HISTORIANS of mediaeval philosophy have to deal with the same problems and to use the same methods as any other historians of philosophy. The only point that is distinctive about their work is that they seldom read purely philosophical books. On the contrary, an historian of medieval theology would be unable to make much headway unless he has previously read a large number of philosophical books. A commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, or a Summa Theologica of the thirteenth century, is always an organic whole in which what reason knows about God and His creation is inseparable from the teaching of the revealed text. Philosophy and theol- ogy can always be found therein in a state of more or less
clear distinction, but never separated; when they did begin to resent their alliance as a suspicious promis- cuity, the breakdown of mediaeval culture was at hand.
If we look at the situation as a young student in theology saw it around the year 1320, it will appear to be rather confused. We have to imagine him as a thor- oughly religious man, primarily concerned with the sal- vation of his fellow man through the word of God, for such indeed was the reason why the best among those
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students wanted to study theology. To be sure theologi- cal teaching was plentiful in those years at the Uni- versity of Paris, but the problem was precisely to se- lect the best theology among the many that recommended themselves to one’s attention. Even the choice of a re- ligious order was not always enough to settle the prob- lem; a Franciscan could either stick to the old doctrine of St. Bonaventura, or he could decide in favour of Duns Scotus, unless he found it more advisable to enlist among the followers of Ockham. Were our man a Do- minican he could find at the very least three theolo- gies at his disposal. There were Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas; and people were beginning to talk about a German preacher by the name of Meister Eck- hart. There is never too much of a good thing, but there were too many varieties of the same thing, and the difficulty was that since Ockham was refuting Duns Scotus, the while Duns Scotus himself was correcting
Bonaventura, or Thomas Aquinas straightening out Albertus Magnus, they could not all be right at the same time. But who was right?
By far the easiest way to solve the problem was to decide that every one was wrong. Many theologians began to feel that there was a serious danger for the future of religion in those scholastic wars. If theology is the science of the word of God, it is unlikely that the solving of such highly intricate problems be required in order to achieve one’s own salvation. In short, the Gospel is both so simple and so safe that its teaching can only be weakened and obscured by such complica-
93
THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
tions. Therefore, from that time on, the slogan of many
theologians was to be: Back to the Gospel! To quote but
one name, the Dutchman, Gehrard Groot, was a par-
ticularly fine example of that attitude. He considered
the University of Paris as a place where a young man
not only could not learn theology, but was practically
bound to lose his faith, precisely because of the theolo-
gians. W h a t he would personally advocate, instead of
such dangerous studies, was the reading of the Bible,
of some Fathers of the Church, such as St. Jerome and
St. Augustine, and a solid training in classical Latin.
There was nothing radically new in his attitude. As
early as the thirteenth century the Franciscan poet,
Jacopone da Todi, was complaining that Paris, whereby
he meant the University of Paris, had already destroyed
Assisi; that is, the purity of simple Christian life. That
there were too much philosophy and too many theologi-
cal discussions, was then becoming a common complaint,
but Gehrard Groot did more than voice it. Himself a
second-rate thinker and but an indifferent writer, he
nevertheless succeeded both in expressing the inner as-
pirations of a large number of his contemporaries and in
giving them the support of a concrete institution. As a
Christian, his ideal was: contemptus saeculi et imitatio 1
humilis vitae Christi; his disciple, Florentius, handed it down to Thomas a, Kempis, and any one who remembers the three opening chapters of the Imitation of Christ can consider himself fully informed about the fourteenth-
!W. Mulder, Gerardi magni epistolae, Antwerp, 1933; pp. 26-36. On the imitation of Christ, p. 31. Cf. Karl Grube, Qehrard Grot und seine Stiftungen, Koln, 1883; pp. 67 and 91.
94
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century anti-scholasticism. But Gehrard Groot did more than that. At the personal request of Florentius, he organized at Deventer the first convent of the Broth- ers of Common Life, where his conceptions of truly Christian teaching were carried into execution. Geh- rard Groot’s ideal was still alive at Deventer when a young Dutchman went there in 1475 to stay until the end of his studies in 1484. His name was to become famous the whole world over as that of the greatest of all the Christian humanists: Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. We read in books and dictionaries that the school of Deventer “was one of the first in Northern Europe to feel the influence of the Renaissance”; it would be more true to say that the Deventer school was one of the first influences that brought about the so- called Renaissance. After the disruption of scholasti- cism, a simple return to the Bible and to the study of ethical problems was one of the few experiments that could still be attempted. But it could be tried in two different ways: by discrediting philosophy through criticism, or by merely decreeing that it was dead.
