Published in A Thomistic Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Etienne Gilson, edited by Peter Redpath (Value Books Series; Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), 177-91. 

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200, 3 D15c15mb15r 2001

   www.moreC.com/schall

 

“POSSESSED OF BOTH A REVELATION AND A REASON”

 

                  “If ... we learn from medieval theologians what is faith in an objective truth and what is an objective philosophical knowledge, we shall find ourselves possessed of both a Revelation and a Reason.  There then will be something to harmonize, and anyone attempting to do it will end at last in meeting the real problem.”

                                                                         – Etienne Gilson, Richards Lecture, University of Virginia, 1937.1

 

                  “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others.  The underlying reason for this reluctance is that, even when it engages theology, philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods....  At the deepest level, the autonomy which philosophy enjoys is rooted in the fact that reason is by its nature oriented to truth and is equipped moreover with the means necessary to arrive at truth.  A philosophy conscious of this as its ‘constitutive status’ cannot but respect the demands and the data of revealed truth.”

                                                                                                                                     – John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1998, #49.

 

                  “On this very morning, Monday, June 11, 1950, I returned to the writing of this article after reading in a current Parisian daily the following words: ‘The Church possesses a philosophical doctrine that is proper to her, that to make Christians that are subject to her teaching, this is what the Church requires before anything else.’  No, the Church does not have a ‘philosophical’ doctrine that is proper to her, but she has a faith that is proper to her....”

                                                                                                                                        – Etienne Gilson, “Wisdom and Time.”2

 

I.

 

                  In the summer of 1926, Etienne Gilson was invited to teach summer school at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.  This was his first visit to the United States.  His friend, Professor Albert G. A. Balz, had invited him to give two lecture courses, one “The Development of Thought from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries,” the second, “The Evolution of French Thought since the Sixteenth Century.”3  Gilson, haltingly learning English at the time, seems to have enjoyed this visit and these students.  When he came to give the Richards Lecture in Charlottesville in 1937, his “Foreword” specifically recalls these earlier summer school students, who “helped me through a difficult task.”  One can hardly overestimate the debt that American and Canadian scholarship owes to all those students and faculty who helped Gilson become familiar with academic life and language on these shores.

                  Balz had suggested that the theme for the Richards Lecture might be “Scripture and Authority in Medieval Thought.”  However, Gilson had something else in mind. 

                  This subject (reason and revelation in the middle ages) allowed Gilson to return to the    challenging theme of double truth associated with the much-maligned Siger of Brabant.  He had dealt with the theme once before (“La doctrine de la double vérité,” in Etudes de philosophie médiévale. Strasbourg, 1931) and was anxious to try again in the light of his own The Unity of Philosophical Experience and especially of (Jacques) Maritain’s Distinguer pour unier, which had made a strong attempt to bring faith and knowledge into organic unity.4

The Richards Lecture is startling in its scope and in its concise brevity.  Indeed, in the light of its treatment of Muslim thought and of what happens to philosophy itself or theology when either declares its own absolute autonomy, Gilson’s book remains remarkably contemporary. 

                  “You will not civilize a tribe of Bedouins by teaching them metaphysics,” Gilson soberly quipped in 1937.5  Needless to say, this very issue has not been completely resolved even yet.  Presumably, Gilson had no objection to teaching metaphysics to natives of any sort, even academic American ones, if it were possible, but he was quite clear in practice that something more than pure metaphysics was first needed, a sort of perambula metaphysicae.  One only needs to recall here the reason given in The Crito for Socrates’ not accepting banishment to Thessaly, to an uncivilized kingdom, namely that one requires a certain sophisticated civilization to talk metaphysics in the first place, otherwise the philosopher is a mere spectacle for the entertainment of the barbarian king and his companions (45c). 

