Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

Part I: The Age of Augustine

Chapter I

Faith and Philosophy

In a witty inaugural lecture C. S. Lewis spoke of the difficulties that attend dividing history into periods.{1} With less wit than embarrassment we call attention to the fact that the period of philosophy whose history we hope to sketch in the present volume requires that we begin by saying something of a number of men who lived before Plotinus, whose philosophy provided the final discussion of our Volume One. We do have, as it happens, a reason for excluding those men before and including them now, a reason we alluded to when we made the briefest of mentions of Philo Judaeus. (Cf. Vol. I, p. 341.) That reason is this: all of the men who are included in this volume were heavily influenced in their philosophical thinking by revealed religion. Indeed, so decisive is this influence that it is only gradually that anything like an independent charter is reissued to philosophy, and, after its issuance, it is seemingly the rare thinker who pursues philosophy in any independent fashion. The men we shall be considering are believers, religious men, who claim to have an access to truths got not by strenuous intellectual effort but by the gratuitous gift of God. In short, their faith gives them answers at the outset to many of the questions that the pagan philosopher posed. It may well be asked how such men can be considered figures in the history of philosophy, and indeed for centuries the great stretch of time from Plotinus to Descartes was regarded as an exclusively theological period of no interest to the historian of philosophy, at least in any substantive sense. This assessment has not completely disappeared today.

Prior to addressing ourselves to the problem just foreshadowed -- the possible coexistence of faith and rational thought -- in the period that interests us, it may be useful to allay our fears in a generic way by recalling an aspect of ancient thought we were concerned to underline in our first volume. Ancient philosophy did not spring full- formed from the brow of Thales nor were its problems got by a free and unfettered gaze at the natural world. From its inception ancient philosophy was theological in orientation -- the very term suggests the pursuit of a wisdom which consists in knowledge of the divine -- and this orientation can be looked upon as the bequest of mythical thought which both antedated and to some degree was concomitant with the origin of philosophy. Mythical thought had become, as it were, institutionalized in literature as well as in the official religion, and ancient philosophers can be regarded as pursuing their task with an eye on these institutionalized attitudes. It would be difficult to say how tongue in cheek is Plato's statement that the poet is a vehicle of something like a divine revelation, or how unserious is Aristotle's notion that mythical tales are allegories of profound philosophical thought which alone survive in fallow periods. Both men, though Aristotle to a far far less degree, were prone to treat the poetic statement as an allegory of a straightforward literal truth.

Both men, too, and in this they were tributaries of earlier efforts, saw their philosophies as a replacement of popular religion, almost we might say as a better kind of religion: a way of life, a total commitment to the ultimate acquisition of knowledge of the divine. Differences there were between these two giants of ancient thought and certain it is that ancient philosophy is not perfectly homogeneous, but it is nonetheless a safe generalization that ancient philosophy did not proceed, either in fact or in desire, in complete isolation from ancient religion. There was a quarrel between them, to be sure, but it was a quarrel between a dreamt-of norm and a degenerate instance.

Viewing ancient philosophy from this angle, we can see a slight similarity between the pagan philosopher and the man of faith who began to meditate on the content of his beliefs. However, a fundamental difference can be introduced. The Christian thinker did not regard his faith as something in need of a firm rational footing, as if what be had accepted out of trust in the word of God must finally be deduced by him from the evidence of things seen. This is a generalization and therefore a simplification; one of the major motifs of the study before us is contained in that assertion, and there will be many variations on it. What will emerge in the golden period of medieval thought is the hard-won conviction that it is faith which measures natural reason and that it is eminently reasonable that this be so. For the Christian it is philosophy which must first be justified, not the faith, and if this period opens with men called Apologists, men who defend the faith it is the addressee of the apologia, not its writer, who is thought to be in need of what is said. It is almost as if the difficulties are thought to reside only in the mind of him who has not the faith.

But of course since the recipient of faith is a man, a rational creature, it is as right as it is inevitable that he will meditate on revealed doctrines, apply natural reason to them, and that this effort will have intramural ramifications and benefits. For one thing, it is necessary that believers retain a clear and accurate knowledge of what has been proposed for their faith. The orthodox expression of the content of revelation is something which, from the beginning, is attained against the background of the heterodox, the heretical understanding. It is in this sense that there is and must be a development of Christian doctrine, a gradual clarification in the light of hitherto unthought-of difficulties and interpretations of what the true sense of Scripture is. This true sense is not had merely by pointing at biblical passages; it is the interpretation of the passages that is at issue, and the orthodox interpretation, as much as the heterodox, will consist in bringing to bear on the documents of revelation an apparatus of interpretation which is not itself revealed. From the beginnings of the Christian period there is fairly widespread agreement that this apparatus is something which can be provided by philosophy.

