Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



IT is noteworthy that the great thinkers of this golden era of mediaeval thought were also saintly characters, and docile children of the Church. They appreciated the Faith that was in them, and knowing it to be a free and sovereign gift beyond their power of meriting, they sought to preserve and defend it by prayerful study. They ever kept in mind that the truths of Divine revelation are to be accepted on their own grounds; nor did they forget that the truths of reason, though coming home to them in another manner and upon different grounds, cannot in any sense contradict those of revelation; for they recognized that both revealed truth and natural truth are of God. They believed in the Supernatural Order. They held to a world of grace, above and beyond the world of Nature; each distinct in its kind; each a living reality. They regarded the Church as the visible medium through which these two worlds met and merged. She was to them the sacred repository of those Divine truths that human reason, by its own unaided lights, was unable to grasp; upon her authority alone did they accept them as certain. They held with St. Paul, that no man can think a good thought as of himself without the assistance of Him in Whom we live, move, and are.{1} No more can he think the true, except as it is given him to think it, according to the primary conditions implanted in his rational nature, and in obedience to the laws of the human intellect. This has been clearly expressed by the great light and glory of the Schoolmen. "God helps man," says St. Thomas, "to understand that which He Himself directly proposes, not only by means of the object, or by increase of light; but the natural light that makes of man an intelligent being comes also from God; and furthermore, God being the Primary Truth from Whom all other truths derive their certitude -- even as in the demonstrative sciences, secondary propositions derive their certitude from the primary ones -- nothing could be certain in the intellect, save by Divine Power, just as in the sciences no conclusions are certain except by virtue of first principles."{2}

Accordingly, the Schoolmen drew clear lines between matters of faith and matters of reason. As clerics and monks, they studied philosophy, rarely for its own sake, frequently with view of developing, explaining, or defending the Christian truths, always in a spirit of docility to the Church. Nor were they, in accepting these religious limitations, labouring under any disadvantage. Religion has answered many a pressing question long before reason had time to reach its solution. Was the rational solution any the less valid because the result to be reached was already known? Take those who broke down all barriers between the two orders. Have they derived therefrom any real benefit? There are the Neo-Platonists. They placed no bounds to their speculations; they indulged in the wildest vagaries, and called them systems; they sank all religious truth into their oriental imaginings; they were the all-knowing and the all-wise. Now, what real addition -- as the legitimate outcome of all their theorizings -- have they made to the sum of thought? What Neo-Platonic truth does the world accept to-day as of primary importance in life or in philosophy? Or take the Averroists. We have seen the havoc which they played amongst the Schoolmen. Leagued and sworn as they had been in every University, to propagate their doctrines; seriously as they threatened to overwhelm Christian science, to what purpose has it all been? In vain do we look for any clearly defined truth, or body of truths, that we can accept as an addition to mental or metaphysical science. All is lost in the arid sand of speculation. Can the same be said of their opponents? Who dares say -- knowing whereof he speaks -- that human thought is not the richer for the labours of an Aquinas and a Roger Bacon? And yet their faith was simple, their piety sincere, their loyalty and devotion to mother Church unswerving. Think you their religious belief hampered their scientific thought? To think so were to ignore the workings of the human mind and the primary laws of thought.

Thought must be free; thought is necessarily free. But it does not follow that thought has not its limitations. It has; it is restricted on many sides; and without restriction there is no continuous train of thought, and therefore no reasoning. A glance at the limitations of thought will enable us to understand its nature and its workings. To begin with, there are the essential limitations of reason, within which reason follows out certain laws and acts under certain conditions. The mind, as thinking-subject, must take itself for granted. Turn whither it will, the I-am-I of its own identity faces it as a fact, outside of which it cannot move. It must accept upon trust the acts of its memory. There is no thinking without receiving as truthfully reported that which the memory records. It must accept the primary principle of all demonstration,

"It is evident," says Aristotle, "that it is impossible for the same inquirer to suppose that at the same time the same thing should be and should not be."{3} Even the reason of an Aristotle, searching and acute though it be, cannot work without that principle, nor can it by any possible ingenuity transgress its limitation. In like manner, is it equally impossible for the human intellect to think two and two to be three, or five, or aught else than four. It may, in reasoning upon erroneous or ill-understood premises, deduce a consequence that were equivalent to the proposition that two and two make three or make five; we all of us do it in a measure when we overleap or fall short of the truth. But the moment the intellect perceives its error, however slow it may be to express that it was in the wrong, it rebounds at once to its normal condition and thinks the eternal truth that two and two make four. For the intellect can only think the true as true.{4} Nor are those primary conditions and accompaniments of thinking its only limitations.

