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|This article is reprinted from the Summer 1996 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.
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Peter Abelard: Discoverer of Individuality in the Feudal Age
by Helga Zepp LaRouche
But, in studying the elements it took for mankind to get to the breakthrough of the Italian Renaissance, I would like to select one period which was an important preparatory development, a period which highlights a conflict that has not lost its importance for the tasks we have to solve today. It sheds light on some interesting facets of what it took to arrive at our modern conception of man, and of what is required for an idea to gain reality in practice. Because, in itself, an idea is not yet real; it has to be brought into practice.
I want to talk about the Twelfth century, and the controversy between Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux.
What preceded this, was a relatively difficult period in the history of the Church.
Gregory VII, Pope since 1073, claimed worldly powers, and got involved with King Henry IV of Germany in the famous investiture fight. Henry denied Gregory the right to call himself Pope, and Gregory answered by anathematizing the King, relieving all bishops and subjects of the German crown of their oath of allegiance. This caused a traumatic experience for the entire populationthe Pope against the Kingand it shook the foundations of society.
In 1077, Henry IV made the famous march to Canossa, to beg for lifting of the ban. A second ban was issued in 1080.
Henry named the anti-Pope Clement III. When Clement crowned Henry Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 1084, Gregory called on the Normans for help. They vandalized Rome, and Gregory was forced to flee the anger of its inhabitants. He died one year later, but the investiture fight continued.
After the death of Pope Honorius II (1124-1130), the election of Pope Anacletus II (1130-38) took place. Anacletus was supported by one faction of the Roman nobility, the Vatican state, and the Normans, who at that point had their empire in the south of Italy and Sicily. But a second Pope, Innocent II (1130-43), was elected by another faction of the nobility. With the help of Bernard of Clairvaux, and the support of the kings of France, England and Germany, Innocenct fled to France.
Obviously, this schism, and rule of two Popes, did significant harm to the Church.
Around 1125, Arnold of Brescia, who was then a chorus cantor of the Augustinians in his home town, launched massive attacks against the greedy and power-hungry clergy of his time. He demaded a return to apostolic poverty, and, since he merely spoke aloud, what many others were thinking, he soon became a folk hero. Vagants would sing his protest in the streets.
In the monasteries, a similar poverty movement emerged. In the Cloister Citeaux, the Abbé Stephan Harding, an Englishman, created a new order out of the sharpened rules of the Benedictines, the Zisterzienser. It emphasized a completely ascetic lifestyle, poverty, night watches, self-flagellations, and long hours of prayer. Unlike the Benedictines, they explicitly did not want to study or collect manuscripts in libraries, or write historical chronicles. Instead, they emphasized manual labor and agriculture. It is interesting, that nearly all the priests of that order, as well as the lay members, were born of nobility, even high nobility.
The most famous member of this order was Bernard of Clairveaux, who joined Citeaux in 1113. He soon founded a new monastery, and helped to spread the order all over Europe. He started out like Arnold of Brescia, protesting against conditions in the Church; but soon, he became Arnolds arch enemy. Bernard became extremely famous and very influential. He travelled throughout Europe on political missions, took the displaced Pope Innocence under his protection, and tried, by all means, to reinstall him.
Bernards main concern was, to preach a deeper spirituality and a more pious lifestyle; later, around 1147-49, he travelled, preaching everywhere for participation in the Second Crusade. According to the reports of his time, he must have been a very mighty speaker, who was able to arouse his audiences. But to understand what kind of piety he advocated, it is most useful to look at the grounds on which he attacked Peter Abelard.
Abelard had been born in Le Pallet near Nantes, in the border area of the Bretagne, in 1079. He was the oldest child of a knight, Berengar, and his wife Lucia. Among his teachers were Roscelin of Compiegne and Wilhelm of Champeaux, as well as Anselm of Laon, who himself was a pupil of the famous Anselm of Canterbury, the father of Scholastic philosophy. From 1113 on, Abelard had his own school in Paris, which quickly developed a huge following. Together with Hugh of Saint-Victor, he was celebrated by contemporary historians as one of the two luminaria, the outstanding intellects of their time.
Now, what were the issues, over which there arose the clash of method, between Bernard and Abelard?
