GILSON, ÉTIENNE (1884–1978), was an educator, lecturer, author, and historian of medieval philosophy. Born in Paris, Gilson was a Christian believer and lifelong promoter and defender of the intellectual life of the church. He treasured his Roman Catholic schooling but discovered his love for philosophy in a secular lycée and at the positivistic Sorbonne. Convinced that before doing philosophy one had to learn what philosophy already existed, he entered upon a career of exact historical study, following the principled method that would mark all his work: to study the original writings of the great thinkers, to understand their thought within its historical context, and to present their teaching objectively.
Under competent Cartesian scholars Gilson concentrated on the modern classics but did his research on the medieval sources used by Descartes. While teaching in the lycées (1907–1913), he completed his dissertation on the scholastic texts utilized by Descartes for his doctrine of freedom. Following his doctorate (1913) he was appointed to teach at Lille, then (after World War I) at Strasbourg, and from 1921 on at Paris. In these national universities Gilson introduced regular study of the medieval theologian-philosophers. His courses on Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, and Bonaventure were published and became standard tools for medieval scholars. Studies of other medieval authors provided the substance of his teaching for fifty years in Paris and at Toronto (in the research institute he founded there in 1929) and of his masterwork, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955).
What is more significant, these studies led him to hold firmly to two controversial positions:
- A distinct Christian philosophy is a matter of historical fact: It is the speculations of theologians about questions in principle accessible to natural reason.
- The Thomism of Thomas Aquinas, rather than that of his interpreters, is the unique instance of a Christian philosophy that best mirrors Catholic thinking and that grounds the truths achieved by all other Christian philosophies. Thomism is the philosophy of a theologian and is characterized both by its metaphysics of being, which holds that what is real and intelligible is so by virtue of its act of existing, and by its theses on the integrity of human intelligence and on the realism and evidentiality of knowledge.
Although these are controversial theses, Gilson was so sure of his own position that in more than forty books and countless articles he rarely engaged in argument about them.
Gilson the historian brought the thought of the Middle Ages to the attention of twentieth-century scholars. Gilson the philosopher sparked in his European and North American audiences an active engagement in philosophical and theological issues that had long been dormant. In 1949 the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, remarking on the apostolic quality of Gilson's career, asserted that his championship of Christian intellectual issues in France had lent courage to and secured a hearing for the less hardy. There is little doubt that his promotion of the study of medieval thought and his outspoken defense of his convictions have been of lasting benefit not only to academic scholars but also to religious believers.
Gilson's numerous works and the extensive writings about him are cited in Margaret McGrath's 1,210-item Étienne Gilson: A Bibliography (Toronto, 1982). Some major works by Gilson available in English are The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York, 1936), an abridged version of L'esprit de la philosophie médiévale, 2 vols. (Paris, 1932); The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 5th ed. (New York, 1956); and History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York, 1955). The first of a number of appreciative symposia was that by Jacques Maritain and others, Étienne Gilson: Philosophe de la Chrétienté (Paris, 1949). The official biography was produced by a former student and colleague, Laurence K. Shook, Étienne Gilson (Toronto, 1984).
Linus J. Thro (1987)
He held, with Augustine, that ‘the universe is a kind of unfolding, a distensio, which imitates in its flowing forth the eternal present and total simultaneity of the life of God’. Such a view of order and providence cannot be concerned with a more dispassionate estimate of the actual history of the Church and its restrictive attitude to the quest for truth.