Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 28: Philosophy against the Church

The elaboration of a theological system that justified the diverse privileges of the Church was nourished by Greek philosophy, from which Justin, Valentine, and Clement of Alexandria solicited aid in founding the monotheism of the Hebrew Creator-God upon rationality. Although interminable theological controversies had germinated, over the course of the centuries, in the uniquely Catholic manure of the trinity, predestination, free will, and grace, and had occasionally given rise to accusations of heresy (as in the cases of Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers), these controversies did not exceed the framework of orthodoxy and, in any case, hardly threatened the foundations of the faith propagated under Rome’s control.

Gnostic, Platonic, Aristotelian and Plotinian speculations – often badly digested by the Roman doctrine – made the ecclesiastic body sick more than once and threatened to empty out its substance. This philosophy, which the Church intended to treat as ancila theologiae,[1] as the servant of the Church, inherited the very same weapons (designed to combat the closed system of dogma) that market rationality and the free circulation of goods turned against the conservatism of agrarian structures. Philosophy also was founded on the aspirations to plenitude and emancipation that the body suggested to thought, that is, to people with particularly sensitive natures.

Thus, sooner or later, the terrestrial economy had to absorb the celestial economy, and reject the sacred like excrement.

In 531, in Ephesus, the Monophysites produced works against their adversaries that were attributed to a certain Dionysius the Areopagite, whom the official history (according to Rome) passed off as an epigone of Paul and one of the bishops of Athens. The Archbishop of Ephesus contested the author’s authenticity. In fact, everything indicates that the author was in fact an Alexandrian philosopher of Gnostic inspiration who wrote during the second half of the Fifth Century. By a singular destiny, and perhaps because they furnished the powerful Monophysite Churches with arguments, the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite were preserved, and they fed a number of mystical visions and the conception known as pantheism, in which God, being everywhere, was in sum nowhere.

[In the doctrine of Pseudo-Dionysius,] God, unknown to himself, manifested himself by means of a series of emanations that came from the spiritual natures or the angels with material natures that composed the world. The essence of all things, God gave substance to all that existed.

God did not know evil, because evil possessed neither substance nor creative power, but only resided in the lack of perfection in living creatures. It fell to each person to realize the ascension towards the plerome [the totality] of the good according to the ladder of perfection and the destiny of all things, which was to return to the primordial unity. The soul united with the one whom could only be known through a state of innocence by means of “knowledge beyond all knowledge.”[2] This is what Nicolas of Cusa called “erudite ignorance.” The partisans of the Free Spirit later claimed to possess an innocence in which knowing and non-knowing coincided in order to justify the impeccability of their unhindered lives.

Johannes Scotus Eriugena

Around the middle of the Ninth Century, the theories of Pseudo-Dionysius inspired a philosopher of such brilliant intelligence that he seduced Charles the Bald, who was thenceforth resolved to protect this thinker against all obstacles to his freedom of conception.

Born in Ireland or Scotland around 810, Johannes Scotus Eriugena was around 30 years old when Charles the Bald invited him to teach grammar and dialectics at the palatial school of Quierzy, near Laon. The philosopher’s De praedestinatione, written in 851 at the request of Hincmar, the Bishop of Reims (who was then engaged in a polemic with Gottschalk), drew the condemnation of the Council of Valencia in 855, but without prejudicial consequences for its author.

Charles the Bald begged Eriugena to translate the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius from Greek into Latin. Composed between 862 and 866, and written in the form of a dialogue between master and disciple (a dialogue in which the ideas of Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant were reconciled), Eriugena’s De divisione naturae was condemned in 1210 at the Council of Paris, following the Amalrician agitations. Pope Honorius I ordered the burning of all copies of it in 1225. In 1681, the Oxford edition still merited an entry in the [Inquisitorial] Index. Johannes himself died around 877.

