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


     History pushed Luther into the background, just as it had pushed Plotinus, Tertullian, Peter Damian, and even Duns Scotus. Athens triumphed over Jerusalem. And if Descartes became the father of the new philosophy, it was only because he addressed himself to men - as he himself admitted - without taking any account of the faith to which they belonged. This is the meaning of Hamelin's statement that Descartes came after the ancients as if between them and him there had been no one except the physicists. In his letters we find such solemn declarations as "every ground of the true and the good depends on God's omnipotence." If this formula - which united in itself the "soaring above knowledge" of Plotinus and the "everything else from God is good because it is wished by God and not vice versa" of Duns Scotus - had been completely realized in his philosophy, modern philosophy would have once and for all detached itself from that of the ancients and would have been obliged to set its own problems, completely different from those of the Greeks. It would have found "first principles" and would have radically modified the entire "technique of thought."

     The created truth, the truth of which the son of man remains always master as he is of the Sabbath, as well as the good which has for its source the divine will that nothing limits - this, for the Greeks was only a contradictio in adjecto, consequently an impossibility and, further, an abomination of desolation. The idea of the created truth brings us back to that state of innocence and ignorance of which the Book of Genesis speaks and puts an end to rational philosophy. In his letters, Descartes had the daring to proclaim such a truth only because he was convinced in advance (reservatio mentalis) that it would oblige neither him nor anyone else to anything. One can say the same of the Scholastics who believed that they had as their mission to announce to the world the till then unheard of idea of a created truth.

     Descartes, like the Scholastics, could not help but understand that this was only an indispensable tribute paid by the believer to the Bible and that, having rendered this tribute in words, he then acquired the possibility and the right to "think" as his intellectual conscience demanded of him: credo ut intelligam (I believe that I may understand). It is enough to recognize the limitless will of the Creator only once; then nothing will prevent one from accepting the potentia absoluta which changed itself "willingly" and definitively into potentia ordinata in order never again to be remembered.

     It is here that the power which Greek thought exercised over Descartes especially manifests itself. Ipse creator et conditor mundi semel jussit, semper paret (the Creator and Ruler of the world once commanded, always obeys), proclaims Seneca, repeating what he had been taught by Athens. The freedom to command was for the Greeks inconceivable and hateful; they recognized only the freedom to obey. The freedom to obey was and still remains the condition of rational thought and rational knowledge. God Himself was authorized to command only once, after which He obeys - just as do mortals.

     Pascal, who was so perceptive, understood this: recall his famous words, "I cannot forgive Descartes...,etc."[*] Like the Greek philosophers, Descartes carefully avoided the jubere; he feared it instinctively, seeing in it - and certainly he was right to do so - the most dangerous threat to rational thought. And if the source of Descartes' philosophy is sought, it will be found not in the divine jubere but in the human or "metaphysical" parere. Apud me omnia fiunt mathematice in Natura (For me everything in Nature occurs mathematically): this is the whole of Descartes. And that is why the condemnation of Galileo upset him so: "I am almost resolved to burn all my papers," he wrote to Mersenne. "...I confess that if the movement of the earth is false, all the foundations of my philosophy are also false."

     In his polemics against the unbelievers, St. Augustine could still refer to the Bible, where it is said that Joshua stopped the sun. And on the strength of this testimony the Church could also reject the Copernican theory. But it is no longer given Descartes to overcome Aristotle's "the poets lie." Joshua, who stopped the sun, completely destroys the foundations of his philosophy. To put it differently, in Descartes, as in the Greeks, God's potentia absoluta belongs to that semel jussit which, even if it did once take place, is treated by our thought as never having existed and as obliging us to nothing. Descartes could in all tranquillity render unto God that which is God's for he knew definitely that Caesar would not suffer any harm from this and would fully receive that which is Caesar's. From this point of view it may be said without exaggeration that Descartes anticipated Kant. If one brings together his omnis ratio veri et boni ab omnipotentia Dei dependit with his apud me omnia fiunt mathematice in Natura, one obtains a critique of pure reason: freedom is transferred to the intelligible world, while our world is handed over to the synthetic judgments a priori which no one can overcome and which no one even has the desire to overcome.

