Wednesday, November 4, 2009

God and Philosophy: Western philosophy without a yawning gap

I have, ever since I first become aware of it, loathed the politics of Plato’s Republic with its all-controlling Guardians and everyone in their controlled place. It has always struck me as the ur-text of totalitarianism.

It was reading Etienne’ Gilson’s God and Philosophy which enabled to see how Plato’s loathsome politics flows from his metaphysics. Gilson summarises Plato on ideas as:
Truly to be means to be immaterial, immutable, necessary and intelligible. That is precisely what Plato calls Ideas. (p.24)
Naturally, if ideas are so wonderful, then they are more “real” than mere transitory people: to have a “true grasp” of such wonderful ideas gives on a status far beyond that of ordinary mortals. Platonic Guardians here we come.

Hence the politics of “my ideas are more important than people”. Not merely in the sense of ways of making people lives better, but in the sense of disregarding the actual consequences of one's ideas for people, of requiring people to conform to the ideas.

Add in an appropriate amount of Revelation, and we get the principle of the priestly “gatekeepers of righteousness” of I am important because I am conveyor of God’s ideas and God’s purposes, which are definitely more important than erring sinners. But, of course, a Nazi gauleiter or Leninist commissar is working off the same dialectic as any persecuting cleric, with a great deal more mechanisms of social control at their disposal.

Gilson is a delightfully clear writer, even in translation, and covers a lot of ground with great economy. Being a Catholic philosopher, he has a firm belief in truth and thus of the history of philosophy as “a handmaid to philosophy” (P.xx): having ascertained what philosophers have written leaves us with the question of whether they were correct.

Of course, working out what particular philosophers did hold can be a tricky business, and Gilson has a nice discussion of trying to work out what Thales meant when he said water was the first principle and all things are full of gods (Pp 1ff). Which allows Gilson to take us on a journey through Greek ideas of gods and divinity and how Greek philosophy, in its critical rationality, undermined belief in the Greek and Roman deities without leaving anything much in its place. Gilson holds that people can be brought to worship almost anything as long as they can see it in some sense as a somebody: what they cannot be brought to worship is a thing (p.37). Not entirely convinced of that, but it is surely true that classical philosophy did leave a belief-vacuum into which, of course, Christianity poured itself.
Starting with the very non-philosophical statement of Yahweh to Moses “I am Who am”. Gilson holds Moses’s statement He who is and Plato’s statement That which is to be the dividing line between Greek and Christian philosophy: Christian philosophy accepting a supreme principle (God) who is also a Person (p.42). Christian philosophy was the use of the techniques and concepts of Greek philosophy to express ideas that “had never entered the head of a Greek philosopher” (p.43).

So much so, that St Augustine reads Plotinus (specifically the Enneads) and somehow sees the Christian Revealed God therein (p.48). Gilson defines the issue for Christian philosophy as posed by St Augustine nicely:
That is why, from the time of Saint Augustine up to our own days, human reason has been up against the tremendously difficult task of reaching a transcendent God whose pure act of existing is radically distinct from our own borrowed existence. How can man, who out of himself is not, living in a world of things which out of themselves are not, reach by means of reason alone, “Him who is”? Such is, to a Christian, the fundamental problem of natural theology. (p54)
The answer of modern philosophy is, in effect, you cannot and so we should attend to other questions.

When I did philosophy at Sydney University, it was taught as first there was Greek Philosophy, then there was Descartes and modern philosophy began. Nothing much of philosophical interest happened in the one-and-half-millennia in the middle. It was all bound up with a Revealed God and the ultimately theological concerns of scholastic Aristotelianism and we need not go there.

There was a couple of things wrong with this. First, much of our modern political thought arises out of medieval thinking. There is a direct line of intellectual descent, for example, from Pope Paul III’s 1537 Bull Sublimus Dei to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (John Kilcullen has a very useful webpage on medieval political and moral thought.)

Secondly, people such as Descartes, Locke even Hume are reacting to Aristotelianism. If one does not consider the development of Aristotelianism, one is paying attention to only half the philosophical conversation.

So, attention should be paid. Though, to be fair, as Gilson points out, Descartes himself proceeds as if his only intellectual predecessors were the Greek Philosophers.

Which brings us to St Thomas Aquinas and his development of Aristotelian thought whereby:
The self-thinking Thought of Aristotle has certainly become an essential element in the natural theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, but not without first undergoing the metaphysical transformation that turned him into the Qui est or “He who is” of the Old Testament” (Pp 62-3)
based on analysis of what it means “to be”. To be is taken to be an act, “the acts of all acts” (p.65) with a metaphysics that reverses the order of human knowledge:
…we first conceive certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we affirm their existences by means of a judgement. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge: what first comes into it is a certain act of existing (p.64).
Which is, precisely, of course, what Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume etc denied, hence modern philosophy.

Gilson holds that Aquinas made metaphysics existential, concerned fundamentally with what exists, where existence is understood as an act:
From its earliest origins, metaphysics has always obscurely aimed at becoming existential; from the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas it has always been so, and to such an extent that metaphysics has regularly lost its very existence every time it has lost its existentiality (p.67).
Gilson’s puts Aquinas central metaphysical concept quite nicely:
… existence is not a thing, but the act that causes a thing to be and to be what it is (p.70).
The famous (or infamous) existence precedes essence.

In moving to modern philosophy, Gilson starts with the point that medieval philosophers were all clerics of some variety, while modern philosophers have been overwhelmingly lay folk (p.74). Descartes changes the subject of philosophy, from Aquinas’ attention to divine wisdom to:
... an altogether different sort of wisdom, namely knowledge of truth by its first causes to be attained by natural reason alone and directed towards practical temporal ends (p.76).
Given the brutality of the religious strife that had divided Europe, all from people claiming they had the Revealed truth correct, and the riot of new knowledge confronting Europe of the age of Discovery, hardly a surprising shift in focus.