There was something to be said in favour of the first attitude. When theology is left without philosophy, philosophy itself has to be left without theology, and a philosophy which is allowed to go its own way is apt to brew trouble for the theologians. Averroes and his Latin followers had supported the view that philos- ophy, when it is given the liberty to follow its own methods, reaches necessary conclusions that are con- tradictory to the teachings of the theologians. Thir-
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THE MEDIAEVAL EXPERIMENT
teenth-century scholasticism had largely been an an- swer to the challenge of Averroes; unfortunately, the answer was far from being unanimous. Let us consider, for instance, two problems with which philosophers were equally concerned: the eternity of the world and the immortality of the soul. Averroes had proved that the world is eternal and that there is no personal im- mortality. All the Christian theologians protested against his conclusions and attacked his demonstra- tions, but not all in the same way. St. Bonaventura at- tempted to prove by philosophical arguments that the world is not eternal and that the soul of each man is immortal. St. Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that Averroes had failed to prove the eternity of the world, but that St. Bonaventura had also failed to prove that the world is not eternal; in short, philosophy cannot prove anything on that point, but it can prove the im- mortality of the soul. Duns Scotus’ position was that neither the creation of the world in time, nor the im- mortality of the soul could be proved by philosophers, but that both could be proved by theologians. As to Ockham himself, he was willing to hold such conclusions as philosophical probabilities, but not as conclusively proved truths; to which he added that what cannot be proved by philosophy can still less be proved by theol- ogy, where certitude is not grounded on reason, but on faith.
The result of that state of things was a widespread feeling that theology could not afford to ignore philos- ophy, but should not trust it. Philosophy could not be
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trusted since even the most carefully balanced of all doctrines, that of St. Thomas Aquinas, was far from being unanimously received; but neither could it be ignored since Averroes and his school boasted that they could disprove religious truth. Failing an agreement as to the way in which philosophy could be made use- ful, there arose a general impression that it should at least be made harmless. Now the easiest way to show that philosophy could not prove anything against re- ligion was to show that it cannot prove anything at all. Hence the current of metaphysical scepticism that runs through the late Middle Ages and whose presence can still be observed as late as the seventeenth century.
An interesting expression of that state of mind can be found in the writings of a rather obscure member of the University of Paris, Nicolas of Autrecourt. After living at the Sorbonne as a student between 1320 and 1327, he had become a lecturer in theology; but his teaching rapidly became suspect, so much so that a series of propositions extracted from one of his books was formally condemned by the Pope in 1346. Like Ockham himself and several famous Ockhamists, Nicolas had already fled for refuge to the court of King Louis of Bavaria, for there were political implications behind those abstract problems; but the only point with which we are now concerned is the philosophical attitude of
our theologian and in what sense it was a scepticism.
I do not think that there ever was a single man whose mental attitude could correctly be described as pure scepticism. One is always some one else’s sceptic, and
97
THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
the man to whom we give that name sometimes is such for lack of intellectual discipline and sometimes ap- pears as such because his standard of truth is more exacting than our own. Nicolas of Autrecourt was certainly not a sceptic in matters of religion; and neither was he a sceptic in matters of rational knowl- edge: on the contrary, he had very settled ideas as to what can be known and what cannot. In fact, his atti- tude on that point clearly shows the new ideal of ra- tional knowledge which was trying confusedly to ex- press itself in the school of Ockham. It was a rather crude empiricism, examples of which could still easily be found in our own days. Nicolas of Autrecourt never admitted more than two orders of evident knowledge:
what we can deduce from the principle of contradiction,
and what we perceive by sense, external or internal; but
he always maintained that such knowledge at least is evi-
dent. It must even be said that one of his main preoccu-
pations was to dispel the suspicion cast by Ockham and
some of his disciples on the absolute validity of intuitive
knowledge. In his first letter to the Franciscan Bernard
of Arezzo, Nicolas expressly states that what he is there
opposing is the thesis according to which: notitia in- 2
tuitive/, non requirit necessario rem existentem; whence it should logically follow that we cannot be certain of the existence of the external world, or even of our own acts.
I am quite willing to grant that Nicolas deserves to be praised for his worthy intentions of damming the
2
The texts are to be found in J. Lappe, Nicolaus von Autrecourt, sein Leben, seine Philosophie, seine Schriften, Munster, 1908; see pp. 2*-6*.
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rising tide of idealism and radical scepticism; but in his desire to save what little certain knowledge could be saved, he so severely restricted the field of rational cer- titude that practically nothing of it was left. If we suppose with him that the supreme rule of human knowledge is the principle of contradiction, there can be no degrees of evidence; we are equally sure of all that can be deduced from it, and we have no knowledge at all of that which cannot be deduced from it. Sup- posing then, that our sensible intuitions are unshakable facts, what can we conclude from them on the strength
of the principle of contradiction?