     If you wish, the critique of reason is carried through in Descartes in a more radical fashion than in Kant. Awakened from his dogmatic slumber by Hume or by his own discovery of the' antinomies of the pure reason, Kant was obliged to recognize that the idea of necessity, to which reason aspired so eagerly, has no root in experience and consequently in being, and that it is a phantom which has somehow taken hold of our consciousness. He concluded from this that the metaphysical ideas - the idea of God, of the immortality of the soul and of freedom - cannot be justified by means of those demonstrations which are used to prove the truths of mathematics and the natural sciences. But in The Critique of Practical Reason, reason attains an almost complete compensation: in place of the idea of necessity that has been taken away from it, it is offered the idea of the "should," of duty, of the imperative whose categorical character can compensate man for the heavy loss he has sustained. It is impossible to preserve ratio veri and to defend it against freedom but, thanks to the practical reason, ratio boni remains unshakable: Kant succeeded in maintaining it against all attacks, and "deduced" his famous ethical "law," the source and foundation of morality.

     His successors, however, could not be content with this "almost" complete compensation and could not forget the losses that had been sustained. The harshest reproaches that Hegel made against Kant relate to The Critique of Practical Reason: the "ought" or duty does not replace the "necessary," even in the domain of the ethical. Only "the critique of reason," in the form that we find it in Descartes, can satisfy the man who thinks and furnish a solid base for philosophy. Just as in Kant, God, the immortality of the soul, and freedom are transferred into the intelligible world or, rather, unintelligible world, which has no relationship with us; the practical reason blends into the theoretical reason, and on our earth an unshakable order which assures "knowledge" with its eternal, irrevocable truths in saecula saeculorum is established.

     But neither Descartes nor Kant stopped before the question: whence comes the power of reason and its eternal truths? Still less did they think of what this power brings to men. They did not even believe it necessary to ask themselves - even if only to give their investigation formal perfection and desired fullness - whether metaphysics must really be a knowledge or science, whether the true goal of metaphysics and every prolegomena to it does not consist precisely in the testing of the pretensions of the eternal truths to reign over men and over all being. But it was with just this that the Judeo-Christian thought - the thought to which was revealed the truth of the one omnipotent God, Creator of heaven and earth - should have been concerned before everything else.

     None of the influential "Christian philosophers" of modern times - neither the dogmatic Descartes nor the critical Kant - even tried to construct a philosophy having as its point of departure the revealed truth. On the contrary, I repeat, all of them applied themselves exclusively to driving out of our world the revealed truth, to relegating it to another world which has no relationship with ours. This tendency is expressed with particular force in the philosophy of Leibniz. Leibniz did not wish to awaken from his dogmatic slumber - not even later to go back, like Kant, to sleep more deeply. He was no longer willing to pay tribute to God, be it only in words, in order later to forget Him and to follow Caesar alone.

     It was not given Leibniz to debate with Kant but every time he recalled or there was recalled to him Descartes' omnis ratio veri et boni, Leibniz, ordinarily so reserved and calm, lost his self-control and was quite beside himself. We must assume that when he said "I despise almost nothing" the "almost" referred to the interpretation Descartes had given of the divine omnipotence. One can discuss everything in a calm and respectful tone, but limitless, unrestrained arbitrariness - even if it be the arbitrariness of God - is worthy only of scorn. Man, angels, God - all equally must recognize the power of reason. "For by what means will the true God be distinguished from the false god of Zoroaster if all things depend on the caprice of an abstract power, without there being any rule or regard for anything whatsoever?" be asks in the Treatise which precedes the Theodicy.[1] And he repeats the same thing in the New Essays: "Faith must be grounded in reason ... without this why should we prefer the Bible to the Koran or to the old books of the Brahmans?"[2] This argument appeared to him absolutely irresistible. Several pages further he declares: "Revelation cannot go contrary to clear evidence." And he immediately explains: "because even when revelation is immediate and original, we must know with evidence that we are not in error in attributing it to God."[3]

     And indeed, who will guide us in our choice? Leibniz forgets only one thing: what if reason chooses not the Bible but the Koran or the old books of the Brahmans? But he should have thought of this possibility. Perhaps reason will reject the Koran but it is certain that if one gives it a choice between the Bible and the ancient books of the Brahmans, it will without hesitation prefer the latter, for the Bible is not afraid to contradict the self-evidences while the wisdom of the Brahmans is founded on these self-evidences.