In fact, his system excluded theological speculation. According to his De praedestinatione, “the true philosophy is the true religion and the true religion is the true philosophy.”[3]

“‘Universal nature, he tells us, is divided into four categories: the being who is not created and who creates; the being who is created and who creates; the being who is created and does not create; the being who is not created and does not create. The first and last of these categories are related to God; they are only different in our understanding, following which we consider God to be the principle or the final goal of the world.’[4] Such are the main ideas in his system.

“According to Scotus Eriugena, ‘two intellectual methods lead to God: one by the road of negation (αρνηση), which makes a clean sweep of all our representations of the divinity; the other by the road of affirmation (βεβαιϖση), which applies to God all of our intellectual conceptions, with no exceptions, all of our qualities, and even all of our faults. These two methods, far from being mutually exclusive, form a single method that consists in conceiving of God as the being above all essence, all goodness, all wisdom, and all divinity, as the nothingness inaccessible to intelligence, with respect to which negation is truer than affirmation and which remains unknown to itself.’[4]

“The infinite being reveals himself by means of ‘theophanies,’ that is to say, through the series of creatures who emanate from him. These are accessible to intelligence, ‘in the same way that light, to become perceptible to the eye, must scatter itself into the air.’ It is not by virtue of a movement subject to his nature that God created what exists: ‘to be, to think and to act are confounded for him in a single and self-same state. God created all things, which signifies nothing other than: God is in all things. Of him alone can one say that he exists; the world only exists insofar as it participates in the being of God.’[6]

“‘Mankind finds itself among the supreme causes, an intellectual notion eternally conceived by divine thought. Mankind was made in the image of God and was destined to be the mediator between God and his creatures, the place of union of the creatures in a single and self-same unity. If mankind had not sinned, the division of the sexes would not have been produced: mankind would have remained in the primitive unity of its nature. Moreover, the world would not have been separated in him from paradise, that is to say, he would have spiritually inhabited [it] in the unity of his essence; the heavens and the earth would not have been separated in him, because all of his being would have been heavenly and without any corporeal element. Without the fall, he would have enjoyed the plenitude of being and would have reproduced in the manner of the angels.

“‘Nothing of what exists would have fallen into nothingness; the end of the fall of nature is the departure point for its rising.’[7]

“‘Here-below, mankind possesses in itself two elements that compose universal nature, spirit and matter; he reconciles within himself the two opposed extremities of creation. He is the mediator between God and the world, the point at which all creatures, spiritual as well as material, are brought together in a single unity. Human nature lost nothing of its primitive purity through the fact of the fall; it has conserved it completely. It isn’t in this nature that evil is seated, but in the perverse movements of our free will. Like any primary idea, it enjoys an imperishable beauty; evil only resides in the accident, in individual will. The image of God continues to exist in the human soul.’[8]

“It is through human intelligence that the return of the creation to God takes place. Exterior objects, conceived by us, pass into our nature and united with it. They find in it the first causes, in which they return through the effect of our thought, which glimpses the eternal essence in passing phenomena and identifies itself intellectually with God. Thus the visible creatures go back up with us in God. ‘The Word is the principle and the final goal of the world; at the end of time, it recovers the infinite multiplicity of its own being come back to itself in its original unity,’ or to employ the allegorical language that reduces the facts of Christian revelation to the status of symbols and images of this evolution of the divine being: ‘Christ rose into the heavens in an invisible manner in the hearts of those who elevate themselves to him through contemplation.’[9]

“[‘]Physical death is the beginning of the return of mankind to God. On the one side, matter vanishes without leaving any traces; on the other side, all the divisions successively issued from the divine unity and that co-exist in the human soul return, the one to the other. The first stage of this universal unification is the return of mankind to the primitive state of his nature, such as it existed in heaven, without the division of the sexes. Resurrected Christ preceded us to the paradise of human nature unified with itself, in which all creatures are one.’[10] All men indistinctly return to the unity of human nature, because this nature is the communal property of all. But here a triple distinction is established. Those who were elevated during their lives as high as the contemplation the divine being, will be elevated above the unity of their heavenly nature, to the point of deification; those who did not surpass the ordinary level of terrestrial existence will remain in the state of glorified human nature; and those who yielded to the ‘irrational movements of perverse desire’ will fall into eternal torment, without [any] human nature, which formed the foundation of their being, becoming attained in its ideal bliss through their suffering. Individual consciousness alone will be the seat of suffering.

