National Catholic Reporter
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Summer Books
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Edited by Peter A. Redpath
Value Inquiry Book Series, 263 pages, $62
The Christian humanism of Étienne Gilson

Reviewed by JOHN L. TRELOAR

The recent publication of A Thomistic Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Étienne Gilson, brings to mind a saying common among philosophers, “Philosophy bakes no bread.” Such a description of philosophy indicates that philosophers have no concern with the day-to-day cares of the world but rather prefer to spend their time and effort on big ideas. The career of Étienne Gilson belies the stereotype of the philosopher and philosophy as ethereal and unimportant for the concerns of day-to-day life.

The year 2003 was the 25th anniversary of Gilson’s death. For Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers, his passing marked the end of a long and glorious career with deep influence on the thought of mid-20th century philosophy and theology. Most of us who engaged in philosophical studies in the late 1950s and early 1960s first learned of Gilson’s work on the history of medieval philosophy through works such as Being and Some Philosophers and the massive History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Perhaps our professors even encouraged us to read his defense of metaphysics, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, as a safeguard from those midcentury thinkers who denied the possibility of metaphysics as a legitimate philosophical enterprise.

Gilson founded and taught in the Pontifical Medieval Institute of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto where he trained many North American scholars who normally would have done advanced studies in Europe. Because of World War II and European reconstruction shortly thereafter, many chose the institute as a place for doctoral studies. As a teacher and leader of the institute, he exerted a key influence on Roman Catholic philosophy and theology, for he mentored many North American intellectuals at the beginning of their careers.

Even though he specialized in the history of philosophy, Gilson brought his own acute reasoning to some of the most difficult problems of 20th-century philosophy. The penultimate chapter of The Unity of Philosophical Experience titled “The Breakdown of Modern Philosophy” points to what later scholars have found problematic with the modern experiment. While Gilson is in no sense a postmodern philosopher, he did understand the limitations of modernism. Some of his insights come from inherent difficulties in much modern philosophy, but perhaps even more he sensed the disarray in contemporary culture that followed upon the flow of modern thought.

What we did not understand as undergraduate students of philosophy in the 1960s was the depth of Gilson’s other philosophical and social interests. Having been born in 1884, he lived through two world wars and countless other conflicts up to the time of his death in 1978. World War II especially upset his scholarly life, for he fled France and took up residence in Toronto. As his life progressed, he showed more and more interest in ethical problems, bringing his acute understanding of the history of philosophy to bear on the social issues of the time. Such concern resulted in the publication of The Church Speaks to the Modern World: The Social Teachings of Leo XIII. Many church documents had appeared on social issues since the time of Leo XIII, but Gilson realized as early as 1954 that Leo XIII had laid the foundation for all subsequent Catholic social teaching. Gilson made that teaching his own.

Desmond Fitzgerald in one of the most fascinating essays in A Thomistic Tapestry narrates Gilson’s experience as a member of the official French delegation at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco during the period from April through June 1945. Even though Gilson came to San Francisco as one of the French invited technical advisers for the “San Francisco Conference,” one of his major functions was to help translate the English text of the United Nations Charter into French. Fitzgerald’s narration of Gilson’s struggles with the translation project shows Gilson’s character as a man who is at once a scholar and a human being concerned for the welfare of his world.

Lest one think that abstract thinking and social issues occupied all of his attention, one needs only to turn to a bibliography of his works and one will discover among others two especially fascinating studies in art and literature. First, Dante the Philosopher plays not only to his strength in medieval philosophy, but also shows an excellent appreciation of Dante as literary artist. Secondly, Gilson’s major work in aesthetics, Painting and Reality, explicates his theory of art as a “pictorial approach to philosophy.” For Gilson, all art, whether literary or plastic, expresses the act of existence.

Unfortunately, Gilson’s theory of art and beauty brought about a split between himself and Jacques Maritain, another outstanding neo-Thomist of the period. Francesca Murphy in A Thomistic Tapestry outlines some of the difficulties between the two thinkers; and Raymond Dennehy explains the more general methodological split concerning the terms “critical” and “realism.” Basically the epistemological controversies involve conflicts between idealisms of the 19th century and traditional realistic philosophies. This article cannot do an explication of these intellectual disagreements, but several personal issues fueled the controversy between the two men. On the theoretical side, Maritain, a Thomist but also an admirer of Henri Bergson, took a more intuitive approach to philosophy. Gilson rejected much of Bergson’s theory of knowledge, especially his acceptance of positivism for day-to-day life along with intuition as an equally important sympathetic knowledge of things. Gilson believed that the way into philosophical thought was through an examination of the history of the discipline. In addition to the ideological differences, there was also a long-standing personal conflict. Gilson is supposed to have told Maritain’s wife, Raissa, “You are no poet.” Gilson himself claimed that he actually said, “You are a poet.” Gilson and Maritain never completely came to terms with their differences either ideologically or personally.

Amid all of Gilson’s concerns for a philosophical methodology, for understanding of social issues and their ethical solutions, and for art and beauty, one central issue continues to surface. It can be expressed as a question, “Is there such a thing as a Christian philosophy?” On the one hand, a purely secular philosopher will deny that this question even has meaning, much less any possible answer. If one takes philosophy as the discipline that investigates the world around us simply by means of the power of reason, then a Christian philosophy does not make any sense at all for Christianity of its very nature makes the claim that it is grounded in divine revelation. On the other hand, Gilson and all those who taught and supported the Pontifical Medieval Institute would say not only does the question have an answer but also that answer provides a rational explanation for how humans live in the world. Secular philosophy has attempted to separate itself from the life of faith; the Christian humanism of Gilson sees faith and reason as intimately related to each other. Consequently, good faith makes appropriately full use of reason, since to do otherwise leads either to agnosticism or atheism, but good reason also makes full use of what can be known by faith.

A blending of faith and reason gives a more complete answer to the enduring issues of philosophical and theological thought. The struggles of the medieval thinkers with issues of the relationship of faith and reason provided Gilson and his colleagues a starting point to confront the crucial issues posed by life in the mid-20th century. Some have tried to read Neo-Thomism as an attempt to deny the existence of the contemporary world and an excursus into the past (as a desire to return to the 13th, the greatest of all centuries). Even a brief look at Gilson’s life and work shows that far from a flight into the past, the best of Neo-Thomism fully engages contemporary life and thought in the context of Western realistic philosophy that started with Aristotle and came to fruition in the Middle Ages.

At the end of his book, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson quotes Bernard of Chartres to illustrate his own approach to philosophy, “We are like dwarves seated on the shoulders of giants. We see more things than the Ancients and things more distant, but it is due neither to the sharpness of our sight nor the greatness of our stature, it is simply because they have lent us their own.” This is the manner in which Gilson led his life, and this is a lesson for present times. One could do far worse than to start with the sharpness of his sight and greatness of his stature.

Jesuit Fr. John L. Treloar is the academic dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. He teaches at the school and writes in contemporary ethics and the history of ethics. His research specialties are late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy and Kant.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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