The Spirit of Thomism - "The Twofold Certitude" - by Etienne Gilson

The Twofold Certitude
By Stephen Alexander Beach 
(1373 Words) 

Etienne Gilson begins this treatise on the spirit of Thomism with an opening chapter on a way of seeking truth like Thomas did. The mode of truth seeking in which both faith and reason are invoked is at the heart of what Thomism is about. 1 

Reason and Philosophy
St. Thomas loved philosophy, even as a priest, theologian, friar, teacher. There are some in the Christian tradition that reject all worldly philosophies, but not Thomas. 2 He saw a unity to truth, and thus was willing to seek it wherever it was found. "Far from seeing in Christian revelation the downfall of philosophy, Thomas Aquinas saw philosophy, in Eusebius of Cesarea's own words, as a kind of praeparatio evangelica by which divine providence prepared the minds of men to receive the truth of the Gospel." An idea from St. Justin Martyr can help illumine Thomas' ultimate view. Justin says that just as the Law of Moses was given to the Jews to guide them towards salvation, so too philosophy was given to the Greeks to help guide humanity toward salvation. 3 "Judging from the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas saw philosophy as bent upon the contemplation of God as the goal of human life."

To give an example of this, Aristotle came to the conclusion that the highest action of man on earth was that of contemplation of the higher things, most especially the highest thing, God himself. While every detail is not exactly like Christian revelation, it certainly is amazing that Aristotle's writing was able to push reason so far in the right direction. 5 "One thing is at least certain, and that is that to Aristotle the ultimate goal of human life was the conquest of happiness to be found in the steady practice of philosophical speculation. Such was to him the ideal life: not the search for truth, but its contemplation after it has been attained." 6 Thomas, of course, agrees with Aristotle, the intellect and its contemplation of highest things make us most like God and therefore happiest. 7 Indeed, the intellect and its grasp of abstract reality is the greatest wonder of the universe. And God being the final end of knowledge and contemplation only but too clearly matches with the revelation of Christ in which we are ultimately ordained to contemplate God. 

"Then think of the far more solemn moment when for the first time an intelligent being conceived an abstract concept as standing for a plurality of individuals, and expressed it by a gesture or by some sort of grunt that was a word. At that very moment, all the future intellectual conquests of man in science and in philosophy were becoming possible." 8 

Another example of unity between reason and faith is in regard to their certainty. When it comes to adjudicating a claim of reason, one ultimately appeals to the first principles of logic and reason which are the foundation of all truth and irrefutable. And yet, Thomas point out that these first principles exist in our reason because they first emanate from God himself, who is not contradictory and complete Truth itself. 9 "...Thomas Aquinas expressly teaches that what is true to us cannot fail to be true even to God." "'It should be remembered that truth does not vary according to persons; when what a man says, is true, he is invincible, whomsoever he may be disputing with.'" 10 To be true to the spirit of Thomism is to recognize that truth exists and that the light of human reason can obtain truth with certainty. 

Faith and Revelation
What commonality of certitude does faith share with reason since, by definition, faith is the assent to things which reason cannot assent to on its own? 11 Thomas claims that we are able to assent more firmly to the truths of faith than even to those unshakeable first principles of reason.  "So the believer assents more confidently to a proposition he does not know to be true, than to the propositions of which the truth is evident to him in the natural light of reason." How can this be? 12 The first reason that this is the case is because of the nature of the revealer, God. [He will return to this thought later in the chapter.] 13 

In this revealed sense of "theology," God is not just the summation of reason as the ultimate source of being (i.e. a natural theology like that of Plato or Aristotle), but rather is revealed directly and in a more intimate way, and thus Thomas calls this mode of knowing truth, or revealed theology, as "sacred doctrine." 14 "Unlike that nonsacred theology, sacra doctrina proceeds from God; it imparts to us something of God's own self-knowledge so that through faith there in us a finite and participated creation of the literally divine knowledge God has of himself. Because it proceeds from God, the sacred doctrine is in us something essentially divine." 15 Sacred doctrine provides the means for man's salvation and final end, something also which philosophy cannot. 

Another point about sacred doctrine is that it provides the deepest truths about the nature of God and reality to anyone who desires. Thomas points out that few are able to become metaphysicians with the time and intellectual cost associated with that. But even the poorest person can come to know God through the gift of faith. 16 

Still yet another point about revelation is that there is not a sharp distinction between what constitutes truth in the Middle Ages. Rather, through either faith or reason, truth was included. 17 "Thomas Aquinas does more than foresee this; his own theology is calculated to include the totality of saving truth in all its forms and whatever its origin. What of it can be believed only, such as the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, will be taught as such; as to the parts of it that can be philosophically known, they will be received, first as revealed, since theological knowledge is at stake, then as philosophically justifiable in the light of reason." 18 And so theology can act as a guide for reason as to where to explore or what to look for. 

(Taking the discussion to an aspect not often discussed, Gilson points out that not only is faith about the intellectual knowledge of God, but this knowledge and possession of the divine life in the intellect also leads to a love in the will. 19 Similar to the divine life in the intellect, the divine love in the will is the supernatural gift of charity. 20). Faith not only acts as a guide to reason, but in teaching to assent and to love the truth, it also helps the believer to love natural truth and to continue in contemplation of it. In this way, faith also aids the natural reason of the believer. “‘…when the will of a man is willing to believe, he loves the truth he believes, he turns it over in his mind (super ea excogitat) and if he can find reasons for it, he makes them his. And in this too reason does not exclude the merit of faith, but, rather, one should see in it the sign of a greater merit.’” 21

And so can, for St. Thomas, one philosophize as a Christian that is devoid of any influence of faith. For Thomas, the answer is no. To have the divine life in one’s mind and intellect is going to certainly affect how one views the world to an extent. One cannot bracket this out. 22 And so Gilson concludes with he point that, if we want to embody the spirit of St. Thomas we must go down this twofold pathway of truth, both that of faith and reason. 23
1 - Gilson, Etienne. The Spirit of Thomism. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. 9
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