The retreat from intellect medieval affectivism

If such is the widespread modern orthodoxy, a more common late medieval revision of Thomas's position shares with the modern its scepticism of the rational, while in at least one respect sharing with Thomas his apophaticism about faith. For even in Thomas's own time, and before, we encounter a rising tide of late medieval anti-intellectualism which became a flood in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a tendency - it is not a

1 See Milbank's extended article, 'Intensities', in Modern Theology 15.4, October 1999, pp. 445-97. Much, though not all, of this article was republished in the monograph Truth in Aquinas, jointly authored by Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, London: Routledge, 2001. For the most part I refer to Milbank's article rather than to the later monograph.

movement, for it characterises a wide diversity of theologies - involving a drastic revision of what may fairly be called a 'classical' conception of 'intellect', and a drastic curtailment of its scope. It is in the fourteenth century at least, if not earlier, that intellectus (in the sense of the power of 'understanding') comes close to being identified with ratio (in the sense of the power of 'ratiocination'), that is to say, of philosophical argument.

It is safe to say that this conceptual revision of an 'intellect' cut back to 'reasoning power' is driven by wider institutional forces, which it is not our place to consider here, except perhaps to say that in consort with the conceptual revision there is a tendency to identify 'intellect' with the sort of reasoning which was thought to go on within the universities, whether in the faculties of Arts or of Divinity, and so to associate both 'intellect' and 'reason' with the dry impotence of the 'academic'. At any rate, in late medieval polemic against the intellectuals unfavourable contrasts are made with ever greater frequency between the sterile theological practices of 'school' theology and those of practical piety; between what is known theologically by the academics exercising their 'intellects' and what is known by the 'knowledge' of love - unfavourably, that is to say, of course, to the former. Even so resolute an 'intellectualist' as the fifteenth-century Denys the Carthusian (1402-70) has bitterly to admit to the deficits of holiness among Masters within the university faculties: 'How few of them are saints,' he notes, 'Thomas and but few others.'2

Moreover, just as it is a characteristic of some thirteenth- and fourteenth-century 'affectivists' to force a deep wedge between the 'intellectual' and the 'affective', so it is a characteristic of the same tendency to realign the dimensions of the 'cataphatic' and the 'apophatic' theologies along parallel lines. Thomas Gallus Vercellensis (d. 1246), Hugh of Balma (fl. 1300), Giles of Rome (1243-1316) and Jean Gerson (13631429), differing as they do from one another in much else, all agree that the true 'mystical darkness' of the theologian requires the incapacitation of intellect - and for them this means the natural cognitive power of the philosopher - which can attain to no more than a mediated, distanced, abstract and detached knowledge of God. It is not denied by any of these that the God whom the philosophers know by intellect is the same God as he who is known to the theologian by faith. But it is said by all of them that if we are to enter into the true 'mystical' darkness of the divine, then the intellectual knowledge of the philosopher has to be set aside in order to leave room for the God of faith, known, it is said, not by intellect, but

2 Denys the Carthusian, Difficultatum Praecipuarum Absolutiones, a5, in Doctor Ecstatici D. Dionysii Cartusiani Opera Omnia XVI, Tournai: Typis Cartusiae S. M.de Pratis, 1902, p. 494D.

by love. For amor ipse notitia est,3 love is itself a kind of knowing, of which intellect can know nothing.

Now it is part of this 'affectivist' mentality that the characterisation of the unknowability of God, though couched in the same metaphoric vocabularies as those of Thomas Aquinas, as also drawing on their common source in the Mystical Theology of the pseudo-Denys, differs sharply from that of both. By contrast, for these late medieval affectivists what accounts for the 'darkness' of God is but the simple dismissal of intellect, no knowledge which intellect possesses having any place in the divine encounter, at any rate in its highest degree or level. Therefore, in order finally to enter into that darkness, the soul must be led by love alone, having left intellect behind, its companion thus far in the ascent to God. As Gallus puts it, at every stage of the soul's ascent to God, up to and including the penultimate, intellect and love walk 'hand in hand'; but the breakthrough into the true 'darkness of God' can be achieved only at the price of love's breaking with intellect so as to step out on its own; here, in the divine unknowability, are found the highest aspirations for God, the excesses and inflowings which go beyond understanding, burning brilliance and brilliant burnings; understanding cannot be drawn into the sublime ecstasies and excesses of these lights, but only the supreme love which unites.4