We do not mean to suggest that there is at the outset a clear understanding of philosophy as an autonomous and legitimate activity. Far from it. Tertullian (c.160 - c.240), one of the first Christian writers to present his thought in Latin, had little but contempt for pagan philosophy. For him philosophy was the locus of error, Christianity the summation of truth, and what has truth to learn from error? It may have been this contempt for natural reason that led Tertullian to hyperbolic excess in the claim that the truths of Christianity are absurd.

A far more widespread attitude was that expressed by Eusebius (c.265 - c.339) in the title of a book, Praeparatio evangelica. Ancient wisdom, pagan philosophy, should be regarded as struggling toward the truth which has been revealed whole and entire, once and for all, by Christ. Christianity is the true philosophy, the telos toward which antiquity tended. St. Justin Martyr (c.100 - 164) was an early exponent of this view; St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c.219) was another; St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335 - c.395), who was to have such influence on John Scotus Erigena, yet another. Men who felt as they did can be expected to show a sympathetic interest in the writings of the philosophers and, generally speaking, they do exhibit such an interest. By the same token, of course, such an attitude implies that philosophy, in the Greek sense, is an historical moment that has been surpassed, since whatever there is of good in ancient philosophy is contained in an eminent and perfect fashion in Christianity.

Before describing further the thought of men who saw some positive good in ancient philosophy, it might be well to indicate how they can he grouped together. First, there are the Greek Apologists, the most important of whom are Justin Martyr, already mentioned, St. Irenaeus (born c.126), and Hippolytus (died c.236). Second, note must be made of Clement of Alexandria and Origen (c.185 - 254) of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Of the Latin Apologists, Tertullian, Arnobius (c.260 - c.327), and Lactantius (c.250 - c.325) are the most important. Other men of importance in what we may call the pre-Augustinian period are St. Athanasius (died 373), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (died 390), St. John Chrysostom (died 406), St. Basil (died 379), and his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Justin Martyr's own route to Christianity is presented by him in such a way that it exhibits the historical process writ small. As a pagan he went to philosophers in the expectation that they would speak to him of God, and though he was dissatisfied with the Stoic, the Peripatetic, and the Pythagorean he encountered, his needs were met when he came under the tutelage of a Platonist. Here at last he had the sense of being introduced to immaterial things, and in his efforts to contemplate the Ideas he half expected to see God. He then describes an encounter with a Christian who casts doubt on salient features of Plato's thought: his views on the nature of creation, the soul, and its immortality. The man speaks with such assurance that Justin asks him where he has learned so much, and he is directed to the Scriptures. Upon reading them, his soul was set aflame, and he concludes that he has found the safe and profitable philosophy. Besides seeing Christianity as the true object of the philosophical quest, Justin points out similarities between statements of Scripture and the theories of Plato. Justin felt that the reason for such similarities was that the Greeks had borrowed ideas from the Jews. His suspicion that Greek philosophy had been influenced by the Old Testament was shared by Clement of Alexandria, as it would be by St. Augustine.

Clement, however, held that the pagan thinkers were influenced by the divine Logos in somewhat the same way that Moses and the Jewish prophets had been influenced. Pagan philosophy, like the Old Law, was a preparation for Christianity. Clement is one of the first to insist that philosophy may also provide an instrument for understanding the faith. With the aid of philosophy the truths of faith can be approached in an effort to understand them. The result is a negative rather than a positive knowledge, Clement feels, thus opening a question which will be asked again and again by later Christian thinkers. What is the import of the various names attributed to God? Can the things of this world provide us with an access to what God is? Clement's answers here are cautious, as most subsequent answers will be, and it is possible to see him anticipating the negative theology which is developed by Gregory of Nyssa and later by the Pseudo-Dionysius and which, mediated to some degree by Scotus Erigena, is continued in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and beyond.

Origen exhibits some of the dangers for the faith that can follow attempts to reconcile it with philosophy, for he reads into Scripture the Neoplatonic view that creation is a necessary process, an emanation from the Divine Monad that could not not have taken place. Origen also maintained that men are in effect fallen angels, their souls being imprisoned in bodies because of some sin prior to birth. Furthermore, perhaps influenced by the Neoplatonic doctrine of return, which complements emanation, he held that ultimately all creatures would be reconciled with God, thus denying the eternity of punishment for the wicked.

