Gilson’s Philosophical Memoir

Étienne Gilson’s The Philosopher and Theology (published in English in 1962) is one of the best intellectual life histories I have read in some time. Gilson (1884-1978) was an important Thomistic French philosopher and contemporary of Jacques Maritain. He embarked on his scholarly career well before the First World War, and continued to be an important figure of Catholic intellectual life well into the 1960s. In his early thirties Gilson was drafted into the French army, took part in the terrible battle of Verdun and was captured and imprisoned for two years. Characteristically he continued his studies even while in German confinement. During the interwar period he emerged as a respected commentator on the history of philosophy.

The rather dry title of his autobiography does not do justice to the content. Certainly there are chapters of The Philosopher and Theology which require patience and attention. Nevertheless, the author’s prose is clear and economical, and his thinking precise. The discussions of metaphysical matters are always interlaced with interesting personal experiences and insights. Gilson is also full of surprises. Consider, for example, his criticism of modern scholasticism. Gilson argued that it had fallen away from its Thomistic roots to become a distorted form of self-promoting analysis. On the one hand, the French thinker was a devout Catholic. In response to so-called free-thinkers he stated: “I am as fond of my own intellectual freedom as anyone else, but I want to be free to agree with somebody when I think that what he says is right” (God and Philosophy).  Christian theology is based on revelation, which is immutable. “The Church cannot change her theology,” Gilson noted, “every time it pleases some philosopher to propose a new view of the universe.”

At the same time, Gilson believed that “a theology that was both prudent and bold could use the resources of philosophy” without “canonizing any particular philosophy.” This was the unprejudiced approach of Aquinas who mined the theoretical riches of pagan Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and the medieval Persian Avicenna. He respected the separate, though related, roles of philosophy and theology. A key distinction is that the former operates dialectically not dogmatically.

Misunderstanding over this point became painfully clear during the controversy over Henri Bergson (1859-1941), an agnostic Jewish critic of nineteenth century positivism and materialism. Gilson lamented the fact that some Christians were unduly critical of Bergson’s works, judging him by standards that were not relevant to him or his specialized studies. As he puts it: “Because St. Thomas was a true theologian, the coming of a new philosophy was not a cause of panic for him. He knew how to handle it, which cannot be said for his modern successors. . . . They had their own philosophical axe to grind and this was the main cause of the difficulty.” It was this fact that frequently led to philosophical misunderstanding as well as the debilitating  “modernization” of theology, which Gilson was devoted to countering throughout his career.

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