Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Henry of Ghent and the Twilight of Divine Illumination

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Henry of Ghent and the Twilight of Divine Illumination

Article excerpt

The arrival in medieval western Europe of Aristotle's most profound works, including the Physics, the Metaphysics, and the De anima, brought on revolutionary changes in thirteenth-century thought, and marked a high point in the history of Western philosophy. However, the growing influence of Aristotle came at the expense of a family of doctrines that were deeply entrenched in pre-scholastic, Augustinian-oriented thought. In particular, the growing dominance of the Aristotelian theory of cognition quickly made the Augustinian theory of divine illumination (hereafter, "TDI") seem superfluous. Naturally, not everyone approved of such changes. We can see an instance of the conservative backlash in a letter written in 1285 by the Franciscan John Peckham, himself a noted philosopher.

A. I do not in any way disapprove of philosophical studies, insofar as they serve theological mysteries, but I do disapprove of irreverent innovations in language, introduced within the last twenty years into the depths of theology against philosophical truth and to the detriment of the Fathers, whose positions are disdained and openly held in contempt.

Continuing, Peckham criticizes the doctrine

which fills the entire world with wordy quarrels, weakening and destroying with all its strength what Augustine teaches concerning the eternal rules and the unchangeable light, the faculties of the soul, the seminal reasons included in matter, and innumerable questions of the same kind.(1)

Peckham goes on to invoke not just the Church Fathers in defense of the tradition, but also "the philosophers," among whom he presumably includes Aristotle. Nonetheless it is clear that his target in this letter is the Aristotelian movement that was challenging traditional Christian philosophical doctrines. Many of those doctrines had been given their original form by Augustine and were being defended in that form by Franciscans such as Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure in the thirteenth century. Foremost among those who were introducing the "irreverent innovations" was Thomas Aquinas, whom Peckham almost surely had in mind. His reference to "the last twenty years" covers the period of Aquinas's most important writing and the establishment of his reputation. Further, all three of the specific doctrines which Peckham mentions are ones on which Aquinas did hold controversial views.(2)

The first doctrine Peckham mentions as being under attack is of undoubtedly the TDI, according to which human beings are illuminated by "the unchangeable light" so as to attain the "eternal rules."(3) This language of light and illumination is of course most closely associated with Augustine, but it permeates the entire Christian medieval tradition. Until Aquinas's time the TDI had played a prominent role in all the most influential medieval theories of knowledge, including those of Anselm, Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, and, especially, Bonaventure. However, by the beginning of the fourteenth century the theory had fallen out of fashion.(4) Indeed, the three best philosophers of the scholastic period - Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William Ockham - would all reject the theory in its standard form. Even by 1285 supporters of the TDI such as Peckham were evidently feeling rather defensive (as in A). It seems entirely plausible to attribute this attitude, in large part, to the influence of Aquinas's views on human knowledge.


From his earliest writings on, Aquinas had opposed the TDI.(5) The argument which he regularly relies on begins by distinguishing God's ordinary moving and directing of the created world from an additional, special influence. In the first way, God sustains every single action that takes place in the created world, including the human act of knowing. God both gives creatures the form through which they act and, as the First Mover, moves them to act. So in a sense human beings cannot know anything without divine help. This is not to say, however, that further extraordinary assistance is needed:

B. …

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