Étienne Gilson’s City of God

Étienne Gilson (1884-1978) has been a famous Catholic historian of medieval philosophy who appreciated a long, successful, and laureled livelihood during the very initial three-quarters of the twentieth century. He was also a philosopher in his own right, who, together with Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, and many others, led a revival of interest in St. Thomas’s philosophical thought, including circles outside the Catholic Church. These twentieth century leaders shared that the twin goals of comprehending Thomas’s authentic philosophy as opposed to using it to participate with modern currents of thought, including positivism and existentialism.
In the 1930s, Gilson participated in an intra-Catholic debate over the legitimacy of a term he had used:”Christian philosophy.” Particular believers objected to this, asserting that there’s nothing specifically Christian about philosophy. The term was misleading and fed to 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 real liberty for a field, with its own methods, criteria of evidence, 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 development of philosophy. They’d opened vistas for thought unsuspected by non-believing philosophers and had cautioned of shoals that had to be averted.
The debate suggested that Gilson’s understanding of what the historian of philosophical thought required to come to terms with was rather intricate. To the classic neoscholastic types of”reason” and”religion,””character” and”grace,” he added”background” since the site and lab of their interaction. Nor was this category of background of only historical interest. Once convinced of their truth, a philosopher could take these occasioned theories and deploy them in contemporary arguments. Thomas’s metaphysics of presence, as an example, could be brought into conversation with its contemporary namesake, existentialism, while Christian personalism could help adjudicate between the dueling anthropologies of Marxism and liberalism.
The Metamorphoses of the Town of God displays Gilson the historian and philosopher turning his attention to a different set of contemporary issues, now taking his bearing by Augustine’s excellent work, the City of God. The selection of Augustine was ordered by the subject and the times. The setting allowed for a self-consciously Catholic treatment of the subject. In addition, it permitted a noticeably personal voice. The written version allowed its writer to add a few important notes.
What was the subject of the assignments? As their title suggests, it was a collection of medieval and modern”metamorphoses,” or proposed earthly realizations, of the City of Peace laid out in Augustine’s masterpiece, however on different assumptions. Furthermore, Gilson framed this historic investigation with a sketch of the current. He wanted to be able to draw lessons from the past and apply them to the current. He therefore identified three remarkable challenges facing contemporary humanity: the challenges of universal history, the ideological divisions of the Cold War, also of European Christian Democracy. First of all, because of Europe–to Western colonization, to the exporting of international ideas and approaches, to its own sequential world wars–the human race had entered into a new phase of interconnectedness, exactly what Raymond Aron afterwards called”the dawn of universal history.”
Planetary unity has been achieved. Economic, industrial, and also technical reasons generally, all which we can view as connected to practical applications of the natural sciences, have created a de facto solidarity among the peoples of the planet. Consequently, their vicissitudes are united at a worldwide background of which they have been particular facets. Whatever the different individuals of the world may consider it, they’ve become elements of a humanity that is more natural than societal.
The final phrase,”more natural than societal,” signaled a Wonderful task:
Henceforth, they must become conscious of the humanity in order to will it instead of simply getting it, and in order to consider it with a view to organizing it.
What is called for is a truly”universal human culture,””a worldwide society coextensive with all our world and capable of joining the totality of humans.”
This Augustine himself might help, as he was the first to pronounce this spectacular”perfect” He set out its own spiritual requirements at the Town of God. He additionally provided canonical understandings of”culture” (societas) and”people” (populus). Even the”universal society” will perforce need to be a real”society,” a marriage of minds and hearts centered around common objects of love, also it would need to be”a culture of individuals.” Assuredly, those Augustinian stipulations raised thorny questions and Gilson was very aware of these. We will return to them toward the end.
Present humanity, however, was riven by the branch between two contending ideologies and blocs, involving Marxism and liberalism, also involving the Soviet Union and 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 could help understand matters, now with his concept of”the Earthly City.”
[T]he Civitas Terrena’s […] impact upon the temporal sphere is not any less visible and no stronger than that of the Heavenly City. That’s not been better than it is today. Marxism is the most ongoing effort the world has ever understood to establish the ideal curse of the rectal city along with the Earthly City. It knowingly prepares the reign of the Anti-Christ.
