Étienne Gilson’s City of God

Étienne Gilson (1884-1978) has been a famous Catholic historian of medieval philosophy who appreciated a long, effective, and laureled livelihood during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. He was also a philosopher in his own right, who, together with Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, and others, directed a revival of interest in St. Thomas’s philosophical thought, including circles outside of the Catholic Church. These twentieth century leaders shared that the twin goals of comprehending Thomas’s authentic philosophy rather than using it to participate with contemporary currents of thought, such as positivism and existentialism.

From the 1930s, Gilson participated in an intra-Catholic debate over the validity of a phrase he had employed:”Christian philosophy” Particular believers objected to this, arguing that there’s nothing specifically Christian about philosophy. The phrase had been misleading and fed into the suspicions of people who guessed the infiltration of dogmatic tenets into supposedly philosophical or natural law propositions. Gilson responded that while he agreed that philosophy enjoyed a true autonomy as a discipline, using its own procedures, criteria of signs, and styles of argumentation, at the”concrete,” that is, in the life span of the believing thinker and at the background of thought, Christian doctrines had played important roles in the progression of philosophy. They’d started vistas for thought unsuspected by non-believing philosophers and’d cautioned of shoals that had to be averted.

The discussion indicated that Gilson’s comprehension of the historian of philosophical thought needed to come to terms with was fairly intricate. To the classic neoscholastic types of”motive” and”religion,””nature” and”grace,” he added”background” since the site and laboratory of the interaction. Nor was this category of background of merely historical interest. Once convinced of the truth, a philosopher may take these occasioned theories and deploy them in modern debates. Thomas’s metaphysics of existence, for instance, may be brought into conversation with its modern namesake, existentialism, while Christian personalism may help adjudicate between the dueling anthropologies of both Marxism and liberalism.

The Metamorphoses of this City of God displays Gilson the historian and tradition turning his focus to some other set of modern issues, this time taking his posture by Augustine’s great work, the City of God. The selection of Augustine was dictated by the topic and also the times. The setting allowed to get a self-consciously Catholic treatment of this topic. In addition, it permitted a noticeably voice. The written version allowed its author to bring some essential notes.

What was the topic of the assignments? As their title suggestsit was a collection of medieval and contemporary”metamorphoses,” or proposed earthly realizations, of this City of Peace laid out from Augustine’s masterpiece, but on different premises. Additionally, Gilson framed this historic investigation using a sketch of their present. He wanted to be able to draw lessons from the past and use them to the present. He consequently identified three dramatic challenges facing modern humankind: the challenges of history, the socioeconomic divisions of the Cold War, and of European Christian Democracy. To start with, because of Europe–to European colonization, to its own exporting of international ideas and approaches, to its own consecutive world wars–the human race had entered into a new phase of interconnectedness, exactly what Raymond Aron later called”the dawn of history”

Planetary unity has been achieved. Economic, industrial, and technical motives in general, all of which we can see as tied to practical uses of these natural sciences, have created a de facto solidarity among the peoples of the planet. Consequently, their vicissitudes are combined at a universal history where they are particular aspects. No matter different individuals of the world might consider it, they’ve become parts of a humanity that is much more natural than societal.

The final phrase,”more natural than societal,” indicated a Excellent job:

Henceforth, they need to become aware of that humankind so as to will it instead of simply getting it, and so as to consider it with a view to coordinating it.

What is called for is a truly”universal human culture,””a universal society coextensive with all our world and capable of uniting the totality of individuals.”

Here Augustine himself might assist, as he had been the first to pronounce this striking”perfect” He set out its own religious requirements at the City of God. He also provided canonical understandings of”culture” (societas) and”individuals” (populus). The”universal society” would perforce have to be a real”society,” a union of minds and hearts centered around shared objects of love, also it would have to become”a culture of individuals.” We will go back to them prior to the end.

Present humanity, however, was riven by the branch between two competing ideologies and blocs, between Marxism and liberalism, also between the Soviet Union and also the free world of democracies. This branch was particularly visible in Europe itself, broken up by what Churchill called”the Iron Curtain.” Here too Augustine will help comprehend matters, this time with his concept of”the Earthly City.”