                  What Gilson brings up in the Richards Lecture is the very nature of metaphysics in Islam and, more particularly, since the Bedouins are not philosophers, though Avicenna and Averroes are, of the revelation of Allah, of the nature of this Allah expressed in philosophical terms.  The problem of the “two truths,” of a truth of reason and a truth of revelation that can contradict each other, remains among us as the background to our current world-wide political turmoil.  Rereading the Richards Lecture more than six decades after it was originally given brings up in a graphic manner the often obscure relationship between the politician and the philosopher, a relationship that was, of course, at the heart of philosophy itself as the life and death of Socrates continually teaches us.  The problem of Christian martyrs in Islamic countries is not totally unrelated to this same question.6

                  And what may be an issue even more profound  than that of the philosopher and the politician, is the relation of revelation to theologians who seek to interpret revelation solely in terms of this world and its closed ideologies or philosophies.  Indeed, the question is more to the fore in efforts to achieve all the ends of Christian revelation, ie, salvation, without any influence of this same revelation, without any reference to its doctrine or practice.7  Gilson understood what was at stake:   “To any sincere believer who is at the same time a true philosopher, the slightest opposition between his faith and his reason is a sure sign that something is the matter with his philosophy.”8  If, by contrast, we can define theological “modernity,” we might say that it is when the slightest opposition between faith and reason occurs, we think that there is something wrong with theology or faith, not our reason. 

                  “We are compelled to distinguish political philosophy from political theology,” Leo Strauss wrote in 1959.  “By political theology, we understand political teachings which are based on divine revelation.  Political philosophy is limited to what is accessible to the unassisted human mind.”9  We are equally “compelled” to wonder, on reading these lines in the light of Gilson, whether we are forbidden to compare, relate, and reflect, once we have brought them out, on the political teachings found in revelation with what “unassisted reason” comes up with?   Surely, without violating the integrity of either revelation or reason, we are not “compelled” to let the two bodies of knowledge simply sit there unrelated?  This bringing them together would involve two questions:  “to what extent can we ‘understand’ what we do not believe?”  And “why is what we do not believe sometimes, at least, in agreement with what we learn by our ‘unassisted reason’?”10  And if we cannot ask such questions, why not?  We are, in fact, “compelled” to ask them.

                  How one might confront these latter questions of faith and reason might well still have something to do with Aristotle, the Philosopher, as St. Thomas called him.  Indeed, in his discussion of Averroes, Gilson pointed out that philosophy was not necessarily to be identified as such with everything Aristotle held, as Averroes seemed to think.  Averroes assumed this identity between philosophy and the literal Aristotelian teaching because he considered his own revelation, that of Islam, to be at best a myth for the guidance of the masses of Bedouins and others who could not be philosophers.11  On the other hand, “Thomas Aquinas would follow Aristotle when he was right, but no further, and because he was right.”12  Since philosophy itself was not identical with Aristotle, even though Aristotle was the greatest of the philosophers and had it mostly right, it would be possible to learn at least some philosophical things indirectly from revelation when one came to consider the truth of Aristotle’s propositions as they related or did not relate to this same revelation.. 

                  Moreover, as much of the modern world was built on a specific philosophical rejection of Aristotle, it seems incumbent to reconsider Aristotle precisely because of the relativism and skepticism that have come to dominate modern philosophy in his absence.  “The very rise of so-called modern science and modern philosophy,” Henry Veatch well observed,

was originally associated  – certainly in the minds of men like Galileo and Descartes –  with a determined repudiation of Aristotle: it was precisely his influence which it was thought necessary to destroy, root and branch, before what we now know as science and philosophy in the modern mode could get off the ground.  Accordingly, could it be that as so many of us today are turning our backs so bitterly on all the hitherto boasted achievements of modern culture, we might find ourselves inclined, indeed perhaps even compelled, to return to the Aristotelianism that both antedated and was considered antithetical to the whole modern experiment in knowledge and in living?13

Veatch too was “compelled.”  There is a double irony here.   It is precisely those things in Aristotle that needed correcting in order for the valid parts of modern science to be discovered that came about because of the influence of revelation on our understanding of the world.  The themes of a definite beginning, of a stable set of secondary causes, and of the need to investigate empirically that made science possible are ideas that owed their origins to revelation.14  Thomas’ agreeing with Aristotle “when he was right” and not just because he was Aristotle serves in its own way to distinguish

understandings not susceptible to ideology from those that are.