Given the radical nature of the Communist challenge, the answer to it should be well. This entailed a”hard saying” that neither man, Marxist or liberal, so has been disposed to hear: the affirmation of the God-given jurisdiction of the Church over temporal affairs. Gilson took pains to explain that this does not imply the direct participation of spiritual authority in temporal guideline, but Instead the safeguarding of politics and of man against their demonic degradation:
The Church’s jurisdiction over the temporal realm has precisely the goal of preventing him by placing it in the ceremony of their Earthly City…
Even pagan Romans understood that individual pride required to be chastened. The victorious general returning in triumph to the royal city had by his side a Auriga, who whispered in his ear, then memento mori,”be aware that you’re mortal, which you’re but a man.” In Gilson’s conclusion, the Catholic Church had been the Auriga of humanity.
The third and final challenge was discovered in Western Europe, by which a fresh effort at cooperation and community has been being born. Post-war Catholic statesmen such as Robert Schuman and Alcide de Gaspari had pledged that rivalrous nationalisms wouldn’t be allowed to rend the older cape again and draw the remainder of humanity into another world war. One thus watched the beginnings of a new Europe, one inspired by Christian Democratic principles, at the Congress of Europe (1948) and the European Coal and Steel Community (1952).
Gilson himself attended the Congress of Europe. He calls it”the first visible effort to realize this fantasy [of a united Europe].”
Of special interest is a chapter entitled”The Birth of Europe” dedicated to the thought of a remarkable figure, l’Abbé p St.-Pierre (1658-1743).   “United Europe has been created in France approximately two hundred and fifty five decades ago” along with him. This was he who proposed a Job to Attain 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 that it isn’t true. There was much loyal Christianity outside of any possible European area. Defining Europe with its Christian character thus runs into what we can call”the problem of surplus.” Taking his cue from this observation, he noted that while Europe has invented or developed any range of”universals” in the sciences, law, morality, technology, and political association, precisely because they are universals, it cannot merely assert them as its own, because”specifying it” to the exclusion of additional civilizational areas.
When Europe attempts to reflect on itself and invent its own character, it is inclined to be dissolved in a broader society compared to itself, for which in fact it recognizes no other limitations than many of the planet. Accustomed as Europe is to appeal to international values, here peace by legislation, the justification that it provides of their outline abolishes Europe’s boundaries in exactly the same moment. Europe is so constructed that it’s buried together with its triumph every time that it tries to establish itself.
In a striking formulation, he affirmed that whatever”body” a future Europe can give itself, its own”soul” will probably always be in surplus.
In his final chapter, Gilson summed up this line of thought and provided a Last caveat:
Whatever its form could be some day, Europe can not be more than a geographical, political, and societal fact, even if the individuals who write Europe should be fruitful in spiritual achievements in the future since they were previously… We [can ] know what Europe is when we know its constructions and political frontiers. It is going to always be dangerous to hold up this actual Europe as a kind of temporal Church, creator and possessor of some kind of universal truth which alone could unify humans… The more rigorously we want a political Europe, the more it’s crucial not to make it into a spiritual chimera.
In Gilson’s opinion,”to create Europe” (faire l’Europe) posed an especially delicate task of”conjugation,” of blending soul and body, universals and particulars. In addition, it was the job of politics to offer it a”form” or”constructions” (e. g.,”political frontiers”) which will allow for this operation to be effectively conducted. Otherwise, a”spiritual chimera” will substitute for”fact,” for a”real Europe.” Gilson duly noted the presence of Winston Churchill, the political individual par excellence, in the Congress.
Looking at the entire show,”if a lesson emerges about the background of the Town of God along with the avatars it has assumed during the course of the centuries, it’s, first of all, that it cannot be metamorphosized.” This is a striking”lesson” really!