In the first place, from the fact that we know a cer-
tain thing is, it is impossible to infer that another thing is, which can be shown in the following way. It is pos- sible for one of these things to exist without the other, for the simple reason that it is not contradictory. Now from the fact that A is, nothing follows; for to say that if A is, then A is, is not an inference; but to say that if A is, then B is, is to say something that cannot be reduced
3
to the principle of contradiction. The upshot of this
attitude is to leave us with two utterly independent sources of evident knowledge of such a kind that neither of them can draw anything from the other. No wonder then if, when Nicolas undertook to test the validity of Aristotle’s conclusions in the light of his own prin- ciples, practically the whole body of classical metaphysics went to pieces. What is left of metaphysics if we keep only what is immediately perceived by sense, external or
*lbid., pp. 9»-i2».
99
THE MEDIAEVAL EXPERIMENT
internal, and deduced from it by the principle of contra-
diction only? As Nicolas writes to his correspondent,
Bernard of Arezzo: “In all his natural philosophy and
metaphysics, Aristotle has hardly reached two evidently
certain conclusions, perhaps not even a single one, and
likewise, or much less, Brother Bernard who is not better
than Aristotle.” More than that, if Aristotle never
reached any evident conclusions, he could not have even
probable ones; for nothing can be held as probable unless
it has first been evident. Now, for instance, the whole
physics of Aristotle rests on the assumption that every-
thing is either a substance or an accident; but who has
ever perceived a substance? If there were substances,
even peasants would see them. We don’t see them, and,
what is more, we cannot infer their existence from
what we call their properties, or accidents, for since
it has just been shown, that from the perceived exist-
ence of a certain thing, the existence of no other thing
can be concluded, there is no reason whatsoever to posit
unperceived substances behind their perceived acci-
4
dents.
If we go thus far, we shall have to go a little further, for a similar reasoning will clearly show that we have no evident knowledge of the fact that any thing, but God, can be the efficient cause of any other thing; we cannot even know if a natural efficient cause is merely possible; in short, after the notion of substance, we have to dismiss the notion of causality. For the same reason it is impossible to prove that a certain thing is the
*IUd., pp. 12*-13*. 100
THE BREAKDOWN
final cause of another thing, which eliminates purposive-
ness from the world. But if we dismiss both efficient
causes and final causes, what will be left of the classical
demonstrations of the existence of God? Obviously
5
nothing. As Nicolas says, insofar as evidence is con-
cerned, these propositions: God exists, and God does
8
not exist, signify absolutely the same thing.
It would be a serious mistake to consider Nicolas of Autrecourt as a mere revolutionist with nothing but destructive aims in mind. On the contrary, he was most anxious to destroy scholastic philosophy in order that he could build up something else in its place. His re- action was a typical instance of what usually happens when men begin to despair of philosophy. We cannot
live without ascribing some meaning to our existence, or act without ascribing some goal to our activity; when philosophy no longer provides men with satis- factory answers to those questions, the only means they still have to escape scepticism and despair are moral- ism, or mysticism, or some combination of both. Nicolas of Autrecourt was by no means a mystic; his was a clear case of religious moralism. His anti-metaphysi- cism was not prompted by any scientific ideal. In fact, I do not think that he ever suspected the tremendous possibilities which empirical methods of observation
would have opened to science; on the contrary, he was much more anxious to get rid of science as quickly as possible than to usher in an era of indefinite scientific progress. He felt thoroughly disgusted at the sight of
Hbid., pp. 32*-33*. mid., p. 37*.
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THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
good men wasting their lifetime, from youth to age, on Aristotle and Averroes; but he felt certain that the few things which it is useful for man to know about nature would be known in a short time if we looked less at books and more at things. Then the best among the members of the political community could devote their whole care to the highest interest of morals and religion. Were they to do so, they would keep peace and charity, the more perfect helping the less perfect by showing them what to do. Fully aware of how little they can know by the natural light of reason, such men would not sin by pride, but rather would purify both their hearts and their minds from the vices that breed igno- rance, such as envy, avarice, cupidity. At the end of a long life thus spent in the teaching of the divine law, such pure and wise men would be held by all as truly divine, and hailed as the spotless mirrors of the glorious
7
Obviously Nicolas of Autrecourt’s plan was to turn pure formal logic against philosophy, to the greater benefit of ethics and of practical religious life. Having borrowed from Aristotle himself the definition of a strictly necessary demonstration, he could easily apply it to the physics and metaphysics of Aristotle and show that not a single thesis of the Greek philosopher had really been demonstrated. A verroism, which professed to be an expression of the genuine thought of Aristotle, was thereby destroyed, and Christian truth was safe.
7
King of nature, the faithful images of His generosity.
N. of Autrecourt, imprinted treatise Exigit ordo executionis, init. 102
THE BREAKDOWN
This was no doubt a plausible method, but it was a rather dangerous one, for it implied that Christian dogmas could no more be supported by philosophy than endangered by it. Again, it was a costly method which obliged theologians to prove, by heaping up the most intricate philosophical arguments, that nothing had ever been proved by philosophers. Last, but not least, supposing that philosophy were effectually destroyed, logic would still remain, and how could a theologian forget that, together with grammar, logic had been the first discipline to bring about theological difficulties? Why not get rid of both philosophy and logic?