     Yet Leibniz does not account for this. His argumentation, I repeat, appears to him absolutely irrefutable, as it doubtless does to most of those who read him. And he never loses an occasion to reproach Descartes for his attitude: "This is why I also find completely strange the expression of certain other philosophers who say that the eternal truths of metaphysics and geometry and, consequently, also the rules of goodness, justice and perfection are only the effects of God's will; it seems to me instead that they are only consequences of His understanding which assuredly does not at all depend on His will, no more than on His essence," he writes in the Discourse on Metaphysics.

     After reporting in the Theodicy both Bayle's reflections on Descartes and his disciples who believed that God is "the free cause of the truths and the essences" and Bayle's confession that despite all his efforts he had not succeeded in understanding this idea of Descartes but hoped that "time would resolve this beautiful paradox," Leibniz indignantly declares: "Is it possible that the pleasure of doubting can exercise so much influence over a clever man as to make him desire and hope to believe that two contradictories are never found together only because God has forbidden this to them, and that He could also have ordered them always to go together? What an excellent paradox this is!"

     I hope that the reader will not reproach me for these long quotations from Leibniz: again, and for the last time, we are now before the basic question which the Middle Ages posed and which, from the Middle Ages, passed into modern and contemporary philosophy - the question of the created truth.

     Leibniz, who knew Scholasticism as well as Descartes and who, like Descartes, posed in all his writings as the faithful champion of Christianity, was organically incapable of "accepting" a truth created by God. Such a truth seemed to him the height of absurdity, and if it appeared that the Bible was called to proclaim it to men, he would have renounced the Bible as well as the God of the Bible without the least hesitation. Even Bayle, who had agreed with Descartes that omnis ratio veri depends on the will of God and that God could establish the principle of contradiction but that He could and can also suppress it, when he comes to the second part of Descartes' formula - omnis ratio boni depends on God - refuses to follow Descartes. He declares with genuine terror that it is impossible to accept or admit this. God Himself must be held in leash - otherwise what catastrophes He could unloose! But the eternal and uncreated truths are, of course, something else: they will never harm anyone.

     Whence came this lack of trust in God in Bayle and in Leibniz, while they showed themselves quite disposed to confide their destiny to the eternal, uncreated truths? It is in vain that we shall await from them an answer to this question. Even more - Leibniz, who protects us with so much care against the arbitrariness of God, shows himself ready to accept in advance all that the eternal truths may bring with them. "The ancients," he writes, "attributed the cause of evil to matter, which they believed to be uncreated and independent of God. But where shall we, who derive all being from God, find the source of evil? The answer is that it must be sought in the ideal nature of the creature, insofar as this nature is contained in the eternal truths that are in the mind of God independently of His will."

     Can one say, after such a confession, that in the person of its most influential representatives modern philosophy has preserved any bond with the Judeo-Christian Audi Israel? What Leibniz tells us with such assurance leads us back to the separatus intellectus of Aristotle: Leibniz's thought continues to seek the truth as if between the Greeks and himself nothing important or significant had happened.

     It must still be added: what we have just heard from Leibniz constitutes the point of departure of the philosophy of Descartes, who lived before Leibniz, and of Kant, who considered himself the destroyer of the dogmatism of Leibniz and Wolf. And all this had been prepared by the Scholastic philosophy. Quoting the well-known passage from St. Augustine's Confessions:[4] "Whence comes evil? Or was there an evil matter, out of which He made it? And did He form and order matter in such a way that He still left in it something that He did not change into good? Why now this?" Gilson asks: "But how could Augustine excuse a creator-God for having made matter evil or even only of having left it as how He found it?"

     And indeed, how could St. Augustine accept this? But with still greater justification it might be asked: how could Leibniz "excuse" God for having created bad truths or, if He did not create them and found them ready-made, for having preserved them as He found them? However, neither St. Augustine nor the Scholastics nor Leibniz raised such questions. As far as matter is concerned, God can still manage it: Leibniz agrees to admit, as the Bible demands, that God created matter. But as for the ideal truths, this is something else: men and God Himself must submit to them; here begins the domain which non cadit sub omnipotentia Dei. At the same time Leibniz realizes clearly that these truths, which have entered into the mind of God without His will, show themselves to be precisely the source of all evil, of all the horrors of terrestrial existence. But this does not trouble him: he agrees to all, provided only that he can "understand," that he can "know."