 

 

II.

                  Etienne Gilson was conscious of the real, though often difficult to prove, relationship between the events of the mind and those of subsequent public order or disorder.  The wars of the world are usually fought out previously in the minds and hearts of the clerical and academic dons before they ever appear in legislatures or on fields of battle.  Incomplete or erroneous ideas of the mind of one generation or era would be taken up later in different places and in different ways.  “Philosophers are free to lay down their own set of principles,” Gilson had observed  the previous year at Harvard where he gave the William James Lecture at the 300th Anniversary of that university’s founding,

but once this is done, they no longer think as they wish  – they think as they can....  It seems to result from the facts under discussion, that any attempt on the part of a philosopher to shun the consequences of his own position is doomed to failure.  What he himself declines to say will be said by his disciples, if he has any; if he has none, it may remain eternally unsaid; but it is there, and anybody going back to the same principles, be it several centuries later, will have to face the same conclusion....15

The traditional notion in popular opinion of the uselessness of the philosopher, of which Plato spoke in Book VI of The Republic, gains a sobering corrective in Gilson’s careful words to the audience in Harvard.  We betray our culture, we do not know what animates it, if we are ignorant of the ideas, especially aberrant ideas, on which it is founded or by which it comes to act.  But if error will not let us alone, unexamined, neither will the truth of things.  The very articulation of an erroneous position is itself a challenge to some philosopher down the ages to get it right.  This is the import of Socrates’ praise of the two young philosophers in the beginning of the second book of The Republic, who could explain error so well but who knew that there was something wrong with their explanation and hence needed Socrates to explain things to them.

                  Philosophy and revelation have different origins.  One of the attractions of particularly Greek philosophy is precisely that it has, apparently, nothing but itself to explain itself.  It was not open or closed; it was itself.  It dealt with whatever was at hand, including myths and stories.  To many, it seemed, after they had been rediscovered by the various schools of believers in the Middle Ages, that Plato and Aristotle must have known, in order to say what they did, the contents of the Hebrew bible.  The fact is, however, that they did not know this source.  Certainly, someone like St. Paul knew of philosophical things, both to warn of their dangers and to prod the Romans for not knowing what they could know.  But though there were certain universal elements in Hebrew revelation, still theirs was largely the affair of a small and obscure people in an out of the way corner of the world. 

                  We might debate whether the “intent” of world history in some Hegelian sense is that these differing civilizations, Athens and Jerusalem, come into contact with each other.  What cannot be doubted is that, after Alexander the Great and the Roman presence in the New Testament itself, they did confront each other.  The first question for Christians was merely how could they live peacefully within the Roman Empire.  When Augustine comes along, he is quite prepared to justify Christianity because its believers make good citizens and soldiers of Rome.  While remaining “wayfarers and pilgrims” in this world, they do not alienate themselves, as later thinkers would charge, but provide the incentives whereby the world could be most itself. 

                  What Gilson is concerned with in the Richards Lecture, however, is the history of efforts to relate revelation and reason in some coherent unity, one that does justice both to reason and revelation, one that explicates  their exact scope.  He suggests that in fact this coherent unity was worked out but rejected almost before it had a chance to flourish in the time of Thomas Aquinas  -- hence it is still waiting to be rediscovered.  But at the tine, this failure had something to do with intellect.  To this point, Gilson writes in his Charlottesville lecture:

Had it been given to Thomas Aquinas to convince, if not his own contemporaries, at least his immediate successors, the intellectual and moral crisis would have soon come to a close, and the whole history of western thought would have been different from what it was.  Unfortunately, the net result of Averroes’ influence was to breed in the minds of the theologians a growing mistrust for philosophy.  If that (Averroes’ view) was natural reason, Revelation would be better off without its help than with it.  Hence, in even the greatest among the late medieval philosophers and theologians, an increasing tendency to ascribe to faith alone, not only what Thomas Aquinas would call the articles of faith properly said, but even what we saw him define as rational preambles to matters of faith.  It thus came to pass that the list of the revealed truths that can be either believed, or proved, was steadily growing shorter and shorter to the point of shrivelling into nothingness.16

When this “nothingness” was reached, what was left was a pure fideism on the one hand, and modern science on the other.17  From Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes and on to the present, we begin to see that no religion can be excluded from revelation and no religious position can be touched by science which is itself an arbitrary restructuring of the world according to human needs and wants with no restriction from a fixed human nature.18  Indeed, a good part of modern science is concerned with the problem of whether there even is a world other than its thought about the world.

