Illumination in Bonaventure’s Epistemology
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The essential connection of the intellect to the eternal reasons and its capability of seeing those suggest our relation to those and to the light itself. Bonaventure quotes from Anselm Proslogion, chapter 14:
How great is the light from which shines forth all truth that manifests itself to the rational mind (12) How rich is that truth in which is found everything that is true and outside of which is only emptiness and falsehood!
And he concludes: “Therefore no truth is seen except in the eternal truth”. It is not that dogmatic as it may seem to those contemporary thinkers who claim: “There is no Truth…” Logically, their claim is a universal claim itself, hence aspires to be true universally, hence, it claims itself the existence of the universal truth it attempted to deny, hence does not have any ontological value and constitutes rather invalid critique on purely emotional ground.
Quoting Aristotle’s Ethics:
We all suppose that what we know by means of science cannot possibly be other than it is. But, when those things that could be other than they are pass beyond the range of our observation, we do not know whether they exist or not. Therefore, the object of scientific knowledge is necessarily eternal. And eternal things are ungenerated and incorruptible (16).
Therefore, there can be no such thing as certain knowledge unless the very nature of eternal truth is involved. But this is found only in the eternal reasons.
It is fascinating, how in the world of contingency, where everything what we observe could be otherwise, there could be any certainty. Still we know there is certainty. Where does it come from then? Obviously not from the world of change and uncertainty. And what is this world? It is the world of the eternal reasons, which belong to the very nature of God who is beyond all change and doubt, and who illumines our minds, which are rather attached to this world of change and are used to its various forms of entertainment.
It is very reasonable, that when the intellect is connected to senses, analyzing their data, so to speak, it is habitually in the mode of perception of precisely this kind of data, but when it is disconnected from senses it may be in some other mode of perception, and not only of the sensual memory content, but also what they call super sensual. Isn’t it the reason why the monks or hermits everywhere practice asceticism? So, usually one mode of perception and corresponding activity of the intellect excludes or hinders the other mode of perception and formation of the relevant ideas.
The light is always given from God (or that center of light and life) to a creature, but it is used differently for different kinds of understanding and corresponding activity. That is why the scriptures, the true spiritual teachers, and spiritual philosophy are important. It is because without this category of light there is no that category of data and even serious thinking about that dimension of life.
That by which we have certain knowledge is immutable because it is necessary truth. But our mind is mutable. Therefore, that by which we know is superior to our mind. But there is nothing above our mind other than God and eternal truth. Therefore, the divine truth and the eternal reason is that by which knowledge comes to be (17).
He does not see any other way to explain the existence of the corruptible intellect, changeable world as its regular object, and at the same time the existence of truth by which that corruptible intellect knows something with certainty. And referring to different modes of knowledge he writes:
That by which we know excels every created truth. Therefore, it is uncreated truth (21)
We know only by the truth, which is not a created one (or from this world), but the eternal truth itself. The truth is a category of the intellect. Hence, we know only by the eternal mind when it illumines our mind, and in this way we participate in the eternal. But how is it possible? It is because we are created in likeness of that divine mind itself on the first place, and that divine mind therefore is the closest thing to our mind. That is why Bonaventure considers the knowledge of God the most natural kind of knowledge to the human being. Other kinds of knowledge depend on it.
As God is the cause of being, so the divine reality is the principle of knowing and order of living. But God is the cause of being in such a way that nothing can be done by any cause unless God moves that cause in the action by means of the divinity itself and by the eternal divine power. Therefore, nothing can be understood at all unless God immediately illumines the subject of knowledge by means of the eternal, divine truth (24).
This is the most straight forward and absolute statement, and all other arguments revolve around it just providing different hues and shades to this major picture, this philosophical intuition which is very well supported and expressed in detail. Accordingly, that part of our intellectual activity “is called higher in as far as it turns to the eternal laws. It is called lower in as far as it is concerned with the temporal things” (27).
It is obvious which one is preferable. Hence, it constitutes an ethical foundation for the pursuits in the area of philosophy and the lifestyle in general. This maxim could be expressed in the following manner: Love God, know God and act with and for God. And this style of life is suitable for all who understand this doctrine. It will be developed even further in the Itinerarium, but in the Disputed Questions (IV) Bonaventure gives the last argument for the God’s participation in the human knowledge (summarizes his position on the illumination) in the following way:
According to the Saints, God is said to be master of all knowledge. This is the case because God cooperates in general with every intellect, or because God infuses the gift of grace, or because - in the act of knowing – the intellect attains to the divine. If God cooperates in general, then we would be lead to say that the divine being teaches the senses as well as the intellect. But this is absurd. If it is because God infuses the gift of grace, then all knowledge would be gratuitous or infused, and non would be innate or acquired. But this is most absurd. Nothing remains, therefore, except to say that our intellect attains to the divine as to the light of our minds and the cause of the knowledge of all truth (34).
Here the ideas of cooperation and grace are understood as having only limited application and not in general, while the preference is given to the idea of attaining of the intellect to the divine in the general case of knowing.
The arguments for the negative position are considered in their turn. They do not break the Bonaventure’s conviction that God does participate in all our knowledge and that the latter is ultimately based on the illumination, but they oblige him to explain the complications and restate his positive position carefully in the Conclusion:
For knowledge with certitude, even in the state of wayfarers, the intellect must attain to the eternal reasons as that reason which regulates and motivates. It is not the sole principle of knowledge, nor is it attained in its clarity; but together with the proper created reason it is known obscurely and as in a mirror.
Bonaventure clarifies this conclusion explicitly on the next four pages, but I would
emphasize a few important points:
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