     Furthermore, and one cannot repeat this too often, when Leibniz expresses such judgments, he is expressing not only his own point of view. So thought the ancients, so thought the Scholastics, and so thought Descartes and all who came after him. No one has ever recognized Descartes' omnis ratio veri et boni - Descartes himself no more than others. If historians of philosophy happen to recall it, this is only in passing (Schelling and Hegel even speak of it in their course on the history of philosophy); but most of the time they do not think of it. It is clear to everyone that the eternal truths entered the mind of God without asking permission of Him, and that Descartes himself could not think otherwise.

     No philosopher, however, permitted himself to state as candidly and as light-heartedly as Leibniz that the eternal truths or, as he puts it, the ideal principles, are the source of evil. Since the most ancient times it has been assumed that the responsibility for evil falls upon matter. But it appears that it is not matter, of which one can somehow or other rid oneself (in the Greeks catharsis led to "the delivery of the soul from the body"), but the ideal principles, from which one cannot escape, that are to blame. Leibniz and medieval philosophy taught, it is true, that amends for the evil which the ideal principles bring will be made by God in another world. With a truly puzzling "lightness," Leibniz develops at length the theme that if God, giving way to the demands of the eternal truths, was obliged to admit certain imperfections "here," "there" imperfections will no longer exist. Why? Will the eternal truths and the intellectus separatus that bore them and preserves them in its bosom ever renounce, in the other world, their power to do evil? Will the principle of contradiction and all that it brings with it cease "there" to be noli me tangere and liberate the Creator?

     It is difficult to believe that the perceptive Leibniz could have overlooked this question; but, enchanted by the ancient eritis scientes, he aspired to knowledge, nothing but knowledge which, for him, is eternal salvation. Evil must be "explained" - that is all that is demanded of philosophy, whether it be Judeo-Christian or pagan: credo ut intelligam. The victim of a kind of enthusiasm, Leibniz proclaims in an inspired tone: "The eternal truths, the objects of wisdom, are more inviolable than the Styx. These laws do not constrain: they are stronger, for they persuade."[5]

     The eternal truths that entered the mind of God without His permission are forever inviolable, like the Styx, even more than the Styx: they have "persuaded" Leibniz, have persuaded all of us. How have they persuaded us? By their "constraint." No matter what they bring, we will not permit ourselves to argue with them, we will accept everything submissively and joyfully. If they proclaim that evil must exist in the world, that there must be more evil than good, we will accept it; how could we argue with them, since they are not content to constrain but also persuade us? If they brought it about that the good disappeared completely and only evil remained in the world, this also would have to be accepted; and if one day this happens, we shall submit: so boundless is their power.

     Leibniz's theodicy reduces itself finally to this: basing himself on the ideal, uncreated principles, Leibniz shows that, insofar as and because they exist, evil must necessarily exist in the world. His theodicy, then, is not a justification of God but a justification or, more accurately, a voluntary perpetuation, of evil. How can we doubt after this that Leibniz's "will," the will of the man who knows, is enslaved and that it is a question here not de libero but de servo arbitrio, of an enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel?

     If Hegel was wrong to declare that the biblical serpent did not deceive the man with his eritis scientes, he was perfectly right from a historical point of view. The fruits of the tree of knowledge became the source of philosophy for all time. Medieval philosophy, which was born and developed in the bosom of the most intense religious searching, was also incapable - and this despite the undeniable genius of its greatest representatives - of overcoming the temptation of rational knowledge. It sought the truth from the intellectus separatus, to which the entire universe and its Creator as well were subordinated. Modern philosophy merely continued and perfected the work of Scholasticism: the intellectus separatus (the Bewusstsein überhaupt of German idealism) was installed, in it, in the place of the biblical Deus omnipotens, ex nihilo creans omnia. When Nietzsche proclaimed that we have killed Cod, he expressed briefly the conclusion to which the millennial development of European thought had led.

