Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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This is an analysis of The Journey of the Mind Into God by Saint Bonaventure, who was born Giovanni di Fidanza. It's not a recapitulation of the book's contents. If you want to know what's in it, read it or check out the excellent study guide on this website. The book is dense and difficult to read, but I highly recommend it.

The book is basically a road map for Christian conversion, addressed not to illiterate medieval heathens but to Church theologians and educated Europeans. The text's appeal to logic and reason at first seems unusual, but recall that mid-Thirteenth-Century Franciscan monks like Bonaventure were well-known empiricists. Roger Bacon is perhaps the most famous of these, and he was Bonaventure's contemporary; when he tries to persuade readers of the logic of conversion by appealing to nature and rationality, he's following the conventional wisdom of his order.

If you undertake the journey laid out in the book, you are led step-by-step through a six-part argument about Nature, about yourself, and about the essence of God. The outcome of this is supposed to be your acceptance of Jesus as your savior. The interesting part of this argument, one which is typical of medieval empiricist philosophy, is that your reason gets you all the way to God, "to the gate" as theologians put it then, but it doesn't get you "into God" or "through the gate." That's a leap of faith. You have to leave your reason behind. It's a neat juxtaposing of the practical faith traditions of the early and medieval Church with the inklings of a system of thought that brings Europe to the Enlightenment five hundred years after Bonaventure's book was published.

His argument was an attempt to accommodate competing pressures on Church doctrine: the need to give Christian theology some temporal intellectual clout and the wish to head off a doctrinal schism inside the Church. Feudalism and the absolute power of the Church in Europe were waning by the Thirteenth Century, and as the lords and bishops struggled to keep power they looked to philosophers, most of whom were in the Church then, for anchors on which to fasten their efforts.

As a work of theology and philosophy, Bonaventure's book can be read with Roger Bacon's work or that of Duns Scotus. There are echoes of it in Meister Eckhardt's work. Even the Twentieth Century priest, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, traces his ideas back to Bonaventure and his peers.

Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

Both the size and the title of Saint Bonaventure’s most famous little work belie its contents. From its diminutive size, one might take it to be a meditation on some single point; from its title, one might easily come to think of it as vague and mystical. Actually the opposite of both of these common impressions is the case. The Journey of the Mind to God belongs in the company of the Summa Theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921) of Saint Thomas Aquinas, although its brevity indicates the quite different temper of its author. Bonaventure, the “Seraphic Doctor,” does not use the elaborate compendium method. Yet in brief compass, he presents a view of nature, humanity, and God no less comprehensive than that contained in a many-volumed work.

As to its “mystical” qualities, this work does reflect classical mysticism but Bonaventure’s presentation of this viewpoint is both detailed and highly technical. To sketch completely the structure that Bonaventure outlines would require a quite detailed study. It is rational in every detail—right up to the point at which reason finds its own end and realizes its own boundaries. Reason will be left behind, and ecstatic vision will become the goal, but this does not transpire until the very peak of possible human understanding has been reached. Only when reason has done its utmost at description and explanation can a way be seen to transcend reason. In this brief work, what we find is an elaborate, intricate, and technical view, rational to its core, but aimed from the beginning at finding reason’s limiting point in order thereby to leave it behind.

What is perhaps hardest for the modern mind to grasp is that Bonaventure both begins and ends with God. The modern prejudice that must be overcome here is the same one that plagues Saint Anselm’s famous “ontological argument.” The contemporary philosopher is addicted to the primacy of a theory of knowledge. Before any question is asked, the modern reader must inquire whether, methodologically considered, the quest is justifiable and the object knowable. Bonaventure and a host of others, on the other hand, pose the ultimate question of God at the outset just as if it were answerable. Only through the technical process of attempting to construct the answer can the success or the failure of the endeavor be discovered. The process of the attempt itself is the source of our correction. The limits of the question are recognizable, not at the beginning, but only at the end of the argument.

Not unlike the Greek invocation of the muses in the face of a difficult task, Bonaventure in the prologue calls upon God to enlighten him in his quest. His use of the term “Father of Light” for God and his stress upon illumination place Bonaventure well within the Augustinian and Neoplatonic tradition. God is to be immediately addressed at the outset of all serious consideration because he is cast in the role of a first principle and as such is central to any knowing process.

The work has a devotional element. Francis of Assisi, the founder of Bonaventure’s order, is mentioned reverentially, and Bonaventure himself claims to have undergone a vision like that experienced by Francis. However, coupled with this theme must be the awareness that Bonaventure served as a highly successful administrator, in fact as minister general of his order. This obvious organizational skill, which daily must have called for the solution of dozens of practical problems, is balanced against the visionary quality of his writing.

