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


     When it is a question of biblical faith, we must above all recall the words of the prophet Habakkuk (II, 4), "the righteous shall live by faith," words which St. Paul repeats in the Epistle to the Romans (I, 17) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (X, 38). How little these resemble the credo ut intelligam and the si non credideritis, non intelligetis of the Septuagint! Faith, in the prophets and apostles, is the source of life; faith, in the philosophers of the Middle Ages educated by the Greeks, is the source of the knowledge that understands. How can one not recall in this connection the two trees planted by God in the Garden of Eden? And as if he did not wish to allow any doubt to exist about the respective place of faith and knowledge in the scale of values, the apostle says almost immediately after citing Isaiah's words: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out unto a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went (Hebrews XI, 8.) ." Here is something that unconditionally contradicts the teaching of the Greeks. Plato opposed to those who "know not where they are going" the philosophers who, being convinced that one cannot do what philosophy forbids, follow it wherever it leads them.[1]

     It would be too easy to multiply quotations to prove that what St. Paul said of Abraham, who went he knew not where, would have appeared to the Greek thinkers the height of folly. And even if Abraham had arrived at the Promised Land, his act, in the judgment of the Greeks, would have been as absurd as if he had not arrived anywhere. What vitiates his act, in their eyes, is precisely what confers its immense value upon it, according to the apostle and the Bible: Abraham does not ask reason, he refuses to admit the legitimacy of the pretensions of knowledge. With what scorn Socrates in the Apology expresses himself concerning the poets, the prophets, the diviners: "those who do what they do not by reason but in obedience to nature or in enthusiasm." "I have left them," he concludes, "believing that I have over them the same advantage as over the politicians."[2] And in the Timaeus (the well-known passage 71E) and in his other dialogues, Plato turns away always from the "divine fate without reason," e.g., Meno, 99C or again the Phaedo (aneu philosophiâs te kai nou). What strikes and charms the apostle in Abraham, what he sees in him as the highest virtue, appears to Plato as a truly criminal frivolity. How indignant he and Socrates would have been if it had been given them to read what St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans: "For what saith the Scripture? 'Abraham believed God and this was imputed unto him for righteousness.'" (Romans IV, 3.)

     Celsus reflects very precisely the attitude of the Graeco-Roman world toward the fundamental principles of the new doctrine that irrupted into the world. The Greek wisdom could admit neither Abraham, the father of faith, nor St. Paul, nor the prophets of the Bible to whom the apostle constantly refers. The indifference, the "proud" scorn of knowledge, would be pardoned neither in this world nor in the other. St. Paul and his Abraham are only pitiful "haters of reason," who must be fled like the plague. It is impossible, on the other hand, to try to console oneself by saying that St. Paul was not a "thinker" and that he was concerned only with saving his soul. For the Greek philosophy (and Clement of Alexandria along with it, as we recall) believed that knowledge was the only way to salvation: "To him who has not philosophized, who has not purified himself through philosophy and who has not loved knowledge, it is not given to unite himself with the race of the gods." [3] If Abraham and St. Paul are not "thinkers," if they do not love and seek knowledge, they will never obtain salvation. The Greeks knew this well and they would never have agreed to grant anyone the right to raise and resolve the question of knowledge and the salvation of the soul: Aristotle has told us that philosophy itself resolves all questions. But St. Paul, for his part, would not have given in to the Greeks. The Greek philosophy was for him foolishness and he proclaimed, as Gilson says, "the bankruptcy of the Greek wisdom." In the Epistle to the Romans (XIV, 23) he expresses himself with still greater power: "All that does not come of faith is sin." And in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (V, 7) he says: "For it is by faith that we walk and not by sight."

     It is no longer a question only of the bankruptcy of the Greek wisdom but of a terrible danger. The Greeks await salvation from their wisdom founded on knowledge, but they are going to their ruin, for salvation comes from faith, from nothing but faith.[4] It is difficult not to see that there is a direct connection between the discourse of the apostle, the words of the prophets and the acts of the patriarchs, on the one side, and the story of the fall of Adam in the Book of Genesis, on the other side.