Such was to be the conclusion of one of the greatest Italian poets whose name is seldom quoted in our his- tories of mediaeval philosophy, Francesco Petrarca. Yet, if the forces that brought the career of mediaeval philos- ophy to an end are part of that history, he ought to be there. The French historian of Petrarch, Henri de Nol- hac, called him “the first modern man”; but Burckhardt also called Dante the first modern man, which shows that there have been at least two first modern men, each of whom was the very reverse of the other. For Dante was thoroughly scholastic in his culture, deeply learned in the philosophy of his time and a great admirer of Aristotle, “the master of those who know.” I even think, for that matter, that he was something of an Averroi’st. The second first modern man, Petrarch, was wholly dif- ferent. Fifteen years after the death of Nicolas of Autrecourt, he dictated to his secretary a little book
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THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
whose very title is a portent, On My Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. The most famous among those many others was Aristotle.
The date of the book is 1367, that is to say, two hun- dred and seventy years before the Discourse on Method of Descartes’, who is supposed to have been the first to throw off the yoke of Aristotle. That yoke did not weigh much on Petrarch’s mind. When some Aristo- telians started a philosophical discussion in his presence, Petrarch would “either remain silent, or jest with them, or change the subject.” Sometimes, Petrarch says, “I asked with a smile, how Aristotle could have known that, for it was not proven by the light of reason, nor could it be tested by experiment. At that they would fall silent, in surprise and anger, as if they regarded me as a blasphemer who asked any proof beyond the au- thority of Aristotle. So we bid fair to be no longer
philosophers, lovers of the truth, but Aristotelians, or rather Pythagoreans, reviving the absurd custom which permits us to ask no question except whether he said it. . . . I believe, indeed, that Aristotle was a great man and that he knew much; yet he was but a man, and therefore something, nay, many things, may have escaped him. I will say more. . . . I am confident, be- yond a doubt, that he was in error all his life, not only as regards small matters, where a mistake counts for little, but in the most weighty questions, where his supreme interests were involved. And although he has said much of happiness, both at the beginning and the end of his Ethics, I dare assert, let my critics exclaim
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as they may, that he was so completely ignorant of true
happiness, that the opinions upon this matter of any
pious old woman, or devout fisherman, shepherd or
farmer, would, if not so fine spun, be more to the point
8
than his.”
Therein lies the whole intellectual outlook of Pe-
trarch, as clearly expressed as possible. Some of his
contemporaries would accuse him of ignorance, because
he declined to take interest in philosophy; but the only
knowledge that really matters is that which can lead
man to happiness, and no book can teach it better than
the Gospel. Supposing one wishes to read something
else, why not try the works of Cicero? ‘Tis true that
Cicero also was a pagan, and his books are full of
the most dangerous errors; yet, everywhere he deals
with God and the marvels of His providence, Cicero
speaks much more as an apostle than as a philosopher.
Besides, what is the use of teaching virtue unless we
bring men to love it? Even when he is right, Aristotle
is cold, and he leaves us cold, whereas it is impossible
to read Cicero, or for that matter Seneca, without fall-
ing in love with the beauty of virtue and feeling a bit-
ter hatred against vice. If true philosophers are mas-
ters of virtue, Cicero and Seneca are the true philoso-
9
phers. Petrarch’s disgust for what he calls “the noisy
8
Petrarque, De ma propre ignorance et de celle de beaucoup d’autres. French trans, by L. Moulinier, F. Alcan, Paris, pp. 30-31.—I am in- debted for the English translation of this text to J. H. Robinson and H. W. Rolfe’s Petrarch, the First Modem Scholar and Man of Letters, New York and London, 1898; pp. 39-40.—The original Latin text has been edited by L. M. Capelli; Petrarque, le traite” De sui ipsius et mul-
torum ignorantia, Paris, H. Champion, 1906.
9
Petrarch, De ma propre ignorance . . . » pp. 63-65.
105
THE MEDIAEVAL EXPERIMENT
10
herd of scholastics”
of philosophy as a guide to the moral life. How indeed could we trust philosophy, if what Pythagoras had said a long time ago is true, that every philosophical prop- osition can be refuted as easily as it can be proved, even to this very proposition itself? Socrates modestly con- fessed: “There is but one thing I know, and it is that I know nothing”; and still he was bragging, for he could not even be sure of that, and Archelaus was right in adding: “for my own part I would not dare to affirm
11
that it can be affirmed that we know nothing.”
