Athens and Jerusalem \  Part III  \ On the Philosophy of the Middle Ages


     It was not only the biblical account of the fall which put man on guard against the "knowledge" of the ancient world. The prophets and the apostles had risen with extreme force against the Graeco-Roman "wisdom." The medieval philosophers certainly knew this. Gilson cites in full the famous verses of the first chapter of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (19-25) on the impossibility of reconciling the truth of revelation with human truth, and I think it well to recall the passage here: "For it is written (Isaiah 29,14): 'I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and I shall bring to nothing the prudence of the prudent.' Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe...the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

     Gilson indicates in a footnote that these words always inspired the enemies of the "Christian philosophy," among whom the first place is occupied by Tertullian who opposes, as is known, Jerusalem to Athens (quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis?). Yet the eminent historian does not believe that they could and should have stopped the medieval philosophers from their efforts to transform the truths of revelation into truths of rational knowledge. According to him, those who denied that a rational Judeo-Christian philosophy is possible could not base themselves either on the prophet Isaiah or on St. Paul. Indeed, to understand the true meaning of these words it is necessary, above all, to remember that for St. Paul the gospel is the way to salvation and not the way to knowledge. And then: "At the very moment that St. Paul proclaims the bankruptcy of Greek wisdom, he proposes to substitute for it something else, which is the person of Jesus Christ himself. What he intends to do is to eliminate the seeming Greek wisdom, which, in reality, is only foolishness, in the name of the seeming Christian foolishness, which is nothing but wisdom." All this is correct, but it is a commentary on Tertullian's opposition of Athens to Jerusalem rather than an objection to his position, for the Apostle still "proclaims the bankruptcy of Greek wisdom."

     What for Athens is wisdom is for Jerusalem foolishness: Tertullian said nothing else. One cannot even say that Tertullian had denied the possibility of a Judeo-Christian philosophy. He wished only to secure freedom and independence for it, believing that it had to have its own source of truth, its own principles, its own problems - that were not those of the Greeks. According to him, if the revealed truth seeks to justify itself before our reason by means of the same procedures that the Greeks used to justify their truths, it will never succeed in arriving at this justification, or it will succeed only by denying itself, for what is foolishness for Athens is wisdom for Jerusalem and what is truth for Jerusalem is for Athens a lie. This is the meaning of the famous passage of his De carne Christi which has long been quoted under the abbreviated and consequently weakened form credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd), which even the mob repeats. In Tertullian we read: Crucifixus est Dei filius: non pudet quia pudendum est; et mortuus est Dei filius: prorsus credibile quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit: certum est quia impossible (The son of God was crucified: it does not shame because it is shameful; and the son of God died: it is absolutely credible because it is absurd; and having been buried, he rose from the dead; it is certain because it is impossible).

     Here is the same thought as in Isaiah and St. Paul but adapted to the Scholastic philosophical terminology. And yet it rebels to such a degree against the wisdom of the world that Leibniz, who reproduced these words, did not believe it necessary to stop and examine them; they are only a "religious phrase," says he. And he drops completely the beginning clause which ends with the words non pudet, quia pudendum est. His hand, one may believe, did not have the power to reproduce words so immoral. Yet if Isaiah and St. Paul are right, Tertullian's declaration must serve as the introduction or prolegomena to the organon of the Judeo-Christian philosophy, which was called to proclaim to the world the new notion, completely ignored up until then, of "created truth." We must, before everything else, reject the basic categories of Greek thought, tear out from our being all the postulates of our "natural knowledge" and our "natural morality." Where the educated Greek opposes to us his imperious pudet, we shall say it is precisely for this reason that it is not shameful. Where reason proclaims ineptum (absurd), we shall say that it is precisely this that preferentially deserves our complete trust. And finally where it raises its impossible, we shall oppose our "it is certain." And when reason and morality will call before their tribunal the prophets and the apostles and along with them Him in whose name they dare defy the Greek philosophy, do you think that Tertullian will be afraid of the judgment, as Leibniz was?

     I have already more than once had occasion to speak of Tertullian and of his violent attacks on Greek philosophy. But before passing on to an examination of the results to which the attempt of the medieval philosophers to establish a symbiosis between Greek knowledge and the revealed truth led, I would wish to dwell on two moments of the history of the development of European thought. I believe this will permit us to see more clearly into the question that concerns us here: what the essence of the Judeo-Christian philosophy was.