Gregory of Nyssa allows the rightness of bringing philosophical conceptions to bear on revealed truths but insists that an interpretation, to be valid, must be consonant with Scripture. There is, indeed, considerable optimism on the part of Gregory as to the reach of reason, for he seems to suggest that it is possible to establish the Trinity of Persons in God on the basis of natural reason alone. There will be later attempts along the same lines, attempts which betray an unorthodox view and which tend to blur the difference between the realms of faith and reason.

Generally speaking, those of the early Fathers who look with favor on pagan philosophy, particularly that of Plato, see it as a way station to Christianity, which is the true philosophy. Moreover, when they find sympathetic doctrines in pagan thinkers, they are inclined to treat these as borrowings from the Old Testament. Finally, the utility of philosophy as an instrument for interpreting the Scriptures and clarifying the nature of belief is stressed. It is this use of philosophy to explicate and defend the faith which constitutes theology according to a definition which will emerge; thus, the question arises whether philosophy is considered an autonomous pursuit by the Christian. This is a difficulty which crops up repeatedly in the period whose history we are attempting to sketch. It has often been said that during the Middle Ages it is the theologians who do such philosophizing as is done and that by and large they do so as an adjunct to developing their theology. Philosophical contributions there may be, it will be said, but they are made ad hoc, with a view to their theological utility. Consequently, a man's original philosophy, as well as what he borrows, is to be found scattered through his theological writings, and it becomes difficult to determine what organizational principles we can use to construct a system of these fragments should they be extracted from their theological context.

There is some justice to this observation, but the outlook is not as bleak as it implies. We will find many philosophical works in the period before us, and we will often find more than a hint as to the structure of the philosophical system to which fragmentary contributions are made in theological writings. Moreover, there will be many commentaries on ancient philosophical works which are their own kind of contribution to philosophy. There is, in short, a great deal of autonomous philosophy in the medieval period.

Nowadays it is particularly necessary to insist on this. From many quarters come statements which, if true, would call for an ironic reversal of recent assessments of the medieval period. As has been mentioned, until fairly recent times it was fashionable to dismiss the Middle Ages as a period when only theology was done and no philosophy. Much careful scholarship has made clear that there were any number of philosophies maintained in the Middle Ages. This variety told against the view that medieval world outlooks were simply explications of what was believed, since if the matter were that simple, we would expect but one philosophy, not several. The Middle Ages thus slowly gained recognition as a period when much vigorous philosophizing took place. Of late, however, some men whose work had much to do with this recognition have been asserting that medieval philosophy cannot be considered autonomous, that not only did it flourish in a theological context but it is inseparable from that context. If there was philosophy in medieval times, this position would have it, it was a Christian philosophy. Presumably, a major note of Christian philosophy is that one must be a Christian to accept its arguments. If this is the implication, the only conclusion must be that this is not what is meant by philosophy -- least of all in the golden period of medieval thought.

Generalities are difficult on the threshold of our task, but the tone of the preceding paragraph will indicate our lack of sympathy with the latter-day notion of Christian philosophy. If that phrase accurately described the philosophical contribution of the Middle Ages, we would see little point in writing the present book. Our conviction is that the Middle Ages saw a genuine flourishing of philosophical thought. There are peaks and valleys, of course; social and political upheavals rendered any unbroken development impossible -- but that is true of any period in the history of philosophy. What will particularly interest us in this, as in the other volumes of this series, are the giants of the period. As we move toward the thirteenth century, we will discern an evolving clarity as to the relation between philosophy and theology and the limits of the two. Quite unabashedly we will find the highest peak on the medieval terrain in the thirteenth century, particularly in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In our treatment of his doctrine we will attempt to underline the fact that his is a philosophical as well as a theological achievement, that in his thought we find the clearest and most lasting answer to the puzzles we have seen emerging so far in the present chapter. There is no need to discount the Christian faith of medieval thinkers, or to deny its encompassing influence on whatever they did, to maintain that throughout the period there is a striving toward the position which reaches its full clarity in Aquinas: that philosophy is independent and autonomous. A kind of praeparatio thomistica, if you will. If we take Thomas as the telos of this development, we are better able to appraise his predecessors, just as his predecessors give the clue to the comprehensive and synthetic nature of his philosophizing.

Much could be gained from a close and thorough study of the early Christian writers we have mentioned in this chapter. However, given the nature of our objective, we turn now to the thought of Augustine, who is beyond contest the greatest thinker of the early Church.

{1} C. S. Lewis, De descriptione temporum (Cambridge, 1955).

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