To take a subsequent example, at Kant’s conception of Nature’s telos and of History’s most culmination for humanity, which, following the Abbé de St.-Pierre and Rousseau, he called”perpetual peace,””the naturalization of the Town of God is complete.” Nature and History replace God and grace in effecting a peace that perdures. Kant thus summed up a”first wave” of modern naturalizations or even”terrestrializations” of Augustine’s thought, what Carl Becker called”the Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers.” He wouldn’t be the final, however, and some of his successors were even clearer in their parodic intent.
Inside, a human race come of age will self-consciously replace the Christian God as”the Great Being.” Comte took it on himself to specify in good detail the new”faith of Humanity” which would lead, aping Catholicism in doing. Europe had a distinctive role in Comte’s representation of history, since the first sketch and avant garde of a reconciled Humanity. In all this, he also followed and radicalized his modern predecessors, currently making all of the job of History and also a self-adoring Humanity.
At the end of his exposition of Comte’s notion, Gilson takes the chance to supply some synthetic reflections. This is appropriate since
This time the experimentation has been completed with such perfect rigor that it can be considered conclusive. In the event the international society, born of faith, returns to faith in August Comte’s Positivism, it’s due between Augustine and Comte whatever else has been tried in turn and tried in vain. … [Nothing] supplied the universal culture with the essential bond which the Christian intellect of religion had instantly given it from the time of Augustine.
The Bible communicates directly upon the first challenge limned above. In formulating it, Gilson applied an outdated legal and, more broadly, functional maxim: Qui vult finem, vult media quoque. He wills an end, wills the way also. Or at least, he should are going to them.
It might be, and this wouldn’t be the only instance, which in searching for a worldwide society by the sole paths [voies] that humans with no God dispose, our contemporaries desire a Christian finish without needing the Christian means. The lesson would be easy, so: unless we resign ourselves once more to the false unity of some empire based on drive or of a pseudo-society without a common bond of minds and hearts, it’s necessary either to renounce the ideal of a universal culture or to hunt again the common bond in Christian faith.
Contemporary proponents of a unified humanity has to make a fateful choice. To achieve their target, one which modern history has achieved much to understand , they must not only depends upon what background currently signals, but exactly what the Church has ever proposed. It is as though history were working for apologetic purposes.
Given in 1952, speaking to a Catholic audience, Gilson’s lectures occupies the self-understanding and self-confidence of pre-Vatican II Catholicism (or some dominant strand thereof). Confident at the adequacy of its own intellectual sources, it confidently looked on the world; also it was supremely confident in what it offered–itself and its own truths–to a divided humanity. This, clearly, is not the entire story of pre-Vatican II Catholicism! But whatever larger story just tells, this self-understanding and self-confidence should be recognized. And looking forward in time, grasping this moment is important in order to select the measure, for good and for ill, of Catholicism following the Council.
Similarly, one can use Gilson’s historical research, and his remedy of some dawning united Europe, to help assess subsequent developments. Earlier, I noticed that Gilson invested politics and its practitioners with the task of forming a”real Europe,” a”political Europe.” Nothing, however, guaranteed that following the founding generation, succeeding European politicians would be up to the undertaking, or conceive it did their predecessors, who were forged in different circumstances, with lots of shaped with a Church.
Gilson also insightfully pointed to the place, function, and temptation of”the universal” in Western history. He invites us to think about, just suppose universal, or universals, were invoked as Europe designed, since it was then assembled? He’d also have us inquire, what relationship does it (or they) need to Europe’s growing”figure,” and to”the details,” the individual member-nations, that write it?
The contemporary French political philosopher, Pierre Manent has addressed these concerns during a lifetime of work. This is not the place to go into it, much less offer a list. But on a fundamental point, Gilson’s book is of amazing relevance.
Together with them, his”spiritual chimera” became European fact and even surreality. By Manent’s point of view, Gilson’s chapter on Comte has important contemporary significance.
Important relevance, but maybe not complete adequacy. Due to the contemporary EU’s exceptional configuration as a”institutionalized chimera”–in once real, surreal, utopian, and ideological–a fresh chapter required to be composed in the background of European metamorphoses of the Town of God. As background moved on, and the historian moved to his eternal reward, the political philosopher shot up the torch.