From Theology to Philosophy in the Latin West

By: Philip Sherrard

From: The Greek East and the Latin West – A Study in the Christian Tradition, Oxford Univ. Press 1959, Denise Harvey 1992.

WE HAVE SPOKEN of a certain retrogression in Christian thought during the later Middle Ages, and this in respect of the theology of both the Latin and the Greek worlds. At the same time, it was in the Latin West that this retrogression became most clearly marked, and we have indeed noted in previous chapters how the addition of the Filioque to the Christian Creed is intimately related to it, and how this had its counterpart in changes in ecclesiastical organization in the Latin West. What, though, we have not remarked is how this same retrogression, however inevitable it may have been, yet prepared the ground for the penetration of the secular spirit to a degree that was to give rise to a revolution in European thought and to lead, in much the way that Plethon had visualized, to the formation of a new, non-religious, even materialist type of mentality, and to a corresponding culture and society.

Ηοw this in fact is so, and the nature of what was involved in the revolution in European thought that gave birth to the modern West, will perhaps become more clear if we once again briefly recall certain aspects of the Christian tradition with which this revolution marks a break. From the Christian point of view, the purpose of man’s life is to ‘be perfect’. This perfection is to be achieved through a process of ‘deification’ in which man overcomes the powers of ignorance and darkness, vanity and illusion, and becomes conscious of that spiritual principle in him obscured by the ‘fall’. Μan himself is regarded as a psychophysical whole: soul and body are reciprocal, both coming into existence simultaneously and being mutually interdependent while in existence. At the same time, man is not οnly soul and body, for he is also endowed with a third faculty or power, which is both the image of God, or spiritual principle, in him, and the ‘uncreated’ centre of his created nature. This centre, man, like every finite form, possesses in him ‘from the beginning’ through the very fact of being created at all, and it remains with him, however it may be obscured, through all his temporal transformations.(1) The Incarnation of the eternal Logos in Christ is not thus an exception to, but a confirmation of, what man is;(2) and the same may be said of the Resurrection, for it is οnly in the effective ‘realization’ of his οwn uncreated logos that man achieves his deification and, through it, that deliverance (from the death and corruption of his merely temporal existence) in which his purpose is fulfilled.

The realization itself by man of his οwn uncreated and indwelling logos is something beyond the reach of all natural powers of soul and body, reason and sense:
It is truly impossible to be united to God unless, besides purifying ourselves, we come to be outside or, rather, above ourselves, having left all that which pertains to the sensible world and risen above all ideas, reasonings, and even all knowledge and above reason itself, being entirely under the influence of the intellectual sense and having reached that ignorance which is above knowledge and (what is the same) above every kind of philosophy.(3)
This ‘intellectual sense’ (αίσθησιs νοερά) is not, therefore, the consequence of any theoretical and abstract speculation; it is, οn the contrary, the consequence of a long process of purification and prayer in which God is revealed in the heart. The intellect (νους) is not in this context the equivalent of the mind or of any mental or rational faculty; it is of another order altogether, being, indeed, precisely the spiritual image of God in man and naturally deiform, and having its seat not in the mind but in the heart. It is the heart which is the intellectual, or spiritual, centre of the whole psychophysical nature of man, and the intellectual sense spoken of above, and the spiritual discernment and enlightenment which go with it, can οnly be achieved through a bringing of the mind itself into the heart; for it is οnly in this ‘treasury of thought’(4) that the intellect ‘purified and illuminated, having manifestly entered into the possession of the grace of God and perceiving itself . . . does not contemplate only its οwn image, but the clarity formed in the image by the grace of God . . . that which accomplishes the incomprehensible union with the Supreme, through which the intellect, surpassing human capacities, sees God in the Spirit’. Μan then ‘being himself light, sees the light with the light; if he regards himself, he sees the light, and if he regards the object of his vision, he finds the light there again, and the means that he employs for seeing is the light; and it is in this that union consists, for all this is but one’.(5) Ιn such a union, man does not merely contemplate what is outside and beyond himself; he becomes himself what he contemplates, the uncreated ground of his οwn proper being in which the whole of himself body and soul, participates, and through which he is deified, ‘not by the way of ascending from reason or from the visible world by the guesswork of analogy’, but by mingling ‘unutterably with the light which is above sense and thought’ and by seeing ‘God in himself as in α mirror’.(6)