Such is the moralism of the humanists, one of the classical remedies for philosophical scepticism, which, in its turn, is the outcome of all errors concerning the nature of philosophy itself. The recurrence of certain philosophical attitudes is an historical fact. It cannot be explained away merely by resorting to the influence of a philosopher on another philosopher; first, because it is sometimes impossible to prove that a philosopher was ever acquainted with the doctrine which he repro- duces: it is impossible to prove that Descartes ever read St. Anselm; next, because there may be no ex- ternal or material resemblance between two doctrines whose central inspiration is nevertheless the same: Male- branche never read Al Ashari and had he read him, he would have considered his doctrine ridiculous, yet Malebranche himself repeated exactly Al Ashari’s un- dertaking; last, but not least, even when it has been
Wlbid., p . 68.
^Ibid., pp. 88-89.—Cf. another text in Robinson and Rolfe, op. cit, p p . 217-23.
106
was born of his complete mistrust
THE BREAKDOWN
proved that a man has yielded to a certain influence, the reason he did so has to be explained. Why do we rebel against certain influences while accepting some others? Not only do we accept influences, we sometimes welcome them as if, when at last they come, there had always been in us a secret hope that we might some day meet them. Reason never surrenders but to itself. Deep influences are not merely undergone, they are chosen, as in virtue of some selective affinity. Confronted with the same failure of philosophy to rise above the order of formal logic, John of Salisbury between 1150 and 1180, Nicolas of Autrecourt and Petrarch in 1360, Erasmus of Rotterdam around 1490, spontaneously conceived a similar method to save Christian faith. Logic was to them but an introductory discipline that one
had to know and eventually to use against the ambi- tions of philosophy, but which could throw no light on the really important problems. These are the moral problems, and their answer can always be found in the Gospel, in the Fathers of the Church, and in the pagan moralists to whom the Fathers themselves were so heav- ily indebted. Philosophy itself, conceived as a distinct discipline, should therefore be ruled out and invited to give way to practical ethics. That was one possible so- lution, but there was another which consisted in resort- ing to mysticism; not to rule out philosophy, but to transcend it.
Here again we might feel tempted to resort to his- torical influences as a possible explanation for the mys- tical tide that swept over the fourteenth and fifteenth
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THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
centuries. And it would certainly be a true explanation, for Pseudo-Dionysius, and therefore Plotinus, have played an important part in its development; but it would not be a complete explanation; for Dionysius had always been available since the translation of his writ- ings into Latin at the beginning of the ninth century, many theologians had written commentaries on his
works, and yet no one had ever found therein what the men of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were to read in his books. No one, except perhaps Scotus Eri- gena; but the periodical revivals of Erigena themselves are not without causes: his presence becomes perceptible every time, and as soon as some one needs him, whereas for those who have no use for him, he will stand for naught. I am not quite sure that Eckhart needed Eri- gena, but he certainly was predetermined to receive the message of Dionysius the Areopagite, and he received it gladly.
That God is infinitely above anything we can think and say about Him, was a universally accepted doc- trine in mediaeval theology. St. Thomas Aquinas had made it the very foundation of his doctrine. We do not know what God is, but only what He is not, so that we know Him the better as we more clearly see that He is infinitely different from everything else. This principle, however, can be used in two different ways. We can, with St. Thomas Aquinas, posit it at the beginning and at the end of our theology; it will then act both as a general qualification applying to all theological state- ments, and as an invitation to transcend theology, once
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we are through with it, by entering the depth of mys- tical life. Yet, between his initial statement that God is, strictly speaking, unknowable, and his ultimate endeav- our to experience by love that which surpasses human understanding, St. Thomas Aquinas never forgets, that if we do not know God, the reason is not that God is ob- scure, but rather that He is a blinding light. The whole theology of ,St. Thomas points to the supreme intelligi- bility of what lies hidden in the mystery of God. Now, if God is intelligible in Himself, what little we know about Him may be almost nothing, but it is not nothing, and it is infinitely more important than all the rest. In short, even when St. Thomas Aquinas uses reason as a means to a mystical end, he does not use it in a mystical way. Rea- son is made to throw light everywhere it shines; where darkness becomes invincible, reason gives way to love, and there is the beginning of mystical life. Not so with Eckhart. Fully convinced that if God is unknowable for us He must be unknowable in Himself, the German theo- logian was bound to use reason as a mystical means to a mystical end. Eckhart’s writings are full of dialectical arguments, and much of the material he uses is bor- rowed from St. Thomas Aquinas, but the spirit of Thomism is gone, for instead of being used as a light on the field of theology, philosophy has nothing else to
»do in Eckhart’s doctrine but to throw darkness upon God and so surround Him with the cloud of unknowing- ness. The God of Meister Eckhart is not posited as simply beyond the reach of human knowledge, but, in a true neoplatonic manner, as escaping all knowledge,
109
THE MEDIEVAL EXPEKIMENT
including His very own. Taken in Himself, God is die wiisste Gottheit, the wilderness of Godhead; and though it be true that God is eternally expressing Himself in an act of self-knowledge, the fact remains that God’s infinite essence is unfathomable, even to God, for He could not know Himself without turning His infinite essence into a definite object of knowledge. Now, con- sidered as known, the wilderness of Godhead is not only subjected to limitation, but to number; God as know- ing and God as known are two, so that God no longer is the simple and absolute Divinity. The only way to reach God, insofar at least as it is possible for us to do so, is therefore to transcend all mutual limitations and all distinctions; it is to go, not only beyond the multiplicity of finite things, but even past the Trinity of the divine persons. It is only when man reaches that silent wilderness where there is neither Father, nor Son, nor Holy Ghost, that His mystical flight comes to an end, for there lies the source of all that is: be- yond God, in the fullness of the Divinity.