One of Abelards books was called Sic et Non (For and Against)meaning, that one had to consider all aspects, and then decide; and in it, he treated the problem of certain mis-statements and inconsistencies in the Bible and in the writings of the Church Fathers. There were questionssuch as, who was it, who evangelized the first Christians in Rome before St. Peter was there?which nowadays, is a normal question for any historian, because there were Christians before St. Peter was there, so how did they become Christian?
But Bernard and many of his co-thinkers were convinced, that this dialectical method was a complete challenge to the teaching of the Church. Abelard himself wrote, that he wished to provoke his young readers to the greatest exertion in the search for truth, and, through this exertion, to sharpen their wits.
For Bernard, on the other side, faith came from the statement of authority, and his method of conversion was not to challenge the intellect, but was instead rhetorical. For him, Abelards approach was a dangerous pride in knowledge; Bernard was convinced, that science puffs up men, or leads to conclusions that are incompatible with the teachings of the Church. He accused Abelard of reasoning about everything, and of wanting reasons and proofs for everything; and that, with that, he would take the merit of faith away.
He accused Abelard, furthermore, of always bringing up new things, instead of sticking to proven traditions. Of even introducing new words, or giving new meanings to old ones. Of trying to make everything intelligible.
Abelard, on the other hand, based himself on St. Augustine, and insisted that one should not start with any reference to authority whatsoever. He insisted that this would not effect the question of faith, because in this we are only dealing with the shadow of faith, since the truth is only known by God. Abelard attacked those who seek comfort in their ignorance, and hold that he has more fervent faith who assents, whether he understands or not. Authority is inferior to reason, said Abelard, because it deals with opinions about the truth, rather than with the truth itself; whereas reason concerns the subject itself, and comes to a conclusion. With reliance on authority, one always faces the problem of the validity of the authority, and since nobody listens to an authority he does not accept, one has to deal with the grounds on which he can accept it.
Lotulf and Alberic, two scholars of this time, led the attack on Abelard. They stirred up the clergy against him, and did not hesitate to lie. They claimed Abelard would teach the existence of three Godswhen in reality, he was only discussing the problem of the Trinity. They enlisted the aid of their archbishop and the Papal legate, however, and, with the help of Bernard, Abelards strongest opponent, they succeeded in his conviction by two councils, and his condemnation to be silent and remain under arrest in a monastery.
A historian of his time, Otto of Freising, the uncle of Friedrich Barbarossa, described the motives of Bernard as lying in his religious fanaticism and piety, amplified by the simplemindedness of his nature. But there were others, like John of Salisbury, who found Bernards unscrupulous behavior abhorrent, and the very respected Petrus Venerabilis came to Abelards defense, writing to the Pope, that Abelard had been slandered and wrongly accused of heresies, especially by Bernard.
One can imagine how the overzealous Bernard felt, when Abelard, who was reputed to be the sharpest mind of his time, challenged him to a scientific debate, after Abelard had already completely debated into the ground such famous scholars as Wilhelm of Champeaux and Anselm of Laon, his former teachers.
Bernard wrote to the Pope: I refused this, because I regarded it completely beneath my dignity, to discuss with such lumpen, such trash, concerning the fundamentals of my faith.
The difference was clear: Abelard tried to meet arguments of reason with better reason; Bernard used force to silence reason.
Abelard and Plato
In the first two books of his Theologia Christiana, and in the beginning of De Unitate, Abelard describes how he was convinced that many pre-Christian philosophers had actually Christian beliefs, and why this was a great asset in the effort to evangelize and win over the heretics of the Twelfth century. If thinkers like Plato or Virgil, long before the Incarnation, could have an understanding of the Trinity, if this were accessible to human reason, then it was accessible to all men of all ages, since the pre-Christian philosophers could not have known anything of the revelations, but nevertheless they came to correct conclusions.
Now, this obviously hit a raw nerve in many of Abelards contemporaries! Many scholars of Patristic or medieval times, especially some within the monastic movements, had denied that the literature of the Classical period should be read at all. They had blasted it as a complete waste of time, and, on top of this, a violation of piety.