What such a realization presupposes is, of course, a recognition of its possibility. Unless it is admitted, first, that God is the actual immanent hypostasis, or spiritual cause, of man’s being, and second, that man possesses some faculty superior to the reason and all other natural and created faculties, through which he can ‘know’ that cause, then the idea of his deification is meaningless. For this deification proceeds from God and from man’s direct intuition of His transfiguring light. Ιn that light, man knows, in an absolute sense, both his οwn divine cause, and the causal energies of all created things. Ιf therefore, either the immanence of God in man, or the possession by man of such a faculty as that indicated, is denied, then the realization in question will be regarded as impossible; and the effect will be to shift attention from it, and to substitute for it the idea that the purpose of man’s life, and the nature of the knowledge he may possess of God, himself and other created things, are conditioned by, and proceed from, the relative and natural faculties, whether mental or sensory, which he has at his disposal.

Yet precisely the possibility of this realization was, if not denied, at least obscured by the main conceptions of much Latin theology, particularly in its Augustinian and Thomist forms.(7) We have seen that in this theology what came to hold a central position was the notion of God as essentially identical with absolute and perfect Being: God’s Essence and His Being are one.(8) This does not mean, it may be repeated, that God is said not to be infinite; rather, His Infinity is regarded as totally absorbed by His ontological nature,(9) and this in such a way that no potentiality may be admitted in Him at all.(10) Οn the other hand, it does mean that Latin theologians tend to apply to the Being of God those ‘names’, such as simplicity, indivisibility, and so οn, which the Fathers reserve for His pre-ontological nature. For if God is essentially identical with absolute and perfect Being, nο ‘distinction’ may be recognized in Him, since if there were such a distinction, then what is distinguished would necessarily be other and less than absolute and perfect Being, and God cannot be other or less than Himself. The Being of God is therefore of an absolute simplicity and indivisibility, and any qualities or properties attributed to God, such as those St. Augustine calls the ‘principial forms, or stable and immutable essences of things’,(11) and the Fathers His uncreated powers and energies, must be indistinguishably identified with His Being.(12) But if this is so -and it is here that we approach the subject of how the realization in question is obscured by the main conceptions of Latin theology- if this is so, and if nο distinction is recognized in God such as that made by the Fathers between the absolute simplicity and indivisibility of His pre- ontological Essence and the multiplicity and divisibility of His ontological powers and energies, what relationship can there be between God and the world? Or what knowledge can man possess either of God, of himself, or of other created things?
It was in seeking to answer such questions as these that St. Augustine was led to posit the idea of a soul which, in relation to the body, is not οnly superior to it, but also entirely independent of it.(13) Μan is a rational soul using a body: ‘Homo igitur, ut homini apparet, anima rationalis est mortali atque terreno utens corpore.’(14) But this soul, although thus specified as a rational soul, has a faculty superior to the reason, which Augustine calls sometimes the intelligence and sometimes the intellect. It is important to remark here that the Augustinian intelligence or intellect cannot be said to correspond to that spiritual intellect, the deiform νούς, mentioned earlier, for this latter is, as we saw, heart-centred and of an order essentially different from and superior to the psychophysical whole of man, while the Augustinian intelligence or intellect is but a superior mental faculty of the soul itself. According to Augustine, this intellectual soul discovers and knows all things in the eternal essences-in, that is, the immutable truth which is in God. But here precisely one comes up against a difficulty.

