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September 19, 2016

September 19, 1978

Étienne Gilson (June 13, 1884 to September 19, 1978) was a French philosopher. He presented the history of philosophy as a means of considering basic  questions of reality in an era when many with the title of philosopher are not even able to formulate authentic perspectives.

One of his biographers stated the significance of Gilson this way: "While he was generally recognized to be one of the greatest historians of medieval philosophy of his time, Mortimer J. Adler considered him to be one of the few great philosophers of the age."  Below is from an article based on this book (Shook's Étienne Gilson, 1984)

..... In 1895, Gilson ...[started] seven years of education at the Catholic secondary school, Petit Séminaire de Notre-Dame-des-Champs. There he underwent rigorous training in classical (“humanistic”) studies that included ancient Greek, Latin, Roman and French history, mathematics, physical science, liturgy, and music. Gilson left Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1902 to attend a year of studies at the celebrated Lycée Henri IV. While there Professor Henri Dereux introduced Gilson to philosophy, and he attended Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s course on David Hume. Gilson graduated from Lycée Henri IV in 1903 with a bachelor’s diploma and certification from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Paris that would permit him to continue his studies at the Sorbonne.

.... Gilson enrolled in the Sorbonne in 1904 and completed his studies there in three years. Especially memorable to Gilson during this time were... a set of lectures that Henri Bergson gave at the Collège de France. Lévy-Bruhl’s course so strongly influenced Gilson that he decided to write his doctoral thesis on Descartes under Lévy-Bruhl’s direction. Other major thinkers with whom Gilson studied during this time included Émile Durkheim and Victor Delbos. After receiving his agrégation in philosophy in August 1907, in October 1907, Gilson was appointed a “provisional professor of philosophy” at the Lycée of Lalande in Bourg-en-Bresse, the first of several lycées at which he would teach. Having secured professional employment, on 10 February 1908 (in a civil ceremony) and 11 February 1908 (in the Church of Saint-Apais) in Melun, Gilson married his cousin Thérèse Ravisé.

On 11 July 1913, Gilson signed an agreement to teach philosophy at the University of Lille from 01 October 1913 to 31 October 1914. Before his move to Lille, on 11 September 1913, his second daughter, Cécile was born. At Lille, among other things, he presented a public course he had titled “The System of Thomas Aquinas” that, surprisingly to Gilson, was generally well received. During this time Gilson also started to do research into the mysticism of St. Bonaventure and to defend his thesis on Descartes before the “Société Française de Philosophie.” Gilson’s academic career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. On 02 August 1914, Sergeant Gilson reported to Lille, to the 43rd Infantry Division, 28th Company to instruct recruits. Gilson’s military life initially took him to central France. When he reached Courtine around mid-October 1914, Gilson started to read volumes of the work of St. Bonaventure that he had brought with him. By mid-June Gilson found himself fighting Germans on the front at Verdun. By November, Gilson was moving back and forth between Verdun and Beaumark, where he was a machine-gun instructor.

At Beaumark, between two shifts served in the trenches, Gilson composed the first of many articles he would write on the fine arts, “Art et metaphysique,” which was published in the Revue de metaphysique ed de morale in 1916. A major German offensive (that ended with Gilson being taken prisoner of war...interrupted his brief stint at writing. .... in August 1916, he moved to an officers’ prison camp in Burg-bei-Magdeburg. While at this camp, Gilson studied Russian and other living languages and, with the help of local book dealers who did a thriving business with the prisoners, continued his studies in philosophy. He even managed to publish an article “Du fondement des jugements esthétiques” in the Parisian
Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger.

In February 1918, Gilson moved to the prison camp in Strölen-Moohr, Kreis Sulingen, in lower Saxony. Conditions in this camp were much more severe than in Burg. Still, while there, Gilson managed to give lectures on Bergson to other prisoners, and also at Burg when he was periodically transferred there. Shortly after the end of the War, Gilson resumed teaching....