     The history of philosophy is ordinarily divided into three periods: the ancient which ends with Plotinus, the philosophy of the Middle Ages which ends with Duns Scotus and William of Occam (after whom comes "the decay of Scholasticism"), and the modern which begins with Descartes and continues up to our own time and of which it is impossible to know where it will lead us. Now there is here an extraordinary fact: the philosophy of Plotinus is not only the culmination of the almost thousand-year development of Greek thought; it is also a defiance of this thought. Zeller was right: Plotinus lost confidence in philosophic thought; the fundamental principles and eternal truths of his predecessors ceased to satisfy him, and it seemed to him that these principles and these truths do not liberate the human spirit but enslave it. And this after he had held to them all his life and had taught others to follow them. His Enneads present, indeed, a puzzling mixture of two divergent streams of thought. If Zeller is right that Plotinus had lost confidence in thought, then this modern historian of philosophy is also right in greatly valuing Plotinus precisely because the latter, as the Greek tradition demanded of him, based all of his searchings for truth on the dei (must) and on ex anankês (necessarily); or in other words, he tried to obtain judgments rigorously proven and controlled, judgments that constrain. But he tried to obtain them, obviously, only to reject them despite himself. The "knowledge" which his predecessors had transmitted to him and which was founded on the necessity that constrains became unbearable to him precisely because it constrained him. He perceived in knowledge chains from which he had, at all costs, to escape. Knowledge does not liberate; it enslaves.

     Plotinus seeks, then, a way out; he seeks salvation outside of knowledge. And he who had taught "the beginning was the logos, and everything is logos," felt suddenly that the meaning of philosophy - "the most important thing," as he put it - consisted in the fact that it delivered from "knowledge": this was the meaning of his "ecstasy." Above all, one must "soar above knowledge" and awaken from the enchantment of all the dei (you must) and ex anankês (necessarily). Whence came this "must," whence came this "necessary" that has permeated human thought? On what does their force and power rest? The supreme principle - what Plotinus calls "the One" - knows neither the "must" nor the "necessary" and has no need of their support. "It requires no support, as though it could not carry itself" (ou gar deitai hidrysêos, hôsper auto pherein ou dynamenon). It lies "beyond reason and thought." It is free of all the limitations which the nous that "came after us" has invented.[1] And just as the One has need neither of support nor of foundation, likewise the man "awakened to himself" no longer feels the need of any support, of any foundation whatsoever. He feels himself to belong to a higher fate (praestantioris sortis), throws far from himself all, the heavy "musts" and "of necessity," and like the gods of Greece does not touch the earth with his feet. It is hardly necessary to say that Plotinus, insofar as he tried "to soar above knowledge," did not leave any trace in history. The "to soar above knowledge" and the "it requires no support" were a break with the tradition of ancient thought which always sought knowledge and solid foundations. Rare are those who have had the courage to repeat after Zeller that Plotinus had lost confidence in thought. Most historians are interested in Plotinus only so long as they find in him the customary argumentation which convinces everyone and which rests on the omnipotence of Necessity. St. Augustine himself, who was constantly inspired by Plotinus (some pages of his work appear almost translated from the Enneads) did not wish, or did not dare, to follow Plotinus in rootlessness and took from Plotinus only what he could assimilate without denying the fundamental principles of Greek thought.

     But the development of Greek philosophy stopped after Plotinus or, to put it more accurately, Greek philosophy decayed after Plotinus, just as Scholastic philosophy began to decay after Dims Scotus and Occam. Human thought then congealed into immobility and sank into endless commentaries on what had already been done, instead of going forward at its own risk and peril towards the puzzling unknown of which Plotinus had spoken. It is not for nothing, furthermore, that Plotinus himself says that when the soul approaches the limits of being it stops: "it is afraid that it has nothing." It is afraid to rid itself of the constraining "must" and "of necessity." It has so long borne their yoke that it seems to it that freedom is a principle of destruction, of annihilation. No one, then, follows the path indicated by Plotinus. History succeeded in turning the attention of later generations away from what had been most original and most daring in him - his cultivation of rootlessness (people ordinarily speak of Asiatic influences; it would perhaps be better to remember the "Asiatic" ex auditu). But the fact that the last of the great Greek philosophers allowed himself to shake the foundations upon which the ancient thought rested is impossible to deny; and even Zeller, always so prudent and objective, is obliged, as we have seen, to confirm this.

     The second period of European philosophy ended in a similar fashion. Almost immediately after the brilliant Thomas Aquinas (and as if in response to him) the last great Scholastics rose with unheard of violence against all the "musts" and "of necessity" through the help of which thought subsisted and developed and to which were bound the goods promised by reason to man. Here finally is the meaning of what is ordinarily called their "voluntarism." Most of the historians of theology (particularly the Protestants) and most of the historians of philosophy have tried to weaken in one way or another the violence of the challenge thrown by the last great Scholastics to their predecessors, insofar as the latter tried to connect the truths of the Bible with the truths obtained by reason. And from their point of view these historians are right, just as they are when they try to "defend" Plotinus against the reproach that some people have made against him, to the effect that he exercised, through his doctrine, a destructive influence. History is bound to consider only those things to which it is given to determine future development. But the judgment of history is not the only judgment and it is not the final judgment.