Hugh of Balma is even more emphatic: 'in the mystical upsurge of love', he explains, it is necessary to abandon all activity of intellect or thought, and to rise up under the impulse to union by means of a longing love which transcends all understanding and knowledge; therefore the true lover rises up without any prior knowledge and on the impulse of longing love.5

Here we encounter, as if by anticipation, that later, Kantian, reduction of the dynamic apophaticism of reason and intellect to a mere passive agnosticism. Within this 'affectivist' mentality, the 'darkness' upon which love enters in its encounter with God is a darkness consequent upon intellect's having to be abandoned, since it possesses no inherent capacity to be drawn into the divine unknowability itself. Intellect's unknowing,

3 Gregory the Great, Homelia inEvangelia 27.4, Migne, Patrologia Latina LXXIV, p. 1207.

4 Thomas Gallus, Super canticum Canticorum Hierarchice Exposita, in Thomas Gualterius, Abbas Vercellensis: Commentaires du Cantique des Cantiques, ed. Jeanne Barbet, Textes Philosophiques du Moyen Age 14, Paris: de Vrin, 1967, p. 67. For a partial translation of this text see my Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995, p. 323.

5 Hugh of Balma, Viae Sion Lugent, Quaestio Unica 11. The critical edition of this text is by Francis Ruello in Sources Chretiennes, Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1995, from which I have translated this passage.

therefore, is a mere passive ignorance. As Jean Gerson says, the pagan philosophers knew not the true apophatic unknowing of the Christian; they espoused 'Socratic ignorance' - the knowledge that they do not know - out of the mere frustrations of an exhausted natural intellect straining against the inadequacy of its own powers:

I am much mistaken if it is not an obvious truth about the greatest philosophers, that, after all their enquiries, they declared in weariness of spirit, their labours having done nothing to refresh them, that the one thing they knew was that they did not know.6

Fraught as this medieval affectivism is with many polarisations -between knowledge and love, between intellect and will, between the affirmative and the negative ways, and between natural and revealed knowledge - it is the last of these polarisations which concerns us most directly. For all four medieval authorities, what intellect can know of God it knows by natural means, a knowledge ultimately having no place within the construction of Christian theology - at any rate, at that point at which theology is properly described as 'mystical'. Hence, for all the obvious differences in so many other respects, the late medieval affectivists share with the majority of post-Kantian modern theologians that common scepticism of reason combined with a positivism of faith. What in the end unites the medieval and the modern is a common fear - in today's terms of a 'rationalist foundationalism' - which leads in both cases to a recasting, by comparison with Thomas, of the relations between the affirmative and negative 'moments' within the construction of the theological enterprise. For in the hands of both the post-Kantian and the late medieval affectivists, the 'apophatic' is recast as lying in the simple deficiency of reason - no longer, as in Thomas, its apotheosis; and as an ignorantia indocta - no longer, as in Thomas (and as in the pseudo-Denys) a knowing unknowing.

By contrast, for Thomas, the affirmative and the negative, the cat-aphatic and the apophatic, are held poised in the tensions of simultaneity, even within reason's capacity; indeed, for Thomas, these tensions between knowing and unknowing reveal the very structure and dynamic of reason itself. What shows the existence of God shows that we can speak of God - theology is possible. But precisely that which shows the existence of God shows also and at the same time, and in the same determination of proof, that we cannot have any final hold on what we mean

6 'Fallor si non apparuit in maximis philosophis, qui post omnes inquisitiones suos tedio affecti, quia non refecti, dixerunt hoc unum se scire quod nichil scirent.' Jean Gerson, De mystica theologia: Tractatus Speculativus, in Jean Gerson, Oeuvres Completes III, ed. Palemon Glorieux, Paris: Desclee et Cie., 1960-73, 1.34, 15-17.

when we do so - so theology is inherently uncompletable, open-ended, a 'broken language', as Nicholas Lash says.7 Consequently, for Thomas, the cataphatic (we can speak of God by many names) and the apophatic (what these names mean is beyond our comprehension) have one and the same root and source in the possibility of proof of God's existence, just as we have also seen them to do in the Exodus theophany. Or we could say that that interrelation of the cataphatic and the apophatic structures the very nature of reason itself, and that it is precisely in and through its deployment in the demonstration of God's existence that that complex nature of reason is shown forth. That these things are so at this point I merely asseverate. The case for saying them awaits a fuller discussion in later chapters.8

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