In 1921, while still at Strausbourg, Gilson published his Études de philosophie médiévale. In the same year, he moved to Paris to become a member of the Faculty of Letters and informal historian of medieval Christian philosophy, director in medieval philosophies and theologies, at the Sorbonne. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed to the Section of Religious Sciences of the History of Doctrines at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Between 1921 and 1923, Gilson’s international reputation started to increase and he acquired a large following of students and some future friends, such as Henri Gouhier. His work at the Sorbonne and the École heavily concentrated on St. Augustine, and his work at the Sorbonne also focused on study of St. Bonaventure. During the summer of 1922, Gilson became involved with a private relief program to help Russian and Ukranian famine victims. Upon his return Joseph Vrin publishers in Paris released the second, updated, edition of his Le Thomisme.

As Gilson’s international reputation started to grow, increasingly he began to attend international philosophical congresses and accept visiting lectureships. At these conferences he became friends with international scholars like Alfred North Whitehead and Ralph Barton Perry. In 1924, Gilson published his magisterial La philosophie de saint Bonaventure (Paris). He also wrote articles defending some of his theses and two critical essays, one about François Villon (“De la Bible à François Villon,” summaries of which were published in Annuaire de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études [1923–1924]) and another on Rebelais and Rabelais scholar Abel Lefranc (“Rabelais franciscain,” published in Revue d’histoire franciscaine). He followed this last article with his famous 1925 work René Descartes, Discours de la méthode: texte et commentaire (Paris).


On 20 July 1926, Gilson left France to teach two courses and give thirty lectures at the University of Virginia on two topics: “The Development of Thought from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries” and “The Evolution of French Thought Since the Sixteenth Century.” On 09 September, he traveled to Harvard to participate in the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy to present two papers: one in a general session devoted to the topic of philosophy’s role in civilization’s history that is important for understanding philosophy’s nature; the other entitled, “L’études des philosophes arabes et son role dans l’interprétation de la scolastique.”

..... During this time Harvard offered Gilson a full professorship. Gilson refused. However, he agreed to teach as a visiting professor during the fall semesters of 1927 and 1928. .....

On 15 September 1927, Gilson again left France to return for three months to Harvard.... During this time, Gilson started to experience disgust at his inability precisely and clearly to explain the thought of St. Augustine. At the time, he quipped that something in Augustine “defies systematization.”

Gilson spent 03–05 November in Toronto giving three lectures on Thursday and one on Friday related to St. Augustine’s psychological thought, and participating [in] informal discussions on Saturday about their proposed Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto. Gilson called three of his lectures, “The Nature of Sensations,” “The Origin of Ideas,” and “Memory and its Metaphysical Meaning.” He devoted the fourth lecture, delivered to the Philosophical Society, to matters that arose from the Thursday lectures.

His conversation on Saturday focused on establishing a professional institute for all medieval studies, “a laboratory of the history of medieval civilization,” complete with offices, classrooms, mandatory classes, and collaborative methodology that would emphasize primary sources. Gilson returned to Canada to deliver three lectures on St. Augustine (at McGill, the University of Montreal, and to the Dominicans) and give ten public appearances in Montreal between 01 and 03 December 1927. After returning to Harvard from Montreal, on 05 December, Gilson went to a lecture and reception at the Alliance Française delivered by Paul Claudel. On 10 December, he returned to give a second lecture at Cornell. Before returning to France, he decided to accept the offer from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and not return to Harvard on a regular basis.

On 14 March 1928, Gilson responded to a presentation by Léon Brunschvicg delivered before the Société Française de Philosophie entitled “La querelle d’athéisme.” This debate helped convince Gilson that opposition to growing atheism made important his presence in France. To Gilson’s delight, his third child, a son (Bernard) was born on the day after the debate.

..... He eventually delivered [
the famed Gifford Lectures on natural theology.] 1931 and 1932 under the title “Medieval Philosophy and Its Present Value.” For publication this title was eventually changed to The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.

Between 1928 and 1931, Gilson also lectured at (1) Cambridge University (“Middle Ages and the Renaissance”); (2) the University of London (“God in Descartes”); (3 and 4) the Universities of Leipsig and Marburg (“Cistercian Mysticism”); (5) the University College of Wales (“St. Bernard and the Love of God”); (6) Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (inaugural address, P. M. Kinder Lectures).