     It is still more difficult to assume that the relationship between faith and knowledge established by the medieval philosophy was borrowed from the Bible. On the contrary, it is clear that the "first principles" of the Greeks choked the essential truth of the biblical "revelation." Not only is not faith a lower form of knowledge, but faith abrogates knowledge. The father of faith went out without knowing where he was going. He had no need to know: where he would arrive, and because he would there arrive, would be the Promised Land. Obviously there could not be any greater folly as far as the Greeks were concerned. This is Tertullian's certum est quia impossibile (it is certain because it is impossible). All the definitions of truth given by Aristotle (and those which later were expressed in the formula of Isaac Israeli, accepted by the Middle Ages, that truth is adaequatio rei et intellectus) are overthrown. It is not man who adapts himself to things and submits to them; it is things that adapt themselves to man and submit to him. Things will bear the name that man gives them: the veritates aeternae, veritates emancipatae a Deo (including the principle of contradiction), on which are founded and which guarantee the solidity and stability of the "knowledge" apotheosized by the ancient world, let man escape from their clutch.

     It is to be assumed that the ancients would have been amazed (and perhaps even indignant) if they had read in the Bible that the Son of Man proclaims himself master of the Sabbath. No one can call himself master of the law. And still less has anyone the right to say that the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath. This is even worse than Protagoras' statement "man is the measure of all things." It is destruction of the eternal and immutable order of the universe, of that ordo which is dear to the Greek heart. The Sabbath is not holy because God so ordained it, but it is because the Sabbath is holy that God ordained the commandment "Remember the Sabbath day." The holy is uncreated and exists from all eternity, just like the true; the eternal truths are the uncreated Sabbaths and the uncreated Sabbaths are the eternal truths. But what would particularly have revolted the Greeks is that Jesus permitted himself to transgress the commandment for a reason so completely insignificant - his disciples were hungry. Now, for a philosophic Greek - and it is in this that his wisdom and the good news that reason brought into the world consisted - the joys and sufferings of men belong entirely to the domain of being independent of, and consequently indifferent to, us of which the Stoics have spoken so much, or to the afflictions and passions from which Plato's catharsis has delivered us.

     Epictetus was convinced that if Socrates had found himself in the situation of Priam or Oedipus, his customary calm would not have abandoned him. He would have uttered the words that he spoke in prison: if the gods wish it, let it be so! Socrates would certainly have spoken in the same way to Job if he had been among his friends (furthermore, Job's friends themselves realized what they had to say to him). But the Bible speaks quite otherwise: "the very hairs of your head are all numbered." (Matthew X, 30.) This does not mean that God is a good accountant who keeps his books carefully but that God comes to man's help and does so precisely in situations of which, according to the teachings of the Greeks, neither God nor men have even the right to dream. A woman approaches him. He heals her and adds, "Be of good comfort, my daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole." (Matthew IX, 22.) And we read again, "Oh, woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And from that very hour her daughter was made whole." (Matthew XV, 28.) To the blind who had come to him, he addresses these puzzling words: "According to your faith be it unto you." (Matthew IX, 29.) All these quotations, which could be multiplied many times, assuredly show that man acquires through faith something that is as far removed from the catharsis of the Greeks as from their gnosis. And these words of Jesus express this with special power (Matthew XVII, 20, Mark XI, 23, and Luke XVII, 6.): "For verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain 'Remove hence to yonder place'; and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible for you."

     It is easy to imagine the indignation that such words aroused among minds imbued with Greek culture; the calmest among them were not content with the Aristotelian "the poets lie a great deal." Even in our age Hegel, the "Christian" philosopher, was not ashamed to repeat in a less important context the cynical sarcasms of Voltaire. But it is not this aspect of the question that interests us here. Let us leave some to mock the Bible while others ask with admiration, Who is he who speaks as one who has power? What is important for us is that the faith of Scripture has absolutely nothing in common with faith as the Greeks understood it and as we now understand it.

     The faith of the Bible is not the trust that we put in a teacher, in parents, in superiors, in a doctor, etc., which is really only a substitute for knowledge, a knowledge on credit, a knowledge not guaranteed by proofs. When one says to a man, "according to your faith be it unto you or "if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing will be impossible for you," it is clear that this faith is a mysterious, creative power, an incomparable gift, the greatest of all gifts. And if furthermore, as in the examples already cited, the gift relates not to the domain that the Greeks called ta eph'hêmin, that is, what depends on us, but to what is outside our power (ta ouk eph' hêmin) - faith being capable of healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, even of moving mountains - then there cannot be any doubt that the faith of the Bible determines and forms being and thus abolishes knowledge with its "possible" and "impossible."