For if the eternal essences of things -their creative, but uncreated, causal energies-are conceived, as they were by St. Augustine, as gathered up in the immutable mind of God and as one with His non-participable, and unknowable, nature, in what sense can the intellectual soul discover and know all things in them? The distinction made by the Fathers between the Essence and the uncreated energies provided a satisfactory and adequate answer to this question: the spiritual intellect can know things through participation in their paradigmatic and creative energies; or, just as a stone becomes a stone through participation in its οwn un-created energy, or cause, so the intellect would know the stone through participation in that same causal energy. But Augustine could not admit such an answer, for he regarded the eternal causes, or essences, as one with the Essence itself, and there cannot be, at least during earthly life, any direct participation in, or intuition of, that Essence by the intellectual soul: the soul, even if, for Augustine, it is independent of, and superior to, the body, is yet a created faculty, and there cannot be any direct relationship between what is created and the Essence, for this would imply an essential identity of the two, which is an impossibility. All that is possible, from the Augustinian point of view, is for the intellectual soul to be illuminated, so to speak, from above, and in this light, which remains separate from it, and outside it, and in no way becomes its οwn nature, to perceive the rightness or wrongness of its οwn rational conclusions.

These rational conclusions are not, however, abstractions in the Aristotelian sense. The Aristotelian abstraction is by definition derived from the sensible world, and this implies that there is some way through which sensible things can react οn the soul and so provide it with the data from which the abstractions can be drawn: Aristotle’s sensitive soul, in so far as it is sensitive, is not superior to the sensible body, in so far as it is sensible, and it is for this reason that there can be a relationship between the one and the other which allows sensible objects to act on the soul and the soul to abstract from them its knowledge. Such a process, according to Augustinian thought, is impossible. The soul is absolutely trans- cendent with regard to the body, and there can be no such relationship between them as that envisaged by Aristotle -the sensible object cannot, that is, act οn the soul or modify it through the sensations of the body. Hence Augustine is led to regard the soul as possessing a sensation of its οwn -est enim sensus et mentis(15)-distinct from, and impervious to, that of the body. This view of things is essential to Augustine because, any direct participation of the created in the uncreated being considered impossible, he is compelled to regard the soul not simply as created immortal (for otherwise it could in no way possess immortality) but also totally without any dependence οn or reciprocal relationship with the body or other sensible things; for such things are corruptible and mortal, and this the soul, naturally incorruptible and immortal, cannot be.

For Augustine, then, man is neither able to know things, himself included, through participation in their spiritual essences, or causes, nor able to derive knowledge from sensible things. What knowledge he has, or can acquire, is therefore in himself. Μan, for Augustine, is essentially his οwn thought, his mens.(16) This mind, in itself and α priori, contains the reflected and created copies of those immutable spiritual essences according to which it itself and everything that is are made; and although man can choose between following his lower reason -ratio- into a kind of illicit and voluptuous connexion with natural forms, or following his higher reason -intelligentia-into a contemplation of those copies of eternal things which pre-exist in his mind -his mind contemplating its οwn innate and created contents(17)– he can transform neither that mind itself nor, α fortiori, the whole of himself, soul and body, through a realization of his οwn uncreated spiritual principle. There is, in fact, very little fundamental difference between man as envisaged by Augustine and man as envisaged by Descartes, and the cogito ergo sum, implying not only the primacy of thought over all else where man is concerned, but also its self- sufficient nature, is, if not actually stated, at least inherent in the very conditions that St. Augustine lays down as governing man’s life and determining his relationships with himself, the world, and God.(18)

St. Thomas Aquinas, although he starts, like St. Augustine, with the presupposition of a God who is essentially perfect Being,(19) is yet led, in seeking to answer the question what and how man can know, to conclusions which in a certain sense
reverse those of St. Augustine. For in spite of defining the soul as a form not susceptible to any admixture of matter,(20) Aquinas none the less follows Aristotle in denying that forms as such (except those indistinguishably contained in the transcendent and essential nature of God) can subsist apart from matter.(21) It is therefore impossible for Aquinas to admit even the Augustinian notion that the soul, or intellect, possesses in itself and α priori the created copies of the principial and eternal essences, and derives its knowledge from them.(22) The intellect is, at first, tαbulα rasα. But in that case, from where, and by what means, may the intellect obtain any knowledge?