Gilson’s lectures at Leipsig and Marburg spurred him to write two articles for the newly founded journal,
L’ européen, entitled “Autour de Benda: la mare aux clercs” and “Vues prises de Marbourg.” In the first article, like his friend and student Henri Gouhier, Gilson defended Julien Benda’s criticism of modern scholars and intellectuals for losing sight of the philosopher’s vocation to love and seek truth. In the second, Gilson criticized French intellectuals for abandoning the older French system of constructing and synthesizing in favor of the fetishistic positivist method of fact finding, of mistaking scientific positivism with unavoidable rational logic.

In 1928, in three lectures presented to the Institut des Hautes Études de Belgique, Gilson’s Sorbonne colleague in philosophy’s history, Émile Bréhier, argued that the term “Christian philosophy” did not properly apply to any movement of medieval thought. During the early 1930s, Gilson busied himself attempting to defend his expression “Christian philosophy” in reference to some parts of medieval thought. He thought that, in their study of classical philosophy, medieval Christian theologians had done more than append Greek philosophy to Christian beliefs: beyond form and content, they had created a Christian philosophy. ....

..... Gilson’s chief biographer, Laurence K. Shook, says: “Gilson was finding that philosophical systems meant less and less to him. Philosophers, on the other hand, such as Aristotle, Thomas, and Bergson, were coming to mean more and more. It was the act of philosophizing, Gilson was beginning to feel, that constituted true philosophy.”
Also in 1932, Gilson received a Chair in the Collège de France, an appointment he considered to be of the highest order. To accept it, he resigned from the Sorbonne and the École Pratique des Hautes Études. When he gave his inaugural lecture on 05 April 1932 on “Le moyen âge et le naturalisme antique,” Gilson started a new era in his life that would last until 1951 during which Paris and the Collège de France became the hub of his intellectual activity.

On 21 November 1933, Gilson returned to Massachusetts to deliver an afternoon lecture at Harvard about “The Social Function of Theology” and an evening lecture at Wellesley. The next day he participated in a “Heidegger evening” at Harvard at which time he gave Ralph Barton Perry a tentative commitment to come to Harvard’s August–September 1936 Tercentenary celebration and receive an honorary degree. A few days later, he received another invitation to stay at Harvard from October through December to give the William James Lectures.

Around mid-December, 1933, Gilson presented a series of three lectures on “Le société chrétienne universelle” at Salle Saint-Sulpice, Montreal. At this time, Gilson started to become convinced that, by decreeing faith and reason to be irreconcilable and by separating the political world into one empire directed by the pope and another by the prince, Latin Averroism had fractured the medieval Christian hope of a Christian social order rooted in moral law, justice, and charity.

In 1934, under the influence of Fr. Phelan and Basilian Fr. Henry Carr, Gilson went to Rome with them to hold meetings with the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities to discuss a charter for the Institute
[a school he started in Canada]. After these meetings, in late March of the same year, Jacques Maritain accompanied Gilson to a private audience with Pope Pius XI. This meeting put the request for a charter firmly on the Congregation’s agenda. After a provisional refusal in 1936, final approval came on 21 November 1939.


Gilson’s first article in...
[a] collection, “En marge de Chamfort,” attacked French intellectuals for having formed their own secular priesthood for controlling politics. His second article was a review of G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, “St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox” in which Gilson marveled at Chesterton’s ability to penetrate into the essence of Thomas’s thought. According to Shook, reading Chesterton caused Gilson to realize that, just as Chesterton had seen English Protestant historians writing history backwards, from the perspective of their understanding of the Reformation, “Gilson now saw French historians writing it from the vantage point of seventeenth-century rationalism.”

Gilson spent much of the spring and early summer of 1936 in France preparing his Harvard lectures. After arriving in Boston on 29 August, on 02 September he delivered a lecture on “Medieval Universalism and Its Present Value” in which he argued that (1) four foundations of medieval universalism existed (rationalism, realism, personalism, and the philosophical quest for “truth universal in its own right”) and (2) modern man can only gain by emulating this approach and comprehending truths through an intellectual, personal, and universal knowledge.

