VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #12
The Medievalism of Etienne Gilson

September 1992By Avery Dulles

Avery Dulles, S.J., is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and currently occupies the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. He is a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and his latest book, The Craft of Theology, includes a revised version of his article in the May 1990 NOR which was entitled “Vatican II & Scholasticism.”

The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. By Etienne Gilson.

I first came across the name of Gilson al­most by chance, as a freshman at Harvard in 1936-1937. In a course on French literature some selections from Descartes were assigned. I was puzzled by his “ontological argument” for the existence of God, which somehow seemed too clever to be true, and so I consult­ed a commentary. To my delight, the commen­tary seemed to show precisely where the ar­gument was deficient. I made a mental note of the author’s name: Etienne Gilson.

My next encounter, the following year, was in an introduction to philosophy. After spending the first semester on the ancients, we were to devote the second to the moderns. During the Christmas holidays we were re­quired to choose one book from a reading list. To insert something into the yawning gap be­tween Lucretius and Descartes, I selected Gilson’s study of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas in the early edition then available. The book interested me but did not make a deep impression.

Quite different was my reaction the follow­ing year when I took a course in the intellec­tual history of the Middle Ages. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy was, I believe, required reading. It became an important milestone on my journey to the Catholic faith.

I still regard it as an almost perfect book. Vast in its range, the work demonstrates the author’s synthetic powers and his sovereign mastery of the entire field. The material is symmetrically distributed in 20 compact chap­ters, each of which is finely chiseled down to the last detail (Gilson’s elegant French is lucid­ly translated by A.H.C. Downes).


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