Christian Philosophy Par Excellence

St. Peter's Square
Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square

Christian Philosophy Par Excellence

The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy
By Etienne Gilson
University of Notre Dame Press, 2011
Reviewed by Todd Burud

The spirit of mediaeval philosophy is the spirit of
Christianity penetrating
the Greek tradition,…
drawing out of it a [Christian] view of the world

In 1586, Pope Sixtus V ordered that the Egyptian obelisk be moved 825 feet from its original location in Caligula’s circus (37 A.D.) to the location where we see it, today, in St. Peter’s square. The move required four months, 40 winches, 800 workers, and 140 horses (2). Originally made as a pagan solar symbol and inscribed “to the memory of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius” (3), the obelisk is now Christianized with a new inscription, “Christus Vincit, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebum suam defendat” (Christ conquers, He reigns, He commands; may He defend His people from all evil) (4). And a fragment of the true cross rests within the bronze cross surmounting its top.

Christianizing Greek philosophy

Similarly, mediaeval philosophers Christianized Greek philosophy. Most famously, St. Thomas Aquinas reconciled Christianity and the Greek philosophy of Aristotle. But mediaeval philosophy is more than Aquinas. So, in his book, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson defines “the spirit” of mediaeval philosophy, and in the process, finds it to be “Christian philosophy par excellence” (5).

What distinguishes the relationship between theology and philosophy?

According to philosopher, Jacques Maritain, theology is the knowledge or science of God, unattainable by reason alone (6). It reflects upon God’s revelation with reason enlightened by faith. On the other hand, philosophy—the highest of the human sciences (7)—is subordinate to theology and depends entirely upon reason. Gilson directs Christian philosophy to its eternal goal:

[T]he great superiority of Christianity lies in the fact that it is no mere abstract knowledge of the truth, but an efficacious way of salvation. (8)

Gilson also distinguishes between the God of Christianity and that of Aristotle. “The attributes of Aristotle’s God are strictly limited to those of thought. … [T]he first name of God is thought, and pure being is reduced to pure thought…” (9). Now, contrast Aristotle’s dry, impersonal conception of God with that of Christianity: “There is but one God and this God is Being, that is the corner-stone of all Christian philosophy…” (10). God’s Being is the pure act of existing (11) without dependence upon anything outside of Himself. He is Being in perfection, “perfect because He is” (12). And Being leads us to ontology.

Shakespeare asks the question (“to be…); Gilson supplies the answer.

Ontology—the study of being and reality—is an example of Christian philosophy at work. All things within our experience change; we either “acquire being or lose it” (13). We never reach a time in our lives when we don’t change. Our bodies grow, then deteriorate; our faith and obedience to God follows the ebb and flow of our broken nature.

St. Bonaventure wrote a beautiful prayer testifying to our inconstancy. The final sentence of his prayer voices our hope of finally shedding inconstancy (changeableness) in order to rest in God with perfect love: “In you may my mind and my heart be fixed and secure and rooted forever without any change” (14).

But, again, God is perfectly fulfilled, changeless, and lacks nothing. He is perfect Being. And our relationship to His perfect Being is to be dependent being. Gilson writes, “If God is Being, if He alone is Being, then all that is not God must of necessity hold its existence from God” (15).

It is because God is beautiful that things are beautiful; because He is good that they are good; because He IS that they are (16).

God creates, not that there may be witnesses to render Him His due glory, but beings who shall rejoice in it as He rejoices in it Himself and who, participating in His being, participate at the same time in His beatitude (17)

A tonic for our times.

Christian philosophy “overflow[s] the attributes of Aristotle’s in every direction” (18). It gives man an understanding of his worth—being from Being— and of his place in creation history. Have you lost the sense of the divine? Do you doubt your purpose and relevance in life? Christian philosophy helps you to understand your eternal destiny and the unique part you play in the totality of history (19), or rather, the history of salvation.

[I]t was the Christians who first of all conceived it: namely, to provide the totality of history with an intelligible explanation which shall account for the origin of humanity and assign its end (20).

The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy is an indispensable first step in the study of Christian philosophy. I say “first step”, not because it is introductory or basic, but because it is so clear and insightful. Its chapters represent 20 lectures given by Gilson at the University of Aberdeen in 1931 and 1932 (21). They’re not, according to Gilson, overloaded “with technical terms” and “not addressed solely to an audience of philosophers” (22). You will draw as much benefit from this book as the effort you’re willing to put into it. You will see Christian philosophy applied in daily life; you will see how good life can be.

Recommended reading:
The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Gilson; Light of Faith, Aquinas; An Introduction to Philosophy, Jacques Maritain; Fides et Ratio, St. Pope John Paul II

1. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson, viii
2. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Rome’s Principle Churches, Joseph Tylenda, 2
5. Spirit, vii
6. An Introduction to Philosophy, Jacques Maritain, 77
7. Ibid, 77
8. Spirit, 28
9. Ibid, 50
10. Ibid, 51
11. Ibid, 52
12. Ibid, 55
13. Ibid, 66
14. Daily Roman Missal, 2011, 2321
15. Spirit, 68
16. Ibid, 133
17. Ibid, 104
18. Ibid, 50
19. Ibid, 391
20. Ibid, 391
21. Ibid, vii
22. Ibid, 427

Christian Philosophy Par Excellence

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