Book Review: God and Philosophy – By Etienne Gilson
by Jeremiah Dahl
Étienne Gilson (1884–1978) was a French philosopher and educator. He taught the history of medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne, took the chair of medieval philosophy at the College de France, and in 1929 helped found the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada. Although primarily a historian of philosophy, Gilson was also one of the leaders of the Roman Catholic neo-Thomist movement. Honored by universities around the world, he wrote many books, including The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy and Wisdom and Love in Saint Thomas Aquinas.
God and Philosophy is author Etienne Gilson’s history of philosophy as regards its relationship with the idea of God and the demonstration of his existence. The text is divided into four sections: God and Greek Philosophy, God and Christian Philosophy, God and Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Thought, roughly following the progression of thought from the Milesians through Augustine and Aquinas to Descarte, Spinoza, and finally Kant, Comte, Einstein and Huxley.
The history of philosophy presented by Gilson is very well done, yet it is the analysis and critique found within each of the sections which makes the text truly worthwhile. Here we see the tension of the Greeks between philosophy and religion, the medieval wrestling with metaphysics that they borrowed from the Greeks, the Enlightenment in turn borrowing from the scholastics in reconciling their science, and finally the scientists disregarding metaphysics and wondering why their science cannot answer questions that it is no designed to ask.
All in all Gilson’s text is a lucid, insightful and fairly accessible text regarding the way that the world has approached the notion of God, the difficulties in reconciling him with the philosophies of the day, and the shortcomings of the various systems in confronting the question. I’ve chosen a rather large number of memorable quotes as I feel they can better sum up the position and the merits of this text than I can through summation.
-“The great curse of modern philosophy is the almost universally prevailing rebellion against intellectual self-discipline. Where loose thinking obtains, truth cannot possibly be grasped, whence the conclusion naturally follows that there is no truth.”(pXV)
-“The Greek gods are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely with something… Mythology is not the first step on the path to true philosophy. In fact, it is no philosophy at all. Mythology is a first step on the path to true religion: it is religious in its own right.”(p22)
-“Human reason feels at home in a world of things, whose essences and laws it can grasp and define in terms of concepts; but shy and ill at ease in a world of existences, because to exist is an act, not a thing.”(p67)
-“Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God.”(p74)
-“The essence of the true Christian God is not to create but to be.”(p88)
-“The true reason why this universe appears to some scientists as mysterious is that, mistaking existential, that is, metaphysical, questions for scientific ones, they ask science to answer them. Naturally, they get no answers. Then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”(p123)
“Why should those eminently rational beings, the scientists, deliberately prefer to the simple notions of design, or purposiveness, in nature, the arbitrary notions of blind force, chance, emergence, sudden variation, and similar ones? Simply because they much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility.”(p130)
-“Yet the fact that final causes are scientifically sterile does not entail their disqualification as metaphysical causes, and to reject metaphysical answers to a problem just because they are not scientific is deliberately to maim the knowing power of the human mind.”(p132)
-“We do not need to project out own ideas into the economy of nature; they belong there in their own right. Our own ideas are in the economy of nature because we ourselves are in it. Any and every one of the things which a man does intelligently is done with a purpose and to a certain end which is the final cause why he does it… Through man, who is part and parcel of nature, purposiveness most certainly is part and parcel of nature. In what sense is it arbitrary, knowing from within that where there is organization there always is a purpose, to conclude that there is a purpose wherever there is organization?”(p134)
I don’t really have any criticisms of this text. There are a few random bits that I either failed to understand or disagreed with, such as the assertion that science has been successful in coming to a “perfectly consistent philosophy of the mechanical universe of modern science” and this somehow shows that the pure philosophical positions are somehow found more truly in science than Christianity.