     Can one, then, still speak, with Gilson, of a Judeo-Christian philosophy? I think we can. But to find it we must leave the high road that the development of European philosophy has followed. As we have already had occasion to become convinced, history has preserved the memory of a series of extremely remarkable and audacious attempts to oppose to the eternal truths discovered by reason the Bible's created truth. These broke completely with the ancient philosophy, and had for their origin the conviction that knowledge, and the wisdom of the Greeks founded on this knowledge, are the consequence of man's fall. Hence Luther's De Servo Arbitrio, hence Pascal's enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel.

     Knowledge does not free man but enslaves him by handing him over to the power of truths as invincible as the Styx but also, like the Styx, death-dealing; and the wisdom founded on this knowledge accustoms men to love and bless the truths of the Styx. It is only by overcoming in himself "presumptuousness" (not pride, but false pride), "the monster without whose killing man cannot live," that man acquires the faith which reawakens his slumbering spirit: this is what Luther's sola fide means.

     Luther and Pascal follow in the direct line of Tertullian who denied all our pudet, ineptum, impossibile, and of Peter Damian who, following the Bible, had the daring to see in the cupiditas scientiae, in the avidity with which our reason aspires to universal and necessary truths (that is, truths as inexorable as the Styx), the source of all the evils and horrors of terrestrial life.

     But the distant past has no monopoly on these solitary thinkers. The scientific Nineteenth Century produced Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, who refuse to recognize the eternal truths of knowledge and the wisdom founded on them.

     Nietzsche's "will to power," his "beyond good and evil," his "morality of masters" which he opposes to the "morality of slaves" and through which already appeared the idea of the truth of masters (the truth over which the son of man rules as over the Sabbath) - these are only a desperate attempt to leave the tree of knowledge and return to the tree of life. And this is also the meaning of Dostoevsky's writings: where rational philosophy with its "two times two makes four," its "walls of stone" and other eternal truths discovers a source of peace, calmness, and even mystic satisfaction (the eternal truths not only constrain but persuade us, as Leibniz said), Dostoevsky sees the beginning of death.

     For Kierkegaard, the spiritual double of Dostoevsky, speculative philosophy is an abomination of desolation precisely because it disregards the omnipotence of God. Speculative philosophy bows down before the self-evidences: Kierkegaard proclaims the existential philosophy, the source of which is faith and which overcomes the self-evidences. He leaves Hegel, the famous professor publicus, to go to the private thinker Job; he opposes to the reason of the Greeks the Absurd. The beginning of philosophy is not wonder, as in Plato and Aristotle, but despair (de profundis ad te, Domine, clamavi). He replaces credo ut intelligam with credo ut vivam.

     The model of the "thinker," in his eyes, is not Socrates who, as Kierkegaard himself admits, was the most remarkable of all men who lived before Europe received the Bible, but Abraham, the father of faith. In Abraham faith was a new dimension of thought that the world had not known before, that did not find any place on the level of ordinary consciousness, and that exploded all the "constraining truths" which our "experience" and our "reason" have whispered to us. Only such a philosophy can call itself Judeo-Christian, a philosophy which proposes not to accept but to overcome the self-evidences and which introduces into our thought a new dimension - faith. For it is only on these conditions that the idea of the Creator as the source and master not only of real but ideal being, for which the Judeo-Christian philosophy has striven and - according to Gilson - must strive, can be realized.

     This is why the Judeo-Christian philosophy can accept neither the fundamental problems nor the principles nor the technique of thought of rational philosophy. When Athens proclaims urbi et orbi: "If you wish to subject everything to yourself, subject yourself to reason," Jerusalem hears through these words, "All these things will I give thee if thou wilt fall down and worship me," and answers, "Get thee hence, Satan, for it is written Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve."

[*] "I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God." (B.Pascal, Pensees, II, n.77) [my note - AK.]
[1] Theodicy, sec. 37.
[2] Nouveaux Essais IV, Ch. XVII, sec. 25.
[3] Nouveaux Essais IV, Ch. XVIII, sec. 5.
[4] Confessions VII, 5, 7.
[5] Theodicy, II, sec. 121.

Orphus system

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