Sunday, December 18, 2011

The "Theologism" of Bonaventure


This project began with an examination of the "archaic ontology" described in the works of Mircea Eliade--the ontology of the man of "archaic" or traditional cultures.  It is our thesis that the basic outlook of the archaic ontology served as the basis for most later developments in the intellectual history of mankind, and therefore only by coming to an understanding of archaic ontology are we able to understand the intellectual history of mankind, including the ideologies of the modern world.  It may be well to recapitulate some of these ideas before we proceed further, in order to recall the connection between archaic ontology and such seemingly unrelated phenomena as the theology of a 13th century Christian theologian, such as Bonanventure.

The archaic ontology, in all the myriad forms that it takes, can be understood as the expression of man's recognition that the world of our experience is both limited as well as dependent. This is to say that the world as man finds it is finite and requires an explanation for its existence. The typical--one could probably say universal--form that this expression takes is the view that worldly realities are imitative; they are not independently real.  True reality is embodied in heavenly/divine archetypes, whose true reality is reflected in their worldly counterparts. The reality of our experience, thus, is real to the extent that it participates in or conforms to archetypal realities and patterns.

The universal mode in which archaic man expresses this experience is myth. This is to say that the meaning of man's experience, in traditional societies, is typically embedded in narratives and metaphors rather than in logical propositions. As we have seen, the mythic mode of expression is congenial to man's way of knowing and interacting with the world. Man "sees" or recognizes intelligibility in the reality around him, then expresses that intelligibility in concepts; in myth man constructs a world in which the meaning of man's experience is expressed in narrative form--the expressed meaning can once again be "seen" in the narrative reality in a way that is similar to the way that man "sees" the intelligibility of worldly realities in everyday life. While this mode of expression may not employ syllogisms or other types of logical argumentation, it is important to understand that it is nevertheless rational, in that it is based on observation of reality and conclusions drawn from that observation. For that matter, this mode of expression should be familiar enough to modern man, with his own love for communicating meaning in narrative--novelistic and cinematic--form.

As human intellectual life became increasingly sophisticated, men began to study the rules that govern our use of concepts, how valid inferences can be constructed. The development of rules of logic and dialectical methods of argumentation can be traced in Greece, China and India as early as the 6th century BC. The negative side of this development, however, was that the elites, intoxicated by the power of abstract concepts, lost sight of the nature, function and meaning of the myths and sought to express the nature of reality in ways that partook of the certainty of logical argumentation. As we have seen, the archaic ontology provided a congenial basis for this effort, since the heavenly archetypes--taken as ultimate reality, the "really real"--were readily expressible as abstract concepts or, in Platonic terms, "Ideas." Thus, as Eliade remarks, Plato's thought is best understood as an attempt at a conceptual expression of the archaic ontology. The problem with this approach is that rational knowledge is an instrument--it is the means by which man "deals with" reality, but it is not a complete grasp or comprehension of reality. In other words, while man is able to efficiently deal with reality through the instrumentality of concepts--rational knowing--reality itself is not made up of concepts. The essence of Platonism is the mistaken notion that true reality is a reflection of human rationality, that it is conceptual. Thus Platonism fails to grasp the nature of human knowledge as an instrumentality, mistakenly believing that truth is  a one to one correspondence between human rationality and reality. Any failure to attain full correspondence calls into question the ability of man to "know" reality.

Plato himself was well aware of the difficulties inherent in his undertaking. In broad terms, under the influence of logic--the systematization of human rationality--Platonism and other similar attempts at theoretical expressions of the insight of archaic ontology took the ultimate reality to be conceptual in nature: "ideal" in the Platonic sense. This led to the problem of the One and the Many, which bedeviled Plato's thought. If true reality is ideal or conceptual, how is it that material reality exists? What is the mechanism by which the "many" of the material world (many individual men, for example) all participate in the archetypal or Ideal reality, which alone is "really real" (Man, in our example). This is the problem that has occupied the West ever since--how can eternal, unchanging natures or Ideas explain the ever changing reality we experience through sensation? If natures or Ideas are true reality, is the reality of our experience "real" at all? Just as troubling is the problem of how man acquires what appears to him to be absolutely necessary and unchanging knowledge in the form of abstract ideas--if the reality that man is exposed to is ever changing, how can man acquire the unchanging ideas?