That’s not been better than it is now. Marxism is the most ongoing attempt the world has ever recognized to establish the perfect curse of the temporal city along with the Earthly City. It actively prepares the reign of this Anti-Christ.

Given the radical nature of the Communist challenge, the answer to it should be well. This involved a”hard saying” that neither person, Marxist or liberal, has been disposed to listen to: the affirmation of this God-given jurisdiction of the Church over temporal affairs. Gilson took pains to explain that this does not imply the direct involvement of religious authority in temporal rule, but Instead the safeguarding of politics and of man himself against their own demonic degradation:

The Church’s authority over the temporal realm has precisely the goal of preventing him from placing it at the support of this Earthly City…

Even pagan Romans understood that individual pride needed to become chastened. The victorious general coming in victory to the royal city needed by his side an Auriga, who whispered in his ear, memento mori,”be mindful that you are mortal, that you are but a guy.” In Gilson’s judgment, the Catholic Church was the Auriga of humankind.

The third and final challenge was found in Western Europe, where a fresh effort at cooperation and community has been being born. Post-war Catholic statesmen like Robert Schuman and Alcide de Gaspari had pledged that rivalrous nationalisms wouldn’t be permitted to rend the old cape again and draw the remainder of humankind into another world war.

Gilson himself attended the Congress of Europe. He calls it”the first visible effort to understand this fantasy [of a united Europe].”

Of special interest is a chapter entitled”The Birth of Europe” dedicated to the thought of a remarkable amount, l’Abbé p St.-Pierre (1658-1743).   “United Europe has been created in France approximately two hundred and fifty decades ago” with him. It was he who proposed a Job to Achieve Perpetual Peace in Europe.

Taking issue with Hilaire Belloc’s famous dictum that”Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe,” Gilson pointed out it isn’t correct. There was a lot faithful Christianity outside of any possible European area. Defining Europe with its Christian character consequently runs right into what we could call”the problem of surplus.” Taking his cue from this observation, he further noted that while Europe has devised or developed any variety of”universals” in the sciences, law, regulation, engineering, and political organization, precisely as they’re universals, it cannot merely maintain them as its own, as”defining it” to the exclusion of additional civilizational regions.

When Europe attempts to reflect on itself and formulate its own essence, it tends to be dissolved in a broader society than itself, for that in fact it recognizes no other limitations than those of the planet. Accustomed as Europe is to appeal to international values, here peace by legislation, the rationale it offers of the outline abolishes Europe’s bounds at precisely exactly the exact same moment. Europe is so constructed that it’s buried together with its triumph each time it attempts to establish itself.

In a striking formulation, he confirmed that anything”body” a future Europe can give itself, its own”soul” will probably always be in surplus.

In his final chapter, Gilson awakened this line of thought and offered a Last caveat:

Regardless of its form could be some evening, Europe can not be over the usual geographical, political, and societal reality, even if the men and women who write Europe ought to be as successful in religious achievements in the future since they were in the past… We [will] understand what Europe is when people understand its own structures and political frontiers. It will remain dangerous to hold up this real Europe as a type of temporal Church, founder and possessor of a sort of universal truth that alone can unite humans… The more firmly we want a political Europe, the longer it’s essential not to make it into a religious chimera.

In Gilson’s view,”to make Europe” (faire l’Europe) posed an especially delicate job of”conjugation,” of combining body and soul, universals and particulars. Moreover, it had been the work of politics to give it a”form” or”structures” (e. g.,”political frontiers”) that would allow for this surgery to be effectively conducted. Otherwise, a”religious chimera” would substitute for”reality,” to get a”real Europe.” Gilson duly noted the existence of Winston Churchill, the political individual par excellence, at the Congress.

With the Job of l’Abbé p St.-Pierre, Gilson was halfway through the series of”metamorphoses” he planned to examine. Taking a look at the entire show,”if a lesson comes concerning the history of the City of God along with the avatars it has assumed during the course of centuries, it’s, first of all, it cannot be metamorphosized.” Here was an impressive”lesson” really! Pointedly, Gilson known as these purposed realizations”parodies.”

