The Medievalism of Etienne Gilson
VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #12
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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