Plato, it seems, knew that he had arrived at an intellectual impasse. On the one hand, he was intensely involved in the affairs of his day, and thus must needs be able to formulate certain knowledge of the ever changing reality that so concerned him. On the other hand, he knew that he was unable to explain how this was so. The expression of this dilemma can be found in such "philosophical myths" as his Myth of the Cave in The Republic. In this "myth" (really more of an allegory) Plato likens material reality to shadows on the wall of a cave, cast by the true but unseen "ideal" realities. But to the all important question, How does man, a being in the ever changing material world, come to have certain and true knowledge (such as the concepts that he uses in logical operations), since that can only be knowledge of the eternal and unchanging "Ideas" or archetypes? Plato's response was his Myth of Anamnesis or Recollection. Man possesses such necessary knowledge because he acquired it and recalls it from a previous life in which the soul was not joined to a body. The problem for man is to recover those "ideas" now that the soul is trapped in a body. Plato's mythic solution was to suggest that material reality is the occasion upon which man's recollection (anamnesis) is jogged so that the memory recalls the "ideas" from its previous existence. The mythic character of this "explanation" is apparent, in that it is advanced as a solution to a conceptual conundrum and not as an explanation of actual human experience: we experience no such process of recollection.

These are problems, of course, that the archaic ontology never intended to address, much less to solve. The problem for Platonic style speculation--which in its myriad permutations has been the dominant thought form of the West and most of the world--arises from taking the archetypes of archaic ontology and attempting to use them for something they were never intended to be: as the basis for a theoretical explanation of reality. Valid human enquiry can never ultimately move from thought to knowledge, from Ideal to individual/material. The Platonic undertaking, in whatever form it takes, ultimately leads to skepticism--paradoxically, as it may seem, since it is a highly rationalistic style of skepticism. Nevertheless, if the Platonic approach is accepted as valid then skepticism is the ultimate outcome, since Platonism creates insoluble problems that are incompatible with normal human experience.

Fortunately, there is another way to proceed from the fundamental insight of archaic ontology, and that is the path that leads through Israelite religion to Christianity. As we earlier traced its history, Israelite religion began very much in the mold of archaic ontology, similar to the other West Semitic cultures of which it was a part. However, as Israel came under the threat of more powerful states such as Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia, the Israelite search for an escape from their existential dilemma took on--in part--the form of a theoretical critique of the culture of these threatening powers. By shortly before the advent of Jesus, Israelite thought had transformed the insight of archaic ontology that the reality of human experience is limited and dependent (still evident in the "creation" narratives of Genesis) and had come to the conclusion that the explanation for the existence of the universe is that it was brought into being from nothing--it was created--by one God, the only God.

This development had a decisive advantage in that it started from the observation of actual existing beings, rather than extrapolating from conceptual constructs or mythic narratives. It thus preserves the foundation of the archaic ontology, the insight that everything that we experience is limited and dependent and ultimately unable to explain its own actual existing, but avoids the identification of the "really real" with abstract concepts. To be real, instead, is to be in act. This method of enquiry begins from the act/fact of existing and seeks to explain the nature and source of existence, in opposition to the Platonic method of starting with thought/ideas and then seeking to explain existence as we know it. By this view, since man is within the world of existence, it is a futile and self defeating endeavor to try to justify existence--to do so would require somehow placing oneself outside existence! Additionally, this approach leaves open the way to treating human rationality as an instrumentality for dealing with reality, rather than as a one to one reflection of ultimate reality.

As we have seen, Christianity embraced this Israelite insight, developing it further through the doctrine of the Trinity, and made it the fundamental and first article of the Christian "faith": I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Now, Christian "faith" includes the conviction that faith is not mere subjective conviction but is reasoned belief--a conclusion that, while not a result of contemplating concepts in the Platonic fashion, is justifiable by observation, by reference to existing reality. However, over the course of several centuries, as more and more of the pagan intelligentsia adopted Christianity, they brought with them their established modes of thought, and in particular the prestigious Platonic and Neoplatonic "philosophy." This development was understandable, since Platonism is suffused with "religious" sentiment--its appeals to the higher levels of man's nature, such as rationality, and especially its conception of the soul were bound to appear supportive of Christian faith. As we have seen, Augustine's reliance upon Platonic thought for all philosophical issues--including the crucial question of man's knowledge of reality--and the enormous prestige that Augustine enjoyed in the West (second only to Scripture)--led later generations to seek solutions for most philosophical questions in Augustine's writings. Moreover, this Platonic style of "philosophy," with its highly developed dialectic, became--in the absence of any challenger of similar prestige--identified with "reason" itself. The Church's beliefs did not change, nor did the Church forget its conviction that belief is justified by reasoned enquiry. Nevertheless, a false dichotomy between reason and faith arose in which reason itself was identified with philosophy in a generally Platonic form, and especially with the manipulation of concepts according to the rules of formal logic. Faith came to be regarded as a realm beyond the scope of reason.