Stages of Ascension

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Bonaventure describes six stages of ascension to God. Their delineation is purely technical and rational, but Bonaventure, at the same time, considers prayer one means of becoming enlightened about them. To minds so used to splitting spirituality and rationality completely, such duality in Bonaventure’s thought is hard to grasp. To do so, however, is also to come close to understanding the special feature of The Journey of the Mind to God. For all natural objects have a double side: They at once are parts of a structured natural order discoverable by reason and at the same time, when properly viewed, may come to be seen as traces of God. Such divine traces are uncoverable in many places; he begins with those that are corporeal and outside people (as contrasted to those spiritual and interior).

The mind has three principal aspects, one of which is animal or sensual, another of which makes it capable of introspection, and a third in virtue of which it is able to look above itself and to grasp levels of existence higher than its own natural order. Because all natural objects have a divine side, the six stages of the soul’s powers correspond to the six stages of the ascension unto God. To describe the levels of ascent to God is to delineate the soul’s powers; to set forth the soul’s capacities is to outline the levels through which God is to be approached.

Theology itself has three modes: symbolic, literal, and mystical. The symbolic gives proper interpretation to sensible things; the literal corresponds to an intelligible level, and the mystic transcends the level of rationality. All three are properly theology. However, none of these is to be undertaken without preparation because rectitude of the will and the clarity of unimpeded vision are necessary. Then the sensible world may be taken up for consideration, and it will be transformed upon reflection into a veritable Jacob’s ladder, the sense world being as it is so full of the traces of God.

We proceed by transposing natural qualities into a divine setting. Weight, number, and measure provide a basis for grasping the power, wisdom, and immense goodness of the Creator. One inquires after the origin, course, and terminus of the natural order, then a grasp of the various levels of natural organisms can be acquired. From this one moves to consider God as a counterpart of these levels and of this order, as spiritual, incorruptible, and immutable. The natural order is a plenitude, full of every level and variety of kind. Such munificence is a source of natural illumination for the mind in its search for the proper road to God.

God is reflected in his traces in the sensible world and is known not only through but also in them. Bonaventure sees the natural world as being both good and beautiful, so that to an eye sensitive to such structure, God can actually be seen without taking our eyes away from the world of the senses even for a moment. The five senses are like doors. Through apprehending motion, we are led to the cognition of spiritual movers, as a progress from effect to cause.

Our senses lead us to apprehension, then to delight in the natural order, and finally to judgment, which operates by abstraction and renders the sensible objects intelligible. Then, following Saint Augustine’s De musica (389; On Music, 1947), Bonaventure regards number as the outstanding exemplar of God to be found in the physical world. All Platonists have been fascinated with the intelligible and yet nonsensible properties of number, especially its relation to the qualities of rhythm and proportion. The invisible things of God come to be seen, being grasped in and through the changing, sensible world. Like a sign, the sensible order leads the discerning mind to the intelligible; seeing this, we are led to turn from an outward vision and to consider the mind itself.

Grasping how divine things may be seen as reflected in the order of nature leads us to turn inward to consider ourselves, and here divine images appear most clearly. For the natural psychical phenomena are self-love, self-knowledge, and memory. Here Bonaventure follows Augustine’s classical model and finds in these a representation of the divine Trinity. Particularly in memory the soul is most like an image of God, for God lives with all objects eternally present, and the soul imitates this power in the grasp of its own power of memory. We cannot understand the being of any particular object until we come to understand Being-in-itself. Memory, intelligence, and will form in us a second reflection of God’s trinitarian nature, so that when the mind considers itself, it rises through itself as through a mirror to the contemplation of the divine Trinity.

Having brought the mind so close to God, Bonaventure turns to inquire why not all people see God clearly in themselves. His answer is that most people lie so buried in the world of the senses that they are unable to regard themselves as in God’s image. Here, for the first time, specifically Christian doctrine enters because Bonaventure sees in Christ a mediator who accomplishes this needed purification and illumination. Spiritual hearing and vision must be recovered.

After the conversion of the mind to a new direction comes the disciplining of the self. Bonaventure outlines the “steps” of Bernard of Clairvaux to bring the soul to vision through humility and the inculcation of strict habits of thought. We must learn contemplation, and this requires a strict order in the soul. The acquired habits of the rationally ordered soul yield powers capable of leading us to the divine.

