Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



IN full freedom of spirit, then, did the Schoolmen labour. They commented Aristotle; they put forth philosophical speculations; they developed theological science; they observed and studied the laws of Nature, making serious though ineffectual efforts to rend the veil and wrench her secrets from her keeping, without suffering the least embarrassment from the Faith that was their life. We have seen the Church set down as a primary rule of action, that the theologian should not attempt to rationalize the mysteries of religion,{1} and that, in the stead, he should cultivate the Early Fathers and the Sacred Scriptures; also that the philosophers should not trespass upon the preserves of theology. "There is not," says an impartial witness who has made a thorough study of the Schoolmen, and who has learned to appreciate them, "there is not a logician of the thirteenth century, who, on assuming his seat, does not begin with the declaration that, this chair not being one of theology, he will place beyond all controversy the mysteries and sacraments in order solely to discuss those questions not interdicted by authority. It is not recent doctors, then, who drew the line of distinction between the two domains; the Middle Ages recognized it, professed it, and more or less scrupulously acted upon it."{2} Let us for a moment look into the works of a few of the great Schoolmen and note the spirit that guided their pen.

There is Albert the Great (1193-1280). The vastness of his labours is appalling. The wide range of subjects which his genius took in by way of summaries, commentaries, and tracts -- philosophy, theology, mathematics, natural history in its chief branches, physics, astronomy, mechanical engineering; sermons and lectures upon spiritual subjects; the very list of them would fill a volume{3} -- and upon which he gave out thoughts original and striking, has well merited for him the title of Universal Doctor. How did this untiring genius enter upon his studies? Here are his words: "A philosopher should admit nothing without sufficient reason, for it is a desire innate to all of us to know the causes of things natural, to study their properties and to seize their differences."{4} Have they not the ring of an extract from some modern scientist? Again, in the same spirit he advises his brethren to study Nature, not for the sake of explaining her prodigies, but for the better understanding of her ordinary laws: "We are not to seek in Nature how God, according to His good pleasure, employs creatures to work the prodigies by which He makes His power so striking, but rather such phenomena as are of ordinary occurrence and act according to natural causes."{5} Here is the spirit of modern scientific investigation. This man, so just in his remarks, so correct in his method of approaching philosophical subjects, has been accused of the basest subserviency to Aristotle. Undoubtedly the Master has great weight with him; but he knows how to discriminate between the truth and error in his writings. "Whoever believes Aristotle to be God," he tells us, "may also believe him never to be in the wrong; but admitting him to be a man, then unquestionably may he err like the rest of us."{6} And elsewhere he states the principle of this philosophical independence: "It may behove the Pythagoreans to swear by the word of the Master; for our part, we are content to receive the word when its truth shall have been proven by reason."{7} Because he sought to make Aristotle his own in this independent spirit, did he merit to have it said of him: "Never was the doctrine of Aristotle treated with greater scope and even depth."{8} We are not surprised that the timid chronicler should represent Albert as a man drunk with the wine of profane wisdom.{9} But, it may be asked, how far in actual practice did Albert verify all these fine words of his? We will take him in natural science, and we will bring a competent witness to testify. But we must not forget that the age was one of many scientific superstitions, when astrology was identified with astronomy, and alchemy with chemistry,{10} and fantastic explanations took the place of experimental investigation, then unthought of. From it all Albert was not free. None the less do gleams of light run across his pages. They excite the warm admiration of Humboldt He is surprised at the delicacy of observation betrayed in Albert's reasonings upon the structure and physiology of plants;{11} upon the simultaneous dependence of climate on latitude and elevation, and the effect of different angles of the sun's rays in heating the earth; upon the influence of mountains in determining the warmth or coldness of a locality.{12} They seem to him far and away beyond the epoch in which lived "this man of vast erudition."{13}

But the chief fruit and glory of the life and labours of Albert, was Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). It is the great merit of the Angelical Doctor that he knew how to tend with admirable tact the doctrines of the Church and the teachings of human reason. He holds that philosophy is good and useful and in a measure necessary for the discussion of those natural truths that are the preambles of Faith, amongst which he includes the existence of God;{14} no less good and necessary is it as a means of refuting difficulties raised against the dogmas of religion. The higher truths and mysteries transcending the reach of human reason, in the spirit of a true philosopher, he accepts upon authority.{15} He is unwearied in laying stress upon the fundamental principle that between the truths of reason and the truths of revelation, when rightly understood, there is neither divergence nor discord.{16} "Since grace," he tells us, in his masterpiece, "does not destroy nature, but rather betters it, therefore should natural reason minister unto faith just as the natural bent of the will should aid charity."{17}