Such an achievement would necessarily remain be- yond the grasp of even the greatest mystics, were it not that God has created man in His own image and likeness. There is, in each one of us, a spark of the di- vine essence, that shines upon the very apex of what we call intellect, and makes us partakers of the divine light. Uncreated and uncreatable as the Divinity itself, that spark is more one in us with its divine source than it is with the very intellect in which it dwells. In short, were man nothing but that light, he would be God.
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Such a mystical conception of human understanding was exactly what Eckhart needed in order to overcome all the distinctions that stand in the way of man’s abso- lute surrender to God. The divine spark is in us both as the source of our longing for God, and as the force that brings us back to God. Since it is God in us, it is the wilderness of God urging us from within, to seek Him beyond shape, place, time and even existence. Every particular thing, for as much as it is, is the negation of what it is not; how then could we raise God above all determinations and negations, unless we posit Him even above all affirmations ? God is so supremely existing, that He is nothing. Such is the deepest meaning of Meister Eckhart’s theology, whence it follows, that just as piety consists in ridding ourselves of all things for the love of God, theology consists in ridding God Himself of shape and shapeliness, things and thingness, existence and ex- istences, until we reach the absolute nakedness of His divinity.
We read in his Sayings, that “Meister Eckhart met a lovely naked boy. He asked him whence he came. He said, ‘I come from God.’ . . . ‘Who art Thou?’— ‘A King.’—’Where is thy kingdom?’—’In my heart.’ —’Mind no one shares it with Thee.’—’So I do.’— He took me to his cell and said: ‘Take any coat Thou wilt.’—’Then I should be no King’ (said he), and vanished. It was God Himself that he had had
12
with him a little spell.” The religious beauty of
2
l Fr. Pfeiffer, M. Eckhart’s Sermons, Leipzig, 1857; trans, by C.
de B. Evans, London, J. M. Watkins, 1924; Sermon 94, p. 235; Tract. XIX, p. 412; Sayings, p. 438.
Ill
THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
such lines is not only above criticism, it is even above praise. Yet, how could we forget that other naked boy, whom his friends had seen, not in a vision but in the flesh, giving back to his father what money he had left, to even the clothes he had on? The young Francis of Assisi also was a naked king, but his God was not a naked God; and that is why, having given up everything but God, he had both God and everything else: Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the air, and the cloud and the wind. As the God of St. Francis had not been stripped by man of his own intelligibility, creation itself re- mained intelligible, and desirable and lovable for the sake of its creator; but since the God of Eckhart was a wilderness, Eckhart’s nakedness was that of destitution, and like God Himself he could be but the king of a waste land.
This is exactly what nature had to become when, in the fifteenth century, Nicolaus Cusanus applied Eck- hart’s theological principles to philosophy. His main ambition was to bring to an early end the philosophical and theological dissensions which were then growing so dangerous for the unity of the Church. In point of fact, it was not difficult in those times to see that Christendom was threatened with ruin; but Nicolaus Cusanus was still hoping that the disaster could be avoided, if only men could bring themselves to look upon their quarrels as insignificant philosophical and theological differences. After all, what was it all about? Some of his contempo- raries felt convinced that they knew the whole truth con- cerning God; others, on the contrary, were busy proving
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that the first ones did not know anything about Him. Hence their endless disputes, followed by doctrinal con- demnations, heresies and schisms. Nicolas was clever enough to perceive that the trouble with those men was that the}’ were all equally dogmatic, no less in their negations than in their assertions.
When a man of critical mind undertakes to refute the conclusions of metaphysicians, he obviously labours under the delusion that there is in the mind an order of absolute truth, wholly different from metaphysical con- jectures. His critical attitude toward philosophy might change, however, were he a bit more critically minded, for then his first question would be: Is there any case in which exact and precise truth can really be arrived at? An exact truth would be an adequate mental pres- entation of its object; but the known object and its knowledge in the mind are two distant realities, and who has ever found in nature two things that were really two, that is to say, distinct, and yet identically alike? Likeness is always a matter of comparison, and therefore of degree and approximation. No thing so closely resembles another that a third one could not still more closely resemble it. In our comparisons there is always something that is like that, but that it is not and cannot be. Now if truth requires a perfect adequation of the knowing mind to the known thing, it is an in- divisible. There can be no question of more and less about it; either knowledge is absolutely identical with its object, and then it is true; or it is not wholly identi- cal with it, and then it is not at all true. But we were
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13 Chap. I.
THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
just observing that no two things could possibly be both distinct and identical at one and the same time. Consequently, truth is impossible.
This, of course, does not mean that any statement that can be made about a thing is no better than any other one. As soon as we rid ourselves of that truth obsession, we begin to deal with approximations that are comparable both to each other and to reality. Strictly speaking, they have no truth value, but grant- ing that all of them are excluded from that indivisible point, some of them are closer to it than others. In this sense, the notions of more and less regain their whole significance and do apply to our judgments. Each of them stands to truth in the same relation as a polygon of n sides to the circle; whatever the number of its sides, no polygon is a circle: it is not at all a circle; yet as you go on increasing the number of its sides, it grows less and less different from a circle, the which neverthe- less it will never be. Such also is human knowledge, and
to become more and more clearly aware of its nature is the proper task of the philosopher. Basically, philos- ophy is but a docta ignorantia: a learned ignorance, and the more we learn about our own ignorance, the
13
more we learn also about philosophy.
The same conclusion holds true if we turn from defi-
nitions to judgments, but for another reason. To judge is to affirm, or to deny, a certain relation between two things, or two different aspects of reality. Of course
Nic. Cusanus, De docta ignorantia, Bk. I, Chap. IV. Cf. Bk. II,
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one has to do it, but how far it takes us is another ques- tion. Whatever their different systems may be, almost all philosophers agree that the first cause of the world is God. Moreover, they describe God as the Absolute. If God is the Absolute, the cause of the world at least is secure from our judgments, for the Absolute is out- side and above all relations. It is therefore useless for us to resort to the principles of identity and of contradic- tion in order to ascribe something to God, or to deny something of His nature. There is nothing which the Absolute is not, but there is also nothing which the Ab- solute is without being at the same time everything else. It is correct to say, for instance, that God is a being than which no greater can be conceived, but if He is the Absolute, He must needs be at the same time, and for the same reason, a being than which no smaller can be conceived. God is the coincidence of opposites, and therefore He is above both the principle of identity and the principle of contradiction. In short, God is un- thinkable: “I have learnt that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt around with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein Thou dost abide. The door whereof is guarded by the most proud spirit of Reason, and, unless he be
14
The upshot of the situation is that our judgments are almost as powerless to express relations between things as they are to describe God. Taken all together,
14
Nic. Cusanus, The Vision of God, Chap. IXj trans, by E. G. Salter, London and New York, 1928, pp. 48-44.
vanquished, the way will not lie open.”
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THE MEDIAEVAL EXPERIMENT
things make up what we call the Universe. Now the Uni- verse is an effect whose cause is God. This is the very reason why it is a Universe, that is to say, not a mere plurality of unrelated things, but a universality of many- related things. The trouble is that, in point of fact, things are not only many-related, but universally re- lated. Taken as a whole, the Universe must bear to God the same likeness that all effects bear to their causes, and just as all the divine ideas are co-related, so also all the corresponding things must needs be co-related. More than that, since every one of the divine ideas is but a particular expression of God as a whole, so also must every particular thing be considered as a re- stricted but global expression of the Universe. The sun is the Universe in a restricted way, and the same thing can be said of the moon, and of the earth; in a word, the Universe is identical with itself in each particular
13
aspect of its diversity. From such a point of view,
even the old problem of the universals at last becomes intelligible, and that in virtue of its very unintelligibil- ity. What was the difficulty? It was, we remember, to understand how a certain species can be wholly present in every one of its individuals. But the whole world is so made, that each singular being is there the concrete expression of a totality! The old principle of Anaxag- oras still holds true: everything is in everything. The only difference is that we know much more clearly than Anaxagoras himself why his principle was true. God
15
Hoffmann and R. Klibansky, Leipzig, 1932; pp. 72-75.
Nic. Cusanus, De docta ignorantia, Bk. II, Chap. IV, ed. by E.
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is in the Universe as the cause is in its effect, and the
Universe is in God as effects are in their causes; more-
over, and for the same reason, the Universe is in every
one of its parts, for every one of its parts is the Uni-
verse, with the consequence that, as a restricted Uni-
verse, each particular thing is every other particular
16
thing.
Such as Nicoiaus Cusanus conceived it, the world was
in great danger of becoming almost as unthinkable as God Himself. However much we may regret it, human understanding is so made, that when it tries to conceive a thing as being both itself and its opposite, it ceases to understand. This, of course, was exactly the point which Nicolas wished to make; not in the least that the world is intelligible to us, and how, but rather that the world is not intelligible, and why. It is not intelligible, and such is necessarily the case, at least if it is to fulfill its proper function, which is to manifest a God who surpasses all understanding. The universal mystery of things is but a concrete expression of the supreme mys- tery of God.