On 02 October 1936, Gilson delivered the first of his William James lectures, which were first published in English in 1937 under the title
The Unity of Philosophical Experience.

Shortly after his mother’s death on 24 March 1937, Gilson delivered the Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia. In this series, he returned to the Latin Averroist problem of double truth that he had briefly examined in 1931. This series was published the next year under the title
Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages......

Gilson was in France when Germany invaded Poland on 02 September 1939. Likely, under direction of the French government, he sailed for Canada in mid-September.

According to Shook, during this period, Gilson’s main motivation “was to drive home to his Institute students that in humanism lay the best antidote to the venom of war. For Gilson medieval universalism, or “true humanism” as Maritain called it, held the key to the ultimate health in the human condition.” Because Gilson thought that to be of use students needed to analyze Christian humanism philosophically, he thought he had to present humanism within the context of the lives of men who lived it. Hence, in the fall, 1939, after publishing his monograph
Dante et la philosophie (Paris), Gilson offered to his Toronto students a public course of twelve lectures on “Roman Classical Culture from Cicero to Erasmus” in which he led his students through the transmission of classical humanism to Christianity through a series of renaissances covering the eighth through the fifteenth centuries.

From Bloomington, Indiana, Gilson traveled to Massachusetts where he gave a talk about “La France et la guerre” to French-Americans in New Bedford, Worcester, Woonsocket, and Manchester.

Following these talks, on 11, 15, 22, and 23 March, Gilson lectured about “God and Philosophy” in Harvard’s Emerson Hall. During these lectures Shook reports that a question asked by Professor Ernest Hocking about the existentialism of Gabriel Marcel caused Gilson to become aware of common ways of thinking he shared with Marcel. Gilson would later say that Marcel was “perhaps the most authentic philosopher of these times: whatever he says comes from his very depths.” He would maintain “that Marcel’s thought does not take philosophy for its object or even bear on philosophy, but is philosophy, and that Marcel cannot be “systematized, “summarized,” or “answered” because he refuses “to falsify the real in order to create a system.”

On 03 April, Gilson went to New York to start his return trip to France, where he remained for the duration of World War II. Apart from twice attempting to get Gilson to collaborate with them, and having Nazi soldiers billeted in his Paris apartment and house in Vermenton, Gilson says the Germans left him alone for the duration of the War.....

.... Between 1942 and 1943 Gilson gave courses at the Collège de France on: (1) “Quaestiones disputatae sur saint Thomas d’Aquin” (1941–1942); (2) “Albert le Grand” (1942–1943), and (3) “Les sources latines du platonisme médiévale,” with a concluding lecture on “Le christianisme et la tradition philosophique”) (1943). Gilson later published this concluding lecture in the Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques (1941) and Cherchez Dieu (1943). Shook maintains that Gilson’s choice to publish this article in these two Catholic journals “served notice that Gilson’s perspective was shifting from philosophy toward religion.” Gilson’s life was entering a new, spiritual phase in which he started to become preoccupied with spiritual life. Evidence of this turn is his article, “Sagesse et société” in which Gilson deals with wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

As World War II came to an end, Shook says that Gilson became increasingly devoted to realizing the possibility of that ordre catholique he had advocated in the 1930s. He was convinced that “German hitlerism, Russian communism, Italian and Spanish fascism and American Deweyism had stood in the way then: each of them had focused on the production of their own brand of citizen, and not of them had seen a pressing need for the teaching of moral and intellectual virtue. Now . . . real changes were finally possible.” In 1945, to address these changes, Gilson wrote an article for Le monde entitled “Instruire ou éduquer?”in which he argued for the need to (1) have greater concern for students as individuals, not prospective adherents to a political cause, and (2) familiarize students from infancy with moral virtues of the individual such as honor, duty, justice, and piety.

He quickly followed this article with four others that had the same keynote theme: “The first step of any totalitarian regime is to seize the schools in order to have exclusive monopoly over shaping tomorrow’s citizens.” ......

