God and Philosophy (Gilson)

Gilson, Etienne.  God and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946 [2002].

Each discipline has its handful of masters who have redefined the discipline in their own ways.  Etienne Gilson, the French neo-Thomist, is one such master. After Gilson, we now have to speak of “existential Thomism,” and we are much richer for it.  Gilson begins with a survey of Greek philosophy and why the Greeks could not escape their own metaphysics.  That is standard enough.  He then extends it to Augustine and notes that Augustine was hampered by the same metaphysics.  Thomas Aquinas rescued Augustine, only to have Descartes (and Kant) ruin it all.

Did the Greeks really believe in their gods?  That is not so easy to answer as one might suppose.  The problem is linking the Greek gods with the “principles” by which Greek philosophy tried to explain the universe.  Thales said the principle was water, another said it was fire, and so on.  As Gilson notes, “On the one side a man posits a certain natural element as the very stuff this world is made of,” and on the other side “the same man posits as a sort of axiom that all things are full of gods” (Gilson 3).  There is a continuum, then, between nature and the gods.

If one simply sees the gods as “mythological” explanations of nature, then there is no real problem.  Unfortunately, as Gilson notes, that will not work. Greek poets say that both the gods and nature (or natural elements) are living powers that have wills (7-8).  One could still rescue the Greek religion by saying that modern man sometimes personifies nature.  Very true.  Unfortunately, as Hera reminds Zeus, the gods must bow to Fate (11).  We do not speak of mythological natural elements this way.

Regardless of how one glosses the Iliad, the original problem remains: if the world is full of gods, then “either your gods are not principles (e.g., have no explanatory power–JA), or there is no longer one principle as the source of all things” (14). Making the matter even worse, nature seemed to be a self-explanatory fact. The best that Greece could do was Aristotle. The ultimate rational principle must be an Intelligence, not a thing. That is why Plato’s Idea failed. Ideas are not gods, nor are they persons.

Enter Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Before we ridicule Aristotle, we need to appreciate what he accomplished. He moved beyond Plato’s impasse.  Even better, his Thought is itself an eternal Act of thinking (33). As good as it is, there are problems.  His Thought can only think of Itself. There is no need for it to enter into a relationship with us.  Even worse, there is no connection between Thought and Existence.

Gilson has been criticized for reading Thomas Aquinas back into the Burning Bush, as though the living God of divine revelation were the same as the Unmoved Mover.  Such a criticism is premature, though.  If anything, Augustine and Aquinas introduced dynamism into the equation. There is a world of difference between “Thought thinking Thought” and “I am who is.” As Gilson notes, “Christian revelation was establishing existence as the deepest layer of reality as well as the supreme attribute of divinity” (44).

Plotinus, and later Augustine, could only speak in terms of “to be.”  For them, true being was immaterial, eternal, immutable–attributes that just as easily apply to Platonic Ideas as to God. For Aquinas, “to be is the very act whereby an essence is” (64). Previous philosophers had been stuck at the level of essence. Now with existence, we can understand how the existential energies flow to various essences (65).

Bottom line: existence is not a thing but the act that causes a thing (66).

Like many Catholic philosophers, Gilson’s story of later philosophy is one of decline and fall.  Nothing new is here, though his writing is wonderfully lucid and often funny.  Here are some examples:

“Because God is supremely intelligent, he could not fail to do what Descartes would have done, had Descartes been God” (96).

“A most gratifying certitude indeed, at least so long as it lasts, and Voltaire was to see to it that it did not outlive the earthquake of Lisbon” (99).

“All the other positions [i.e., between Thomas Aquinas and Kant] are but halfway houses on the roads which lead to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics.  Philosophical halfway houses have always been pretty crowded” (114).

This might be the best intro to Gilson, if not necessarily the best intro to Thomas Aquinas.  The order of reading should be thus: the present work, Thomas’s Being and Essence, Feser’s work on Aquinas, and then probably Aquinas himself.


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