What must first be remarked in this connexion is that for Aquinas, as for Augustine, the intellect cannot derive its knowledge from a direct intuition of the forms, or essences, of things as they exist in God. God is essentially pure Being. But if God is essentially pure Being, He is also essentially pure Act: since God always is, He cannot not be; and since He cannot not be, it follows that there is nothing in Him which is merely in potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can either be or not be, and in proportion as God contained in Himself some passive power, He could either be or not be. Consequently there is nothing in God which is οnly in potentiality, and this means that He is, exclusively, pure Act.(23) Thus, all principial forms, the divine and uncreated causes of things, being, as they are, indistinguishably contained in God’s essential nature, are also purely in act.(24) Μan, οn the other hand, possesses a corporeal body, and thus shares in the pure potentiality of matter. Hence, he cannot apprehend or intuit spiritual or supernatural realities in themselves, for the latter are of God’s purely active nature, and there can be no immanence in God of, or of God in, anything that shares in potentiality. Therefore the direct apprehension, or intuition, of these realities, since it would imply precisely such an immanence, is entirely beyond man’s reach.(25) It could οnly be within man’s reach if he did not possess what he does possess, a corporeal body, and was, consequently, what he is not, an angel.(26)
With no innate knowledge, and unable to derive knowledge from a direct intuition of the Divine, man can in fact, according to Aquinas, οnly know anything by a process of abstraction from sensible objects. This leads Aquinas to his conception of an active and a passive intellect. The intelligible forms of sensible objects, that which may be known, although they cannot subsist apart from, cannot at the same time be said to reside in, matter: what is intelligible is immaterial and cannot be participated in by what is material. There is no intelligible nature of the creature. Thus, these forms can οnly be said to reside in sensible objects in potentiality, and in such a state they are unintelligible and cannot be known. They can, however, become intelligible, and hence knowable, if, through something which is itself in act, they too are reduced to act, and in the process abstracted from their sensible objects. Thus, the soul, if it is to know anything, must possess an active virtue which makes the intelligible form, contained potentially, not actually, in the sensible object, actually intelligible; and this virtue is the intellectus agens, or active intellect.27

At the same time, this active intellect, since it possesses no innate knowledge, ίπ itself lacks all determination; it is, as we said, tabula rasa, a light by which it is possible to see, but in which there is nothing to see. Hence it requires sensible objects from which to derive something to see, and thus some determination, and without which it would die of inanition. But it can οnly derive this determination from sensible objects if there is also in the soul a passive virtue οn which the sensible objects, directly or indirectly, can react. This virtue is the passive intellect. The soul is intelligibility in act, but lacks determination; sensible objects have determination in act, but lack intelligibility. The soul, therefore, confers intelligibility οn sensible objects, and in this respect it is an active intellect; and in its turn it receives determination from sensible objects, and in this respect it is a passive intellect.

The actual process through which this ‘exchange’ between the soul and sensible objects is achieved is, briefly, as follows. The sensible object first impresses its image (phantasm) οn the human senses (it is for this reason that the soul is given, and united to, a body: it is οnly through the bodily senses that it can come into contact with sensible objects, and thus obtain any knowledge at all).(28) Such an image impressed οn the human senses is the image of a particular thing -similitudo rei particularis(29)– impressed οn, and preserved in, bodily organs -similitudines indiυiduorum existentes in organis corporeis.(30) Therefore it is still, from the point of view οf both subject and object, in the sphere of the sensible and, as such, still particular and unintelligible, and not ‘universal’ and intelligible. The operation of the active intellect is, then, by abstraction, to separate the form, or proper species, of each particular sensible object from all individual sensible characteristics, even from those still present in the image of the object. From this point of view, its activity is not merely one of separating the intelligible from the sensible, the ‘universal’ from the particular, but also of actually producing the intelligible and the ‘universal’. For the sensible species of the thing to become the intelligible form of the intellect, there has to be a kind of transformation in which the active intellect is turned upon the sensible images impressed οn, and preserved in, the bodily organs, in order to ‘illuminate’ them, and it is in this illumination that the abstraction may be said properly to exist. Through it, whatever intelligible element is contained in the sensible object is abstracted from it, and this produces in the passive intellect, and hence determines it, the knowledge of what the images represent when considering in them what is οnly ‘universal’ and is quite apart from any particular or material characteristic.(31) Such knowledge is conserved in the memory of the active intellect, a faculty which Aquinas has to posit in order to account for the fact that man can retain this knowledge after his immediate observation of sensible things has come to an end. The condition of this whole process is, of course, that the abstraction of the active intellect which determines the passive intellect is preceded by the impression of the sensible object οn the human senses. At the base of all knowledge accessible to man is the sensible world, and he can possess no knowledge which does not derive from it.

