Étienne Gilson Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Gilson made the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians intelligible and relevant for twentieth century scholars. He believed deeply that faith and reason were not incompatible but symbiotic: They were mutual helpmates whose interaction via fundamental principles created a dynamic vitality essential for the proper development of both secular and sacred knowledge.

Early Life

Étienne Henri Gilson was born in Paris, France, on June 13, 1884. He was the third son of five boys in the family of Paul Anthelme Gilson, a shopkeeper, and Caroline Juliette (Rainaud) Gilson, the daughter of an innkeeper in Cravant, a small town in southeastern France. The family was devoutly Roman Catholic, and “his dear little Maman” instilled in young Étienne a faith that was to remain steadfast and untroubled throughout his life. From a very early age, he was guided in his thinking and feeling by the simple but profound truths of the catechism and the Creed.

Gilson’s formal education took place almost entirely within the comforting ambience of the Catholic church. He attended the parish school of Sainte-Clotilde, and at the Petit Séminaire de Notre-Dame-des-Champs his religious instructors encouraged his interest in the Greek and Roman classics. He absorbed an enthusiasm for philosophy from the priests at the Lycée Henri IV. After his graduation in 1902, he spent a year in military service, during which he began to read the philosophical works of René Descartes. In 1903, he went to the Sorbonne of the University of Paris, where the great Jewish scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, a disciple of Auguste Comte, was one of his teachers. Lévy-Bruhl gave Gilson the good advice to study history and historical methodology.

In 1904, Gilson took a course from Henri Bergson at the Collège de France, which he later described as the greatest blessing ever bestowed by God on his philosophical life. He was sympathetic with Bergson’s attack against positivism, scientism, evolutionism, and other modern doctrines. When, in 1905, Gilson went to Lévy-Bruhl for a dissertation topic, his teacher advised him to study the ideas that René Descartes had borrowed from Scholasticism, the medieval philosophical system that had been denigrated by most modern intellectuals. Gilson’s research led him to the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose clarity and originality of thought invigorated him. Out of this encounter with Thomas evolved Gilson’s creativity as a philosophical historian. Contrary to the then-pervasive opinion that nothing of intellectual importance had occurred in the thousand years from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, Gilson discovered many exceptionally fascinating ideas and many highly innovative thinkers.

After obtaining his diploma in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1906, he taught this subject from 1907 through 1913 in several lycées all over France. Since he now had a steady salary, he was able, in 1908, to marry Thérèse Ravisé, a cousin who lived in Melun, near Paris. The marriage was a success, mutually enriching both partners and eventually producing three children, two daughters and a son. During his years of teaching, Gilson was able to work on his major and minor theses for his doctorate from the Sorbonne, which he received in 1913. By this time, Gilson had come to believe that Thomas, not Descartes, had the correct method for solving philosophical problems.

Gilson received his first university appointment at Lille in the fall of 1913. Even though he had not yet had a course in Scholasticism, he offered, in addition to the standard university courses in philosophy, a noncredit public course of lectures called “The System of Saint Thomas Aquinas.” At Lille, in addition to his teaching, he began research on Saint Bonaventure and other medieval theologians. His work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914. He was called up as an army sergeant in a Lille regiment, and his first assignment was instructing recruits in central France. A year later, qualified as a machine-gun operator, he was sent, as a lieutenant, to the Verdun front, where he was wounded and captured by German troops in February, 1916 (he would later win the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action). He spent the next two and a half years as a prisoner of war. While a prisoner, he continued to study philosophy and even published articles on aesthetics and metaphysics. He also delivered a series of lectures on Bergson and liberty. Prisoners from the Eastern Front taught him Russian, an ability that he would find useful on a relief mission to Russia and the Ukraine in 1922 and at the San Francisco Conference in 1945.

Life’s Work

For Gilson, Thomas Aquinas was the paradigmatic Christian philosopher. Thomas had assimilated a large number of philosophical truths, especially from Aristotle, and transfigured them in the light of his theological understanding. The philosophy of Aquinas was the philosophy of a theologian, and he used philosophical truths, whether from Saint Augustine or Aristotle, for theological purposes. Gilson saw nothing wrong in this; in fact, he praised it, since he believed that the most profound truths are theological, and philosophical truths, properly grasped, never contradict the Christian faith. During his years of captivity, Gilson became convinced that Thomas was the key for the correct understanding of philosophy and theology.

After the armistice, Gilson returned briefly to Lille, but the minister of education soon named him to the “Strasbourg Mission.” As a result of the war, Strasbourg was in French hands, and Gilson became one of the thirty-eight professors making up the University of Strasbourg’s new Faculty of Letters. At Strasbourg, he published three books: Le Thomisme: Introduction au système de S. Thomas d’Aquin (1919; The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1924); Études de philosophie médiévale (1921); and La philosophie au moyen-âge (2 vols., 1922). These writings exhibit Gilson’s powers as a historian.

Gilson was able to pursue his research on Thomas at the University of Paris, because in 1921 he returned to the Sorbonne to teach a course on medieval philosophy (a chair in medieval philosophies was created for him in 1926). He was also appointed a director of graduate studies in religion at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. His courses and writing on medieval thinkers soon brought him fame, and in 1926 he made the first of a series of regular visits to the United States and Canada. He became a part-time professor of philosophy at Harvard University from September, 1926, to mid-January, 1927, when the Congregation of St. Basil invited him, in association with St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, to set up an Institute of Mediaeval Studies. When this institute formally opened in the fall of 1929, Gilson was its director, and from then on, he divided his academic year between Paris and Toronto (in 1939, Pope Pius XII honored the institute with a Pontifical Charter).

Gilson’s ideas on and participation in educational institutions grew out of his Thomism, in particular, his belief that a dynamic equilibrium should exist between faith and reason. For him, the primary function of education is intellectual, and he was very critical of educators who used social or political substitutes for intellectual formation. He saw the intellect as the special locus of the divine presence in human beings. Therefore, the teacher, as a servant of the truth, participates in a divine work in communicating truth to others.

During the late 1920’s, Gilson shifted the emphasis of his research from history to Christian philosophy. Many scholars objected to his use of the term, “Christian philosophy,” which they found as contradictory as “Christian biology” or “Christian mathematics.” Some of Gilson’s arguments in defense of Christian philosophy appeared in what many see as his greatest work, L’Esprit de la philosophie médiévale (1932; The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 1936). This book derived from the Gifford Lectures that he delivered at the University of Aberdeen in 1930 and 1931. His main argument in these lectures was that Thomas and other theologians, under the influence of Christianity, created new philosophical ideas that were significant in their own right and that passed into modern philosophy. He called philosophy in the Middle Ages “Christian philosophy,” which he defined as a philosophy...

(The entire section is 3518 words.)