Illumination in Bonaventure’s Epistemology (41493)

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Illumination in Bonaventure’s Epistemology

By Alexander Koudlai


The telos of this essay is to support the axiology of the literary work of the great man, which impressed me who lives almost eight hundred years later. What makes it so important to me and may be to our contemporary culture? The epistemology and metaphysics are considered there together and in such a way that the ethics of human life is affected in a reasonably defensible manner. Probably our contemporary axiology (and particularly in the matters of acquiring and evaluating of knowledge) may benefit from the investigation of Bonaventure’s theory.

Today we are used to hear that a theory has to be verifiable in order to be considered as knowledge. By verifiable it is usually meant empirically provable. The latter means observable to senses and capable of repeated observations. The theories of ancient and medieval thinkers are usually treated lightly and accused of dogmatism, i.e. of claims not supported by experience. Nevertheless, it is not accurate because the spiritual and miraculous experiences reported by many individuals from different countries in every century and the communities of monks and nuns living in the monasteries (those laboratories of spiritual life) do support those theories again and again. Our W. James wrote of those prejudices of the scientific community of his time and of their refusal even to consider those “hard cases” not easily explicable by the contemporary scientific theories. There is still a huge problem in this department today, and we just have to be aware about its existence. As James, claiming himself to be a radical empiricist, suggested, if a theory (and he meant a modern theory) cannot deal with some facts reported by honest people, it is too bad for the theory and not for the facts. This sounds at least consistent and fair.

When observation is artificially limited only to the observation by physical senses, the observer risks to lock himself into a dogmatic circle, especially when he judges about non-empirical claims, or claims of the human observations which transcend merely sensual ones*. Those people who do this usually claim themselves materialists and are opposed to theories of spiritual thinkers. As we can see, the empiricists are not all materialists, who are extremely dogmatic themselves, but even though their theories are based on axioms which are not always shared by the rest of humanity and may seem dogmatic in certain respects to those who prefer to think differently. Another objection to theories of spiritual thinkers was that “they all disagree”, hence the truth, the existence of which they claim, could not be the universal truth.

In my opinion, the ontological claims of different prominent thinkers from different traditions have more points in common then not and others are arguably convertible. Those thinkers from different times and cultures universally claim the existence of truth beyond sensual experiences and somehow human access to that truth. They also say that some people persist in some kind of blindness to the truth and teachings of it. This blindness does not exclude productive thinking in the empirical mode, but it does secure the dissatisfaction of the soul and many kinds of suffering.


*Professor D. Robinson said once: “A scientist taking a corpuscular approach to explanation of the world, usually sets parameters for observations of corpuscles, build instruments capable to pick corpuscles, observes what those instruments show him and then says: I claimed that the world was corpuscular and see: it is corpuscular …” (The Great Ideas of Philosophy)

Jesus says:

But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. . . . And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God”. (John 8:45-47)

In the Lankavatara Sutra Buddha says:

Then there are materialistic philosophers. No respect nor service is to be shown them because their teachings though they may be explained by using hundreds of thousands of words and phrases, do not go beyond the concepts of this world and this body and in the end they lead to suffering. As the materialists recognize no truth as existing by itself...(D. Goddard “A Buddhist Bible”, p.312-313).

Bonaventure respects the empirical knowledge. He read Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, but he also read Neo-Platonists and was impressed by Plato’s theory of archetypes, which we cannot say where he received from*. Bonaventure is a friar and a mystic, and the existence of the spiritual light, bliss and the visions beyond physical senses is an immediate reality for him; also he is a scholar. Therefore, he attempts to synthesize different theoretical views into one consistent theory, which would account for the empirical, speculative and spiritual knowledge, and would be consistent with the Revelation of the Holy Scripture and Bonaventure’s favorite thinker St. Augustine, “the wisest of them all”.


How do we know? Plato used to say that there is knowledge and beliefs or opinions, and there are lovers of knowledge, or wisdom philosophers, and lovers of opinions philodoxers. The beliefs (opinions) could be beautiful but not true, while


* Possibly Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine or some medieval writers before Bonaventure.

knowledge is always true. While certain beliefs when tested could collapse, the truth is resilient to any tests whether empirical or speculative (logical). Of course, Bonaventure is a believer, but he also thinks that he can show for something more then just a belief. For Bonaventure the question: “How do we know that something is true with certitude?” - is important. He thinks about this kind of knowledge of anything as of illumined by light.

When the intellect knows something with certainty, it is because it is enlightened from above. He writes in his On the Reduction of Arts to Theology:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the God of Lights, writes James . . . of the source of all illumination; but at the same time. . . there are many lights which flow generously from that fontal source of light.

Then pointing out the essentially internal nature of illumination of all knowledge he categorizes the varieties of such illumination:

Even though every illumination of knowledge is internal, still we can reasonably distinguish what can be called an exterior light of mechanical art; an inferior light, or the light of sense perception; an interior light of philosophical knowledge; and a superior light or the light of grace and of Sacred Scripture. The first light illumines with respect to the forms of artifacts; the second with respect to natural forms; the third, with respect to intellectual truth; the forth and last with respect to saving truth. (p.37)

In other words, God of Lights gives knowledge to His creatures and directly inspires different kinds of pursuits of knowledge (arts) according to different aspects of that part of human nature, which is currently under investigation, and this is always for the sake of that creature.

The creature is always enlightened directly from the Creator but in different applications of that One Light and normally follows the lead acquiring various kinds of useful knowledge co-operating in that intended enlightenment in all different spheres of its life. This theory truly reduces all kinds of knowledge to theology but in a meaningful and consistent way.

Whatever is our knowledge we can always associate it with light, because we observe it empirically or intellectually. Even perfect spiritual knowledge is called beatific vision. Observing we see by light in all cases, that is why it is proper to relate all our knowledge to light. This approach is universal, and may be even more universal than some Bonaventurians would like to admit. In one of the ancient Upanishads of India it is described in the form of a dialog between a teacher and a student:

How do you see at the daytime?

- I see by the light of the sun.

And when it is night?

- By the light of the moon.

And when there is no moon?

- Then by the light of a candle.

And when there is no sun, moon or candle?

- Then, teacher, I somehow see by the light within.

In the Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ (q. 4, p. 115-117) Bonaventure quotes from St. Augustine On the Teacher:

In every instance where we understand something, we are listening not to someone who utters external words, but to that truth which guides us from the mind itself (1).

The City of God:

Those whom we rightly prefer to all others have said that the very God by whom all things were made is the light of our minds by which we learn all things (4).

On the Trinity:

When our soul so pleases us that we prefer it to all corporeal light, it is not the soul itself that pleases us but that art by which it was created. For a created thing is worthy of approval in reference to that source where it is seen to have been present before it was created. Now this is the truth and pure goodness(5)

When we approve or disapprove of something rightly, we are shown to approve or disapprove by virtue of other rules which remain altogether unchangeable and above our mind (6).

This light, which is the truth and goodness, come from within and there from above. The latter is obvious to Bonaventure, because - he quotes (8):

When the unjust person sees the rules according to which everyone ought to live, where does he see them? Not in his own nature, since it is certain his mind is changeable while these rules are unchangeable. And not in any habit of his mind, since these are rules of justice. Where does he perceive that he ought to possess something that he does not possess? Where then are they written but in the book of that light which is called the truth, from which every just law is copied? (Augustine, On the Trinity, chapter 15)

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