We have learned to contemplate God outside us in his traces in the natural and sensible order, inside the self through the trinitarian structure of the soul’s powers, and finally above the mind as the contemplative powers are strengthened by discipline. We may fix on Being-itself, rejecting, as all Neoplatonism does, any positive status for nonbeing. Here a little dialectical exercise on Being and nonbeing convinces us that Being is actually what first enters the intellect and that this is the Being of pure actuality. Thus, analysis indicates the immediate orientation of all intellection toward Being-itself and therefore toward God. Because this orientation is at the foundation of every intellective act, it only remains for the mind to become aware of just how necessary its orientation toward God is for our understanding in every instance. For intellect to operate, the Being of the divine being must be ever present as a referent and standard.

Only because we are accustomed to the lesser beings of the sensible world do we fail to recognize the mind’s natural orientation and nearness to God. As the eye seems to see nothing when it sees pure light, so we seem to see sensible images and lesser beings and do not recognize the highest Being. The darkness that seems to surround Being-itself, in comparison with the ease of grasping lower objects, can be disclosed as the fullest illumination of the mind. The purest being, necessary for every grasp of impure beings, appears only by contrast to be empty of content.

At the height we reach the traditional Platonic and Neoplatonic name for God, the Good. The fecundity of the Good is given as a rational necessity for the multiplicity of a Trinity within God, as more adequately expressing the fullness of the Good than could any less multiple first principle. Yet Bonaventure is quick to add that such rational arguments do not make the Trinity comprehensible. Because it is incomprehensible, it is not fully understandable.

The Goal and Beyond

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151

Having arrived at the end of the sixth step, our mind’s work is done, and it rests. The mind, having traversed the whole of the sensible order, then the intelligible realm, has finally understood itself and disciplined itself to raise itself to consider God. However, the end of this gigantic and rigorous activity is rest. The mind has reached the place at which it has done all it can do; nothing more is within its power and so it must rest. Rationally it has exhausted itself and has reached its limit. Reason, illumination, devotion, and discipline have brought the mind to the pinnacle of its powers and transformed it in the process of the journey, although at the end it sees that the final vision was never far away. At the outset the goal was near but not seen. It was present from the beginning (Being-itself), but our powers were not then sufficient to grasp it directly.

What remains? By looking at sensible things, the mind passed beyond them and then turned to consider itself. Now it passes not only beyond sensible things, by way of a rational dialectic, but beyond even itself. In this final passage, if the rational discipline has been perfected, all intellectual operation should at this point be abandoned. All our affection should be transferred from ourselves to God. The final step is most certainly mystical, but mysticism enters only at this final point and not before. No one can know this final phase who has not experienced it, and even to the mind undergoing the experience, it seems like moving into death and darkness to leave rational structure behind. However, the soul, having set out to find God, is now at the terminus of its itinerary and willingly surrenders what it could not have surrendered before (the guidance of its rational powers) and passes over into what appears to be (as contrasted with structured reason) darkness.

How shall a modern mind appraise such a scheme and its importance to philosophy? The immediate concentration on God, the mixture of philosophy with religious discipline, and the view of all mundane things as immediately reflecting God—all of these are nearly the opposite of the modern approach. In some basic sense, modern philosophers as well as most Protestant theologians are fundamentally rationalists, and to them Bonaventure’s ultimate mysticism seems strange. Consequently, The Journey of the Mind to God has an important function to fulfill as an example of a possible and different approach.

Historically its significance cannot be overestimated. In any form of the religious life, Neoplatonism has always been extremely influential, and Bonaventure represents a philosophical and a theological view that has for centuries been closely associated with devout practice. Since philosophy’s divorce from theology in the modern period, philosophy has become largely academic. The Journey of the Mind to God is an example of how a philosophical view can be intimately associated with, and even be determinative for, a way of life.

Out of a religious desire to see God, this philosophical view arises as a disciplined guide. Such desire actually causes us to seek for and to see aspects of the natural order that might otherwise have remained unnoticed. A more abstract intellect may derive its philosophical problems internally simply from philosophical discussion. Bonaventure finds his questions through the attempt to guide the soul toward God. Neither approach to philosophy or theology excludes the other, but a secular and a rationalistic age has trouble recognizing the legitimacy of a philosophy generated from such a practical (and in this case religious) goal.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison is to remember that Bonaventure was a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas. The two considered together offer a fascinating contrast. Both represent the use that was made of philosophy in the Middle Ages. Thomas has had wide circulation in non-Catholic and even in nonreligious circles. Bonaventure is still widely read within religious orders and in theological circles that do not receive as much public notice.