From this, two things are at once apparent. The first is that the nature and function of what Aquinas regards as man’s supreme faculty, his intellect, are not, any more than those of the Augustinian intellect, equivalent to the nature and function of the spiritual intellect, or heart, of the Christian Fathers; and consequently, as in the case of Augustine, it is clear that what is regarded as man’s supreme purpose, since it depends οn what is considered as within his possibilities, will also, and correspondingly, differ from that envisaged by the Fathers. Ιn effect, the intellect, as visualized by Aquinas, is nο more than a kind of extension of the discursive reason: intellect and reason describe one and the same power.(32) There is nο intellectual power in man distinct from his reason, and the mode of knowledge proper to man is reasoning or discursive knowledge. Μan is a reasoning being by definition: the form of man is his rational soul, and every act in conformity to the reason is good, while every act which is contrary to the reason is evil.(33) The intellect is nothing but the reason itself in so far as it participates in the simplicity of the knowledge reached by the reason proceeding from one object of knowledge to another, from one abstraction to another: ‘nude et potentia discurrens et veritatem accipiens non erunt diversae sed una …; ipsa ratio intellectus dicitur quod participat de intellectuali simplicitate, ex quo est principium et terminus in ejus propria operatione.’(34)

The second thing which is apparent follows naturally from the first, and is that the type of knowledge which Aquinas regards as the highest accessible to man is of quite a different order from that of the ‘gnosis’ of the Christian Fathers. As we have seen, Aquinas regards the direct intuition of divine essences as beyond man’s reach:(35) the human intellect as it works in this earthly life can know οnly by turning to the material and the sensible:(36) ‘Cognitio Dei quae ex mente humana accipi potest, non excedit illud genus cognitionis quod ex sensibilibus sumitur, cum et ipsa de seipsa cognoscat quid est, per hoc quod naturas sensibilium intelligit.’(37) What knowledge man can have is that which he extracts from the sensible, and this is a created, and human, intelligible knowledge, which resembles uncreated and divine intelligible knowledge οnly by comparison. Μan’s intellect, the highest faculty he possesses or can possess, is, for Aquinas, physical and created, and there can be no direct intuition by it of what is metaphysical and uncreated. All that man can know of the latter, the limit of his knowledge of the Divine, himself, and other sensible things, amounts, after he has gathered together and meditated οn the abstractions he has derived from these things, to a mere collection of concepts which may be said to have an analogical likeness to the Divine, but nothing more. And if the supreme end of man is beatitude (there can be nο question of a deification such as that envisaged by the Fathers), this beatitude is also, where man is concerned, created and human,(38) and in any case can οnly be attained by man after death. All that is accessible to man οn earth is an imperfect and secondary beatitude which consists in the study of the speculative sciences, whose proper object is the sensible; forjust as natural forms are analogous to supernatural forms, so the study of the speculative sciences has a sort of analogical resemblance to the perfect beatitude.(39) Το what extent this is a limitation of the full perspective of Christian thought there is here no need to emphasize.

That, however, Aquinas regarded the knowledge extracted by the reason from the sensible world as the οnly knowledge accessible to man, and hence considered that in the acquisition of such knowledge man’s highest purpose in mortal life is fulfilled, does not mean that he rejected the suprarational truths of the Christian Revelation. Οn the contrary, he was most careful to acknowledge them, and even, as he thought, to protect them from the sphere of reason. But now the whole attitude to, and understanding of, these truths has undergone a change. According to the more complete forms of Christian thought, the truths of the Revelation, although revealed precisely in the historical life of Christ, nevertheless correspond to eternally present divine realities: they are a revelation of the true nature of things and hence, even though man may not realize it, are in no way exceptional, but, οn the contrary, entirely normal. Although they are truths which are revealed, they are, from another point of view, truths which conceal realities always present, realities which man, through following the pattern given to him through the incarnation of the eternal Logos in the life and actions of Christ, should himself realize and live. From this point of view then, they provide the theoretical basis of a knowledge which man, through progressive stages of realization in the mystagogical life, should make actual and effective for himself.