“‘After the annihilation of this world, there will be no malice, no death, no misery. Divine goodness will absorb malice; eternal life will absorb death; and bliss will absorb misery. Evil will end; it will have no reality in itself because God will not know it.’[10] All of Scotus Eriugena’s treatise on predestination is dedicated to the exposition of this same idea. Eternal suffering is absolutely condemned by the logic of his system.”[12]

David of Dinat

If diffuse pantheism, which, up to the Twentieth Century, tended to mobilize God in a world that he only made, and thus compensated for the declining authority of the various religions, this same conception – at a time when the Church imposed the presence of its divinity with the daunting persuasion of its priests and the weapons of the princes – took on a diametrically opposed meaning.

In 1210, the Council of Paris, Peter of Corbeil (the Archbishop of Sens), and Peter of Nemours (the Bishop of the city [Paris]), all had excellent reasons for sending the Amalricians to the pyre and to pell-mell condemn Amalric of Bena, Aristotle, and David of Dinant. As long as they spun around in the inner circles devoted to scholastic quarrels, ideas did not seriously threaten the foundations of faith, but, when they served as pretexts or justifications for a natural irreligion or for the frightened hostility that clerical politics stirred up, they soon acquired an importance of which their authors were sometimes unaware.

It is difficult to represent the doctrine of Dinant with precision, because nothing other than quotations from his work exist. Nevertheless, he seems to have advanced a formula that, in the Eighteenth Century, under Spinoza’s hand, still scandalized the religious milieus: Deus sive natura, (God is nothing other than nature).[13]

According to the Chronicle of the Monk of Loudun, Dinant was born in the Meuse valley, lived in the family circle of Pope Innocent III, and was a clever politician, jurist and man of learning.

The Compilatio de novo spirito, attributed to Albert the Great, specified that Dinant fled France at the time of the Council of 1210 because “he would have been punished if he had been caught.”

Albert quoted extracts from Dinant’s Liber de tomis sive divisionibus, also known as Liber atomorum.

According to David, everything is simultaneously matter, spirit and God. These three terms formed a unique substance from which the indivisible components of the body, the intellect and the soul (that is to say, matter, spirit and God) had their source.

In Jundt’s opinion, David knew about a work written by Avicebron (an Arab philosopher and contemporary of Avicenna), called Fons vitae (The Fountain of Life), which supported the thesis of a material substance endowed with different modes of expression that went from the simple to the complex.

Obviously, [such] metaphysical subtleties had less interest than the conclusion, to which many people subscribed, even if they couldn’t read or argue: namely, that there is only terrestrial life, and it falls to each person to construct his or her destiny within it. This was in fact the lesson propagated by the Amalricians.

Thomas Scoto and Herman van Rijswijk

The name Thomas Scoto would have [completely] disappeared from history (carefully purified by the Church) if it hadn’t appeared at the very heart of the clergy of executioners who perpetuated the memories of their victims. The Inquisitor Alvarus Pelagius granted him a note in his Collyrium contra haereses, published in 1344.

First a Dominican and then a Franciscan, Thomas Scoto taught at the school in London that studied papal decretals in the first half of the Fourteenth Century.

After having a dispute with him in Lisbon, Pelagius threw Scoto in prison and then, in all probability, burned him.

What doctrine can be gleaned from the inquisitor’s accusations? Contrary to the opinion that holds that there was no atheism in the Middle Ages, Scoto’s conception suggested the thesis of an eternal and uncreated world. The soul was annihilated at death. Scoto rejected the sacraments, the virginity of Mary, the miracles of the Christ, his divine nature, and the authority of the Church. Four centuries before Isaac Pererius, Scoto held that mankind existed before Adam. He estimated that the world would be better governed by philosophers than by theologians, and had little respect for people like Augustine of Hippo and Bernard de Clairvaux.