On 15 March 1945, he spoke before a packed meeting of “La Jeunesse Intellectuelle” in La Grande Salle de la Mutualité. As a result of these educational works, Gilson started to correspond with many of the leading intellectuals in post-liberation France and to become recognized as a spokesman for them. As a result, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected him to join his friend Jacques Maritain as part of the French delegation [to] the 1945 San Francisco meeting to plan the United Nations charter, which was signed on 26 June of that year.

After returning to Toronto for a few months in anticipation of teaching his fall courses there, the French Foreign Ministry informed him that the Ministry had named him to participate in the October and November 1945 London conference designed to create the constitution for what would later become UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Gilson served on the committee that drafted UNESCO’s constitution.

During his stay in London, Gilson wrote five articles about the conference that were published in Le monde. Several others appeared over the next several years. In them, among other things, Gilson expressed his disappointment about the limited roles intellectuals would actually have in UNESCO. He also later expressed disappointment about the behavior of intellectuals at UNESCO’s first general conference in Paris in 1946. In a radio discussion in which he took part with several other conference participants after the meeting regarding the question “Can UNESCO Educate for World Understanding,” Gilson maintained that the world would not be ready for global understanding until university education became more international than it then was.

Gilson returned to France in May 1946 and, tired and wanting to stay with his family for some time, remained there until the following fall. On 24 October 1946, the Académie Française elected him a member. After this he spoke on 20 November about “Pétrarque et sa muse” while giving the Philip Maurice Deneke Lecture at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Next, on 21 and 22 November, he lectured the Faculty of Divinity of the University of London about “The Judgment of Existence and Its Relation to the Problem of God.” ....

Early in May, 1948, Gilson participated in a meeting of the Congress of Europe in The Hague to discuss plans for a united Europe. Gilson published an article about the meeting in the paper Une semaine dans le monde and in an unpublished typescript that he wrote in 1950 entitled “Existe-t-il une culture éuropéenne?” On 10 May 1948, he spoke at the Cité-Club in Paris of the need for religious freedom in education as essential to the existence of intellectual freedom. Subsequently, he became involved in a debate related to public or private rights to inherit literary property. Gilson argued for the former in two articles entitled “Le domaine public” and “Les héritiers du roi Salomon” (published in
Le monde). From 13 August to 18 September 1948, Gilson published articles in Le monde expressing his disappointment with professional politics. In December 1948, Gilson’s professional political career ended with his realization “that there is no difference between being a senator and being nothing.”

While Gilson spent much of 1948 involved with political issues, during this time he also did some of his best metaphysical work. He published his book
L’être et l’essence dealing with the rise and fall of metaphysics and his hope for its revival. An English version of this work appeared in 1949 under the title Being and Some Philosophers. According to Shook, Gilson later considered this book “his finest work.” Chenu, however, called Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy “le plus beau.” And, “although Gilson continued to argue often that he was ‘only an historian,’ he realized that with Being and Some Philosophers he was writing as a philosopher and putting forward his own kind of existentialism.”

Shortly after Gilson returned to Canada in September 1949, he delivered an evening lecture at St. Thomas More College of Saskatoon on “St. Thomas More and the Law.” He followed this with a lecture the next morning at the University of Saskatchewan on “Politics and Philosophy.” In the article, Gilson argued about the relationship among tolerance, dogmatism, skepticism, and truth. He maintained that no necessary connection exists between dogmatism and intolerance or skepticism and tolerance. He claimed that skeptics qua skeptics cannot be tolerant and dogmatists qua dogmatists need not be intolerant. Skeptics qua skeptics can only be permissive, not tolerant. Strictly speaking, only the person who admits the existence of truth can be tolerant. Gilson argued further that tolerance is a moral, not an intellectual, virtue rooted in the political virtues of justice and friendship; and that tolerance and intolerance exist essentially in the political, not the intellectual, order. This lecture was subsequently published in the University’s journal
Le Sheaf. Gilson expanded the lecture, presented it at Rutgers University, and later published it under the title Dogmatism and Tolerance.
...... Shortly after arriving in Toronto from Saskatoon, Gilson had to return early to France. Word had come to him that his wife Thérèse was seriously ill. He returned to Paris where his wife died on 12 November 1949.