One of the most crucial, and famous, debates of this time, concerned the nature of universalswhether they represented truly existing things, as the realists, so-called, insisted; or, if instead, they were merely located in the intellect, empty creations, which lacked any real existence, a position which was held by the nominalists, of which one of Abelards former teachers, Roscelin de Compiegne, was a proponent.
In his book Dialectica, Abelard makes clear that he did not regard the nominalist view worth talking about. But he also rejected the realist position of his opponent Wilhelm of Champeaux. Instead, he admitted that he favored the concept of Platos ideas, and he complained that he did not possess the works of Plato, so he could not check out Aristotles accusations against Platonic philosophy, of which he was very suspicious.
Abelard tried to reconstruct Platos thinking from various sources: the Timaeus, which was the only available text, and references from Priscian and Macrobius commentary on Ciceros Somnium Scipionis. His notion of the concept created by reason (conceptus, idea), as distinct from the nominalist position, has been called conceptualism by scholars ever since. They created this word only to describe Abelards philosophy. And it is astounding, that with so relatively few sources, he got very close to Platos solution of this problem, the One and the Many question of the Parmenides.
Abelard referred to Plato, Hermes Trismegistos, and St. Augustine, to arrive at his teaching of the Trinity, that God is not only the good, but the Good itself, who, as world-creating wisdom, produces the totality of ideas, and who lovingly moves the world. The Good itself, he equated to God the Father; the world-creating wisdom, to the Son; and the loving motion, to the Holy Spirit. His opponents especially criticized he equating the Platonic idea of a world-soul, with the third person of God. But, the equivalence of the Christian and the Platonic Trinity, however, had already first been noted by Claudianus Ramertus, a pupil of St. Augustine.
His late work, A Dialogue Among a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian, is a beautiful answer of the persecuted Abelard, and it totally reflects the Platonic method of the One and the Many, in finding a basis of reason for the understanding among the monotheistic religions.
He makes the philosopher reject the beliefs of both the Christian and the Jew on the sole grounds, that each refused to give intellectual proof of his doctrines. Jews would only seek signs, while Christians appeal to the authority of their traditional books alone; but neithers argument for the truth of their creed will satisfy the requirement of the philosopher.
The philosopher says: If faith, in effect, precludes all rational dialogue, if it have no merit but at such a price, such that the object of faith escape all critical judgment, and all that is preached we must accept immediately, whatever the errors such preaching spreads, in that case it serves nothing to be a believer; for, where reason may in no manner agree, neither may reson refute. Were an idolater to come to say to us of a rock, of a chunk of wood, or never-mind-what creature: Here is the true God, the creator of Heaven and earth! Were he to come to preach to us never-mind-what obvious abomination, who, then will be able to refute it, if all rational discussion is excluded from the domian of faith?
So you see what Im aiming at! If you imagine all the many cultures which mankind has produced over its development, it was only Platonic Christianity, which has developed this method of the intelligibility of the truth, and the possibility to establish reason as the basis for ecumenicism.
And in the same way, counterpose the ill-conceived religious frenzy of the Crusades, with the beautiful conception of the dialogue by Abelard. So did Raymond Llull a century later, followed by Nicolaus of Cusa in the Fifteenth century, and Gotthold Lessing in the Eighteenth.
Now Abelard, one must admit, is not as profound as Plato, Nicolaus of Cusa, or Leibniz. He did not contribute comparable leaps to human knowledge. Nevertheless, he is much more important in the evolution of our modern humanist conception of man, than is generally known. He has sometimes been justly celebrated as the discoverer of individuality; and in that, he was an important pioneer for the new, Renaissance image of man.
I would go even so far as to call Abelard a predecessor of Friedrich Schiller and his idea of the beautiful soul, because he was developing a criteria for the judgment of morality, which comes very close to that of Schiller. Abelard says it is not the external appearance, or subjective disposition, which decides if an act is moral, but the inner agreement with the deed. Now this is an extraordinary modern idea for the Twelfth century!
The medieval code never considered the intention of the person, only the result. What Abelard did, was to dissolve the assumption, that moral behavior would be only conformity with objective rules. He emphasized, that it is always up to us, to have an inner agreement or disagreement, no matter what the objective circumstances are. This is very important for the whole question of resistance against tyranny, because you can remain free, no matter how frequently they put you in chains. He opened up an internal degree of freedom for moral behavior.