                  What Gilson set out to do in the University of Virginia lecture was, effectively, to restore reason by restoring revelation to its proper content and role.  Whether reason “could” save itself by itself was a separate question, but Nietzsche’s answer in Beyond Good and Evil that reason in fact did not save itself has haunted modern thought ever since.19  The 1945 and 1989 rejection and defeat of the leading twentieth century ideologies that became powerful political movements, however, did not evidently return the culture to an openness to revelation.  Rather it established doubt, the impossibility of knowing anything at all, at the heard of all intellectual things. 

                  The astonishing reappearance of Islam in 2001 as a militant factor, moreover, itself takes the form of an ideology based on nothing more fundamental than the arbitrary will of Allah and hence the impossibility of stable secondary causes and science itself.  Indeed, the “fury” of Islam was often described as a kind of frustration at its own impotence before the West, before what it often called “Satan.”  The West was perceived as precisely corrupt and decadent so that all that was needed to topple it was zeal and shrewd use of arms and weapons that anyone with some training could handle.  The struggle within Islam itself was about its truth, about the connection between its marginalization in the modern world and its religious beliefs, about the intellectual foundations that are claimed in its support.

 

 

III.

                  Gilson begins his examination with the first encounters of revelation and philosophy, those that suppose that revelation makes philosophy unnecessary, if not dangerous.  We associate this initial position in particular with Tertullian, whose famous aphorism, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?,” has itself become, in the hands of Leo Strauss, an instrument of restoring both philosophy and revelation to serious consideration, though within what must be suspected, at least at first sight, of bearing Averroistic overtones.  Strauss, without denying the reality of either, seems to have denied any possible encounter or cross-fertilization between reason and revelation.20  He “protected” revelation not, as Aquinas did, by recognizing at least some elements of revelation that could also be examined by genuine philosophy, but rather by setting the way of life of the philosopher and the way of life as the prophet or priest in radically different worlds.  Whether this separation served to protect either revelation or reason can be questioned since it admitted the possibility of two bodies of “truths” that had no means of contacting one another.  On the other hand, to his credit, in an academic world that had forgotten the origins of its own meaning, Strauss at least enabled the question of revelation to appear as a legitimate, if perplexing, one.21 

                  The second great approach that began to realize the faith and reason might have more to do with one another than simple opposition was that of Augustine.  Augustine was a seeker of truth, wherever it might be found.  As a young man, he was almost a classical potential philosopher of the Platonic variety.  Beautiful things in which he sought beauty itself deceived him until he found his way.  “Augustine was never to forget,” Gilson wrote,

that the safest way to reach truth is not the one that starts from reason and then goes on from rational certitude to faith, but, on the contrary the way whose starting point is faith and then goes on from Revelation to reason.  By reaching that unexpected conclusion, Augustine was opening a new era in the history of western thought.  No Greek philosopher could have ever dreamt of making religious faith in some revealed truth the obligatory starting point to rational knowledge.22

Augustine realized that belief was one of the things that led him to understanding, especially the understanding of what it was all about, of the highest things.  Henceforth, there would be a constant effort in Christian thought to find that philosophy to which faith naturally led.  The only problem with this sort of approach, in Gilson’s view, was that if one did not accept the initial premise of faith, no matter how philosophic or logical everything flowed from the faith, it could not reach or have anything in common with a non-believing philosophy.  The latter is now understand for the first time as being its own autonomous field.  Hitherto, philosophy had been open to whatever is, from what ever source.