The constant temptation for believers who find themselves in this situation--faced with appeals to reason that cast doubt on the ability of man to attain truth--is to take the seemingly easy way out. Rather than doing the hard philosophical slog and attacking Platonism's claims to exclusively represent "philosophy" and "reason," the very strong temptation for Christians has always been to seek to build a protective wall around "faith" by arguing that faith is a somehow privileged certitude that is above reason and cannot be subject to reason. The obvious difficulty with this approach is that it contradicts the Church's teaching that faith is, precisely, reasoned belief. Nevertheless, when this argument is advanced by seemingly holy men who present them as champions of the faith against impious clever-boots logicians, the Church has all too often not had the stomach to blow the whistle on them.


At the point at which we've arrived in our enquiries--the thirteenth century--no one in the West was ready to launch a full frontal assault on reason in the name of faith, at least not in the systematic way that we saw occur in the Islamic world. The first significant step in that direction was taken by the head of the Franciscan order, Bonaventure, still revered as a saint and doctor of the Church.

It is something of a truism to say that Bonaventure was primarily a theologian rather than a philosopher. In point of fact, to capture the spirit of Bonaventure's thought it's probably truer to say that his central concern is to safeguard the spiritual life or, better yet, piety. This he did by championing Franciscan spirituality as well as the traditional Augustinian thought of the West, which is to say, Neoplatonized Christianity.  It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Bonaventure regards the true Christian soul as "[f]illed with a sense of ... intellectual and moral wretchedness," based on the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. Such a soul--and it is typical of Bonaventure's Augustinian thought to speak rather of the soul than of the human unity or person--is convinced that "the task of its whole life must necessarily be to find healing from its sickness and cleansing from the stain which infects it, and by infecting it contaminates the whole universe."  (E. Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 433)

Such an attitude was bound to have a profound influence on Bonaventure's thought, and in fact his concern to safeguard piety emerges at every important juncture of his theology. Etienne Gilson, in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Chapter 2, Theologism and Philosophy) terms this mindset "Theologism." The very titles of two of Bonaventure's shorter but most characteristic works tell the story: On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology (De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam) and Journey of the Soul Into God (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum). Bonaventure's thought centered itself around the soul's progress in drawing nearer to God and the strict subordination of reason to faith (as Bonaventure understood it). Thus, Gilson summarizes Bonaventure's approach:

... the ultimate meaning of ... our various sciences and of philosophy itself, is to symbolize on a lower plane the perfection of the divine art and of the divine knowledge. That is what they are, but, left to themselves, they do not know it. It is the proper function of theology to bring them to a complete awareness of their proper function, which is not to know things but to know God through things. Hence the title of St. Bonaventura's treatise [On Reducing the Arts to Theology]; the human arts should be reduced to theology, and thereby to God.  (40)

Now, as Gilson recognizes, there is truth in what Bonaventure is saying. God should, indeed, be the center of each person's life. But it is equally clear that this is a dangerous road down which Bonaventure is headed. It would not be quite correct to characterize Bonaventure's thought as a true fideism--while it is headed in that direction, Bonaventure was too acute a thinker and too sincere a Christian to fall into that trap entirely. Nevertheless, Gilson points out three critical junctures in which this mindset was a controlling factor in Bonaventure's thought, and which admirably illustrate the dangers of this mindset: Free Will, Causality, and Human Knowledge.

