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From Theology to Philosophy in the Latin West

Philip Sherrard, The Greek East and the Latin West - A Study in the Christian Tradition, Oxford Univ. Press 1959 p. 112- 117

The divorce of revelation and reason, metaphysics and science, implicit in the philosophy of St. Augustine and fully recognized in that of the Scholastics, both indicates to what extent the theoretical basis of the Christian realization was weakened in the West by the nature of much Western medieval theology itsel, and also prepared the ground consequently for the whole revolution of thought which was so to modify Western society and culture. Ιη fact, already in the work of Aquinas was a complete restatement of an Aristotelian theory of knowledge. With it went the conception that the sensible world, that of nature, possesses a logical structure in and for itself, the observation of which could lead -was indeed the only method that could lead- to man's acquiring a notion of divine realities; for these, it is thought, are indicated in the logical order of the created world. God is entirely simple, eminent, and transcendent; as such, in the ontological order. He surpasses the whole created world, and, consequently, the whole logical order of things; and since human knowledge is limited to the logical order, He entirely surpasses our knowledge and is incomprehensible. At the same time, although participative and intuitive knowledge of God is thus beyond our scope, we can nevertheless know God in the logical order, that alone to which our knowledge refers, by analogy. Causes are in a certain manner reflected in their effects; therefore, since God is the cause of the created world, of the logical order, we can in a certain manner know Him in it : those logical characteristics we can discern in nature, such as measure, form, and order (modus, species, ordo ) (1), which reflect what our reason tells us must necessarily be the ontological perfections of a God who is perfect Being, will give us an analogical knowledge of God. We can know the analogy, the logical characteristic of the created effect, without knowing the cause, the ontological perfection of the transcendent God. The analogy is the means through which a thing is indicated; what is indicated is itself unknowable.

These assumptions, that we can have no participative and intuitive knowledge of God and that, consequently, our only possible knowledge of Him is an analogical knowledge derived from the sensible world, had the effect, as we remarked, of shifting attention from vision to observation, from the inward presence to the outward present: as another philosopher, Adelard of Bath, could put it: ' Ι do not detract from God, for everything that is, is from Him, and because of Him. But [nature] is not confused and without system, and human science should be given a hearing ο n those points which it has covered (2). The metaphysical question, about why things happen, gradually gave place to the 'physical' question, about how things happen, and this, it was felt, could be answered by a correlation of the facts -by any means, logical or mathematical, that was convenient. Indeed, what became important now was precisely a systematic theory according to which the sensible world could be observed, and through which the validity of the conclusions derived from such observation could be demonstrated; and this already in the Middle Ages was achieved by uniting the experimental habit of the practical arts long present in the West with the rationalism of Scholastic philosophy. Before the end of the Middle Ages -before, that is, the opening of the fourteenth century- the ways of thought we have been noting had made possible the formation of a systematic theory of experimental science understood and practised by enough philosophers for their work to produce the methodological revolution to which modern science owes its origin (3). And it did not involve a great step for Descartes and the buccinatores n ου i temporis of the seventeenth century when, adding fresh confusion to old misunderstanding, they took the new science out of the now purely theoretical and abstract framework of Christian metaphysics and reversed the situation by placing 'metaphysics' within the framework of science itself.
For if Descartes may be called the father of modern secularist science, then he owes this title to the fact that tendencies long present in the West, and which had already produced such manifestations of their presence as the philosophical developments of which we have been speaking, find through him their full expression. Seen in the perspective of these developments, the chief step taken by Descartes consisted, first, in formally according to the mind the independence of the Divine which it had in fact long since in all but name exercised; and second, and more important, in attributing to its norms an absolute prerogative in the matter of truth and knowledge. There is, indeed, a curious inner dialectic linking the thought of Augustine, Aquinas, and Descartes. Augustine had asserted the independence of the mind in relation to sensible things, regarding its knowledge as innate, but had insisted that it was only in the light of the eternal essences themselves that it could perceive the rightness or wrongness of its ratiocinations. Aquinas, ο n the other hand, asserted the independence of the sphere of human knowledge from that of what he called angelic knowledge, but had insisted that, while the latter is entirely transcendent in relation to the former, human knowledge itself is dependent ο n sensible objects, and cannot exist without them. Finally, Descartes not ο nly reasserted Augustine's claim that the mind and its knowledge are independent of sensible things, but he also carried to its extreme the independence attributed by Aquinas to human knowledge in relation to angelic knowledge by dismissing the latter altogether and by attributing the characteristics of angelic knowledge, those of the spiritual intellect, to the human reason itself.
This last remark needs perhaps to be made more clear, especially as it throws into relief the whole change in understanding produced in the West as a result of the developments we have been considering. We have seen that, according to the Christian tradition, the knowledge of the spiritual intellect is intuitive, innate, principial, and independent of external things. It is a knowledge which comprehends things in a truly universal sense, not through knowing their abstractions, which is what constitutes universality for Aristotle and Aquinas, but through knowing them as it were α priori by knowing their divine principles, and this not in an abstract or conceptual way, but by participation. These divine principles, in the light of which the intellect knows external objects, are creative or operative energies, causes through which things are made; and what is seen in such a cause is not something drawn from external objects and transported into the knowing mind, but is the creative Spirit itself according to which things are brought into, and sustained in, existence. Such knowledge is entirely supra-rational and, what amounts to the same thing, supra-individual; where 'natural', rational, and individual man is concerned, in whom the spiritual principle is obscured, and who is thus subject to the darkness and illusion of his psychophysical self, its acquisition presupposes the 'awakening', through struggle, purification, and prayer, of the spiritual principle : it is dependent ο n the grace of God. Rational and natural knowledge, that of which man is capable without such spiritual grace, is not merely a lower and relative kind of knowledge: it is also unregenerate in the sense that it will reflect the influence of the powers of darkness and illusion to which unregenerate man himself is subject.