Shook maintains that, after his wife’s death, Gilson sank into serious depression that distraction from work on Duns Scotus and his course at the Collège de France, which started in December, helped somewhat to alleviate.

Early in January, 1950, Gilson presented a currently unpublished address to the MRP in Paris about “Political Liberty and the Parties.” In the talk Gilson praised the movement’s respect for the individual freedom of its deputies to be able to think for themselves, not tow the party line. He claimed that the party’s program: (1) regarded the family, not the political party, as the real center of French social organization; (2) would not nationalize industry unless needed for normal production and distribution; (3) would support revolutionary union objectives only if they were legitimate; (4) would treat every French citizen as an individual moral agent possessed of intellect, will, and the faculty of free choice—not as a number; and (5) advocated no State religion, official science or philosophy, and did not discriminate in the area of teaching.

At this time Gilson regularly wrote political articles for Le monde. In one, “1940 to 1950,” he described monarchists as “historical paleontologists” and accused Charles Maurras of being a “collaborator.” He was, also, regularly critical of claims made by US politicians because, apparently, he thought that American foreign policy was largely based upon self-interest and that European politicians who reached out for US support also tended to do so out of self-interest. He thought that France’s best interest at the time lay in neutrality between the Russia and the USA. ... At the time, to Gilson’s amazement, some people accused him of being a “crypto-Communist” and “anti-American.”
Gilson considered his paper on the “Critical-Historical Research and the Future of Scholasticism” to be “an H-bomb” because, in it, he had argued that scholasticism is no philosophy in its own right, that it must return to theology to function correctly. He claimed that medieval scholasticism had developed as a result of theology turning the light of revelation upon the metaphysics of the ancient philosophers, that it was a handmaid to theology, and that theology must continue to reflect upon science, whether the “science” be “science” in the modern sense or classical metaphysics.

After his course at the Collège de France ended in March 1950, Gilson went to Sweden, where, between 12 March and 02 April, he delivered eight lectures on St. Augustine.

On Sunday, 03 December, Gilson repeated at Marquette the fourth lecture he had given at Notre Dame. After returning to Toronto on Monday, 04 December, on 12 December, Gilson wrote the French Ministry of Public Instruction that he wanted to retire from his position at the Collège de France starting 01 January 1951, something that he was legally entitled to do. He had wanted to divide his time almost equally between France and North America and to devote the next three years to teaching at the Toronto Institute to which he had given birth and had started to see grow.

To Gilson’s shock, three days later, on 12 December 1950, The Commonweal magazine published a misleading, misrepresentative, attack letter by Waldemar Gurian (then professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame, head of Notre Dame’s Committee on International Relations, and editor of the Review of Politics) against Gilson entitled “Europe and the United States.” In that letter, among other things, Gurian (an émigré from Russian communism and Nazi Germany, who did not attend the after-dinner party at Notre Dame on 02 December) unjustly maligned Gilson for (1) using his time at Notre Dame to spread “the Gospel of defeatism”; (2) calling a respected French journalist “a paid American agent”; (3) choosing never to return to France and “the haven of the New World to a threatened Europe”; (4) trying to speak on international issues as if he were a statesman; and (5) helping the cause of world communism by undermining the “will to resist.”

For a couple of weeks after the event, Gilson had attempted to get The Commonweal editor to print a retraction of the letter. The editor refused and, for several weeks, as several French papers and journals publicized “L’affaire Gilson” and falsely accused him of things like being a traitor, Gilson remained silent. During this time, on 11 February 1951, to its shame and discredit, the Collège de France decided not to grant Gilson an honorariat. (Finally overcoming some of its shame, on 05 February 1957, the Collège named Gilson professeur honoraire.)

On 17 and 22 February, Gilson finally broke his silence, publishing replies to his accusers in Paris’s two leading newspapers: Figaro littéraire and Le monde. Gilson did not think his letter to the former publication had achieved much; but he thought he fared better in the latter in which he accused French Catholics of playing into Russia’s hands by equating all communists with Moscow imperialists, thereby driving into Moscow’s camp many people who were simply searching for different forms of liberty.