But, as Gilson points out, the effect was to bring philosophy back to the Greeks as if nothing much had happened since them (p.77). Gilson holds that this could not be fully done, because a modern philosopher operated in the context of the Christian God in a way a Greek philosopher simply did not (Pp78-9). The result was to create “a stillborn God”, God as “Author of Nature”:
Assuredly, the God of Christianity had always been the Author of Nature, but he had always been infinitely more than that, whereas, after Descartes, he was destined to become nothing else than that (p.89).
One ends up with a situation where the God of philosophy is not the God of theology: for example, in such a thinker as Malebranche (p.97).

Gilson pays no attention to Islamic or Jewish thinkers. Still, it is a striking thing that the rejection of Aristotelianism had overlapping effects in both Islam and Western civilisation on the matter of causation. Al Ghazali, arguing against Islamic Aristotelianism, essentially claimed that the God of the Philosophers was not the God of the Qur’an. He has a famous passage where he writes:
... our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively;’ this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.
Which is Humean causal skepticism centuries before Hume. Except that al-Ghazali’s version is a little less silly than Hume’s. Both Hume and al-Ghazali wrote down their arguments in the perfectly rational belief that various causal processes would ensure so people could read and understand their arguments. Al-Ghazali at least has God to hold things together. (Though that surely still leaves the question of what is meant by God causing things?) Hume has nothing, yet patently proceeds as if causality operates in a reliable, indeed predictable, fashion. “Happenstance regularity” is surely sillier than “regularity in nature being just God’s customary practice” (the mainstream Islamic position: not one favourable to the development of science).

Gilson argues that the real break in the line of philosophy comes with Kant (p.110).
Coming after the Christian philosophers, Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche and Spinoza found themselves confronted with this new problem: How find a metaphysical justification for the world of seventeenth-century science? As scientists, Descartes and Leibniz had not metaphysics of their own. Just as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had to borrow their techniques from the Greeks, Descartes and Leibniz had to borrow their techniques from the Christian philosophers who had preceded them. Hence the vast number of scholastic expressions which we meet in the works of Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and even Locke. All of them freely use the language of the Schoolmen in order to express nonscholastic views of a nonscholastic world (Pp110-1).
With the Christian God still operating as the supreme principle for the intelligibility of nature.

Kant changes both the subject and the language of philosophical enquiry. With the criticism of Kant and the positivism of Comte we no longer have a God who is an object of cognition. The metaphysical “why?” question goes away, to be left with the scientific “how?” (p.132).

Gilson notes that the scientific resistance to metaphysics has some justification:
Just as science can play havoc with metaphysics, metaphysics can play havoc with science. Coming before science in the past, it has often done so to the point of preventing its rise and blocking its development. For centuries final causes have been mistaken for scientific explanations by so many generations of philosophers that today many scientists still consider the fear of final causes as the beginning of scientific wisdom. Science is thus making metaphysics suffer for its centuries-long meddling in matters of physics and biology (Pp128-9).
But, as he points out, it does leave epistemology in a very unsatisfactory state (one which has hardly got less unsatisfactory since Gilson wrote God and Philosophy).

Gilson further observes:
A world which has lost the Christian God cannot but resemble a world which has not yet found him (p.136).
As we consider the patently religious impulse involved in much environmentalism, a sort of neo-animism, we can see a repeat of rational critique creating a vacuum into new forms of religiosity (environmentalism, Pentecostalism) or revised takes on old forms (fundamentalism) move. The meaning of things, the “why?” questions, clearly will not go away.

Gilson stands four square for the philosophical synthesis of Aquinas. Whether we want to join him there, God and Philosophy is an excellent short, but intellectually full, journey through Western philosophy from the Greeks to the C20th, without leaving a very large gap in the middle.

ADDENDA I have edited this post slightly to make it clearer.


  1. Very nice article. One quote struck me as a bit odd though, and I was hoping you could put it into context for me. In the following passage:

    Christian philosophy was the use of the techniques and concepts of Greek philosophy to express ideas that “had never entered the head of a Greek philosopher”

    In what way is the author using the word ideas? I ask this because from my experience, many of the Greek ideas were directly translated into Christian concepts. Philo of Larissa, a neo-Platonist living around 100 B.C., identified the Logos, or Word, as the incarnate Son of God:

    And the father who created the universe has given to his archangel and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Logos rejoices…. saying “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you” (Num. 16:48); neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties (Her. 205-206). . .

    Again, from my experience, many of the Christian ideas, especially Christ himself, was present in the minds of the Greeks long before Christ was said to walk the Earth.

    Other than that thanks for introducing me to the book, I will be looking into it.

  2. Retraction:

    The above quote was from Philo of Alexandria, not Larissa; however, the question remains the same, as the Middle Platonist Philo of Alexandria was conveying the central Greek idea of The Logos within a religious paradigm before Christianity picked up on the idea.

    Thanks Again

  3. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Philo was not a Greek philosopher in the way Gilson means. Philo believed in the Jewish God, the God who said "I am" and who was thus a Person. From the quote, Philo is treating the Logos as an archangel, not the Person of the Trinity in the Christian sense.

    Philo is absolutely crucial as the intermediary between Greek philosophy and the Judaic tradition of scriptural Revelation. It is that notion of revelation and its implications which Gilson is drawing the distinction about. Greek notions of some first cause were more abstract and derivative.

    Something that, for example, al-Ghazali made much of in his arguments against the attempt to import Aristotelianism into Islam, (the most famous exponent of which was Ibn Rushd, "Averroes", who was extremely influential in Latin Christendom and had almost no influence in Islam).