     Socrates was right to demand of men knowledge for, like Aristotle,[5] like the Stoics, like all the Greek philosophers, he was dominated by the conviction that there exists an immense realm of being which is subject neither to men nor to the gods themselves - "that which is not in our power." And if this conviction really came to him from heaven, like his "know thyself," and was not inspired by a hostile force ("you shall be like God knowing"), then not only is it "blameworthy to believe contrary to reason" but it is also scandalous to believe "without philosophy and understanding," and everything that the Bible tells us about faith must be rejected.

     As for the teaching of St. Paul, who says that "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans III, 28), this is immoral and revolting. And, in general, most of the ideas that he develops in his epistles and the quotations from the Old Testament with which his reflections are interspersed can awaken in educated people only feelings of irritation and revulsion. One could even say that he seeks deliberately to provoke the ancient wisdom as well as the traditional piety. He quotes (Romans IX, 15) the words addressed by God to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion," and adds, "so then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And again: "Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and him whom He will He hardeneth."[6] To all the "objections" that might be made against him, he opposes only Jeremiah's words: "Nay, but who art thou, 0 man, that repliest against God?" (Romans IX, 20.) Referring to the patriarchs and the prophets, St. Paul dares to say, "the law entered that the offense might abound." (Romans V, 20.) Or still again (Romans IV, 15): "Because the law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression." And finally (Romans X, 20) : "But Isaiah is very bold and saith: 'I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest to them that asked not after me.'"

     For the Greeks and the medieval thinkers who followed them, the words of Isaiah resounded like a terrible condemnation: vain are all our searchings, all our demands! God reveals Himself, God will reveal Himself, to him who does not seek, to him who does not ask. What more terrible thing can there be? What good, then, is Plato's catharsis, the Stoics' struggle, the monks' exercitia spiritualia, and the rigorous itineraria of the martyrs, ascetics and mystics? Will all these tremendous, superhuman and glorious works then have served for nothing? Is it possible to "defend," through rational arguments, the God of the Bible against these accusations that are so well founded on rational thought? Obviously not. One can only try to rid oneself of reason and its arguments as Pascal did: "humble yourself, impotent reason." Our conviction that self-evidence guarantees the truth appears to Pascal an enchantment et assoupissement surnaturel into which our thirst for knowledge has plunged us. "If you wish to subject everything to yourself, subject yourself to reason," says Seneca in the name of the ancient philosophy. And it seems to us that this is the supreme wisdom: we submit joyously to the obligation that is imposed on us. But the Bible speaks quite differently. To the offer - "All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me" - it is answered: "Get thee hence, Satan! For it is written (Deut. VI, 13): 'Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.'" (Matthew IV, 10.) It is in this that the essential opposition between the "truth" of the Greeks and the "revelation" of the Bible consists. For the Greeks the fruits of the tree of knowledge were the source of philosophy for all time, and by this very fact they brought men freedom. For the Bible, on the contrary, they were the beginning of enslavement and signified the fall of man.

     Considering the difficulties that the biblical conception of the role and meaning of this cupiditas scientiae that lives in us presents, this is the time, it seems to me, to recall what Dostoevsky wrote on this matter. Dostoevsky certainly did not possess the erudition of a Pascal, and he was not very learned in theology and philosophy. But in the course of the four years that he spent in prison he read only the Bible, for he had no other book. And he drew from this reading the same hatred, the same scorn that Pascal had for "rational arguments." He also sees in the self-evidences of our thought only an enchantment, only a stupefaction of the spirit.

     "The impossible," he writes, "is a stone wall. What kind of stone wall? But, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of the natural sciences, mathematics. The moment that it is demonstrated to you, for example, that you are descended from an ape, it is useless to make any grimace, admit the thing as it is... Permit me if you will, someone will cry to you: it is impossible to debate the matter - it is two times two make four! Nature does not consult you, it has no concern for your desires. And what does it matter to it whether these laws please you or not? A wall is a wall, etc. But, good Lord! What do the laws of nature and of arithmetic matter to me when, for some reason or another, they do not please me? Of course, I shall not break the wall with my head, if I really have not the power to break it, but I shall not accept it, I shall not resign myself to it, merely because it is a stone wall and I lack the power. As if such a stone wall were an appeasement and contained but a word of peace merely because it is two times two makes four." [7]