                  Thus the second type of relation of revelation and reason, typified by Averroes, was the view that philosophy was a higher science than revelation and indeed subsumed it into itself by explaining what religion was.  A philosophy that could “explain” religion was higher than religion.  The “truths” of faith were not “mysteries” but :”myths” that could be explained by the wise man, by the philosopher.  It followed from this position that the revelation of Islam, in this case, could not be seen as compatible with philosophy as explicated by Aristotle, who is now taken as himself literally explaining what the human mind by itself could hold including religion.  The Aristotelian positions that were contrary even to Islamic faith, say, the eternality of the world as opposed to creation, were thus seen as philosophically determinative.  Reason corrected revelation or reduced it to myth. 

                  What happened in this system?  Averroes developed a three fold relationship to philosophy.  There were the great masses who did not understand it; there were the dialecticians who understood mathematics, and there were the philosophers who understood Aristotle.  Nothing in the Koran could be taken seriously except that which had to do with an exhortation to live a good life, which Aristotle already understood and explicated long before the Koran ever appeared..  The Koran thus became a kind of Platonic myth simplified for the good of those could not understand.  Submission to the Koran was a blind obedience that precluded any examination of what might be commanded in its name.  No “natural law” had to be wrestled with. 

                  The theologians who were in charge of this myth were to be left alone.  The philosopher was simply to set them aside and not bother explaining what the real situation was.  It could only cause problems, even persecution  – Averroes himself died in exile. Indeed, it was perhaps best not even to write or speak of philosophy in public.  Philosophy could not be explained to everyone, so it was not necessary to bother trying to do so.  Religion served its purpose by providing a sort of substitute philosophy for the masses that served political purposes in keeping the masses in order.  But none of the truths of philosophy could be confronted by those of revelation.  They belonged to different orders.23  The philosopher alone knew and understood.  His way was a lonely way.

                  The Christian version of this system had vast ramifications.  It was again a variety of absolute separation between philosophy and revelation.  Aristotle himself did not develop a philosophy which was in “response” to some revelation, though he did, as did Plato, deal with the traditional gods and stories of the Greeks.  In this sense, the Aristotle “as Aristotle” that Aquinas sought to encounter, the Aristotle not interpreted or explained by Arab philosophy, could still be “open” to a revelation that he did not know.  Aquinas’ Aristotle was not open in the sense of Augustine’s searching for intelligence, though that too, but open in the sense of an open-ended philosophic reflection that could be right or wrong depending on philosophy itself, and not simply on the fact that Aristotle said it.

                  The case of the Latin Averroists however presupposed a philosophy that is closed in on itself, a rationalism as it would be called.  The line of nominalism from Scotus to Occam to Marsilius of Padua to Hobbes and into modernity is based on a break between what is and what we know.  Ideas were not to be abstracted from real things.  There were only words.   Each thing was different.   Gilson doubts if it is exactly fair to call Siger of Brabant, the most famous name associated with Latin Averroism, a pure model for of the system itself.  What happened, however, was that there was no link between faith and reason whatsoever.  Faith did not search “reason.”  Reason was its own world. If its positions contradicted revelation, which it presumably did, that only meant that there were two separate spheres of reality with two separate system of “truths.”  So long as there was still belief, philosophy could perhaps still be challenged, though with fewer points of contact.  But with the loss of any belief, what is left is a reason not limited to its own truth, but an autonomous reason, a reason whose self-enclosed circlings had no other source but itself.  It could not even be open to the notion that there was an order in things that itself revealed traces of mind, at least a divine mind.

                  Of this earlier form of rationalism’s significance, Gilson wrote:  “The existence of a medieval rationalism should never be forgotten by those historians who are investigating into the origins of the so-called modern rationalism, for indeed the Averroistic tradition forms an uninterrupted chain from the Masters of Arts of Paris, to the  “Libertins” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”24  Gilson even suggests that St. Thomas himself would not have been possible without the Averroistic challenge since it was that challenge that incited him to clarify the proper relation of reason and revelation.. 

