"Let persons in the world sanctify themselves in their own houses, for neither the court, professions, or labour, are any hindrance to the service of God."

St Philip Neri

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"To do God's will -- this was the goal upon which the saints constantly fixed their gaze. They were fully persuaded that in this consists the entire perfection of the soul. "

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"It is not God's will that we should abound in spiritual delights, but that in all things we should submit to his holy will."

Blessed Henry Suso

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St Bonaventure  (1221 - 1274)

 

THE MIND'S ROAD TO GOD (cont)

 

by St Bonaventure

Biographical Note On St. Bonaventure


St. Bonaventura, a native of Tuscany, was born Giovanni di Fidanza in 1221. He entered the Franciscan order about 1242 and in the short space of fifteen years rose to be seventh general of that order. Professor of theology at the University of Paris, Bishop of Albano, and created a cardinal by Gregory X shortly before his death in 1274, he was widely venerated during his lifetime and is mentioned as a saint in Dante's Paradiso. He was canonized in 1482 by Sixtus IV and a little over a century later declared a doctor of the church by Sixtus V. He has usually been known as the Seraphic Donor, probably because of his mysticism and constant preoccupation with the vision of the Seraph which is described in the Prologue to "The Mind's Road to God." In addition to this little treatise, his major works are the "Reductio Artium in Theologiam" ("Reduction of the Arts to Theology"), the "Biblia Pauperum" ("Bible of the Poor"), and the "Breviloquium."

 

Introduction


There should be little need of apologizing for a new translation into
English of Saint Bonaventura's "Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum," for it has been recognized by all serious historians of philosophy as one of the shorter masterpieces of medieval philosophy. It sets forth in very few pages a whole system of metaphysics; it illustrates a philosophical method; it typifies the thinking of one of the great monastic orders of the West; it stands at the beginning of Renaissance science as one of those documents in which the future can be seen in germ. Besides its importance as an outstanding work in metaphysics, a work comparable to Descartes' "Discourse on Method," Leibniz's Monadology, or Hume's "Enquiry" in its compactness and suggestiveness, it represents a strain of medieval thought which has
been too much neglected since the publication of "Aeterni Patris," in 1879.

That encyclical with its emphasis upon Thomism has given many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, the impression that the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas is the "official" philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. The result of this miscomprehension has been disparagement of writings other than Thomistic. Yet even in the thirteenth century Catholic philosophers were far from being in agreement, either on matters of doctrine or method. One has only to mention such figures as Alexander of Hales, the master of Saint Bonaventura; Roger Bacon; and the various monks of Saint Victor, to realize that the confusion and disagreement which certain writers of today find in our own time were just as characteristic of a period to which they refer as one of universal concord.

The metaphysical point of view of Saint Bonaventura can be traced back to Plotinus, if not to Philo. Fundamental to his whole system is that fusion of the three hierarchies of Neo-Platonism: the hierarchy of logical classes, that of values, and that of reality. Elementary students of logic are accustomed to the doctrine that individuals can be grouped into classes which belong to certain species; that these species are again susceptible to classification in certain genera; that these are capable of being grouped into still larger orders and families, until we come to the class which includes all other classes and which is usually called being. This hierarchy of classes in the textbooks of classical logic is called the Tree of Porphyry. In non-philosophic work we find the same sort of thing illustrated in the Linnaean classification of plants and animals. The higher up one goes in this hierarchy, the more inclusive are one's classes. Thus the class of vertebrates is more inclusive than the class of mammals, and the class of animals is more inclusive than the class of vertebrates.

If we assume, as most classical writers did, that such a classification
reproduces the structure of reality, that classes are ordained by God and are not simply convenient groupings made by man for his own purposes, then we can see in this order of beings a scale of creatures which might be thought of as a map of all things, a tree not only of life but of all existence. But an added assumption is usually introduced into the discussion at this point, the assumption of both Plotinus and Saint Bonaventura, that the more general a class, the more real and the better. This assumption may be argued, but one can at least imagine why someone contemplating this arrangement of classes within other classes, running from the least inclusive to the most inclusive, would maintain that there was logical priority in the more general. For before one can define, let us say, man as a rational animal, it would be necessary to know the definition of "animal"; and before one could define "animality," one would have to know the definition of "living matter." This logical order of priority and posteriority might be thought of as corresponding in some mysterious way--and it has remained mysterious to this day--to some relationship in the order of reality. The problem was to discover precisely what this relationship was.