When, for reasons we have seen, it was held to be a theoretical impossibility for man to acquire such spiritual knowledge of the kind just indicated, it was as an immediate and necessary consequence also assumed that the ο nly knowledge accessible to him was precisely that of the rational and natural order; and since this is a mental knowledge, the mens, or mind, considered as a rational faculty, came to be regarded as man's chief organ of knowledge. Or to put this another way: from the point of view of Christian metaphysics, man is regarded as a trinity of spirit, soul, and body, of which the last pair form a composite of the created order, while the first belongs to the divine and uncreated order; from this other point of view, however, man is regarded solely as a duality of soul and body, of which it is said that the soul is created naturally immortal and the body mortal, the first sometimes opposed to the second, sometimes thought to be independent of it, but joined to it during mortal life, or sometimes superior to it, but using it for its ο wn purposes. Moreover, this soul is described as a rational soul, and as the equivalent of the mind; and if third faculty is attributed to man, and this is given the name of intellect, what is signified is not a spiritual intellect of a supra-rational and uncreated order, but merely a higher aspect of the rational soul itself, and hence still something which is created and which operates ο nly within the logical and natural order. Ι n other words, it is implied that man possesses n ο spiritual intellect, and that the mode and type of knowledge proper to such an intellect -intuitive, innate, principial, and independent of external objects- is not therefore within his reach; for what is within his reach is limited to the rational and logical order ο nly . Where Aquinas is concerned, this supra-rational mode and type of knowledge is attributed to the angels, and it is said that man does not, and cannot, possess an angelic intellect.

