Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Étienne Gilson, fully Étienne Henry Gilson

French Philosopher and Historian of Philosophy

"Not to have faith is not a personal fault, it is a misfortune."

"Poetry even at its purest is not prayer; but it rises from the same depths as the need to pray."

"It is... in the hour of his first success, that the most subtle temptation comes to the artist, to let the genius that created his public be directed by that public. Once he has won them, they always keep asking for the identical pleasure they experienced the first time. So the painter sells himself to the dealer who is certain he can place any number of copies of the same work with his customers... The novelist rewrites the same novel. The musician repeats the same songs. The artist... becomes his own disciple and calls upon his talent to exploit the creations of his genius."

"History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought."

"Let us... quietly accept our times, with the firm conviction that just as much good can be done today as at any time in the past, provided only that we have the will and the way to do it."

"A wise man knows all the rest as included in, or at least, related to the first principles and the first causes."

"Every time our intellect thus succeeds in substituting some principles and causes of knowledge for knowledge itself, it is on the right road to wisdom. As a matter of fact, it has already found wisdom, at least in part, while awaiting the day when, fully aware of what the absolutely first principles and first causes truly are, it begins to see everything else in their light."

"He (a new philosopher) still needs to be taught, not this time philosophy, but to philosophize."

"Human reason feels at home in a world of things, whose essences and laws it can grasp and define in terms of concepts; but shy and ill at ease in a world of existences, because to exist is an act, not a thing."

"He (meaning your philosophy teacher) is a philosopher, not when he is speaking to you but during those hours of solitude when he is speaking to himself in the quietness of his own meditation."

"If one is a philosopher, he can do nothing else than philosophize; or, if he does something else, he will do it with a view to securing the freedom he needs for philosophizing."

"Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God."

"No man can, at one and the same time, both philosophize and indulge in such ways of life as are incompatible with philosophical thinking."

"Not merely to learn philosophy, but to become a philosopher, this is what is now at stake. It does not involve giving up philosophy as a science; it rather involves aiming at possessing philosophy in a different and more exalted way as included in wisdom itself, to which it is in the same relation as a body to its soul. Then also does the philosophical life truly begin, and its beginning does not consist in any addition to already acquired learning; it rather looks like falling in love, like answering the call of a vocation, or undergoing the transforming experience of a conversion."

"So we must try to distinguish between two questions that are often confused in this discussion. Is the existence of God a truth demonstrable by natural reason, so that it is knowable and known with certitude? Without a doubt the answer to this first question is “yes.” The second question is whether everyone can consider his natural reason infallible in its effort to demonstrate rationally the existence of God? The merciless criticism of the proofs of St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Descartes, Malebranche and many others are timely reminders of the need for modesty. Are we keener philosophers than they? That is the whole question. Modesty is not skepticism. So we should not be afraid to let our mind pursue the proof of God’s existence until we reach the greatest possible certitude, but we should keep intact our faith in the word that reveals this truth to the most simple folk as well as to the most learned. Here it is well to meditate on the very complex and nuanced passage in ST 2-2.2.4: “Is it necessary to believe what can be proved by natural reason?” The answer is in the affirmative: “We must accept by faith not only what is above reason but also what can be known by reason.”"

"The great curse of modern philosophy is the almost universally prevailing rebellion against intellectual self-discipline. Where loose thinking obtains, truth cannot possibly be grasped, whence the conclusion naturally follows that there is no truth."

"Speaking on the near skepticism of the study of the history of philosophy:"

"The Greek gods are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely with somethingÂ… Mythology is not the first step on the path to true philosophy. In fact, it is no philosophy at all. Mythology is a first step on the path to true religion: it is religious in its own right."

"The knowledge of GodÂ’s existence thereby acquires a universal significance and absolute certitude. Indeed, even those who do not understand the philosophical proofs of the existence of God are informed about this truth by divine revelation. Philosophers or not, everyone to whom his word is communicated through the preaching of scripture and who receives it as coming from him, in this way knows that God exists. Philosophers themselves need to remember that God has revealed his existence and to hold onto that truth by faith."

"There are rational proofs by which we can know with certitude that God exists; but the certitude of faith, which is based on the infallibility of the word of God, is infinitely more reliable than all knowledge acquired by natural reason alone, no matter how evident it may be. In matters of revelation, error is absolutely impossible because the source of the knowledge of faith is God Himself, who is the Truth."

"The true reason why this universe appears to some scientists as mysterious is that, mistaking existential, that is, metaphysical, questions for scientific ones, they ask science to answer them. Naturally, they get no answers. Then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious."

"The very best thing that can happen is that, in despairing of philosophy, they remember that God did not choose to save men through metaphysics, so that its loses be not their loss."

"Through this intellect, every man is a person and through the same intellect he can see exactly the same truth as any other man can see, provided they both use their intellects in the proper way. Here, and nowhere else, lies the foundation for the very possibility of a philosophia perennis; for it is, not a perennial cloud floating through the ages in some metaphysical stratosphere, but the permanent possibility for each and every human being to actualize an essence through his own existence, that is to experience again the same truth in the light of his own intellect. And that truth itself is not an anonymous one. Even taken in its absolute and self-subsisting form, truth itself bears a name. Its name is God."

"Thus the same statement that guarantees that God exists and that his most suitable name is He Who Is, also reveals to us the perfect simplicity of the divine essence. And indeed, God did not say: I am this or that, but simply I Am. I am what? I am ‘I Am.’ So, more than ever, the statement of Exodus seems to soar above in a kind of empty space, where the attraction of the weight of philosophy can no longer be felt. The work of reason is good, healthy, and important, for it proves that, left to itself, philosophy can establish with certitude the existence of the primary being whom everyone calls God. But a single word of the sacred text at once puts us in personal relations with him. We say his name, and by the simple fact of saying it, it teaches us the simplicity of the divine essence."

"We can recognize the absolute transcendence of revelation by the curious fact of the philosophical and theological multiple meanings of the texts of scripture. When St. Thomas was looking for a sed contra for his question on the existence of God, he does not seem to have found a text in which Yahweh says in so many words, “I exist.” So he had recourse to the statement of Exodus: Ego sum qui sum. But that statement is a reply to the question Moses put to God: When the people ask me who has sent me to them, what shall I answer?"

"Why should those eminently rational beings, the scientists, deliberately prefer to the simple notions of design, or purposiveness, in nature, the arbitrary notions of blind force, chance, emergence, sudden variation, and similar ones? Simply because they much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility."

"We do not need to project out own ideas into the economy of nature; they belong there in their own right. Our own ideas are in the economy of nature because we ourselves are in it. Any and every one of the things which a man does intelligently is done with a purpose and to a certain end which is the final cause why he does itÂ… Through man, who is part and parcel of nature, purposiveness most certainly is part and parcel of nature. In what sense is it arbitrary, knowing from within that where there is organization there always is a purpose, to conclude that there is a purpose wherever there is organization?"

"Yet the fact that final causes are scientifically sterile does not entail their disqualification as metaphysical causes, and to reject metaphysical answers to a problem just because they are not scientific is deliberately to maim the knowing power of the human mind."