                  However, we might add, that the unresolved philosophic problem in Islam itself is at the origins of many of our current problems, including the broader problem of the relation of Christianity to any classic religion to itself.  If it is true, as Stanley Jaki has argued, that part of our present problem is the inferiority complex in Islam over the fact that it has not been able to enter into the modern scientific and political basis on the basis of its own theology, the reason for this is not due to some brain deficiency on the part of Arab thinkers.25  Rather it is because of Gilson’s principle that once we lay down our first principles, we no longer think was we want, but as we can.  Averroes himself evidently attempted to protect philosophy not only from Islamic theology, by his distinction of three classes of people who have nothing to do with each other, but also from an Aristotle who was not closed in on himself. 

                  If Allah is pure will and piety means submission to Allah, then it is absolutely impossible for there to be any such thing as stable secondary causes or even such a thing as a world itself since God could make contradictories possible.  It is sometimes argued that one of the strength of Islam is its simplicity, its few precepts that almost anyone can obey.  But if the world is not that simple, if God is more complex than Allah’s absolute will, if Incarnation is possible, if secondary causes really can act, it follows that the argument with Islam is not simply about a goodly number of fanatics but its very understanding of its God.26  The failure of Islamic philosophers to save the world while sending its armies on the mission of conquering it, turns out to have been of momentous contemporary importance.

IV.

                  Gilson then recalls that it might be possible to find an understanding of philosophy and of revelation that accepts the truth of revelation and its content while at the same time accepting the truths of philosophy as philosophy.  But this position cannot avoid suggesting that not every philosophy is true.  Indeed, faith seeks understanding, even in the order of understanding.  The crucial issue is that of the order of things.27  The importance of Thomas Aquinas is the ability to “handle philosophical problems as a philosopher and theological problems as a theologian.”28  Gilson explains that the conclusion that something is true on the basis of faith is due to the testimony of God.  What I know as true in this sense is not the result of a rational analysis or understanding, by which I also may discover something as true.  This dependence on faith also means that those truths that are specifically of faith are intended for every believer and not just for the intellectuals or theologians.  “All believers, all Christians are in the same predicament, for all of them agree as to what they believe, and none of them has any scientifically knowledge.”29  This is specifically what sets the Christian apart from Averroes and his school. 

                  But is there then no contact between reason and revelation, granted the autonomy of both and the separate origins of their truth?   Aquinas did not accept this “absolute” separation of reason and revelation and this, in part, on philosophic grounds.  The good sense contained in revelation might indeed be persuasive and consistent, but it would convince only those who accepted the basis of faith and its authority.30  The real problem was whether Averroes and his tradition understood Aristotle properly, and even more basically, whether they understood philosophy properly.  If we consider Aristotle to be a great philosopher but that he might have erred, then we will need a philosophy, not theology, to show this error, even if our suspicion that there was an error did arise from theology.  Aquinas could see that an idea could not be intellectually consistent but still not true.  He could not be content with a divided soul for that shattered the whole order of creation, the whole order of things.31

                  Yet, because of Aquinas’ particular awareness both of theological foundations and philosophical arguments, he realized that certain elements that appeared in faith also were open to philosophical discourse, the existence of God, the order of morality, for example.  This affinity was peculiar and surprising if there was indeed an absolute separation of reason and revelation.  Likewise, there were positions in revelation that, according to revelation itself, were beyond human reason, though they were part of the wisdom of God and hence not, ultimately, contradictory to being.  Philosophic speculation could not “prove” that there was a Trinity in the Godhead, though it might examine arguments that maintained that it was impossible to show their own dubiousness.32

                  It is to be remembered that the purpose of revelation is very specific.  It is not intended to answer all unanswered questions. Indeed, it is related to the question of whether everyone is a “philosopher.”  One of the ironies of Greek philosophy had been that the highest branches of philosophy could in practice be reached only by a few.  In Islam, if the general believer only had an untrue “myth” to keep him politically settled, as Averroes seemed to maintain, then the presumed transcendent destiny of the believers was based on nothing at all.  “For this is the proper aim and scope of Revelation to provide all men, philosophers or not, with such knowledge of God, of man, and of his destiny, as is required for their eternal salvation.”33  In this sense, it can be suggested that revelation is an “answer” to Greek philosophy.  It does not replace philosophy or denigrate it in any way, but it does propose a possible solution to an enigma inherent in Greek philosophy, something still in another way in Averroes.  Moreover, the salvation of real men in a real world does indicate the need of philosophical positions that can defend the world as existing and the real responsibility of those found within it.