     Translated into philosophic language, these overwhelming words constitute a defense that is decisive and unique of its kind against those universal and necessary judgments to which, according to Kant, our reason so avidly aspires, or against those "wherefore" (dioti) which are for the Stagyrite the very essence of knowledge (in Spinoza, tertium genus cognitionis or intelligere) and because of which St. Augustine and the Scholastics agreed to believe. With an audacity and clear-headedness that we seek in vain in the author of the Critique of Pure Reason and in the maestro di coloro che sanno (the master of all those who know), Dostoevsky hurls himself in an attack on the "eternal truths." And he attacks them precisely from the side which seemed "naturally" defended and consequently inaccessible. Before the wall, he says, men who are philosophically cultivated, that is, schooled by the Greeks, "bow down in all sincerity... A wall for them has something calming, final, perhaps even mystical about it." Dostoevsky did not know Aristotle's metaphysics, he did not know his "Necessity does not allow itself to be convinced" and his "cry halt before Necessity"; but, if he had known them, he could not have better revealed and appreciated the meaning and content of the Stagyrite's philosophical endeavors. How did it happen that the greatest of the philosophers saw in the stone wall and in "two times two makes four" the final and supreme power and, what is more, prostrating himself before them, worshipped them?

     Dostoevsky raises a question which must be considered as the basic question of the critique of pure reason but from which Kant, following the example of his predecessors, turned aside: the question of the conclusive value of proofs, of the source of that constraint which the self-evidences exercise. From where does this constraint come? Dostoevsky discovered in the Bible what, according to Gilson, the medieval philosophers had discovered there: "The divine law exercises no constraint on the will of man... It is established that freedom is an absolute absence of constraint, even in relation to the divine law."[8] God does not constrain, but "two times two makes four" and the stone walls do constrain, and they constrain not only man but also the Creator. We have already heard enough about what "does not fall under God's omnipotence." Precisely because Necessity constrains, that is, is deaf to persuasion, men have seen in it something "calming, final, mystical even." Indeed, it is difficult for us to admit that an indoctus (unlearned man) should have been able to show such penetration and raise the basic problem of the metaphysics of knowledge. When Kant speaks of reason that aspires avidly to universal and necessary truths, when Aristotle writes at the beginning of his Metaphysics the famous phrase "by nature all men desire to know," they admit in advance and bless the constraint that flows from knowledge.

     The doctor subtilis himself - whose doctrine of freedom amounts almost to admitting the existence in the very bosom of being of a lawless, limitless arbitrariness - cannot prevent himself from adoring that constraining truth that is the condition sine qua non of knowledge. He defends his "freedom" by having recourse to the same means that are used for defending other truths: it cannot be found in pejoris conditionis (a worse condition). He writes: "Those who deny a contingent being are to be exposed to torture until they concede that it is possible not to be tortured." When Epictetus, to rid himself of those who dispute the principle of contradiction, is not content with referring to the self-evidences and appeals to more energetic means, to threats of violence, this is still understandable. One lets him pass, for he is considered only one of the dei minores of philosophy.

     But Duns Scotus is not Epictetus, neither is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Duns Scotus is an extraordinarily keen and perceptive philosophical mind, a dialectician of genius. And yet, he also is obliged to have recourse to brutal physical constraint. If the truths did not possess for their defense anything but ideal proofs, if it were not given them to realize their rights through constraint and violence, there would not be much left of our so apparently solid knowledge. The God of the Bible constrains no one, but the truths of rational knowledge do not resemble the God of the Bible and do not even wish to resemble him: they constrain, and how they constrain! Self-evidence is only a hypocritical sine effusione sanguinis (without effusion of blood) behind which pyres and tortures are hidden. And, let it be said by the way, this is what explains for us the paradoxical fact that the Christianity of the Middle Ages could have given birth to the Inquisition. If one can, if one must, defend the revealed truth by the same means as those employed to defend the truths obtained by natural reason, it is impossible to do without tortures, for the self-evident truths also rest, in the final analysis, on constraint.