Grace and Free Will

In considering Bonaventure's views on the theological problem of grace and free will, Gilson first notes that Bonaventure lays it down as a principle that "the mark of truly pious souls is that they claim nothing for themselves but ascribe everything to God." Gilson professes to believe--perhaps playing Devil's Advocate--that this principle is "excellent as a rule of personal devotion," but it doesn't take much imagination to see the dangers that lie ahead when this principle is used as "a criterion of theological truth," as Gilson proceeds to demonstrate with almost gruesome clarity. Thus, when Bonaventure is confronted with "the classical question: what is to be ascribed to grace and what to free will," it comes as no surprise that, true to his principle, Bonaventure first expresses the view that "in such cases a theologian should always play [it] safe." Bonaventure next notes that there are two ways in which a theologian can go astray in this case. The theologian can err by giving either "too much credit to nature, or by giving too much credit to God." Now, as Gilson comments, from a purely abstract point of view, from the standpoint of truth, each position will be equally wrong.  But, as it turns out, that isn't precisely Bonaventure's main concern. Instead, Bonaventure is concerned to safeguard religious feeling. Thus, Bonaventure maintains that

"however much you ascribe to the grace of God, you will not harm piety by so doing, even though by ascribing to the grace of God as much as you can, you may eventually wrong the natural powers and the free will of man. If, on the contrary, you wrong grace by crediting nature with what belongs to grace, there is danger. ... Consequently that position which ... ascribes more to the grace of God and, because it establishes us in a state of more complete indigence, better harmonizes with piety and humility, is for that very reason safer than the other one."  

And then, adds Gilson, comes the final touch:

"Even though that position were false, it would not harm piety or humility; it is therefore fitting and safe to hold it." (41)

After all, if the mark of the true Christian soul is that it is "[f]illed with a sense of ... intellectual and moral wretchedness," is it not better that it should believe pious sounding untruths that fill it with humility, rather than having an inflated notion of man's freedom?

Gilson has clearly been bending over backwards to this point, professing to accept the true Christian piety of Bonaventure. And yet, could it really be true that Bonaventure's principle is "excellent as a rule of personal devotion?" What could possibly be excellent or pious about a rational creature such as man, endowed by God with an intellect for the precise purpose of knowing the truth, abusing his reason in such a way?  Is piety truly left unscathed by error, even pious error? Can it be "fitting and safe" for a Christian to hold to what is false and erroneous? And so Gilson clarifies his own views, while drawing out the implications of Bonaventure's position:

If ... you start on the assumption that it is safer to keep a little below the line, where are you going to stop? Why, indeed, should you stop at all? Since it is pious to lessen the efficacy of free will, it is more pious to lessen it a little more, and to make it utterly powerless should be the highest mark of piety. In fact there will be medieval theologians who come very close to that conclusion, and even reach it a long time before the age of Luther and Calvin. ... In theology, as in any other science, the main question is not to be pious, but to be right. For there is nothing pious in being wrong about God! (42)


As in the case of nature and grace, there were two different courses open to Bonaventure regarding the question of causal efficacy. In the first instance Bonaventure come down in favor of the view that "where there is efficient causality, something new, which we call effect, is brought into existence by the efficacy of its cause." From this standpoint "every effect can be rightly considered as a positive addition to the already existing order of reality." On the other hand, Bonaventure could maintain, with St. Augustine, that "God has created all things present and future at the very instant of creation." From this standpoint, "any particular being taken at any time of world history, should be considered, so to speak, as the seed of all those other beings, or events, that are to flow from it according to the laws of divine providence." Gilson remarks that it's typical of Bonaventure's "theologism" that Bonaventure "always clung to this second interpretation of causality. He never could bring himself to think that efficient causality is attended by the springing up of new existences." To Bonaventure, creative power belongs only to God. To credit creatures with an ability to actually cause things to come into being is, for Bonaventure, to diminish God. But if, in the beginning, God created, in effect, not only all that was but also all that was to be, then the end of the world story was in its beginning. In such a world, nothing new can really happen; "in such a system God is the only efficient cause." And the end result is a startling convergence of Bonaventure's worldview with that of the orthodox Muslim thinkers. As Gilson puts it, from this point of view "this world of ours is a completely barren world, just as in the doctrine of Malebranche and of Al Ashari." (42-43)

Even more troubling, however, is Gilson's further point: Such a world is exactly as Bonaventure wanted it to be. "His piety [i.e., which equated true Christian feeling with a belief in the wretchedness of man] needed a world which, like an infinitely thin and translucid film, would allow the all-pervading power and glory of God to shine forth to the human eye."