To take a subsequent instance, at Kant’s conception of Nature’s telos and of History’s culmination for humankind, which, following the Abbé de St.-Pierre and Rousseau, he called”perpetual peace,””the naturalization of the City of God is complete” Nature and Background replace God and grace in effecting a calmness that perdures. He wouldn’t be the final, however, and some of his successors were even clearer in their parodic intent.

In it, a human race of age would self-consciously replace the Christian God as”the Great Being” Comte took it upon himself to define in amazing detail the new”faith of Humanity” that could result, aping Catholicism in so doing. Europe needed a distinctive part in Comte’s rendering of individual history, since the very first sketch and avant garde of a reconciled Humanity. In all this, he followed and radicalized his modern predecessors, now making everything the work of Background and also of a self-adoring Humanity.

In the end of his exposition of Comte’s thought, Gilson has the chance to give some artificial reflections. This is appropriate because

This time the experiment has been completed with such perfect rigor it can be considered conclusive. In the event the international society, made from faith, yields to faith in August Comte’s Positivism, it’s because between Augustine and Comte everything else has been tried in turn and tried in vain. … [Nothing] provided the universal culture with the essential bond that the Christian wisdom of religion had immediately offered it in the time of Augustine. It remains for us to draw a lesson in this experience that is already twenty centuries old.

The lesson bears directly upon the very first battle limned above. In inventing it, Gilson implemented an old legal and, more broadly, practical maxim: Qui vult finem, vult media quoque. Or at leasthe must will them.

It could be, which wouldn’t be the sole instance, that in seeking a universal society by the only paths [voies] that individuals without God dispose, our contemporaries desire a Christian finish without needing the Christian means. The lesson could be easy, so: unless we measure ourselves to the false unity of some empire founded on power or of a pseudo-society without a frequent bond of hearts and minds, it’s necessary either to renounce the ideal of a universal culture or to hunt again the frequent bond from Christian faith.

To attain their target, one that contemporary history has done much to understand they need to not only does what background currently suggests, but exactly what the Church has always proposed. It’s like history were functioning for apologetic purposes.

Launched in 1952, speaking to a Catholic audience, Gilson’s lectures occupies the self-understanding and self-confidence of pre-Vatican II Catholicism (or a dominant strand thereof). Confident at the adequacy of its own intellectual resources, it looked upon the world; also it had been supremely confident about what it offered–itself and its own truths–to a split humanity. This, naturally, is not the entire story of pre-Vatican II Catholicism! But whatever larger narrative just tells, this self-understanding and self-confidence ought to be recognized. It belies the legend of a pre-Vatican II”fortress mentality.” And looking forward in time, grasping this instant is important so as to select the measure, for good and for ill, of Catholicism following the Council.

Similarly, one can use Gilson’s historical studies, and his treatment of a dawning united Europe, to assist assess subsequent improvements. Earlier, I noticed that Gilson invested politics and its professionals with the job of forming a”real Europe,” a”political Europe.” Nothing, however, guaranteed that following the founding generation, subsequent European politicians could be up to this job, or conceive it did their descendants, who had been forged in different conditions, with many shaped with a Church.

Gilson also insightfully pointed to the location, role, and temptation of”the international” in European history. He invites us to think about, just what universal, or universals, were as Europe designed, since it was then assembled? He’d also have us inquire, what relationship will it (or they) have to Europe’s growing”figure,” and to”the specifics,” the individual member-nations, that write it?

The modern French political philosopher, Pierre Manent has addressed these questions during a life time . Here is not the place to enter it, even less offer a summary. But on a central point, Gilson’s book is of wonderful relevance.

In so doing, they rejected the Christian religion and comprehension of democracy of the Christian Democratic founding fathers and picked for Comte’s atheistic-humanistic”dream” With them, his”religious chimera” became European fact and even surreality. From Manent’s point of view, Gilson’s chapter Comte has important contemporary relevance.

Important relevance, but not complete adequacy. Due to the modern EU’s exceptional configuration as a”institutionalized chimera”–at once true, surreal, utopian, and ideological–a fresh chapter needed to be written from the background of European metamorphoses of this City of God. As background went, along with the historian went to his eternal reward, the political philosopher took up the flashlight.