Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



THIS outline will enable us to form some conception of the relations of Aristotle to the Christian Church. Let us review those relations from our present vantage-ground. A great philosopher comes among men. He reduces thought and the expression of thought to a science. He teaches the secret of method; he shows how to define and to divide; he initiates into the mode of observing and classifying the facts of nature, and of constructing the natural sciences. The wonderful grasp of his genius takes hold of the human intellect in the East and in the West, and marks out for it the grooves in which it shall think and the very terms and forms of expression it shall use for all time. Other geniuses may charm the human intellect, and be suggestive of thought and systems of thought, but it is only Aristotle who has been able to impose upon humanity his very forms of thought and expression to that extent that they are to-day as much part of our thinking as the idioms of our speech. And there is no department of human science to which his dominion does not extend. His least hint runs along lines of study age after age till we find it finally blossoming into some great discovery. He states, for instance, that this world is not very large; that there is only one sea between the country at the Pillars of Hercules and India; and that communication between their coasts is neither incredible nor impossible.{1} That stray remark is transmitted down the ages until it falls into the hands of a Columbus, and forthwith it shapes his destiny and leads to the finding of a new world. Here is how Columbus speaks "Aristotle says that this world is small, that there is little water, and that one could easily pass from Spain into Media. Avouruyz{2} confirms this idea, and Cardinal Peter d'Aliaco{3} cites it, supporting this opinion, which is conformable to that of Seneca, by saying that Aristotle might know many secret things of this world on account of Alexander the Great."{4} Thus it is that even America cannot be discovered without having connected with it the name of Aristotle.

The Church, in her mission of renovating the world and raising it up into a higher plane of thought and action, makes use of the human instruments at her command. She is not exclusive. Her activity extends to all classes -- to the ignorant and the learned, to the rich and the poor. To each does she speak in the language each best understands. And in speaking to the human intelligence, she has made use of that language most clearly expressed by the human intelligence, and has drawn from that philosophy which has left the most profound impress upon human thought. In her teachings concerning the sacraments she has applied the Aristotelian doctrine of Matter and Form, of Substance and Accidence. In her moral and intellectual philosophy, when speaking of the human soul and its faculties, of virtues and vices, of habits and passions, she has adopted Aristotle's definitions and divisions of subjects. And thus has the language of this Pagan philosopher become the medium by which the most sacred teachings and the most awful mysteries of the Church are conveyed to the human understanding. Nor would Aristotle take amiss this use of his writings. He realized the sacred ministry of philosophy. He considered it the most Divine and the most elevated of all subjects, since it treats of God and of things Divine; "for," he adds, "according to the avowal of the whole human race, God is the Cause and Principle of Things."{5}

Indeed, it is noteworthy in those days of secularization, when men in all departments of science seek to do without God, even to the ignoring of His very existence, how scrupulously the Pagan philosopher, in all his studies, keeps ever in mind the Divinity. Is he dealing with first principles of science and thought? As the crowning-point of his speculations, back of all elementary truths, he discerns and acknowledges the Living Truth Who is their source.{6} Is he contemplating the starry heavens? He reads in their motion, as clearly as the Psalmist ever read, the resplendent glory of their Prime-Mover. God is the end for which they exist; He is the Life of all life, the Mover of all motion, and the Eternal Source of all time.{7} Is he fathoming the problems of time and space, of motion and rest, of the finite and the infinite? Again, in his gropings after light, through the mists of those obscure questionings, rays of the Divinity penetrate, and he clearly recognizes the Being Who is without parts, indivisible, without magnitude, immeasurable; he finds God.{8} Is he investigating the wonders of the animal kingdom? He does so with an enthusiasm and a reverence that raise him above whatever may seem offensive or loathsome to the senses. In the formation, the design and the function of the least organ, he reads somewhat of the power and the beauty of Nature. Throughout the whole domain of animal life he finds no place for chance. Every organ has its purpose. From the contemplation of the fitness and harmony which he perceives in all parts of the animal kingdom, he ascends to the Divinity that determines their various functions.{9} Be the subject of his studies what it may, it invariably ends in a hymn of praise to the Godhead. Surely, modern thinkers might well hesitate before censuring a religious attitude of mind constantly practised by the greatest intellect of antiquity.

But the philosophy that the Church has sanctioned -- the philosophy of the Schools as expressed by their greatest and most representative genius, St. Thomas Aquinas -- is a far different system of philosophy from that enunciated by the Stagyrite. It accepts from him his methods, his definitions, his terms, whatever is conformable to the Divine teachings, and it supplements them with other truths and other conceptions of truth more in consonance with the Divine mission of the Church. It is deeply rooted in the Early Fathers and in the decrees of the Councils. The outward form is Aristotelian, but the inner spirit is that of Christianity. It is this spirit that gives it life and power and extends its influence far beyond the domain of technical language. It is by reason of this spirit, that, to use the words of another, "Christian philosophy is the basis of our social existence; it nourishes the roots of our laws, and by it do we live far more than by ideas saved from the wreck of the Greek and Roman world."{10} The Church makes use of speculation only so far as it is essential to ground her doctrines and her practices in human reason. But it is not by means of speculation that she has renewed the face of the earth. It is rather by the seeds of Faith, which she has sown, and which have given forth a rich harvest of zeal, devotion, sanctity, and the edifying practice of every virtue. Philosophy is cold comfort under affliction, or want, or misery, or in the face of a great calamity. That which was best amongst the Stoics -- the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius -- was only a tonic bracing up the whole man to meet death or anticipate its coming by suicide. It taught the resignation of despair. That which is most probing among the moderns -- the philosophy of Schopenhauer -- finds nothing in life worth living for, and has consolation only for the man who is disgusted with living and resolved upon terminating his own career. It also teaches resignation, but it is likewise the resignation of despair. And Christianity inculcates resignation, but it is the resignation of love, and hope, and faith, awaiting the future, and knowing that all things are in the hands of a Divine Father. The one is the resignation of death; the other is a life-giving, active, hopeful, and saving resignation. Philosophy may speculate; Christianity acts. Speculation may console a few philosophers of leisure; but the soothing hand of Christian charity, nerved by the love of God and the love of man, and the consoling voice of religion, moved by the spirit of Faith, can alone revive expiring hopes, strengthen wavering resolutions for good, bring calm to the troubled mind, raise a soul out of despondency, and cause man to suffer and endure in a prayerful spirit all the pain that life may bring, knowing that in so doing he is best securing his individual perfection and sanctification, and best fulfilling the end for which he was created.

{1} De Coelo, lib. ii. cap. xiv. 15.

{2} Averroës.

{3} Peter d'Ailly.

{4} See C. Jourdain, De l'Influence d'Aristote et de ses Interprètes sur la découverte du Nouveau-Monde, p. 29. Paris, 1861.

{5} Metaphysics, II. ii. § 20.

{6} Met., XII., cap. vii., viii.

{7} De Coelo, lib. i. cap. ix.

{8} Naturales Auscultationes, ]ib. viii. cap. xv. 6.

{9} De Partibus Animalium, lib. i. cap. v.

{10} Troplong, De l'Influence du Christianisme sur le Droit Civil des Romains, p. 364. Paris, 1843.

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