Again we are left wondering, is this truly piety in any meaningful Christian sense? Aquinas, for one, would maintain, in response to those who criticized his "naturalism," that God's glory and power are in fact more manifest the more capable--and even self sufficient--are his works. Thus, God's glory and power are more evident if man's powers of reason and his resultant freedom are greater, than if man should be lacking in reasoning ability and have only a very circumscribed sort of freedom. A God who is glorified by the indigence of his creation rather than by its effectiveness hardly seems a Christian God. And just as much to the point, Aquinas' worldview appears to conform to ordinary human experience. Needless to say, Aquinas was safe in saying this because he held a highly developed and explicit understanding of God as creator. As a result, no matter how self sufficient man may be in this created world, man as created remains in the most absolute sense utterly dependent on his creator. Bonaventure, having adopted the Platonic tendencies of Augustine, was hampered in developing such clarity of understanding, despite his formal acceptance of Christian teaching on creation. The focus on human emotions obscures insight into the nature of existence. For Platonized Christianity creation is essentially a conceptual reality that is merely expressive of God's total power vis a vis man, rather than an insight into the meaning of existence. Such a focus on piety over truth is bound to lead astray even the most "devout" souls.


The same impulse that had carried Bonaventure to such extreme conclusions in his interpretation of physical causality could not but prevail in his epistemology.  The question of human knowledge, after all, amounted to the same problem: all three of these questions come down to the problem of causality.  And once again there were two obvious ways of dealing with the question.  We can say, with Thomas Aquinas, that since God has made man a rational animal, "the natural light of reason must be able naturally to perform its proper function, which is to know things as they are, and thereby to know truth."  Or we can say with St. Augustine, that since truth is necessary, unchangeable, and eternal, it "cannot be the work of a contingent, mutable and impermanent human mind interpreting unnecessary, changeful and fleeting things.  Even in our minds truth is a sharing of some of the highest attributes of God; consequently, even in our minds, truth is an immediate effect of the light of God."  (43-44)

Now, Augustine's account of truth--his doctrine of "divine illumination" of man's mind--may, at first impression, strike the Christian as wonderfully pious. But note: the effect of Augustine's doctrine of "divine illumination" is to suppose that God is "permanently supplying our minds with an additional light, through which and in which it sees truth." (44) How, we may well ask, is Augustine going to accommodate the possibility of human error, not to mention human freedom? In point of fact, Augustine's view that unaided human knowledge cannot attain to truth amounts to a radical skepticism. This should come as no surprise, given that Augustine was essentially a Platonist (via the Neoplatonism of Plotinus) in matters of philosophy, for as we have seen, such a skepticism is part and parcel of every Platonism. No matter what the intent of the individual thinker, anyone who proceeds on Platonist assumptions inevitably falls into this pit of despair concerning the ability of man to know truth. Augustine's pious talk of "divine illumination" may console believers but it will have no influence on doubters. In fact, it will cause doubters to despair, just as it raises insoluble problems for Christian theology--as witness the progress of the Augustinian tradition over the succeeding centuries. Bonaventure's difficulties are the direct result of his oft expressed desire to be faithful to the teaching of Augustine.

All these results of Bonaventure's striving for piety first are expressed in stark terms by Gilson:

Now, if we conceive of that divine illumination as a "gift, superadded to the natural light of man, we make it to be supernatural. It then becomes a grace, with the result that not a single instance of our true knowledge can be considered as natural. Here again we find ourselves confronted with a scientific and philosophical scepticism that is compensated by a theological appeal to the grace of God." (44-45, emphasis added)

Bonaventure's successors struggled mightily to find some way in which they could preserve the doctrine of their master, yet also preserve rational human nature as we know it to be, but they ultimately had to frankly admit defeat. To admit that Platonism, even in its Augustinian form, is a philosophical dead end would be progress if these thinkers had then searched for a non-Platonic approach, such as that of Thomas Aquinas. Unfortunately, as has happened so many times throughout the history of the West, exposure of the radical defects of Platonism resulted in variations on two basic responses: 1) Philosophers typically double down, drawing out every possible implication of the basic principles of Platonic thought; 2) religious men commonly fall into intellectual despair, occasioned by the misapprehension that the failure of Platonism (in whatever form) is the failure of philosophy or of human reason itself; their response is usually to cling to "faith" as an antidote to the weakness of reason, as we see in Luther's attacks on "scholasticism," of which he was acquainted with only the decadent developments of the Augustinian tradition.

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