Abelard also had very interesting thoughts about the nature of happiness and misfortune, of the true good, which he said, is not pleasant experiences of the senses, or the disgusting satisfaction of bodily lust. Instead, the true good is the inner soothing of the soul, which comes from the conviction of the value and the meaning of ones own work. Therefore, he writes in the Dialogue, a person can be really happy despite defeats, because this inner bliss cannot be wiped out, provided the intellect has a sufficiently high degree of resistance.
If you consider, how oppressive the pre-Christian oligarchical structures were, and how oppressive the feudal oligarchical conditions of the medieval period still were, one must also say, that there was a reason why the more than ninety-five percent of mankind accepted that subjugation. From that standpoint, the question of the degree of inner freedom, which was won by Abelard for humanity, is precious.
Universal Education: The Legacy of Wilhelm von Humboldt
After the cathedral schools, such as that of Chartres in the Twelfth century, it became the teaching orders, like the Brothers of the Common Life and others, who gave access to the necessary knowledge to an ever-higher percentage of children and youth, to the kind of universal education which breaks man free from accepting oligarchical subjugation. It was that, which produced such geniuses as Nicolaus of Cusa, the father of modern science, and Louis XI, and made the success of the first nation-state possible. For, it is universal education which will set mankind free of accepting a mental dependence on any kind of domination.
Lets look at the person who put that concept of universal education into a complete educational system: Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was one of the pillars of the German Classical period, and, actually, the closest friend of Friedrich Schiller.
Humboldt wrote: Mankind has now reached a level of culture from which it can progress only through the development of the individual. And therefore, all institutions which prevent this development, and which reduce human beings to a mere mass, are now more damaging than ever before.
Humboldt was inspired by Schillers beautiful image of man, which was the idea that each human being has the ability to become a beautiful soul,which Schiller described, as a person who no longer feels a conflict between necessity and duty, on the one hand, and his emotions. This person has developed his emotions to such a degree, that he can blindly follow his impulses, because reason and passion are united. And Schiller says, [t]he only person who is a true beautiful soul, is a genius, because it is only a genius who, in a creative, lawful way, enlarges the laws, and therefore creates new degrees of freedom.
Now, Schiller and Humboldt had experienced the horrors of the French Revolution, the Jacobin Terror, the chopping off of heads of kings and scientists; which led Schiller to say, that this great historical moment had found a little people. And Schiller then wrote his famous Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, in which he discussed the reasons why people had failed to match up to the historical opportunity. And he developed the notion of an aesthetical man, who has developed all his abilities to the fullest.
Wilhelm von Humboldt took this idea, and he defined the goal of education to be the highest and most proportionate development of all ones powers into a unity. Now, Humboldt had had such ideas before, but after the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806, in the famous battles of Jena and Auerstadt, educational reform became a question of survival for Germany: because, if the Germans would not draw the conclusions as to why the Napoleonic army was so superior to that of Prussia, then shortly they would not have any country left at all.
So, together with vom Stein, von Humboldt was the most important of the Prussian reformers. Basically, he took the idea of Schiller, and he developed it into a full educational system, where the educational goal was not to win a degree, not some kind of doctorate or anything like that, but the building of character, the building of a beautiful soul; and, the development of every person to be a citizen of the nation.
Now, Humboldt argued that all pupils must receive the same fundamentals, even if one is to become a manual laborer, and the other a sophisticated scientist. Because, if they dont have the same development, then the first one will be too harsh, and the second one will be too squeamish.
Humboldt decided that certain areas of knowledge would be better suited than others to have this impact on the character.
First of all, following Schiller, he said people must know the entirety of universal history. You dont need to know every detail, every footnote, but you have to have a sense about how mankind arrived at the present. What were the struggles, often with blood and tremendous sacrifice, of many, many generations? So that you have an appreciation of what has been given to you, so that you feel a noble impulse to pass it on, enriched, to the future.
So, universal history is essential.
Secondly, Humboldt argued, the you must gain a command over your own language in its highest formwhich means knowing the best Classical poetry of your language, because only if you can think in terms of poetic notions, in terms of metaphor, in terms of poetry and drama, can you really express yourself. Because what you cannot say, you cannot think.