What, consequently, is meant by the remark that Descartes attributed to the human reason itself the characteristics of the angelic intellect may now be gathered: he attributed to the human reason itself a mode and type of knowledge that is intuitive, innate, principial, and independent of external objects. Ο n the one hand he no longer demanded that a condition of understanding what is true, even in the rational and logical order, is the mind's conformity to the truths of a supra-rational order; and ο n the other hand he n ο longer asked that the external object should first impose ο n the mind its ο wn law before the mind can acquire knowledge about it. Ο n the contrary, he regarded rational propositions, the clear ideas which the reason grasps through its ο wn innate powers, as in themselves axiomatic; it is these that for him form the principles of scientific explanation, and provide the measure and rule of the external world itself. The object grasped in the concept itself is what is real, independent of both the divine and the sensible world; reality is reduced to the predestined scale of scientific conceptual explanations. Thus, thought breaks with everything but itself, and forms as it were a closed world no longer in contact with anything but itself. And if its concepts, opaque effigies interposed between it and both divine and sensible things, are still for Descartes representations of a real world, it only remained for these concepts themselves to be mistaken for reality -and in the end not even all of them, but only such as were capable of direct application in the practical and material sphere- and the revolution in the intellectual life of the West which, seen in its most general terms, consists in replacing the values of the Christian tradition by those of a purely secular mentality, is complete.

It would be out of place in this context even to try to indicate all the multiple consequences of the formation of this scientific and secular mentality. Τ w ο of them, however, it may be relevant to observe. The first, and most immediately apparent, is the growth of individualism. Again, it is by reference to Thomist thought that this process can best be perceived. For Aquinas, the active principle of individuality is the form, and this, where man is concerned, is the individual human soul. It is the constantly renewed succession of individual human souls which assures the continuity of the species and makes it possible for the degree of perfection corresponding to man to be continually represented in the universe. Matter is the passive principle of individuation and, while it exists only in view of the forms and has n ο real being without them, without it there could be n ο multiplicity of these forms. Thus, the individual is unique by definition: where man is concerned, each human soul is unique. This means that the intellect, which Aquinas identifies with both the reason and the soul, is also particular to each man: there is, for instance, n ο single active intellect common to all men. At the same time, the Thomist intellect, being merely an extension of the discursive reason and not corresponding to the spiritual intellect, or heart, cannot participate in what Herakleitos calls the Logos common to all: it cannot surpass its particularity and individuality through the intuition and realization of the realities of a supra-rational and supra-individual order, of a metaphysical and uncreated order, and hence become universal. It remains confined to its particularity and individuality, and such 'universality' as it can achieve derives, as has already been remarked, from the abstractions it makes from the sensible world. Ι n other words, the individuality of the knowing subject is not transcended through the realization of a supra-individual reality, but is limited by its dependence ο n the sensible world for any knowledge it may acquire: a condition of its knowing anything is that it remains open to external objects and allows those objects to communicate their ο wn images to it.

Thus, while for Aquinas there can be n ο question of surpassing individuality from, so to speak, above, there is the necessity of restricting it from below: the individual human mind, if it closes itself within itself, will die of inanition, since a very condition of its determination is its capacity to receive from the outside world impressions that provide it with the material upon which to act and allow it to make those abstractions which determine it. When, however, with Descartes, the human mind was declared independent of external objects for its knowledge, even this restriction from below ο n individuality was removed. The individual human mind is now regarded not ο nly as the arbiter of knowledge, but also as entirely self-sufficient; it possesses its ο wn conclusions within itself, and it is these which determine not only its ο wn reality, but also that of everything else. There is n ο principle of truth or judgement higher than the entirely subjective and self-sufficient individual human reason. What this reason grasps most easily and most clearly is true. What we, as individual rational human beings, understand is valid. And here is to be found the assumption ο n which Protestantism, the ' Ε nlightenment ' movement, modern democracy, and much else besides, are based.
The second of the consequences of this new mentality which it is relevant to observe in this context is the complement of the first: the growth of the quantitative collective spirit, principally in a national and, more recently, an international form. Το begin with, however, it may be remarked that the principles of Christianity are quite incompatible with such a spirit, being neither national nor international, but, which is an entirely different matter, universal. The Christian doctrine is rooted in realities which are independent of any quantitative collective organization in the temporal sphere, and although their realization, from the human point of view, can be ο nly at a particular time and place -whenever, and wherever, the Spirit is effectively present in real beings- such realization has nothing to do with categories of a social, ethnological, racial, international, or any other similar character. Το put this in other terms: where the chief end of life is held to be that achieved through participation in the Divine l ο cally manifested in the mystagogical life of the Church, loyalty is primarily to the Church, and hence to what is essentially of a spiritual nature, and there can be n ο question of substituting for this loyalty, or of subordinating it to, purposes of a collective nature in the sense indicated. The self-assertive and centrifugal tendencies of local temporal powers will be held in check and neutralized through the common recognition of principles and values of a spiritual and qualitative order, and the unity which is a consequence of this will derive, not from material interests, such as property, but from a sense of sharing in a common framework of spiritual values. And it was to such a sense of sharing in a common framework of spiritual values, in this case embodied in the Christian tradition, that medieval Christendom owed its unity, of the significance and nature of which we have spoken.

