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The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

1930 to 1932
University of Aberdeen

In Etienne Gilson’s series of twenty lectures, he aims to show that mediæval philosophy is the Christian philosophy par excellence.

Lecture I asks, How can a philosophy be Christian? Philosophy, qua philosophy, depends on proper method in the use of reason in light of self-evident principles. If a philosophy accords with Christianity, it seems it must do so because of its apparent truth independent of Christian considerations. The Augustinian challenge is presented: such a philosophy must lack intrinsic Christian character. If it is supposed to be true because it is Christian, then it ceases to be philosophy, properly speaking.

Lecture II turns toward an exposition of the concept of Christian philosophy. Gilson examines the view of Christianity as religion and not philosophy, since it provides the means for salvation, which, according to a certain view, no philosophy is capable of doing. Turning to Anselm’s famous formula, ‘A Faith Seeking to Understand’, Gilson calls Christian ‘every philosophy which, although keeping the two orders formerly distinct, nevertheless considers Christian revelation as an indispensable auxiliary to reason’.

Lecture III examines the concept of the necessary Supreme Being in the philosophy of the Middle Ages. According to Gilson, the views of God as the necessary perfect being found in Aquinas, Augustine, St Bonaventure, St Anselm and Duns Scotus are all owed to what was revealed to Moses, which was unavailable to the Hellenics. All Christian and mediæval philosophy, claims Gilson, is unanimous in affirming the metaphysical primacy of being, and the identity of essence and existence in God. The following lecture then moves to an examination of beings and their contingence. He shows how the mediæval view has observable similarities in its view of the contingent beings to that of the Hellenics, but more importantly it displays radical development on the basis of its knowledge of the Christian God.

Lecture V proceeds to examine the use of analogy and concepts of causality and finality in the mediævals. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is one that Christian philosophers must comprehend in light of a unified conception of God’s intellect and will, and the possibility of an end to God’s will. Gilson defends the mediæval use of anthropomorphic reasoning and explores the use of analogues between God and creation in the Christian Middle Ages.

Lectures VI–VII examine Christian optimism and the glory of God. Gilson proceeds to dismantle the common view that Christianity is radically pessimistic in light of the apparent widespread asceticism in the Middle Ages. Through analysis of Augustine and Aquinas, Gilson shows how the mediævals understood the goodness of creation and corrupted nature in relation to the goodness of God. The next lecture then begins with an account of the development of the mediævals’ understanding of created beings. Gilson shows how the main lines of Christian philosophy converge on the view that while created contingent beings are created for their own glorification, this is subsidiary to the final end of God’s glorification.

In Lecture VIII, Gilson discusses the Christian idea of providence and its distinctive development in mediæval philosophy from its historical antecedents in Plato.

These thoughts lead Gilson into a discussion of Christian anthropology in Lecture IX. Through Averroes, Augustine, Avicenna and finally St Thomas, Gilson presents an account of the Christian philosophers’ attempts to understand the unity of soul and body in a manner that does justice to the importance of both in Christian belief. Lecture X continues to explore these accounts and attempts to do full justice to the Christian concept of a person, that is, an individual. In Plato, individuals are accidents, while the idea of Man is the true being. In Aristotle, the species Man is individuated, but individual men are only distinguished by their accidents and not by any essence. In the case of angels, the Thomistic account accords with this, but admits that individual angels are each distinct species. Men, it seems, are individuated by matter. Thus, the person is, according to Christian thinkers, the individual of a rational nature.

Gilson’s second series of lectures begins with an examination of Christian Socratism, or the philosophic—and religious—tradition of self-knowledge in Christian philosophy. Quoting Bosuet, he states, ‘Wisdom lies in knowing God and knowing oneself. From knowledge of self we rise to knowledge of God.’ The Christian philosophers of course studied the body, but the philosophical content of their enquiry into man is to be found in their study of the soul, for it is the soul that bears the divine image.

Lecture XII moves to mediæval thought on the knowledge of things. Gilson begins by noting that the Christian philosopher is, in his epistemology, a realist, ‘if not by definition at least by a sort of vocation’. For Christian philosophers, the world of creation must be intelligible, since it is the necessary ‘starting-point from which to rise to the kingdom of God’. The next lecture examines Thomist and Scotist accounts of the intellect and its object and their attempts to show why God is not the natural object of the intellect of man, given that for the Christian philosophers man is a union of soul and body, and that his knowledge must start from the sensible. Knowledge of God is thus a divine gift.

Lecture XIV considers how the philosophers of the Middle Ages gave accounts of love and its object. St Bernard thought that human love begins in egoism, and Gilson looks to how the mediævals attempted to relate love of self and love of God. Drawing on the fact that the creation of beings by being itself is an act of love, Gilson develops an understanding of the mediævals’ doctrine of Christian love.

Lecture XV, on free will and Christian liberty, begins with Aristotle’s account of liberty as the rational will which is the principle of its own operations. The idea of man’s freedom was by no means an invention of or peculiar to Christian thought, and the Christian philosophers had to account for it in such a way as to synthesise conflicting notions of indetermination and rational determination.

Lecture XVI discusses of Christian law and morality, aligning the Christian concept of morality closer to Plato rather than Aristotle, and suggests how the mediævals accounted for sin from weakness through to deliberate revolt against the divinely willed order. Gilson ends by suggesting, ‘Kant’s ethics are but a Christian ethic cut loose from the Christian metaphysic that justifies it’. The next lecture examines the genesis of the notions of intention and conscience in morality as conceived by the Christian philosophers. Gilson shows how ‘between Greek ethics and Kantian moralism stand the morals of Christianity transcending and reconciling both’.

The final three lectures examine the concepts of nature, history and philosophy held in the Middle Ages. In Lecture XVIII, Gilson explains how the Christian philosophers understood nature and miracle in such a way as to allow for an intelligible notion of providence that retains contingence and avoids the Greek errors of radical indetermination or fate. In the subsequent lecture, Gilson attempts to refute the common view of the Middle Ages as lacking any sense of history. He suggests that even if the mediævals lacked a historical sense, they must be credited with a philosophy of history as a collective progress of humanity toward an end. His lecture on history ends with a reflection on the collapse of Christian philosophy, since the search for truth wound up being neglected owing to ‘barren controversies about the formulae in which it was to be expressed’.

In Lecture XX, he re-asserts his central thesis that there was indeed a mediæval philosophy that had Christian inspiration as its defining essence; it was not a mere re-editing and misunderstanding of Plato and Aristotle but rather built upon and re-cast much of Greek thought in light of the Christian spirit.

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen