“The (Optimistic) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy”

There exists an “old saw” approach to Christianity that runs something like this: A long time ago Christians devoted themselves to practical matters of personal morality.  The early Church lived as a community of love devoted to good works.  Then, along comes ________ (this “blank” takes many forms — St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, etc.) and Christianity forever tainted itself with “theology” and a philosophical turn of mind completely at odds with the spirit of Christ and his early followers.”

I believe firmly in the idea that every organization gets the culture they deserve.  Perhaps the Church over time has contributed to the great error described above by focusing too much on morality as such and not on transformation.  Perhaps Christian education has concerned itself too much at various times with mere outward good results and good looks rather than giving a firm foundation in eternal principles.

But I also think that those that attack the “philosophical” elements of Christianity have a conscious or unconscious agenda to keep religion tucked away in its own small corner.  “You Christians please continue to be nice to each other and try and help others.  We’ll handle the big stuff.”

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Etienne Gilson sets out to refute those who wish to keep Christian belief in a 1124081small corner.  Gilson was a pre-eminent scholar and philosopher in his day, and alas for me, some of his philosophical vocabulary went over my head.  But one of the great strengths of his work is its simplicity.  He asks the critic to please, just actually read the Bible and Christian theologians honestly, and the idea that Christian belief was never “philosophical” melts away.

For starters we have the book of Job as a deep philosophical statement on the nature of suffering.  Many Old Testament history books like the book of Judges show artful arrangement to make pointed statements about the nature of man.  We have Ecclesiastes and many Psalms.  Some would say Jesus said nothing “philosophical” but this can only possibly hold water if one discounts the Gospel of John entirely.  Then of course we have the “dreaded” St. Paul who “intruded” with his theological cast of mind, and so on, and so on.

Gilson’s main point, however, deals with the Middle Ages.  Here most critics (at least in his day) stated that whatever philosophy the medievals attempted strictly copied from the Greeks.  They had no originality.  Gilson’s quick retort to this deals with the nature of originality itself.  In one sense, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” as Alfred North Whitehead stated.  Of course the medievals took some ideas from the Greeks.  What philosopher would not?

Others (like Edward Gibbon) charge the medievals with dimming the light of reason with the obscurantism of faith and revelation.  Gilson shows with many examples that the bulk of medieval thinkers saw reason excited, not diminished by faith.  He writes,

By revealing to man what he could not actually know, revelation opens up the way for the work of reason.

God’s gift of rationality now has more to chew on, and thus gets more of a workout.  For the medievals revelation makes mankind more rational, not less.*

But the bulk of the book forms Gilson’s main point that the medievals creatively used and transmuted Greek philosophy rather than copied them rote.  They had a strong desire to save everything they could and use it for Christian purposes.  My favorite example of this comes from Boethius.  Gilson writes,

Fate had weighed too heavily on men’s mind’s to be too summarily dismissed.  Boethius took the trouble to put up some rather complicated architecture in order to ensure it a niche in the Christian temple.  Providence is then the divine intelligence comprehending all things in the world; that is to say their natures and the laws of their development.  As reunited therefore in the divine ideas the universal order is one with Providence; as particularized, broken up, and so to speak, incorporated with the the things it rules, the providential order may be called Fate.  All that is subject to Fate is thus subject to Providence, since Fate depends on Providence as a consequence on its principle.

Boethius himself wrote,

For as the innermost of several circles revolving around the same center approaches the simplicity of the mid-most point . . . while the outermost, whirled in an ampler orbit takes in a wider sweep of space–even so whatever departs from the Primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to approach the center; while if aught cleaves close to the supreme mind in absolute fixity, this too, being free from movement, rises above Necessity.  Therefore as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its center, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.

I admit I don’t fully understand it, nor do I buy what he sells. Whatever the explanation it seems best to avoid the word “Fate” altogether.  But who wouldn’t smile at Boethius’ boyish enthusiasm and deft mental gymnastics.  Aquinas, a more mature and clearer thinker than Boethius, rejects this concept of Fate as well.  I’m sure that Aquinas understood him, and I’ll stick with him.

Of particular interest to me was Gilson’s explanation of the medieval view of history.  Previous historians in the Greek and Roman tradition did brilliant work.  But even the best of the ancients, i.e. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, all show the tendency toward Fate and Inevitability.  For Herodotus, everyone eventually crosses the boundaries of natural law — even Cyrus — and gets crushed for it.  Thucydides sees civilization doomed by the passions and fears of man that lie just below the surface.  Even the more spiritually minded Polybius sees mighty Rome caught up in the grand cycle of growth, peak, and decay from which they cannot escape.

Medievals viewed history differently.  They saw not a cycle but linear progression.  With revelation illumining reason we can build on the past, move forward, and advance.  The medievals had humility in relation to the past.  They knew the Romans and Greeks had done better than they in most ways.  But they never felt imprisoned by that presumption.  Rather, they sought to press on and hopefully help carry mankind to a better place.  In comparison to what came before, Gilson rightly claims this as an original philosophical development.

This view of history has its roots of course in theology.  History is a poem, which makes sense only when we know the beginning and the end.  Thanks to revelation, we know both, and can now see Christ building His kingdom on Earth, one that grows as a mustard seed.  If God be true, we have the opportunity to progress in relation to the past, though of course we may reject that chance.  This explains Boethius’ desire to save Fate from the chopping block — we must save everything so we can build on everything — but it also explains Aquinas refusal to yield.  God binds no one by Fate.  Otherwise how can God’s kingdom advance.

The medievals, often portrayed as dour and gloomy, strike me as a hopeful people.


*Perhaps one example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, a reality beyond the realm of reason.  But after revelation announces the doctrine, reason and experience can then deepen our understanding, which seems to be the experience of the early Church.