Furthermore, he insisted that it was important to study an ancient, more developed language, such as Greek or Sanskrit, which has a higher degree of expressions and a richer form of grammar; so that, from this more advanced standpoint, you can become self-conscious about your own language.
Then, naturally, you have to study all the natural sciences, because only if you understand the laws of nature of the physical universe, do you have a rational approach to this world.
And naturally, religion was important; but so too was geography, music, singing, and gymnastics.
Now, the goal of education was the development of the entire human being, not just some parts, into a harmonic totality. Everyone, even the poorest, must be given a complete human development. Every person has to receive a complete education, and no one should find a destination in something less, than his own successive development.
It is only after the full personality is developed, that you can have specialization. Humboldt warned, that a merely drilled person, a person who merely has a few skills, very specialized, will always be useless, and even dangerous. And, if you think about the computer nerds of today, who are somehow the appendages of their computers, or the poor kids glued to their Game Boys, having lost all sense about the real world and having just this one thing, you can see that Humboldt was on the right track.
Now, for university teaching, which he integrated with basic education, Humboldt demanded that teaching and research be united. Because, you dont want to have stale teachers, who repeat the same thing endlessly, and put you to sleep. The teacher has to be inspired by his own discoveries, in order to mediate the joy of entering into new knowledge.
And knowledge, for Humboldt, should not be an accidental aggregation of things, but it should be guided by truth-seeking, and by fundamental principles.
Because, only a science which comes out of the inner person, and touches the inner self, will build character. And thats the only thing which counts, for the nation as much as for the individual. Because it is not knowledge per se, or mere verbiage, but character and acting in the real world, which makes the difference.
I was asleep when three men, coming from three directions, appeared to me. Right away I asked of them their profession, and what the motive was for their visit.
We belong, they replied, to different religions. To be sure, all three of us honor a single God, but we have neither the same faith, nor the same practice in serving this God. One of us is a Pagan, of those who are called philosophers: he is content with natural law. The two others possess the Scriptures; the one is a Jew, the other Christian. We have for a long time confronted our religions and disputed their words, and we are now here to take you as our arbiter.
Greatly surprised, I asked them what led them to this discussion and this encounter, but above all, what determined them to take recourse in my judgment. The Philosopher replied to me: It is actually my work which is the source of the entire debate. Is not the supreme end of philosophy, in effect, to search out by means of reason the truth, to surpass human opinions and substitute in their place, the reign of reason in all things? Being attached with all my heart to the opinions professed in our schools, instructing myself in both the reasonings of our masters and of their authorities, I finally arrived at moral philosophy, the final crowning of all science, which I judged preferable to any discipline which might exist.
Having been instructed as much as possible concerning the supreme good and the supreme evil, concerning all which makes the happiness or misfortune of men, I attached myself right away to the attentive study of the various religious confessions which now divide the world, confirmed to follow that which would be the most reasonable, after a comparative examination of all these confessions.
It is thus, that I have brought to study the refutations which have been made of the Jews and the Christians, of their doctrines, their beliefs, and their Laws. The Jews appeared to me to be fools, and the Christians insaneforgive me for saying this to you, who passes for Christian. After disputing a long time with them, since the quarrel born of our confrontation is not yet complete, we have decided to submit the reasons invoked by each of the parties to your arbitation. We know that you are ignorant neither of philosophical reasoning, nor of the armaments by which these two Laws defend themselves. For it is the very Law of the Christians, that which they call the New Testament, which leads them to respect the Old Testament, and to adhere to the readings of both one and the other of these Books with the greatest zeal. It was quite necessary, at last, to take recourse to an arbiter, if we did not want our quarrel to endure without end... .
Philosopher:: Christian, it is now for you, I pray you, to respond to my inquest, according to the rules of our agreement. When the law is posterior, it must be that much more perfect and lead to greater rewards, for it must rest on more reasonable bases. Why else, in effect, would the first lawmakers have published laws for the people, if these laws would not have received complements which may render them more perfect? It is thus, that one of our own, approaching, in the second book of the Rhetoric, ( Cicero, De Inventione II.49.145 ).the question of contradictory laws, asserts that one must first search out which is the elder; for the more recent, he says, carries more weight.