There is thus, in this view, no ‘problem’ of the relationship of the truths of revelation to those οf the reason: the first are to be accepted as the theoretical ground-plan, if one can put it like that, of a supra-rational knowledge which is to be realized gradually through penetration into, and participation in, the spiritual reality of the Christian Mysteries. The Christian Mysteries, and human participation in them, witness to, and protect, the living and continuous operation and incarnation of the truths of the Revelation; and not οnly can the truths of the Revelation not be realized apart from such initiation into them, but also οn them is dependent any genuine knowledge man can possess. The conclusions of the reason in itself do not constitute a genuine knowledge. The conclusions of the reason may οnly constitute a genuine knowledge, and this of a relative kind, provided that the reason first conforms itself to the truths of a supra-rational order. There is, as we have pointed out, an absolute, and not merely a relative, distinction between the spiritual intellect, in the full sense, and the reason; and while the function of the first is the direct intuition and experience of the truths of a supra-rational order, the function of the second is to derive from that intuition and experience the content of the knowledge necessary for dealing with the practical affairs of human and social life. The idea that the reason in itself may attain to anything more than a most relative kind of knowledge does not occur; nor does the idea that the reason may operate independently of the truths of revelation or faith, its conclusions being valid in one sphere, while the truths of revelation are valid in another. Unless the reason first conforms its conclusions to the truths of a supra-rational order; unless it is transformed through participation in the spiritual knowledge of the intellect, it is still, like the rest of man, captive to the powers of ignorance and illusion, and its conclusions must be regarded accordingly.

Once, however, it is accepted that man can have no direct knowledge of realities of a supra-rational order, and once that distinction, central to Christian anthropology, between the spiritual intellect and the reason is lost sight of and the intellect is regarded as a mere natural extension of the reason, the understanding of the relationship between the truths of revelation and the conclusions of the reason outlined above cannot be maintained. For, οn the one hand, the truths οf revelation will now be regarded as beyond the capacity of man to realize in a direct fashion; and, οn the other hand, since the reason takes the place of the spiritual intellect as man’s supreme faculty, its conclusions in themselves will be thought to represent the most complete knowledge of the Divine accessible to man during his earthly life. Α purely natural faculty -the reason- which is, while untransformed through participation in the spiritual knowledge of the intellect, necessarily subject to diabolic activity, is now regarded as the instrument of human beatitude.

This curious reversal of attitude gave rise to problems which occupied the attention of generations of Western thinkers. As was inevitable, the truths of revelation were frequently found to conflict with the conclusions of the unsanctified reason: what is revealed by God is not likely to agree with what is simulated by the Devil. Having, however, permitted, in the way we have seen, a too rational approach to things to obscure certain fundamental aspects of the full Christian doctrine, these Western thinkers were committed to regarding the reason as a valid instrument, for the discovery not merely of a natural and relative truth, but even of a divine and absolute truth. They were therefore compelled by their premisses to seek for some adequate justification both for the conclusions of the reason and the truths of revelation, even if the former seemed to contradict the latter – some justification for believing what their reason told them could not necessarily be so. The οnly way they could do this was to divide the sphere of revelation from that of reason, to divide faith from philosophy. Aquinas, following οn the Jewish Maimonides and such philosophers as Alexander of Hales, Bonaventura, and Albert the Great, clearly indicates this distinction:(40) οn the one hand there is faith, which is the assent to something because it is revealed by God; and οn the other hand there is science, which is the assent to something because it is perceived as true in the natural light of human reason. These two departments are separate, the truths of one being valid in one sphere, the truths of the other in another sphere. Μan cannot believe what he sees is true; he believes something which he cannot see is true because God has said it. What God has said that can be seen is not a matter of faith. Faith is the reason’s assent to that which the reason (or the intellect, the two being identified by Aquinas) does not, and cannot, see to be true, to first principles or one of their necessary conclusions; the reason’s function is to acquire through its own activity what knowledge it can through abstraction from sensible things, and, though this knowledge has no necessary connexion with the things of faith, it is nevertheless the highest of which man is capable.