Is it excessive to conjecture that Thomas Scoto was only one example among other thinkers whose dangerous opinions prudence required one not to publish? Pelagius noted one of the heretical ideas with which he was charged: “Three impostors have deceived the world: Moses deceived the Jews; Jesus deceived the Christians; and Mohammed deceived the Saracens.”[15] This was the celebrated title of a book [De Tribus Impostoribus] attributed to Frederic II or to his chancellor, Peter of the Vineyard, of which no trace has been found, that is, other than an edition from the end of the Seventeenth Century, thanks to a priest named Meslier.[16] But the text, real or fictional, cast a scandalous shadow from the Eighth to the Seventeenth Century, due to the concision with which it summarized an opinion that many people professed secretly or that was held by people connected to the universities and among the wandering or Goliard clerics, but was prevented from being discussed openly by the omnipresent suspicions of the clergy.

At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, several before Geoffrey Vallee, [Lucilio] Vanini and [Giordano] Bruno,[17] another free spirit – Herman van Rijswijk – was placed on the pyre in 1512 as a recidivist, after having escaped from prison, to which a trial in 1502 had condemned him. Herman’s works, since disappeared, affirmed that the world had existed for all eternity and did not begin with creation, “which was an invention of the stupid Moses.” Herman denounced the “buffoonery of the Scriptures.” Faced with the inquisitor, a notary and a witness, he added to the end of the accusatory act: “I was born a Christian, but I am not a Christian [any longer] because the Christians are perfectly stupid.” All of these men – from David of Dinant to Herman van Rijswijk, passing through Thomas Scoto – allow us to conjecture that these were neither the first nor the only atheists before the Renaissance, which inflicted upon the Church of Rome, in particular, and religion, in general, injuries that no scar tissue would ever heal.[18]

[1] Translator: Latin for “the servant of theology.”

[2] Dionysius the Areopagite, De theologia mystica, II, 3.

[3] J. Scotus Erigina, De pradestinatione, I, 1. [Translator: the long passage full of quotations that follows this remark comes from A. Jundt, Histoire du pantheisme populaire au Moyen Age et au XVI siècle, Strasbourg, 1875. See footnote 12, below.]

[4] J. Scotus Erigina, De divisione naturae, II, 1.

[5] Ibid., II, 19.

[6] Ibid., I, 74.

[7] Ibid., V, 7.

[8] Ibid., II, 5.

[9] Ibid., V, 20.

[10] Ibid., V, 7.

[11] Ibid., V, 25.

[12] A. Jundt, Histoire du panthéisme populaire au Moyen Age et au XVI siècle, Strasbourg, 1875, p. 12. [Translator: Jundt’s conclusion seems unjustified. How can one say, “Eternal suffering is absolutely condemned by the logic of his system” when one has just reported that, “those who delivered themselves to the ‘irrational movements of perverse desire’ will fall into eternal torment”?]

[13] C. Thery, Autour du décret de 1210: David de Dinant: étude sur son panthéisme matérialiste, Kain, 1925.

[14] A. Jundt, Histoire du panthéisme populaire au Moyen Age et au XVI siècle, Strasbourg, 1875.

[15] Translator: cf. Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit, New York, 1986, p. 179, which via a footnote refers the reader to Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Historia de los heterodoxos espanoles, Madrid, 1929, p. 530.

[16] Translator: Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a French Catholic priest who authored an atheistic Testament, but this does not seem to be the Traité sur les trois imposteurs. Note that, in 2002, Vaneigem himself edited and wrote a preface for a volume published by Éditions Payot et Rivages (Rivages poche / Petite Bibliothèque) that offered modern French versions of Geoffrey Vallee’s L’Art de ne croire en rien, also known as La Béatitude des chrétiens ou le Fléau de la foi, and a French translation of an edition of De tribus impostoribus published in 1598.

[17] Translator: all of whom were burnt at the stake as “heretics” in the second half of the Sixteenth Century.

[18] R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du libre-esprit, Paris, 1986; P. Fredericq, Corpus documentarum, Gard, 1889-1900, I p. 452.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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