleasures afforded by an efficient technology alone can bring peace to the human spirit and “appease a hunger reborn with every sop that is flung to it”?


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