Thought has also its restrictions from without. There is the restraint of menta1 discipline, in which the will compels the intellect to exclude all matters extraneous to that upon which it is then and there occupied, and to move in a given direction. Without this strain there is no real thinking; without it, it were impossible to prolong a train of thought to its legitimate conclusion, or properly to exhaust the consideration of a proposition. There is the restriction of language. Our thought takes colour and shape from the speech in which it is expressed. Our very idioms mould its form. Take any subject; submit its treatment to a French and a German mind; you will find the genius of each language materially affecting the respective thoughts of each intellect.{5} Then there is the restriction of the schools. Each school has its own mould of expression. The disciple thinks in the terms of his school. In all his reasoning he is on his guard against admitting any form of expression that might be construed into an admission of the views of another school. This is a great hardship, frequently a great tyranny, for the human intellect. It drags it into partisanship. The disciple of Schopenhauer feels in duty bound to tear Hegel to tatters. The Agnostic is not happy unless he is abusing religion as the enemy of material progress. To belong exclusively to any one school of thought is to shut out from one's soul all truth but that which presents itself under a given aspect. It is to be continually asking the question, Can any good come out of Nazareth? And yet good can come out of Nazareth; every Nazareth of thought has its own lesson to teach us if we willingly learn it and put it to profit. Finally, there is the intellectual atmosphere of the day, in which thought lives and moves. It cannot exist without breathing this air. If the past is revived, it lives only in proportion as it is brought to bear upon the present. Unconsciously do we breathe this atmosphere. It enters into our language; it moulds our phrases; it colours our thinking. It is a subtle essence ever present yet ever eluding our grasp.

Now, the atmosphere of the golden era of the Middle Ages, is the Spirit of Faith. It speaks in the Crusades. It breathes in the Gothic cathedral. It is the inspiration alike of Dante and Aquinas. All the great intellects of that epoch breathed this atmosphere of Faith. It gave life and colour to their thoughts. It raised them above themselves into the supernatural life which they touched and felt as a living reality. Scepticism was foreign to the minds of an Albert, a Bonaventura, a Thomas, and a Roger Bacon. Therefore, in all their studies and speculations they were as little disturbed and under no greater restraint than was Plato or Aristotle. To one whose doubts are his life -- whose sole object is the pursuit of truth whilst sceptical of its existence -- this frame of mind is indeed an enigma; but it is no less a fact. No religious believer finds embarrassment in holding by truths of Faith and at the same time carrying out a course of reasoning as freely as the most confirmed sceptic. His conclusion may be found to clash with some article of his Faith. Be it so. The revealed truth has possession. That admits of no revision. Not so the conclusion. Experience has taught the reasoner how likely he is to go astray in pursuing a line of argument; how frequently some misplaced or some ill-understood term has stolen into his premises and vitiated the whole of his reasoning; or how some fact has been overlooked, in consequence of which he finds his conclusion at variance with existing facts. In all such instances, his only remedy is to revise his chain of reasoning and rid himself of the cause of the fallacy running through it. Therefore, should he perceive any such discrepancy, it remains for him to go over his whole argument once more; and should he still find no error, or if he is yet unable to bring his conclusion into harmony with the revealed truth, he is not thereby disturbed. He awaits additional light flowing from a larger experience and more advanced science. The overhasty conclusion has damaged science; the overhasty censure has brought odium upon religion. To him who has learned how to labour and how to wait the light comes. This is the lesson of the history of thought. Never yet has a revealed truth stood in the way of a scientific truth rightly demonstrated. On the contrary, he who is possessed of the great truths of revealed religion, and holds them with a grasp of living conviction, has always a norm with which to compare and adjust any other truths coming within the domain of those that are of revelation. He is saved time and trouble; he treads the mazes of thought with a firm step; he brings his investigations into other spheres of study with a calm spirit. Here is to be found the inspiring principle of the great intellects of mediaeval days.

{1} 2 Cor. iii. 4.

{2} Compend. Theol. ad Fr. Reginaldum, cap. cxxix. Opp., tom. Xvi. p. 34.

{3} Metaphysics, III., iii. 9.

{4} "Objectum autem proprium intellectus est quidditas rei. Unde circa quidditatem rei, per se loquendo, intellectus non fallitur; sed circa ea quae circumstant rei essentiam vel quidditatem intellectus potest falli, dum unum ordinat ad aliud, vel componendo, vel dividendo, vel etiam ratiocinando (Summa Theol., I. i. quaest. lxxxv. art. vi. c.).

{5} As an illustration, compare the modes in which Descartes and Fichte both establish the fact of their personal identity as an assumption beyond which they cannot pass.

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