                  The upshot of Aquinas’ position that there were certain truths within the corpus of revelation that were also verified or found in philosophy hinted at the unity of the whole of truth.  The source that contained some truths that could be verified is quite in a different status from one that holds an absolute separation of reason and revelation on ideological grounds.  Revelation is indeed open to reason, in that it accounts for at least some reasonable things.  A reason that is not able to answer all its own questions on its own terms is simply honest as a philosophy when it is stimulated by theology.

                  Gilson comments on the history of philosophy after Aquinas, beginning with Scotus, that, because of the tendency to minimize the relation of faith and reason, both areas of knowledge were independent of each other, to the detriment of both.34  “A bitter opponent of Duns Scotus, Occam always maintained that absolutely nothing could be proved about God in the light of natural reason, not even His existence.  To him, as to Averroes, what reason can say concerning theological matters never goes beyond the order of mere dialectical probability.”35  Gilson, in fact, dates the end of the Middle Ages to that point when there is despair of reconciling in any way reason and revelation.36  Gilson sees the mystic tradition in part to be an attempt to save realism.  A’Kempis and Luther, however, both seemed to agree in the rejection of philosophy.37  “After the Reformation and the Humanists, the men of the sixteenth century found themselves confronted with a theology without philosophy, the positive or modern philosophy of Fr. de Vitoria and of M. Cano; and of a philosophy without theology:  the  purely rational speculations of R. Descartes and Francis Bacon.”38  It was out of this background that the notions of the specifically “modern project” (Strauss) of a world of improving the human estate by human powers alone arose.

                  Gilson’s conclusions are in two steps.  The first is a reminder of his basic insight into the importance of the history of philosophy: “The history of ideas is determined from within by the internal necessity of ideas themselves.”39  The issues of reason and revelation will remain substantially the same.  The second step concerns the substance of peculiarly Christian revelation that at point after point encounters legitimate philosophical questions unanswered by philosophy itself.  The real issue is this:

Knowing ... that He who is more than Prophet has spoken, what are we to do with this message?  If what His message says does at times escape the grasp of natural reason, what is natural reason going to say about it?  Once we have reached that point, God can no longer be conceived by us as a mere “wholly other” to which our a priori category of the “Numinous” bears witness; the Son also is a witness, and He has said who the Father is.  That, at last, is a Revelation worthy of the name:  not our own revelation of God to ourselves, but the revelation of God Himself to us.40

Gilson’s point, it seems, is not merely that this is the “content” of revelation, this Son and Father, the general terms of which any serious reader might see to be there in revelation’s documents, but that this revelation in its curious content, in its Trinity and Incarnation and all the teachings that go with it, does meet a genuine philosophy that has argued to the existence of God and His major attributes.    This approach is not “proving” theology by reason, which would be a heresy and a divine claim on the part of the human mind.  Nor is it arguing to the genuineness of philosophy beginning with faith and dialectics.  Rather it is preserving what is theology and what is philosophy in a mutual openness, typical of Aristotle’s own philosophy, as Aquinas understood it.  This openness would not reject any truth merely on the grounds that it did not come from reason alone.  Reason is open to all truth, not just to its own taken in the rationalistic sense.  Faith remains a gift, but a gift also to reason that stands curious about itself, about its own questions when it hears at least the outlines of what is said to be revealed to it, to reason.  In wrestling with this unexpected source, reason strangely becomes more itself, more philosophical.  And in this mode, it is, as Aquinas called it, a “handmaid” itself quite needed to prevent theology, without it, from inventing its own groundless ideologies.