And in another place he puts the question directly as to whether theological questions should be answered upon the principle of authority or upon that of reason; and his reply is, that, if repelling the doubts of an adversary, the adversary should be met upon his own grounds and his own arguments made use of. "Such arguments," he adds, "should be employed as show the why and wherefore of the thing, otherwise we would know that a thing is so, but would acquire no knowledge concerning it."{18} And how aptly St. Thomas could bring to bear the scientific spirit upon scientific work, is well illustrated in his comment upon the various explanations made by Aristotle and others to account for the diverse movements of the planets. He is not satisfied with any of them. These suppositions need not be taken as the true solution; they only seem to explain the facts; by some other way not yet known of men may their motion be explained.{19} Could Charles Darwin, who was a model of scientific modesty, be more guarded?

Finally, note the spirit in which Roger Bacon (1214-1294) laboured. Born out of his due time centuries too early, he finds himself out of place in his age. He loathes Scholasticism as heartily as Descartes. He abuses nearly all of his contemporaries. He abuses Albert; he abuses Thomas; he abuses Bonaventura; he abuses Michael Scott; he loads abuse upon Alexander of Hales. He has no sympathy for "those tractates and summae -- horse-loads composed by many -- and not at all with the most holy text of God."{20} He has the soul of a humanist in his love for philology. He looks upon a thorough study of the languages as the basis of all true scholarship and sound criticism. He has the soul of the Baron of Verulam in his eager desire to promote the study of the physical sciences by means of the inductive method. His pages palpitate with disgust for what was best in his age, and with an insatiable yearning to achieve the scientific conquests of later days. That one thought takes hold of him and absorbs his attention and energy; like all men possessed of an engrossing idea, he can see good nowhere outside of the thought of his heart. He is a child of his own age only in the simplicity and earnestness of his faith and in his burning zeal for religion and morality. He too, as well as Albert and Thomas, knows how to distinguish between authority and reason, and is no less scientific in his method of inquiry. "In every science," he tells us, "the best method must be employed. . . This method consists in placing first in order that which should be first known, the more easy before the more difficult, the general before the particular, the lesser before the greater; one should always study the things that are most useful, for life is short. And science should be so treated as to bring conviction without doubt and clearness without obscurity. But this is impossible without experiment. For we have three modes of knowing; namely, authority, reason, and experiment. Still, authority does not bring with it knowledge unless it is weighed, nor does it of itself give intelligence, but only credulity; for we believe on authority, but we do not receive from authority our understanding of the subject. Nor can reason distinguish between sophism and demonstration, unless we know the conclusion from experience and practice, as I shall prove further on in the experimental sciences. But very few have made use of this method in study, as shall appear below; and therefore secret and most important wisdom has remained hitherto unknown to the majority of learned men."{21} Remember that this passage was penned in the thirteenth century, when men were supposed to do no thinking and merely to swear by Aristotle. Whilst Bacon appreciated Aristotle, and made a careful study of him, he held in slight esteem the translations of translations, or rather the parodies of his writings then so much in vogue. And it is while declaiming against these that he bursts out into an oft-quoted but ill-understood expression: "For my part," he says, "if it were given me to dispose of the books of Aristotle, I would have them all burned; for the study of them only causes loss of time, engenders error, and propagates ignorance beyond anything imaginable."{22} Thus do we find the three greatest and most representative intellects of the age not only thinking in the spirit of real philosophers, but in their writings we actually happen upon the roots of that immense tree of experimental science which so overshadows our own day. "It is," says Pouchet, "two men of the thirteenth century, Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, who conceive it in all its power and fecundity, and to them must we restore the glory of having first indicated it."{23} And if documents speak truly, Aquinas himself was no less practical than the great Franciscan or his own great teacher; for among other books, which, upon the death of Thomas, the University of Paris begs from the Dominican Order, and which he had promised to send them when completed, besides an exposition of the Timaeus of Plato there was a treatise upon the construction of aquaducts and machinery for raising and conducting water.{24} But in good truth these great Schoolmen had a mission far other than that of commenting or imitating Aristotle. If they used the Stagyrite, they also used Plato; and if they used both, it was in accordance with the principle of true philosophy, which Aristotle himself sums up in these words: "We shall at first do well to look into the speculations of others before us, so that if they speak not truly we may not share in the blame attached to them; and if there should be any doctrine common to them and ourselves, we will not stand alone under criticism. It is always pleasant to speak of things in a manner better, or at least not any worse, than others."{25} Children of their age, they accommodated themselves to the cravings and aspirations of their age. They therefore gave themselves to the studies that best satisfied those cravings and aspirations. Even for Roger Bacon -- vehement though he be in denouncing the theological writings of his day -- theological studies have a special fascination. The Arab and the Jew brought Aristotle to the door of the Schoolmen, placed him in their hands, and attempted in his name, with weapons forged in his workshop, to overthrow the doctrines and dogmas of the Church. The Schoolmen also forged weapons in the same workshop, and with them made a scientific defence of the Church, and struggled against the inroads of Arab and Jew for centuries, and routed them as completely from the intellectual field as did Castillian phalanx from the Spanish soil. And when the genius of painting represents St. Thomas in a halo of light emanating from the Godhead and reflected from the writings of Moses, the Evangelists and St Paul on the one hand, and on the other from those of Plato and Aristotle, Averroes beneath him in agony of confusion, his great Commentary overturned and transfixed to earth by a ray from the saint's writings, it but concentrates and epitomizes the contest between the intellectual forces of Christendom and rationalistic Mohammedanism.{26} But neither St. Thomas nor his co-labourers, trained as were their intellects, keen as was their philosophical insight, were mere adepts in speculation. They were earnest men, and theirs was an earnest work. It was a work of explanation and reconciliation of the truths of religion with those of reason; it was a defence both of reason and religion against the rationalism of the day. Theirs is the philosophy of theology. It is the philosophy on which the Church has built her definitions; it is the language in which she explains her dogmas and her doctrines. One who was not of the Church, but who was possessed of the truest and best instincts of the historian, has put the whole question in a nutshell: "It is absurd," says the late Professor Brewer, "to condemn the Schoolmen for their great devotion to Aristotle,{27} as if they had created his authority and not found it established; equally absurd is it to condemn them for dialectical subtleties, when dialectical subtleties were overmatching Christianity. They were the men to show how Christianity was the answer to men's doubts; how Aristotle was to be reconciled with Revelation, not Revelation with Aristotle."{28}

Thus was theirs a work not only of defence, but of reconstruction as well. The Early Fathers, in their writings, and especially in the decrees of the Councils of the Church, contributed to the clear definition and explanation of many of the dogmas of Christianity. But the Greek Schism on the one hand, and the incursions of the barbarian on the other, checked the progress of their work. The Schoolmen took up the scattered shreds and wove them into a complete science of religion. If they used Aristotle, they were only walking in the footsteps and following the counsel of the great teachers who had gone before them. "If" says St. Augustine, "we find that those who are called philosophers should happen to say some things that are true and that can be adapted to our faith, we are justified in using them."{29} The Schoolmen took indeed the literal form of Aristotle, but they gave it a new sense. They breathed into the dry bones that passed down to them among the wrecks of other civilizations, and forthwith the dry bones became a thing of life. Another spirit animates them. The philosophy of the Schoolmen is as different from the philosophy of Aristotle, as the nature of the sturdy oak is from that of the soil in which it is rooted. A cursory comparison of both will reveal to us the intrinsic difference.

{1} The letter of Gregory IX. in 1228, already referred to, is especially strong on this point: "non profectum aliquem auditorum, Ut sic videantur non theodacti, seu theologi, sed potius theophanti" (Raynaud, Ad. Anna?. Baron., tom. i. p. 615). {2} Hauréau, Hist. de la Phil. Schol., tom. i. p. 31; Thurot, De l'Organization de l'Enseignment dans l'Université de Paris au Moyen Age. Paris, 1850, pp. 524 sqq.

{3} For a list of Albert's writings see his biography by Sighart, pp. 452-476, French edition.