Bonaventure’s work could be considered purely as a devotional classic if it were not for its elaborate technical structure and his use of “Being” as God’s primary name. Nothing indicates the presence of an abstract metaphysician more than his preference for the traditional name “Being” as opposed to more personal names for God. God is discussed in his role as a metaphysical first principle and not as an object of worship. In fact, except for the trinitarian reference, little specifically Christian or biblical doctrine is discussed. It is only by contrast to modern antimetaphysical interests that this work seems “religious.” Actually by comparison, it is both technical and abstract.

In considering Being and nonbeing, Bonaventure adopts the traditional Neoplatonic role of giving nonbeing status only as a privation of Being, not as anything independent of or opposed to it. In fact, upon analysis, it appears that nothing within the natural order can be known unless Being itself has first entered the intellect. In this way, God is involved in even the simplest act of cognition, as a prerequisite for any apprehension. For a particular being to be known, Being itself must be present to the intellect, a fact that may not be recognized until after the analysis of Being and nonbeing has been carried out.

Bonaventure stresses unity, the traditional Neoplatonic attribute of God. He possesses no diversity, and it is primarily this central characteristic of unity that places God above intellection and forces reason ultimately to transcend itself. Although God is close to and visible through the natural order, his nature is quite different, reflecting none of the multiplicity of nature’s variety. Because of such a basic dissimilarity, any persons who would have the vision of God must finally leave themselves behind, insofar as they are rational creatures dealing with multiple objects.

Being, which is absolutely one, is seen also to be the Good, but the different ontological level involved here forces the apprehending mind to pass beyond the multiple sensible world and also beyond itself as a discursive mind. It is not so much Bonaventure’s view of the order of nature that dictates this as it is his view of the divine nature. Just as Bonaventure begins with God, so any criticism of his whole scheme must start by attempting to set forth and to defend a different view of the divine nature.

In order to see the point of Bonaventure’s theory of knowledge and his theory of the orders of nature, each must be seen in its relation to his view of the divine nature, coupled with his ethical and religious goal of seeing God. In order to criticize the Seraphic Doctor’s theories, we also must begin with a theory of the divine nature. As that is altered, so also are the theory of knowledge, and the view of nature and of human psychology.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

Additional Reading

Bettoni, Efrem. Saint Bonaventure. Translated by Angelus Gambatese. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964. A reliable and accessible introduction to Saint Bonaventure’s life and thought.

Carpenter, David A. Revelation, History, and the Dialogue of Religion: A Study of Bhartari and Bonaventure. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995. Carpenter’s comparative study of the Indian philosopher Bhartari and Bonaventure sheds important light on the relations between diverse religious and philosophical traditions.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. An eminent historian of Western philosophy provides a good overview of Bonaventure’s contributions to medieval philosophy.

Cousins, Ewert. Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites: The Theology of Bonaventure. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1978. This work explores the philosophical theology of Bonaventure with clarity and insight.

Gilson, Étienne. The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. Translated by Illtyd Trethhowan and Frank J. Sheed. Patterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1965. A great interpreter of Roman Catholic thought provides an interpretation of Bonaventure that is of lasting significance.

Malloy, Michael P. Civil Authority in Medieval Philosophy: Lombard, Aquinas, and Bonvaventure. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985. The work explores medieval political philosophy and situates Bonaventure in that tradition.

Prentice, Robert P. The Psychology of Love According to St. Bonaventure. St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute, 1957. Explores how the experience and concept of love affects Bonaventure’s understanding of the nature of God and humankind.

Quinn, Mary Bennett. To God Alone the Glory: A Life of St. Bonaventure. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1962. A worthwhile biographical treatment of Bonaventure.

Ratzinger, Joseph. The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971. An important Catholic thinker explores Bonaventure’s views about history and providence.

Rout, Paul. Francis and Bonaventure. Liguori, Mo.: Triumph Books, 1997. A useful study of Saint Bonaventure’s life and thought.

Shahan, Robert W., and Francis J. Kovach, eds. Bonaventure and Aquinas: Enduring Philosophers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. Draws together reflections that compare two of the most influential and different thinkers in the Western medieval tradition.

Tracy, David, ed. Celebrating the Medieval Heritage: A Colloquy on the Thought of Aquinas and Bonaventure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Tracy compiles significant interpretations of Bonaventure’s thought by important late twentieth century interpreters.

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