Christian:: I am surprised at the impudence with which you contradict yourself at the outset of your declaration. After having asserted that your studies have revealed to you the foolishness of the Jews, and the insanity of the Christians, you said immediately that you were not aiming at polemical success, but solely at the discovery of truth. How be it, that you expect truth from those whom you at first treat as insane? After your quest, do you think that their insanity could end, at the point that they become capable of giving you the instruction you desire? Assuredly, if you hold that the Christian religion is crazy, and that its religionists are insane, what could you think, O Philosopher, of the great philosophers of Greece, but that the sermonswithout art and eloquenceof those simple men who were the Apostles, were able to convert to this faith, making them, in your eyes, thoroughly crazy? Such that, what you call our insanity, has pushed roots so deep with the Greeks, and has found among them such forces, that it is in Greece that the Gospel doctrine and the Apostolic doctrine have been gathered together as writings, and it is in Greece, therefore, that the great Councils take place, and it is by spreading out from there that they have conquered the world, crushing all heresies.
Philsopher:: It happens that men might be more stimulated by debates and insults, than be moved by prayers and supplication, and that those whom one has excited in such a way may have more zeal in battle, than those one has supplicated, and who only do battle to oblige their enemies.
Christian:: You are to be forgiven, if you have acted with such an aim. But, so that I be not suspected of wanting to put off the contest, let us both pray that the Lord Himself inspire at the same time, both your questions and my replies, for he desires the salvation of all men, and that all learn to know Him.
* * *
Christian:: I clearly see that it is not your ignorance of our faith which condemns you, but rather the obstinance of your disbelief. You have yourself learned in the Holy Scriptures, the perfection of our Law, and nonetheless, here you are, still hesitating before which road to follow, as if these Scriptures themselves did not afford you the perfected and superior testimony, above all others, of those virtues which, you have no doubt, suffice to ensure blessedness. It was this perfection, that the Lord spoke of when, completing his Old Testament by a New one, He says from the outset to His yet imperfect disciples: Except your righteousness shall exceed, etc. [Matt. 5:20] And going immediately into detail, He demonstrated the riches of the New Law and all which was lacking of moral perfection in the Old, completeing, thus, the edifice of true ethic. In comparing, in effect, the teaching of the Christ, with all which is reported to us on the patriarchs and the prophets in the matter of moral discipline and judgment, one will easily be convinced, through a careful comparison, that the ancient precepts are nothing compared to the new.
Philosopher:: It is to proceed with this comparison, that I came here, you well know, and that is the very object of our undertaking.
Christian:: Let us consider, then, insofar as I am able to grasp it, this reality, which is the end and achievement of all science. You call it ethics, that is, morality. We are accustomed, on our part, to designate it with the name of Divinity. We believe, in effect, its object, that is, the very comprehension of God; whereas, you give it its name after the means, which are good morals or virtues.
Philosopher:: What you say is clear, and I agreet. I also greatly approve of your choice of words. You judge, in effect, more worthy the object to which we attain, than the routes by which we arrive at this object. You judge as greater, the happiness of having arrived at the end, than the happiness of striving for this end. The terms which you employ, thus aim for the highest realities, and, from the outset, by their intrinsic significance, are more attractive to the reader. Consequently, if your document has as much valor as your vocabulary, I think there is no higher science.
Christian:: If you would like, let us first define, in its entirety, the object of true morality, let us see what ends this science proposes to us, and to what heights it forces us to attain in obeying its precepts. It seems to me, for my part, that this entire science is summed up thus: the discovery of the sovereign good, and its means of acquisition.
Philosopher:: I am infinitely happy that, with such force and in so few words, you have hence carried forward the essence of such an important reality, and that you have recapitulated with such care the aim of all morality. No sooner expressed, this aim is of a nature to draw the listener toward the study of this science, in such a manner that all the other arts appear, by comparison, unworthy of equal effort. In the same measure that the sovereign goodwherein true blessedness consists in its enjoymenttriumphs in excellence over all other goods, it is outside the realm of doubt that the science which leads to this sovereign good surpass all others, as much by its utility as by its worthiness. ...