{4} "Philosophi proprium est non dicere aliquid nisi cum ratione et causa: cupiditas enim nostra est inquisitio causae omnium rerum naturalium, et consideratio proprietatum et differentiarum earum: quia talia in physica convenit nos dicere docendo, et convenit aliis talia a nobis audire" (Lib.. ii. Meteororum, tract. ii. cap. i. p. 43).

{5} Lib. i. De Coelo & Mundo, tract. iv. cap. x. p. 75.

{6} "Qui credit Aristotelem fuisse Deum, ille debet credere quod nunquam erravit. Si autem credit ipsum esse hominem, tunc procul dubio errare potuit sicut et nos" (Lib. viii. Physicorum, tract. i. cap. xiv. Opp., tom. ii. p. 332).

{7} Opera, tom. i. p. 238, edit. 1651. Sighart says: "He declares in a hundred places: 'Here Aristotle was wrong'" (Vie d'Albert le Grand, p. 482).

{8} J. Barthélemy St. Hilaire, La Logique d'Aristote, tom. ii. p. 225.

{9} Langius Monachus Cizensis, in Chron. Ad An., 1258. See Emile Charles, Roger Bacon, p. 144.

{10} Still from Albert have we received that useful term affinity in modern chemistry. See Pouchet, Histoire des Sciences Naturelles au Moyen Age, p. 310.

{11} Cosmos, vol. ii. p. 618, tr. E. C. Otté. Bohn's Library.

{12} Examen Critique de l'Histoire de la Géographie du Nouveau Continent, tom. i. p. 55 note.

{13} Ibid. Humboldt calls his Liber Cosmographicus de Natura Locorum a species of Physical Geography.

{14} Summa Theol., I. i. quaest. ii. art. ii. ad. 1.

{15} Summa Contra Gentiles, lib. i. cap. ix. p. 6.

{16} Super Boëtium, De Trinitate Opusc., lxx. quaest. ii. a, iii. c.

{17} Summa Theol., I. i. quaest. i.. art. viii. ad. 2.

{18} Quodlibetum, IV. art. xviii. c. p. 517.

{19} This remarkable passage is so truly in the spirit of modern scientific thought that we give the full text: "Illorum autem suppositiones quas adiovenerunt, non est necessarium esse veras: licet enim talibus suppositionibus factis appareant solvere, non tamen oportet dicere has suppositiones esse veras quia forte secundum aliquem alium modum nondum ab hominibus comprehensum, apparentia circa stellas salvantur. Aristoteles tamen utitur hujusmodi suppositionibus ad qualitatem motilum tamquam veris" (In lib. ii. De Coelo, lect. xvii. p. 120).

{20} Opera Minora, preface, p. lvii. Rolls Series. London, 1859.

{21} Opera Minora: Compendium Studii, cap. i. p. 397.

{22} See Emile Charles, Roger Bacon, pp. 103, 104.

{23} Histoire des Sciences Naturelles, p. 204; cf. Humboldt, Cosmos, vol. ii. pp. 396, 397.

{24} "Caeterum sperantes, quod obtemperetis Nobis cum effectu, in hac petitione devota humiliter supplicamus, ut cum quidam scripta ad Philosophiam pertinentia et spectantia Parisius inchoata ab eo, in suo recesso reliquerit imperfecta, et ipsum credamus, ubi translatus fuerat, complevisse, Nobis benevolentiâ vestrae cito communicari procuretis, et specialiter super Librum Simplicii, super Libros de Coelo et Mundo, et expositionem Timaei Platonis. Ac de Aquarum-conductibus et Ingeniis erigendis: de quibus Nobis mittendis speciali promissione fecerat mentionem" (Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Par., tom. iii. p. 408).

{25} Metaphysics, XIII. i. 1.

{26} Picture in the Church of St. Catherine's at Pisa, executed about 1340 by Francesco Traini. Orcagna, about 1335, under the inspiration of Dante, gives a marked place to Averroës in his great masterpiece in the Campo Santo of the same city.

{27} We have seen how that devotion was anything but slavish.

{28} Monumenta Franciscana, Rolls Series, vol. i. Preface, p. iii.

{29} "Philosophi autem qui vocantur, si qua forte vera et fidei nostae accommodata dixerunt . . . . non solum formidanda non sunt, sed ab eis etiam tanquam injustis possessoribus in usum nostrum vindicanda" (De Doctrin. Christian., I. ii. cap. 40).

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