Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



THIS attitude of calm reserve in regard to all systems and schools, the Church maintains during the long years that she is establishing and confirming her dominion throughout the world. Her great Apologists defend her, and attempt to show forth the sublimity of her teachings. When they speak well, she approves and blesses; when they say aught contrary to the truths of which she is the faithful custodian, she condemns. Justin Martyr (d. 166) is a philosopher of the School of Plato. The sublime doctrines which he imbibed in that School lead him to the threshold of the Church.{1} Grace does the rest, and Justin Martyr becomes one of the most eloquent defenders and expounders of the truths of Christianity.{2} He seals with his blood the conviction that he indites with his pen. He seeks to reconcile the truths of Faith with the highest and noblest truths of philosophy. Throughout his discourses there runs the postulate which the Church ever insists upon, that between the dogmas of Faith and the conclusions of reason there can be no contradiction.{3} He tells us that among all men are to be found seeds of truth;{4} that whatever things were spoken with truth are the property of the Christian;{5} that Christian truth is fuller and more Divine than that which has been handed down by sage and poet.{6} Athenagoras had a noble conception both of philosophy and religion, and eloquently did he attempt their reconciliation; but if he relies mainly upon Plato in his plea for Christians,{7} in his proofs for the resurrection of the body, he is more a disciple of Aristotle.{8} Tertullian (165-268) seems to hold Plato and Aristotle in equal abhorrence. "Thanks," he says, "to this simplicity of truth so opposed to the subtlety and vain deceit of philosophy, we cannot possibly have any relish for such perverse opinions."{9} But Tertullian did not escape the censure of the Church when, in the rashness of his bold and brilliant intellect, he broached doctrines opposed to those in her keeping. It is always dangerous to despise and antagonize aught of good in any of God's creatures.

In a more conciliatory spirit laboured the great philosophers of the Christian Schools of Alexandria. Clement and Origen -- both of them great in genius, great in piety, great in the depth and eloquence of their writings -- gather into a single focus the rays of truth that they find in all systems, whether of the East or of the West, and attempt a Christian encyclopaedia of philosophy and theology, worthy of the Church they would defend and of the noble truths they would explain. Nothing comes amiss to Clement. He sifts, examines, chooses whatever he lays hands upon; whatever he finds good therein he makes his own. "I call him truly learned," he says, "who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guard the Faith against assault. Now, as was said, the athlete is despised who is not furnished for the contest."{10} In this truly eclectic spirit did Clement work. In this truth-loving and truth-searching spirit also did Origen work. He tells us that the Apostles on many points were content with saying that things are; why they are, or how they are, they abstained from making known; leaving to studious men and lovers of Wisdom to investigate these things, clearly in order that those of them most worthy might have a subject of exercise on which to display the fruit of their talents.{11} In so acting the Apostles were carrying out the spirit of the Church.

Later on, when controversy raged fiercely upon the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church raised her voice, and in the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, defined that doctrine in terms clear and simple. Forthwith the co-eternity, equality, and consubstantiality of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, became a life-giving truth that saved Christendom from the blight of the cold monotheism of Mohamed, or the decayed polytheism of Paganism. This great truth held up for contemplation the Father illuminating humanity by His Word, and sanctifying it by His Holy Spirit. "We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God . . . begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, both the things in heaven and the things in earth; Who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh . . . and in the Holy Ghost."{12} Such are its leading terms. It is only the defining of a religious dogma; but that definition becomes a landmark upon the road of intellectual progress. In the few simple words of the Nicene creed -- steering clear of Gnostic reveries and Platonic dreams, of barren monadism and confusing polytheism -- we find summed up more than philosophy could invent or imagine concerning the nature of the Godhead. It was the answer of the Church to the attempt of the Neo-Platonists to crush her and set up against her teachings a strange jargon of all systems and all religions. And upon this solid basis was it that St. Augustine nobly refuted their errors, whilst admitting whatever was good in their system.{13}

Inimical as Neo-Platonism was to the Church, the children of the Church took from its teachings whatever they considered good or useful for the clearing up of her doctrines. Thus, the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius, possessing much that is true and beautiful, abound in opinions that read like pages extracted from Plotinus and Proclus.{14} St. Maximus (580-662) prizes them highly, and makes of them a careful paraphrase. John of Damascus invokes their authority. Irish monks fostered the Neo-Platonic philosophy in the West. They were at this time the only Hellenists of Europe, and their Hellenism was that of Alexandria. Whence Alcuin calls Clement the Hibernian and his associates Egyptians. "In going away," he writes to Charlemagne from his monastery in Tours, "I had left Latins