Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reason and revelation

The image above (click to enlarge) is the fresco Saint Thomas Confounds the Heretics by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), in the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. My description relies on Charles Freeman (The Closing of the Western Mind, 2002), who in turn draws upon Gale Geiger (Filippino Lippi's Carafa Chapel, 1986).

At the center of the composition sits Thomas Aquinas, in the black and white habit of the Dominicans. The friar crushes with his foot a scowling old man who personifies evil. In the old man's hand is a banner with the Latin inscription "Wisdom conquers evil." Above Aquinas, just out of the margin of the picture, on panels held by cherubs, are words which express the theme of the fresco: "The revelation of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple." In Aquinas's left hand is a book with words from the Apostle Paul: SAPIENTIAM SAPIENTUM PERDAM, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Freeman suggests that this statement of Paul was the "opening shot in the enduring war of Christianity and science."

Aquinas is the champion of revealed truth, but to his right and left are figures representing human learning: Philosophy, Theology, Grammar and Dialectic. Theology is clearly predominant; she sits at Thomas's right hand, wears a crown, and points toward heaven.

Below this assembly are two groups of cranky and suspicious men who stand to the sides of a clutter of discarded books and manuscripts. The reference here is to the theological debates that racked Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries, primarily over the nature of Jesus' divinity. Among the gathered heretics (Augustine listed more than 80 heresies) are Arius, Sabellius, and the Persian Mani. Against their many false views, Aquinas upholds the doctrine of the Trinity -- three distinct persons within a single Godhead. As he taught in the Summa Theologica, this doctrine cannot be known by reason along, only through revelation and the light of faith.

With the conversion of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, faith solidly triumphed over reason in Western Christianity. Later, as the fresco suggests, Aquinas brought reason back into the equation, and taught that revealed truth and human reason can coexist. Still later yet, the Enlightenment challenged the notion of peaceful coexistence, and returned the crown to reasoned empiricism.

Of course, the debate continues. Is there such a thing as revelation? Can reason and revelation coexist without conflict? Why is science able to attain so remarkable a degree of consensus and progress, whereas the proponents of revealed truth remain today as divided as the heretics in Lippi's fresco, and over pretty much the same issues?

It is interesting to compare this fresco to Raphael's The School of Athens, in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, painted not long after Lippi's Saint Thomas Confounds the Heretics. Here the greatest philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of antiquity -- including a woman -- peacefully conspire together to discern the secrets of nature by reason alone. No heretics to condemn or burn at the stake. No acts of violence on behalf of revealed truth. Galileo, or Darwin, or Einstein, or Watson and Crick could walk into the frame of this painting and find themselves at home among like-minded friends.

(You can find an identification of the people in the Raphael fresco here.)