* * *
Christian:: Precisely, after the conversion of so many philosophers, neither you, nor your successors, have any longer the right to put our faith in doubt, and a debate of this sort has no more reason for being, albeit the example of these men, whose authority you fully accept in profane matters, do not convince you, perhaps, to adhere to their faith; and you might say with the prophet: We are not more worthy than our fathers.
Philosopher:: We do not agree enough with their authority, to accept, out of hand, their reasons without discussion. We would be unfaithful to our philosophical calling, if, having undertaken to examine the proposed arguments, we were to give, for some time, to such portions of those arguments which were discovered inadmissible and perfectly demented by the reality of things, simple opinions rather than verities.
In this case, we would think that, as your very own chroniclers recount, your ancients had rather been constrained to embrace your faith under pressure of force, than through a rational conviction. Previous to the conversion, which you call miraculous, of emperors and princes, your preaching convinced nearly none of the wise, although it had been easy at that time to pull the nations away from the too-evident errors of idolatry, and convert them to monotheism. As well, your Paul was not wrong to harangue the Athenians thus: Men of Athens, I see you superstitious in all things, etc. In those times, in effect, the cognizance of natural law and the Divine, was in full decadence, the vulgar failings had entirely submerged the wisdom of a small elite, and, to speak in all conscience, and render due homage to the important fruits of the Christian teachings: we have no doubt, but that it was this teaching, above all, which wiped out idolatry from the world.
Christian:: Add, that natural law and that perfect moral discipline which is, you say, the sole end of your efforts, and which you hold sufficient for salvation, cannot haveit is evidentany other origin than that God Who, under the title of veritable Sophiathat is, of Divine Wisdomhas instructed all those who by the very same are worthy of being called philosophers.
Philosopher:: May it please God that it be as you say, and, that you show yourself to be truly logical and, in the wielding of your arguments, rational, yourselves armed with that Supreme Wisdom which you call in Greek Logos, and in Latin, Verbum. You do not think that, in my misfortune, I would seek refuge in that assertion of your Gregory: Your faith is without merit, if it rest its support on human reason. (Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, 26, p. 201 (II.26.1, col. 1197c) Given that they do not succeed in proving before you what they assert, right away your preachers shelter their own impotence behind that authority of Gregory. But, in so doing, is it not that their sole aim is to force our adherence to everything they preach with respect to faith, whether it be stupidity or truth? For, if faith, in effect, precludes all rational dialogue, if it have no merit but at such a price, such that the object of faith escape all critical judgment, and all that is preached we must accept immediately, whatever the errors such preaching spreads, in that case it serves nothing to be a believer; for, where reason may in no manner agree, neither may reason refute.
Were an idolater to come to say to us of a rock, of a chunk of wood, or never-mind what creature: Here is the true God, the creator of Heaven and earth! Were he to come to preach to us never-mind what obvious abomination, who, then, will be able to refute it, if all rational discussion is excluded from the domain of faith? The moment you expect to dispute it (above all, if you pose as a Christian), the other will reply, invoking your own argument: The faith is without merit, etc. And there it is: the Christian confounded by the very arms of his own defense, since they refuse to hear his reasons, in the domain where he himself prohibited that they use reasoning, and where he refuses to others to dispute rationally on matters of faith.
Christian:: As the greatest of wise men says, There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. [Prov. 14:12] It often occurs that reasons appear such, that is, reasonable and to the point, while it is not in the least.
Philosopher:: Is that not precisely the case in the authorities acknowledged by believers? Do they themselves not err quite often? Without that, and if they acknowledged the same authorities, would so many diverse sects be opposing each other in matters of faith? In fact, it is in the light of their own reason, that each one determine his own authorities. Would it not be necessary to indifferently accept all the doctrines contained in the holy books of all peoples, were it not appropriate, from the first, precisely for reason, which naturally takes precedence, to exercise, in their behalf, critical judgment? If the authors of these books have merited consideration as authoritiesthat is, if one judges them worthy of immediate credibilityis it not by virtue of that reason with which their writings appear filled? Your very own theologians bear witness in favor of the precedence of reason with respect to authority, and it is St. Anthony who expresses it thus: Since it is the perception of human reason which is the source of writings, whosoever possess within himself this perception, has no need of writings. (Athanasius, The Life of Antony, 73, p. 84 (45, col. 158c)
excerpts translated from the French by Katherine Notley
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