     If one wished to reduce to a brief formula the ideas that mankind received from ancient thought, I think it would be difficult to find anything better than what Plato says in the Phaedo and in the Euthyphro about reason and morality. There is no greater misfortune for a man, we read in the Phaedo, than to become a hater of reason, a misologos. The holy is not holy because the gods love it, but it is precisely because the holy is holy that the gods love it, says Socrates in the Euthyphro.

     One could say without exaggeration that these words contain the two principal commandments of Greek philosophy, its alpha and omega. When we today still aspire so eagerly to truths that are universal and obligatory upon all, we are fulfilling the demands made by the "wisest of men." It is certain indeed that it was the "righteous" Socrates who inspired in his pupil Plato the worship that gods as well as mortals must render to reason and morality. And I would add that if Socrates had had to choose between reason and morality, and if he had agreed to admit even hypothetically that reason can be separated from mortality - be it only for God - he would have renounced reason but would not have denied morality for anything in the world. Above all, he would not have agreed to free the gods from morality. That the gods in a pinch may soar with Plotinus above knowledge - this may be! But a god who is beyond morality is not a god but a monster. One could have wrested this conviction away from Socrates only with his life. And I think that one can say the same thing of all of us: it is a great misfortune to become a hater of reason but to be deprived of the protection of morality, to abandon morality to anyone's power - this is equivalent in our eyes to destroying the world, to condemning it to death.

     When Clement of Alexandria teaches that knowledge and eternal salvation are inseparable from each other but that if it were not so and if he had to choose between them, it is knowledge that he would choose, he is only repeating the dearest thought of Socrates and all of Greek philosophy. When Anselm seeks to deduce the existence of God from the principle of contradiction, he tries to obtain what Socrates attempted - to blend knowledge and virtus into one - and in this he sees the essential task of life. It is easy for us today to criticize Socrates. According to us, knowledge is one thing and virtue is another. But the ancients, "those ancient and blessed men" who were better than we and closer to the gods, built a "truth" that is not afraid of our critiques and is not even concerned with them. And, to tell all, let us recognize this: even though we criticize Socrates we are still not delivered from his enchantment. A "postulate" of our thought, like that of ancient thought, is always the conviction that knowledge = virtue = eternal salvation. I am not speaking only of the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Hugo of St. Victor declared openly that the Socratic "know thyself" fell from heaven, just like the Bible. We shall have more than once to allude to the strange attraction that the ancient wisdom exercises over medieval and modern thought. For the moment, I shall content myself with indicating that the Scholastic philosophy not only did not wish to fight, but was even incapable of fighting, against the magic spell of the Greek wisdom, as we also do not wish and are incapable of doing. For us, too, Socrates remains the best of men, the wisest of men, a righteous man. For us, too, the judgment of the Delphic oracle remains final.

     Once only - and aside, moreover, from the great highway followed by philosophy - someone appeared to express doubt on the oracle's and history's judgment about Socrates: Nietzsche found in Socrates the décadent, that is to say, the fallen man kat' exochên. And as if he were recalling the story of Genesis, Nietzsche called a "fall" precisely that in which the oracle and history and Socrates himself saw Socrates' greatest merit - his worship of knowledge, to which he was prepared to sacrifice not only his life but also his soul. Up until Nietzsche everyone assumed that "know thyself" had fallen from heaven. But no one believed that the prohibition against tasting of the fruits of the tree of knowledge had fallen from heaven. The "know thyself" was a truth; the tree of knowledge a metaphor, an allegory of which one had to rid oneself, like many other allegories of the Bible, by filtering it carefully through Greek reason.

     The fundamental truths that had fallen from heaven even before the Graeco-Roman world encountered the Bible were the principles expressed by Plato in the phrases from the Phaedo and the Euthyphro that I have quoted above. Everything that the Middle Ages read in the Bible was refracted through these truths, which thus purified inadmissible elements for cultivated minds. And then suddenly Duns Scotus and Occam impetuously attacked these unshakable truths. As if defending themselves in advance against the conformity of the peace-loving Lessing, they strained all the forces of their marvelous dialectic to remove from the jurisdiction of reason and transport into the domain of credibilia (things to be believed) almost everything that the Bible tells us of God: that "God is living, wise and well-disposed," that He is "efficient cause," that He is immovable, unchangeable, and did not cease to exist after creating the world. Duns Scotus says, "On theories rest the credibilia, through which or to the assumption of which reason is compelled, but which are more certain for the Catholic through the fact that they do not rely on our blinking and - in most things - vacillating understanding but firmly on Thy most solid truth."