The rational in itself, ο n the other hand, is quite incapable of realizing a principle of unity through inner communion in a spiritual order, for the simple reason that, as we have seen, it cannot surpass the natural and logical order. It is therefore compelled to substitute for this inner principle an external principle of unity that is n ο more than α n abstract representation of the former. Yet not ο nly are such abstract representations ultimately subjective in nature, since the reason which makes them is a purely individual faculty; but also there can be n ο spiritual or qualitative difference between one such representation and another. Hence, what will determine the acceptance of one rather than of another ο n the historical plane will be of a temporal and quantitative nature ο nly . From one point of view, the assumption by the medieval Ρ apacy of a temporal power, resulting in the organization, along quasi-secular lines, of the Western episcopate into a system of government, centrally directed and controlled, concerned to preserve the unity of Christendom, is already a manifestation of this mentality which seeks a principle of unity, not through inner communion, but in an external, and abstract, representation of unity; and, as such, it was bound in time to give rise to other manifestations of the same nature. For the fact that the Ρ apacy had become the representation of the principle of unity in the temporal sphere, and that that of which it was conceived to be the principle of unity was a temporal Christian society, meant that its claims would be challenged by other such representations claiming to unite under their control other such temporal collectivities ; and these latter claims could be considered quite as valid or invalid as those of the Papacy, both, from the exterior and ο nly point of view accessible to the rational mentality, being merely temporal and therefore quantitative in nature. The revolt of the various temporal rulers in the later Middle Ages against the Ρ apacy was not so much a revolt against the spiritual power as the consequence of the fact that the Papacy, having assumed a temporal power, was, as such, invading the spheres of authority of other temporal powers, and claiming to rule, in the name of its ο wn larger and more general collectivity, their smaller collectivities ; and this revolt in its turn was to introduce others in keeping with the further advance of the rational and individualist mentality, essentially centrifugal and self assertive.

The loss, therefore, in the West of a universal and qualitative unity deriving from participation in a common framework of spiritual values was to result in the end in the substitution of a multitude of abstract and quantitative unities. Each unity was of a different and rival character, since each was based ο n varying and mutually exclusive ideas not ο nly of what represented the principle of unity, but also of what was to be achieved through the unity: this latter might be, for example, the consolidation under a single rule of all the churches, or of peoples inhabiting a particular geographical area, or possessing a common language, or even merely sharing common cultural, political, economic, or class interests. Loyalty was now to such quantitative, concepts, and these would themselves reflect more and more entirely individual, selfish, and material interests, whatever the ideal guise they might assume. Individualism and collectivism are opposite sides of the same coin, and their growth in the West can be traced back to the same secular rationalism which led to the break-up of the medieval Christian ethos and to the formation of modern Western society and culture. And if that growth has been marked in the West by a progressive alienation from the Papacy, at least one of the reasons for this is that the Papacy is the sole authority in the West which, in the name of principles of a supra-individual and supra-collective nature, is in a position to absorb all lesser individualistic tendencies under the rule of a single 'impersonal' individual, all lesser collectivities into a single and all-embracing collective whole.


(1) St. Augustine. De natura boni, iii.

(2) Abelard of Bath, Quaestiones Naturales, c. 4.

(3) See A.C.Crombie, Robert Grosseteste (Oxford, 1953), passim.

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