Gilson was living in Toronto when the “L’affaire Gilson” was in full force in Paris.....

After 1951 until 1957, when Canadian income tax laws became too prohibitive for Gilson to work there, Gilson would spend seven months in Canada and five in France. After that, until he left Canada entirely, he would spend three months in Canada and the rest in France. 1952 was a busy year for Gilson during which he lectured extensively on three main themes: (1) ethics and education, (2) contemporary science and philosophy, and (3) Christendom as the City of God.

...... In mid-April, he read a paper on “Science, Philosophy, and Religious Wisdom” at the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (ACPA), published the same year in the Association’s Proceedings, on the occasion of receiving the Association’s Cardinal Spellman Aquinas Medal. Also in April, he delivered a radio version of this paper entitled “Religious Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge.” On 23 April, Gilson flew to Belgium to (1) give a series of ten lectures between 29 April and 19 May on changing understandings of the City of God and (2) dedicate the Cardinal Mercier Chair at the University of Louvain.

..... On 06 October he presented a paper entitled “Education and Higher Learning” as the inaugural address for St. Michael’s College’s centennial. In this paper, among other things, Gilson criticized the tendency of modern democratic governments to present education as if it were a commodity.
During the fall of 1954, Gilson returned to the United States to participate in a conference on the “Unity of Knowledge” at Columbia University and, along with England’s Queen Mother Mary and other dignitaries, receive an honorary degree. On 28 October, at Arden House, Gilson presented what Shook has called “one of the most important” papers of Gilson’s career, published in 1955 in the book The Unity of Knowledge under the title “Theology and the Unity of Knowledge.” During the same year, Random House published Gilson’s famous History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, and he wrote a preface for Doubleday’s textbook edition of John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent.

In March and April, Gilson presented his metaphysical analysis of art in six Mellon lectures at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. These lectures were published in the Bollingen Series in 1957 under the title Painting and Reality.

With time on his hands for several weeks in Washington, Gilson spoke to seminar philosophy students at the Catholic University of America. Up to this time, due perhaps to his Sorbonne training and commitment to the French university system, some Catholic University administrators and Dean of the School of Philosophy, Fr. Ignatius Smith, considered Gilson a persona non grata. Despite a somewhat critical introduction of Gilson by Smith, according to Shook, Gilson used the opportunity to “produce one of the major classroom performances of his life” to about 750 people who had packed Catholic University’s McMahon Auditorium. .......” Gilson returned to France during the second week in June so that he could attend a meeting of the Académie Française and then fly to Bonn, Germany to receive “Der Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschafte und Kunste.”

.....Starting in 1957 Gilson began to turn down most invitations to give outside lectures. ....

During this same year, he accepted an invitation (1) from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to become a member of a board of twelve scholars for an new quarterly journal: Daedalus; and (2) from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau to accept an honorary degree. He also wrote three important articles: (1) “What is Christian Philosophy?”; (2) “Le centenaire d’Auguste Comte” (published in Le monde for the centenary celebration of Comte’s death); and (3) “Amicus amicis” (an address to students preparing an Etienne Gilson Tribute...). In the spring, 1957, Gilson was named general editor for a four-volume textbook on the History of Philosophy. He also had to fill in as a contributing editor. He left for Canada early in January, 1958, and did not return to North America until the winter of 1959.

Gilson underwent surgery in January 1959. This left him convalescing until spring. Still, he managed to write an “In Memoriam” tribute for the Archives regarding the death of Gabriel Théry; and, upon request, between March and December, he fulfilled functions of the Académie Française. In November, he traveled to Brussels and gave two public lectures for the Faculté Universitaire Saint-Louis: (1) “Un théologien devant les philosophes: St. Thomas d’Aquin” and (2) “Un philosophe devant les théologiens: Henri Bergson.” During this visit to Brussels he was inducted into the Royal Academy of Belgium. For the occasion, he gave an hour-long, spellbinding talk on “Philosophie du Plagiat” (“The Philosophy of Plagiarism”).....

