Saturday, March 27, 2010

One of my Students' Work

What follows is one of the papers written for my Augustinian Thought class. The author is Miss Cassey Farrell. I must admit that all the papers submitted to me by that class were well above average. In addition to its excellence, I chose to include this one for two reasons: 1) It's readability. 2) The wider appeal of its topic.

I've removed the footnoting for simplicity's sake, and supplied a picture of Maritain.

The assignment was to write on an interpreter of St. Augustine.

Maritain: Augustinian Interpreter?

Jacques Maritain was a 20th century philosopher best known for his role in the Thomistic Revival of the 20th century. A Catholic convert, and the author of over sixty books, Maritain’s work spanned over many areas of philosophical thought, including aesthetics, political theory, epistemology, and metaphysics. He is also known for his close friendship with Pope Paul VI, as well as his contributions in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While there is no doubt that Maritain most strongly identified with the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (Maritain considered himself a Thomist, and his name identifies a whole school of Thomistic thought), he was also influenced by other great Christian thinkers, including St. Augustine of Hippo. While it is difficult to measure how greatly Maritain was exclusively influenced by St. Augustine’s thought independent of St. Thomas’s interpretation of St. Augustine, there is no doubt that Maritain held St. Augustine in extremely high regard, and did consider Augustinian thought in his examination of the order of knowledge and wisdom. This is seen most clearly in Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge, where Maritain discusses different orders of knowledge, and in doing so, demonstrates some of his Augustinian tendencies.

In his Degrees of Knowledge, in his chapter entitled “Concerning Augustinian Wisdom,” Maritain begins by drawing a comparison between St. Augustine, a “fisher of men,” and St. Thomas, an “architect of truths.” He establishes how the two juggernauts of Christian thought lived and worked in two entirely different situations. He points out that St. Augustine had to face a far greater struggle for truth in the face of a pagan, heretical world, than St. Thomas did in a monastery in a world of established Christendom. Maritain notes that in some areas, the two systems are in perfect harmony, while in other respects, they do not completely coincide. He does not offer specific examples to back his claims, but he notes that the essential difference between the two is a difference of “order, of formal point of view, of lumen.”

Maritain puts forward three orders of wisdom and teachings: St. Paul’s wisdom and teachings is of the highest order, the order of prophecy. St. Augustine’s wisdom falls into the order of charity, and St. Thomas’s into the order of intelligence. In this way, he puts the teachings of St. Augustine and his type of wisdom in a higher order than those of St. Thomas. He posits that the teachings of St. Augustine are the direct result of the grace and work of the Holy Spirit- of infused wisdom that proceeds from charity. St. Thomas obviously needed grace and the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of his work, but he worked primarily from human intellect and reason rather than being directly divinely inspired.

By his categorization of these saints and their respective points of view, Maritain sheds light on his own point of view regarding these men, and his own relationship with them. He views St. Paul as a direct mouthpiece for Christ, and St. Thomas as a great intellectual blessed with incredible wisdom. St. Augustine falls in between St. Paul and St. Thomas. Maritain writes: “In the City of God there are defined and differing functions: the teaching office of St. Thomas, universal as a theological discipline, is not that, yet more universal and supra-technical, of an Augustine.” St. Augustine’s wisdom and teachings are more universal and beyond the detailed distinctions of the teachings of St. Thomas. Maritain further notes the difference between “the Fathers of the Church, and the theologians,” two offices which are “entirely distinct.” He calls the teachings and wisdom of the Fathers of the Church “holy learning,” and says that they are of a higher condition, and “proceed like doctrine from the light of sanctifying grace.” Maritain also notes that while there will always be new doctors of the Church; the age of the Fathers of the Church is definitely over.

In light of these comments, it becomes apparent that while Maritain loves St. Thomas and his teachings, he also realizes that St. Augustine falls into a completely different category. In a sense, talking about St. Augustine and St. Thomas is like comparing apples and oranges: infused wisdom and theological wisdom- they are completely different. He seems to imply that the teachings of St. Augustine should be considered purer, and more directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, than those of St. Thomas. That being said, Maritain also goes to great lengths to emphasize the humanity of St. Augustine, labelling him as an individual who is a witness to the heart of humanity, and that “everything in that heart is known to him, and it is with the voice of the depths, the abyss of the soul, that he speaks when he would witness to the supreme truth; even on the purest heights of his theology we recognize that tone.”

Maritain then goes on to highlight that it was that gift of infused wisdom unique to St. Augustine that allowed him to make such great use of neo-Platonism as a philosophy, which Maritain calls “incontestably deficient” as a philosophy. He calls the genius of St. Augustine “holy genius,” and comments that the fact that St. Augustine relied so heavily on Plotinus for his philosophy without falling into deep error by the “most dangerous pitfalls” of Platonism clearly shows how the Holy Spirit was directly at work through St. Augustine, which demonstrates his gift of infused wisdom.

Maritain views St. Thomas as a stepping stone for the philosopher in his journey towards knowledge of God in the theology of St. Augustine, because St. Thomas is far more scientific in his approach. For this reason, St. Augustine’s theology needs to be preceded by St. Thomas; there is ascension from St. Thomas’s doctrine to St. Augustine’s. He writes that while St. Thomas corrected Aristotle, he only honoured St. Augustine in his theology. He also remarks that St. Thomas agreed with St. Augustine completely in regard to his teachings on grace and the distinction between nature and grace, and that St. Thomas included the essential elements of Augustinian thought in his theological/philosophical synthesis, meaning Thomism assimilated the best of Augustinianism.

From his comments regarding St. Augustine, it becomes very clear where Maritain stood in relation to St. Augustine. As it has been clearly expressed, Maritain put St. Augustine in a higher category of wisdom and teaching than he put St. Thomas. He also acknowledges St. Augustine’s extreme relatability as a human being with faults, and also as a person facing serious problems, including various heretics, as well as pagan barbarians. Because of these issues, and because St. Augustine was to be a Father of the Church, Maritain makes it appear necessary in the grand scheme of events that Augustine had to be infused with wisdom in order to come to his theological conclusions. He appears to believe that St. Thomas took what was most important about St. Augustine’s thought and systematized it, and incorporated it into his own thought. From this point of view, it appears that Maritain fully acknowledges the importance of Augustinian thought in his own life and work without getting specific. By being a Thomist, he feels that he is implicitly an Augustinian as well, and he suggests quite rightly that without St. Augustine, there could be no Thomism. From this point of view, Maritain could be viewed as an interpreter of St. Augustine. He does not channel much of St. Augustine’s thought or method outside of Thomistic influence, so he can be viewed as an interpreter of St. Augustine insofar as he embraces St. Thomas’s interpretation of St. Augustine. He would not be considered a particularly effective interpreter of St. Augustine, as it is very apparent that he is more focused on channelling St. Thomas specifically for the 20th century.

- copyright 2010 Cassie Farrell

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