Plotinus answered the question by the invention of a basic metaphor. The universe was subject to something which he called "emanation." The lower classes flowed out of the upper classes as light flowed from a candle. Such metaphors have been of the greatest influence in the history of thought, both philosophic and scientific. Thus we have had such figurative terms as "affinity" in chemistry, or the "life force" in biology, or the "life cycle of a nation" in history, terms which were taken literally by some people but which upon scrutiny turned out to be figures of speech. In Plotinus' case there is little doubt that he believed emanation to be literal truth; though when he came to explain how lower orders emanated from higher, he could do it only by means of a more elaborate figure of speech or by having recourse to what he thought of as a law of nature, namely, that all things produced something and that what they produced was always "lower" than they themselves. Thus, Being produced the kinds of Being, and each kind produced less inclusive kinds; and so on down to the smallest classes in which individual things were comprised.

This hierarchy of Being appears throughout the work of Saint Bonaventura, though he did not derive it immediately from Plotinus. It had become a medieval commonplace which few were willing to question. And yet he could not accept the whole theory of emanation, since he was bound by his religious faith to believe in actual creation out of nothing. The God of Plotinus was The One from whom everything flowed like light; the God of Saint Bonaventura was the personal God of Genesis. His metaphysical problem was to accommodate one to the other. This accommodation appears most
clearly in the fifth chapter of the "Itinerarium."

The second hierarchy which was fused with the logical hierarchy was that of value. There is no purely logical reason why the general should be any better than the particular, though there are good traditional grounds for thinking so. Plato, Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists, and even the Stoics had a tendency to confuse goodness with the ideal or the general. In ancient Pagan thought, there was a standard belief that no particular was ever a perfect exemplification of its class--no triangle made of matter being a perfect geometrical triangle, no human being a perfectly rational animal, no work of art a perfect realization of the artist's idea. Arguing in this way, one could see that no species would ever perfectly exemplify its genus, no genus its higher order, and so on. Hence the process "downward" from Being was degeneration. When one stops to think that the Christian religion insisted upon man's nature as having been vitiated by sin--sin which, though committed by our primordial parents, was nevertheless inherited by us--one can also see why, to a Christian, the fusion of the logical and the value-hierarchy was natural enough. We still look in vain for the perfect exemplification of animal and vegetable species, though we are inclined to believe that the species is an ideal formed for intellectual purposes, and not to be expected to exist in anything other than scientific books and articles. But to a Christian thinker of the type of Saint Bonaventura, the species and genera were the ideas of God in
accordance with which He had created the world. It is they which are
responsible for the orderliness of the universe; they are sometimes called by the Stoic term, seminal reasons. In the nineteenth century, when men were as impressed by the regularity of scientific laws as they had been in the thirteenth, people like Lord Russell found a religious satisfaction in contemplating them, the only difference being that Lord Russell did not use the Stoic term; nor did he think of scientific laws as the ideas in the mind of God. If permanence and invariability are marks of goodness, then indeed the more general the law, or the more inclusive the idea, the better. And since the most general and inclusive term is without question the term "Being," it would follow that "Being" was the best of all things. In the sixth chapter of the "Itinerarium," in which Saint Bonaventura discusses "Good" as the name of God, the importance of this fusion appears
most clearly.

The third hierarchy, as we have said, was that of reality. In common speech we are accustomed to think of particular things in this material world of time and space as more real than ideas, or logical classes, or mathematical concepts, such as circles and triangles. We should, if untutored in the history of philosophy, think that a given man, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, was more real than the idea of mankind though it is doubtful whether we should proceed to maintain that the idea of "rational animal" is more real than that of "animal." The fundamental question for a philosopher is what we mean by the adjective "real" and whether we should give it a meaning such that it may be used in the comparative and superlative degrees. Saint Bonaventura was far from being unique in thinking that this adjective was comparable; indeed such modern thinkers as Hegel and his
followers seemed to have taken that for granted. In any event Saint Bonaventura did believe in its comparability, and he identified the hierarchy of reality with those of logic and value.