                  In conclusion, it is perhaps in this context that we can reconsider Leo Strauss’ enigmatic words in 1964, when he spoke in Jerusalem about “the Divine message of the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”  Strauss thought that to speak of this “city” “among the heathen,” it was necessary to understand the “outlines” of this “city,” as much as possible, by our own natural powers, a project Aquinas certainly would accept.  To elaborate this description, political science in particular has, in Strauss’ view, much less need of the “indispensable handmaid” of theology as of “political philosophy as the rightful queen of the social sciences.”41  The question is, of course, in the light of Augustine’s “City of God,” whether “the rightful queen of the social sciences” will retain its proper place as the highest of the practical sciences but not the highest of the sciences as such, in which case it would become itself a metaphysics. 

                  In the light of these reflections on Gilson’s understanding of reason and revelation, however, in the light of the history of philosophy as itself the presence of ideas that need to be resolved in the name of truth, we might suggest, as Strauss knew in his description of positivism and historicism, that social science itself is a product of this very modernity from Descartes and Bacon, indeed from Occam and de Vitoria, from Averroes and Tertullian, ideas that did not understand the proper relation of Athens and Jerusalem.  One might well argue that the whole modern history of the West, the whole thesis of John Paul’s Fides et Ratio, is to recommence that insight into reason and revelation that Thomas Aquinas hammered out but which subsequent generations, to their peril, did not pursue.  Gilson’s Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages brings us back to these considerations, perhaps not a minute too soon, even though we have neglected it for lo, these many decades since Gilson was in Charlottesville, in Virginia..



                  1Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Scribner’s, 1938), 99.  Italics added.  (Henceforth, this book will be cited as RRMA.)

                  2Etienne Gilson, “Wisdom and Time,” A Gilson Reader (Garden City, N. Y.  Doubleday Image, 1957), 334

                  3Laurence K. Shook, Etienne Gilson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984),143.

                  4Shook, 234.

                  5RRMA, 43.  It is of some interest that at almost the same time, Hilaire Belloc was writing on this same subject of the importance and nature of Islam, “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed,” The Great Heresies (New York: Sheed & Ward, MCMXXXVIII), 71-140.

                  6See sections on Islam in Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (New York: Crossroad, 2000); Peter Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: Untold Story of Persecution against Christians in the Modern World (Dallas: Word, 1997).

                  7See Josef Ratzinger, “Dominus Jesus,” The Pope Speaks, (August 6, 2000), 46 (January/February, 2001), 33-56.  See James V. Schall, “On Being Faithful to Revelation,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CI (March, 2001), 22-31.

                  8RRMA, 83.

                  9Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” What Is Political Philosophy and Other Essays (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 13.

                  10See Ralph McInerny, St. Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 145-65.

                  11RRMA, 43-50.

                  12RRMA, 79.

                  13Henry Veatch, Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), 4.

                  14See Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

                  15Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1937] 1999), 243.

                  16RRMA, 84-85.

                  17See James V. Schall, “Protestantism and Atheism,” Redeeming the Time (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968), 97-120.

                  18See Leo Strauss, City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 7.

                  19Fredrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), #42, #43.

                  20Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” text found in Susan Orr, Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss (Lanham, MD.:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), 179-208.

                  21See Thomas Pangle, “Introduction,” Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 18-23; James V. Schall, Reason, Revelation and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 182-224.

                  22RRMA, 17.

                  23RRMA, 42-54.

                  24RRMA, 65.

                  25Stanley Jaki, “On Whose Side Is History?” Chance or Reality and Other Essays (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1986) 233-44; “The Physics of Impetus and the Impetus of the Koran,” The Absolute Beneath the Relative and Other Essays (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1988), 14-52.

                  26See the discussion of Islam in James V. Schall, “Introduction: The Home, the Crown, and the Cross: On Explaining Humanity to Itself,” in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 25-27.

                  27RRMA, 70-71.

                  28RRMA, 72.

                  29RRMA, 75.

                  30RRMA, 79.

                  31RRMA, 81.

                  32RRMA, 83.  See James V. Schall, At the Limits of Political Philosophy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

                  33RRMA, 82.

                  34RRMA, 85-86.

                  35RRMA, 86-87.

                  36RRMA, 91.

                  37RRMA, 92-93.

                  38RRMA, 94-95.

                  39RRMA, 95.

                  40RRMA, 98-99.

                  41Strauss, 1.