     Thus could Duns Scotus speak - the very Duns Scotus who, as we recall, had replaced the "I believe, Lord, help thou my unbelief" brought by Jerusalem with the "I believe, Lord, but if it is possible, I would wish to know" derived from Athens. Intellectus for him is no longer "ruler and judge of all" but a blinking and vacillating guide of the blind. And Occam expresses himself no less categorically: "And so the articles of faith are not principles of proof or conclusion, and they are not probable, because to all or to most or to the wise they appear false, and in accepting this they become wise for the wise of the world and especially adherents of the natural reason." Duns Scotus and Occam do not seek of reason any justification of what the revealed truth has brought. They go even further. They attack what was for the Greeks, as well as for us, the most unshakable of principles: the autonomy of morality proclaimed by Socrates. Dico quad omne aliud a Deo est bonum quia a Deo volitum et non ex converso (I say that everything other than God is good because it is willed by God and not vice versa). Or: "As God therefore can act otherwise, so can he also give another law as right which becomes right if it is given by God, for no law is right except insofar as it is accepted by the divine will." For "God cannot wish anything with whose wishing He could be in the wrong, for His will is the highest rule."

     If one still recalls that, according to Duns Scotus, "there is no cause why His will willed this except that His will is His will," it is difficult to assume that the theologians and historians who tried to save Scotus' reputation by seeking to show that his God is not at all "arbitrary" could attain their goal. Perhaps the hair on our head rises at the thought but he who, like Scotus, declares that omne est bonum quia a Deo volitum est et non ex converso or, like Occam, that "God can be obliged to nothing and therefore the occurrence of what God wishes is just" affirms in God "schlechthinnige und regellose Willkür" (wicked and lawless arbitrariness), no matter how much the theologians may protest.[2] There is no rule above God, no law limits His will; on the contrary, He is the source and master of all laws and rules. Just as in Plotinus: "it requires no support, as though it could not carry itself." It is the same "groundlessness" but it is a still more terrible one, and for the rational man a still less acceptable one. Can one trust such a God, no matter how often the Bible repeats: "Hear, O Israel!"? And if the God of the Bible is such, a God who creates and destroys everything - including the eternal laws - what has He then in common with the rational and moral principles of the ancient wisdom? Is a symbiosis still possible between the Greek and the Judeo-Christian philosophies?

     It is clear that a break between them is inevitable, and that this break must be the end of medieval philosophy if the latter has not sufficient power and daring to continue its way at its own risk and peril without letting itself be guided by the ancients. It did not have the courage: it wished at all costs to preserve its bond with the "fatherland of human thought," with Greece. "It died of its own dissensions," writes Gilson, "and its dissensions multiplied from the time it took itself as an end instead of ordering itself toward that wisdom which was at the same time its end and its origin. Albertists, Thomists, Scotists, Occamists contributed to the ruin of medieval philosophy in the exact measure that they neglected the search for the truth by exhausting themselves in sterile battles... Medieval thought became only an inanimate corpse, a dead weight, under which the ground that it had prepared and on which alone it could build collapsed."

     After Duns Scotus and Occam, who had withdrawn the base elaborated by centuries, medieval philosophy died, as Greek philosophy, incapable of bearing Plotinus' "it requires no support" died, of terror. It could not bear the "limitless and lawless arbitrariness" which shone through the omne est bonum quia a Deo volitum et non ex converso of Scotus, that is, what constituted the very essence of "the metaphysics of the Book of Exodus" and what it was called precisely to proclaim: "the notion, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth, spontaneously ordered towards the Being who is at the same time the end and the origin," as Gilson so well expresses it."[3]

     It was not in vain that the Scholastics lived for so many centuries under the shadow of the Greek wisdom and its eternal, uncreated truths. Duns Scotus himself wished with all his powers "to know," and when his successors had to choose between the revealed truth and the self-evident truth, they turned away from the former and held out their hand toward the tree of knowledge, enchanted by the always seductive eritis scientes (you will know). And what was written came about: "medieval philosophy became an inanimate corpse, a dead weight." What then will be the end of modern philosophy? It is difficult to foresee this. But if it continues to see in the fruits of the tree of knowledge, as Hegel taught, the sole source that makes us participate in the truth, and if what is written is destined to be fulfilled, then we must believe that it also will not be able to avoid the fate of Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy. Or is Gilson deceived and is the "created truth" a contradictio in adjecto, just like the revealed truth of which the Fathers of the Church and the Scholastics have spoken to us so much and with such great enthusiasm?

[1] See Enneads, V, III, 12.
[2] See, for example, R. Seeberg's Die Theologie des Joh. D. Scotus, from whom I have borrowed the expression "schlechthinnige und regellose Willkür." According to him, although Scotus flinches from such reproaches when he denies that anything can be good in itself for the creature or throws out other scholastic quips of the same kind, the arbitrariness of God is in him limited by His bonitas.
[3]L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 64.

Orphus system

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