This fusion of hierarchies lies behind the whole method of thinking which is illustrated by the "Itinerarium," and it must be accepted by a reader who wishes to study the work sympathetically. But along with this metaphysical matrix a certain philosophical method is to be found which is of particular importance in studying this work. That method is resident in a theory of knowledge which makes true knowledge a matter of inspection, of seeing. We all have to believe that certain ideas must be taken for granted, whether they are the postulates of a system of geometry which we accept merely for the purpose of deducing their consequences or whether they are the simple matters of perceptual fact which we are likely to call the truths of observation. Again, when we deduce a conclusion from a set of premises, as in a simple syllogism or a bit of arithmetical reasoning, how do we know that the conclusion is not merely logically entailed in the premises, but true also to fact? Cardinal Newman, in his "Grammar of Assent," distinguished between what he called "real assent" and "notional assent"--the former being the assent which we give to propositions of
existence or, roughly, fact; the latter, that which we give to the logical conclusions. Thus the following syllogism is logically accurate, but no one would believe in the truth of its conclusion:

1. All triangles are plane figures.
2. John Doe is a triangle.
3. John Doe is a plane figure.

We should be obligated to maintain that the conclusion followed from the premises, but we would not give real assent to it nevertheless. Just what do we mean by real assent, and how does it arise?

The most obvious case of real assent occurs in the acceptance of the truths of observation. If someone is asked why he thinks sugar is sweet, he will tell you that it is because he has tasted it. If someone asks why a person believes that the sky is blue, he will be told that the person has looked and seen. Sensory observation looks like simple and direct and incontrovertible knowledge. It is not quite so simple and direct and incontrovertible as used to be thought, but we are dealing with the common-sense point of view here, and from that it has all these traits. Throughout the "Itinerarium" Saint Bonaventura emphasizes that knowledge in the last analysis comes down to seeing, to contemplation, to a kind of experience in which we know certain things to be true without further argument or demonstration. On the lowest level, this occurs in sensory observation, on the highest in the mystic vision.

Along with this insistence on direct experience as the source of all truth runs a practice which goes back at least to Philo-Judaeus in the Hebraic-Christian tradition: the practice of the allegorical method. In Philo, who was mainly interested in the Pentateuch, the allegorical method was employed in interpreting Scripture. It was believed by him that if every verse in the Bible was accepted literally, then we should have to believe things which were contrary to reason. Thus we should have to believe that God, Who is not in space, actually walked in the Garden of Eden; that He spoke as human beings speak with a physical voice; that He literally breathed into Adam the breath of life as we breathe our breath into things.[1] But to hold such beliefs is to deny the spirituality and ubiquity of God, and that is repugnant to our religious and philosophical theories. Consequently Philo maintained that these and similar texts must be interpreted allegorically, and he naturally believed that he had the key to the allegory. Similarly the "Itinerarium," which begins as a meditation upon the vision which Saint Francis had on Mount Alverna, continues as an interpretation in philosophical terms, not only of the vision itself, but also of certain passages in Exodus and Isaiah in which details of the vision are paralleled. The Seraph which Saint Francis saw, and which had three pairs of wings, has to be interpreted as a symbol of a philosophical and religious idea. The wings become stages in the process of the mind's elevation to God, and their position on the body of the Seraph indicates the heights of the stages. Furthermore, it will be seen that even the physical world itself becomes a sort of symbol of religious ideas. This was in keeping with many traditions which were common in the Middle Ages--ideas that appeared in the Bestiaries and Lapidaries, and which we retain in weakened form in some of our pseudoheraldic symbols, such as the Eagle, the Lion, and the Olive Branch; or the use of certain colors, such as blue for hope, white for purity, red for passion. Among these more popular symbols was that of the macrocosm and the microcosm, according to which a human being exactly mirrored the universe as a whole, so that one could pass from one to the other and find corresponding parts and functions. Much of this was undoubtedly fortified by Saint Francis' fashion of humanizing natural objects--the sun, the birds, the rain, and so on--in his talks and poems. Few, if any, of the saints seem to have felt such an intimate relationship with the physical world as the founder of the Order to which Saint Bonaventura belonged.