     The Greek philosophy stops here, as does the Critique of Pure Reason. But Dostoevsky feels that one cannot stop, that it is precisely here that the critique begins. "Two times two makes four (that is, the self-evident truths)," he writes, "is no longer life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death. In any case, man has always been afraid of the two times two makes four and I also am still afraid of it now." And suddenly he allows this to escape: "Two times two makes four is an insolence, two times two makes four rises across your way with hands on its hips and spits at you. The self-evidences and the reason which aspire so eagerly to self-evidence do not "satisfy" Dostoevsky, they "irritate" him. When he finds himself before the self-evident truths, he insults them, mocks them, sticks out his tongue at them. He wishes to live not according to rational freedom but according to his own "foolish" freedom. Such a pretension appears to us, to speak politely, absolutely paradoxical: we cannot admit such objections. Before reason and the truths that it reveals our teachers stood as if petrified, and they have taught us the same attitude. Bewitched by the fruits of the tree of knowledge which the Bible agrees were pleasant to the eyes and desirable to look at, not only Plato, that poetic and enthusiastic mind, but even the sober Aristotle, "moderate to excess," composed incomparable hymns to the glory of reason.

     I cannot stop at length on this matter, but to show to what a degree the great representatives of the Attic genius found themselves dominated by the metaphysics of being that they had discovered, I shall recall to the reader these lines of the Ethica Nicomachea which, along with other passages of the same Ethics and the Metaphysics, express what determined the searchings of the Greek philosophy: "The activity of God, the blessedness of which surpasses everything, is purely contemplative, and among human activities the most blessed of all is that which most nearly approaches the divine activity."[9] If, as Gilson indicates,[10] the words "this is the perfection of man-likeness to God" express St. Thomas Aquinas' thought, then Plato's catharsis ends in "making oneself as like God as possible."[11] Aletheia - the truth which was opened up to the Greeks (a-lanthanein), is the immutable essence of being behind the changing appearances of the world accessible to all, and the contemplation of this essence dominated all their thoughts and desires. But even though he belonged to these simplices and indocti of which St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas spoke, or, to put it better, precisely because he had conversed for so many years with the simplices and indocti who brought the Bible to the world, Dostoevsky discovered that the contemplation glorified by the Greeks consisted in the worship of the stone wall and of the petrifying "two times two makes four" and that under the much-vaunted freedom of philosophical search there was hidden an enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel.

     Yet what could Dostoevsky do? It is impossible to argue. Aristotle stops him cleanly with his "one can say this, but one cannot think it"; and Duns Scotus himself is not ashamed to declare "he is not to be argued with, but told that he is irrational." But in the final analysis, it is not others that Dostoevsky mocks, it is not with others - with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - that he argues; it is with himself that he enters into battle, in himself that he tries painfully to overcome the fallen man and that cupiditas scientiae which Adam, who tasted the fruits of the forbidden tree, transmitted to us. This is why he had to say - no, not to say, but to cry: "I insist on my caprice and that it be guaranteed to me!" Or again: "I wish to live according to my foolish will and not according to the rational will." He sought to escape from the temptation "you will be like God, knowing" and the "all these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me," as well as from that unconquerable fear before the "lawless and limitless arbitrariness of God" which was, it seems, inspired by the tempter in the first man and which became our second nature after the fall. "Hear, 0 Israel" signifies precisely that everything depends on the will of God - omnis ratio veri et boni a Deo dependet. This is why it is written: "thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve." And he only will be able to free himself "from the bondage of corruption" (Romans VIII, 21.) who will overcome the fear before the boundless arbitrariness of God which our reason inspires in us and dissipate the enchantment of the eternal, uncreated truths. He only will be able to cry with the prophet: "Death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?"

[1] Phaedo, 82D.
[2] Apology, 22C.
[3] Phaedo, 82C.
[4] St. Augustine at times allowed himself to become infected with the "foolishness" of St. Paul's faith. He did not write, it is true, the phrase that is so often attributed to him, virtutes gentium splendida vitia sunt, but potius vitia sunt. The idea is there, nevertheless.
[5] Cf. Eth. Nic. (1111b, 20): "Man does not aspire to the impossible, and if he does, everyone will consider him weak in mind." From this follows: "to aspire only to what is in our power."
[6] It is known that the text of Exodus (X, 20), "The Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart," gave a great deal of trouble not only to the theologians but also to the philosophers, and particularly to Leibniz.
[7] Notes from the Underground, 1st Part, Chapter III.
[8] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 99.
[9] Eth. Nic. 1178b, 21. When Karl Werner said of Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his tremendous work written with so much respect and love, that his conception of beatitude is only the transcription into Christian language of the Aristotelian conception of the beatitude of contemplative activity, he had certainly in mind this passage of the Ethics that I have just quoted as well as certain corresponding passages of Aristotle's Metaphysics.
[10] L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, II, 85.
[11] Theaet., 176A.

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