Such was the last word of mediaeval philosophy, and I am far from being blind to its magnificence, or deaf to the secret truth of its message; I am merely pointing to the fact that it was a complete abdication of philos- ophy as a rational discipline. I do not say that the four- teenth and the fifteenth centuries were periods of ste- rility in the history of the human mind; on the con- trary, these late scholastics were obviously headed for
TMIbid., Bk.II,Chap.V,p.76;andBk.Chap.VIII,pp.88-89. 117
THE MEDIAEVAL, EXPERIMENT
entirely new and highly important discoveries. It is not by mere chance that the first attempts to prove that the earth is moving, or to give anything like a scientific description of motion itself, were the work of Ockham- ists; and no one can read Nicolaus Cusanus without feeling that with him, Pascal, Leibniz and the infinitesi- mal calculus had already become open possibilities. But was it impossible to pave the way to science without destroying philosophy?
This at least is a fact, that as soon as the scholas- tics gave up all hope of answering philosophical prob- lems in the light of pure reason, the long and brilliant career of mediaeval philosophy came to a close. Despite its great achievements in other fields, the sixteenth cen- tury counts for very little in the history of philosophy itself. And no wonder. Rational metaphysics was dead; positive science had not yet been born; nothing was left to which the men of those times could still resort, but imagination. This is the reason why, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus have still so much to tell us, Giordano Bruno, Telesio and Campanella have become hardly readable to anybody who is not professionally obliged to read them. Besides, the most sincere expres- sion of the philosophical attitude of the Renaissance is not to be found in such books. We find it rather in the endless list of treatises wherein an open philosophical scepticism was coupled with a more or less complete ab- dication of philosophy as a rational discipline. The generalized scepticism of the Renaissance was bound to follow from such doctrines as their necessary conclu-
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THE BREAKDOWN
sion. After Petrarch’s Confession of His Own Ignorance and Nicolaus Cusanus’ treatise on Learned Ignorance, Adriano di Corneto will prove in his De vera philo- sophia (1509), that Holy Writ alone contains true sci- ence and that philosophy cannot teach it. In 1535, an obscure man, who went by the name of Bunel, was maintaining that nothing is less safe than philosophy, whether it deals with natural or moral problems; now that same Bunel once presented an old man with a copy of the Natural Theology of Ramon Sebond, and that old man in turn asked his son to translate it from the Latin into French; which was done. The name of the young translator was Michel de Montaigne: Mon-
taigne, the sceptic in Emerson’s gallery of represen- tative men. The first edition of the famous Essays was published in 1580, soon followed, in 1581, by the Noth- ing Known of Sanchez, and in 1601 by the first edition of Charron’s book, On Wisdom, which was but a bet- ter ordered exposition of Montaigne. Even leaving aside the publication of Sextus Empiricus’ Hypotyposes, and so many other treatises which it would be easy to cite, the most superficial glance at the literature of that period attests the complete triumph of a universal scepticism.
Analyzing the philosophical situation as it was around 1340, an ideal observer could safely have predicted the complete breakdown of scholastic philosophy. Nothing is easier for us than to show in a few sentences how those events came to pass, and why similar results may safely be expected every time philosophers make the same mistakes. It does not even require a demonstra-
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THE MEDIEVAL EXPERIMENT
tion to make it clear; it is a flat truism that all attempts to deal with philosophical problems from the point of view, or with the method, of any other discipline will inevitably result in the destruction of philosophy itself. Yet such abstract statements usually fail to convince those who hear them, and sometimes even those by whom they are made. One of the greatest uses of his- tory of philosophy is precisely that it brings us their experimental demonstration. By observing the human mind at work, in its failures as well as in its successes, we can experience the intrinsic necessity of the same connections of ideas which pure philosophy can justify by abstract reasoning. Thus understood, the history of philosophy is to the philosopher what his laboratory is to the scientist; it particularly shows how philoso- phers do not think as they wish, but as they can, for the interrelation of philosophical ideas is just as inde- pendent of us as are the laws of the physical world. A man is always free to choose his principles, but when he does he must face their consequences to the bitter end. During the Middle Ages, the exact place of phil- osophical speculation had been clearly defined by St. Thomas Aquinas; nothing, however, could have obliged his successors to stay there; they left it of their own accord, and they were quite free to do so, but once this had been done, they were no longer free to keep phi- losophy from entering upon the road to scepticism. The Renaissance at last arrived there. But man is not naturally a doubting animal; when his own folly con- demns him to live in uncertainty concerning the highest and most vital of all problems, he can put up with it for a certain time; but he will soon remember that the problems are still there clamouring for solutions. Usu- ally a young hero then arises who decides that the whole business has to be done all over again, like Descartes; he may eventually start his experiment by the same blunder that had brought on both scepticism and his own struggle to get out of it, like Descartes; so that the same old cycle will have to revolve in the same old way until philosophers are willing to learn from experi- ence what is the true nature of philosophy.

Etienne Gilson

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