Thus, the truths of revelation, although still regarded as absolute (since God has revealed them to man at a particular time in the historical life of Christ), are also regarded as beyond human capacity to know; they are not thought of as continuously revealed in the developing mystagogical life of individual Christians, but remain as it were ‘in heaven’, the objects of angelic, but not of human, knowledge. The things of faith, which must be believed by all, are equally unknown by all, and there can be nο knowledge about them. At the same time, and in a way that appears contradictory, rational proof is demanded for these things, and even for God Himself. Such a proof is found in history -in, that is, the miracles of God, the life and growth of the Church, and so οn, as also in the fact of human and other existence. This is, in effect, to reverse the point of view of the patristic or, generally speaking, the full Christian tradition, according to which man’s knowledge proceeds from his direct intuition of the Divine and Its qualities, his conclusions about his own nature and that of other created things being derived therefore from this primary intuition of what is supra-rational and supernatural. For St. Thomas, as for other Scholastics, the existence of God and His qualities must be inferred, directly or indirectly, from man’s rational and natural knowledge of sensible things and of empirical facts.(41)

This almost ‘idolatrous’ attitude to creation and to natural and human history is demanded by the premisses we have been discussing: the assumption that the eternal and extra- temporal nature of the truths of revelation is entirely beyond man’s intuition, and that the οnly knowledge he can possess of it is the analogical and conceptual knowledge derived by the reason from the data provided by the sensible world, will automatically have the effect of shifting the focus of attention away from the contemplation of these truths οn to the sensible world, from the supernatural to the natural, from vision to observation; and hence the sensible and natural world, and history as part of it, will acquire an interest quite out of proportion to that given them in normal times. The ‘facts’ of nature, just as the ‘facts’ of history, are the starting-point of that process of abstraction through which the intellect receives its determination, is brought from potency to act, and thus, to the extent possible to man, ‘knows’ God and achieves beatitude. Ιn the case οf both nature and history what is sought for is rational proof of the Divine. For since the direct intuition οf, and participation in, what is supra-rational is now regarded as impossible, not to believe that such proof is valid would be tantamount to condemning man to a state of insurmountable ignorance concerning his life and destiny, and hence to open the door to all manner of doubts; and it was precisely in order to frustrate such a development that it became necessary to insist, in a novel way, οn the validity of the rational proofs for such things as the existence of God and His essential attributes, the existence of the human soul and its immortality, and even, at a later date, for the Roman See to issue an official anathema against all ‘who shall say that the One true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known by the natural light of human reason through created things’. Ιn this treating of a relative knowledge, what Plato would call opinion, as if it were absolute, not οnly is a purely natural and individual faculty, and one which, like the rest of ‘natural’ man, is subject to the ‘prince of this world’, regarded as capable in its own right of demonstrating the existence of the Divine; but also the Divine Itself appears to be considered as subordinate in certain respects to rational and natural categories.

This 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),(42) 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 οn those points which it has covered.’(43) 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.(44) And it did not involve a great step for Descartes and the buccinatores nουi 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, οn 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 οn sensible objects, and cannot exist without them. Finally, Descartes not οnly 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 οn 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 οnly 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 οwn 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 οnly within the logical and natural order. Ιn other words, it is implied that man possesses nο 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 οnly. 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. Οn 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 οn the other hand he nο longer asked that the external object should first impose οn the mind its οwn law before the mind can acquire knowledge about it. Οn the contrary, he regarded rational propositions, the clear ideas which the reason grasps through its οwn 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. Τwο 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 nο real being without them, without it there could be nο 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, nο 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. Ιn 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 οn 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 οwn images to it.

Thus, while for Aquinas there can be nο 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 οn individuality was removed. The individual human mind is now regarded not οnly as the arbiter of knowledge, but also as entirely self-sufficient; it possesses its οwn conclusions within itself, and it is these which determine not only its οwn reality, but also that of everything else. There is nο 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 οn which Protestantism, the ‘Εnlightenment’ 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 οnly 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 lοcally 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 nο 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, οn 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 nο more than αn abstract representation of the former. Yet not οnly are such abstract representations ultimately subjective in nature, since the reason which makes them is a purely individual faculty; but also there can be nο spiritual or qualitative difference between one such representation and another. Hence, what will determine the acceptance of one rather than of another οn the historical plane will be of a temporal and quantitative nature οnly. From one point of view, the assumption by the medieval Ρapacy 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 Ρapacy 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 οnly 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 Ρapacy 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 οwn 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 οn varying and mutually exclusive ideas not οnly 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. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, P.G. 91,1340 A.

2. Ibid.,1341 AB.

3. St. Gregory Palamas, in Gregory Palamas, Tweιιty-Τωο Homilies, pp. 169-70.

4. St. Gregory Palamas, P.G. 150, 1108 A

5. St. Gregory Palamas, cited pp. 202-3 of J. Mayendorff, ‘Le Thθme du “retour en soi” dans la doctrine palamite du XIVe siθcle’, in Reυue de l’Histoire des Religions, νοl. 145, 1954, pp.183-206

6. St. Gregory Palamas, in Gregory Palamas, Τwenty-Τωο Homilies, ρρ. 170-1.

7. While I am aware of the dangers of isolating, as I do in what follows, certain more purely philosophical aspects of Augustinian and Thomist thought, this does nevertheless make it possible to indicate how these aspects are inextricably interwined both with St.Augustine’s and St, Thomas’s fundamental views and with that whole transition from thelogical thought to secular philosophy which is the theme of the present chapter.

8. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol.i. 11. 4.

9. Ibid., i. 7. 1.

10. Ibid., i. 25. 1 ad 3.

11. St. Auygustine, De diversis quaestionibus, 83, qu. 46. 1-2.

12. Cf. St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, ii. 10

13. See Ι. Gilson, Introduction ΰ l’ ιtude de Saint Augustin (Paris, 1931), pp. 56, 67

14. St. Augustine, De Moribus ecclesiae, i. 27. 52.

15. St. Augustine, Retractationes, 1, c. 1, nο. 2.

16. St. Augustine, De Tiinitate xii. 1 and 2.

17. Ibid., xii. 8. 13; 10. 15.

18. See St. Augustine, Soliloquies, ii. 1. 1;Ι. Gilson, ορ. cit., pp. 50-51.

19. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Τheοl. i. 3. 4.

20. See Ι.Gilson, The Philosophy of St.Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge, 1924), p. 160.

21. Ibid., p. 191.

22. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. i. 88, 3 ad Resp.

23. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, i. 16.

24. Ibid.

25. St.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. i.88.3 ad Resp.

26. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, i.16.

27. St. Thomas Aquinas, De Anima, qu. un. art. 4 ad Resp.; Summa Theol. i. 79. 3 ad Resp.

28. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. i. 89. 1 ad Resp.; i. 55. 2 ad Resp.

29. Ibid., i 84. 7 ad 2.

30. Ibid., i. 85. 1 ad 3.

31. Ibid., i. 85. 1 ad Resp.

32. Ibid., i 79. 8 ad Resp.

33. Ibid., ii. 18. 5 Resp.; Contra Gentiles, iii. 9

34. St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, qu. 15, art. 1 ad Resp.

35. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. i 88. 3 ad Resp.

36. Ibid., i. 87. ad Resp.

37. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, iii. 47.

38. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. i 26. 3 ad Resp.

39. Ibid., ii. 3.5 ad Resp.; and 3. 6 ad Resp.

40. See Ι.Gilson, Reason αnd Reυelation in tlιe Middle Ages (New York, 1939), pp. 74-75

41. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, iii. 1.

42. St. Augustine. De natura boni, iii.

43. Abelard of Bath, Quaestiones Naturales, c. 4.

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


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