Shook adds: Gilson, then, had come to see theology as the meeting place of reason and the Christian mystery seeking understanding of itself: “haec creendo, incipe, procurre, persiste . . . intellige incomprehensibilia esse. . . . Gilson, grown in this faith and its mysteries, hoped that he had become, like Thomas, a theologian. .....

In honor of his seventy-fifth birthday Gilson was gratified to receive three festschrifts from former students: (1) a 1959 volume of Medieval Studies dedicated to him and containing articles by his Toronto colleagues; (2) thirty-four papers, with the exception of one, all by Europeans, edited by Alex Denomy, simultaneously published by Vrin and PIMS, appearing under the title Mélanges offerts à Étienne Gilson; and (3) a collective volume of papers written and edited by North American students entitled An Étienne Gilson Tribute. ....

From around Christmas 1959, Gilson started working with his daughter Cécile to translate
Le philosophe et la théologie into English. (It eventually saw publication in 1961 under the title The Philosopher and Theology.) ....

During the summer, 1961, Gilson gave a short lecture in Bolzano, Italy. And he planned to give a fall course on “An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas” at the Harvard Divinity School. In a letter to Armand A. Maurer, Gilson even quipped that he would “enjoy speaking of a theologian without having to conceal that he is a theologian.” Health problems, including surgery, however, prevented him from giving this class. In 1962, Gilson published Il problema dell’ateismo, based upon an article he had written entitled “La possibilité de l’athéisme,” “L’être et Dieu” (in Revue thomiste), some articles in Mediaeval Studies, and his second edition of L’être et l’essence,.”.

On 03 March, 1963, he gave an Institute seminar on “Prolegomena to the ‘Prima Via’” (published in Archives, 1963); on 09 May, he spoke at the Institute convocation on the topic, “Research Schools in the Context of St. Thomas on Education.” In early November, he spoke at Carr Hall, Toronto, on “The Birth of the Lutheran Reformation.” After returning to France, from 11 to 13 November, 1963, Gilson gave six lectures to the monks of the Abbaye Saint Benoit de Fleury at Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. On 13 December, he participated in a public homage to Père A. D. Sertillanges in his talk, “Souvenir du Père Sertillanges.”

Gilson ended 1963 upset by news that Burt Franklin had announced in New York a reprint of Gilson’s 1913 Index scolastico-cartesian. Gilson had not authorized the reprint and had refused money for the rights to republish it because he did not consider the complementary dissertation a complete work of scholarship...

Returning to Europe in early January, 1965, Gilson remained there until October of the same year. One reason he stayed in Europe so long was to help... defend Thomism against growing assaults from theologians and liturgists who were trying to reduce Thomism’s in Church life. During this time he published his sixth, and last, edition of Le Thomisme. He also revised and presented several versions of a talk, “St. Thomas et nous” (one of which he gave in Rome on 13 April). ..... Gilson was especially pleased when, at a reception for the members of the Congress at Castel Gandolfo, Pope Paul VI said, “Thomas is, was, and always will be the Doctor Communis . . . the master of all and for all” in the Church.

On 02 July, Gilson published an article entitled “Suis-je schismatique?” in La France catholique in which he objected to the replacement in the French version of the Mass that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father with the phrase Son is “of the same nature” as motivated by the modern mind’s rejection of the notion of “substance.”

In 1965, in preparation for the seventh centenary of Dante Aligheri’s birth, Gilson published in Archives, under the title “Trois études dantesque,” three previously written papers: (1)“Dante’s ‘Mirabile Visione’“; (2) “What is a Shade?”; and (3) “Poetry and Theology in The Divine Comedy.” He lectured on one or more of these papers in Florence (21 April), Montreal (29 October), Cornell (01 and 02 November), Toronto (05, 15, and 19 November), Berkeley, Augsburg, and other places. He also published an article entitled “À la recherché de l’Émpyrée” in the Revue des etudes italiennes.


In 1967, Gilson was quite busy. In February, he received an honorary degree at the University of Bologna. On 11 May, he spoke at the Pantheon for the unveiling of a tablet in honor of Bergson...... On 06 November, he received an honorary degree from the University of Liège. On 15 November, he participated in a radio tribute to Jacques Maritain.

During the same year, Gilson published two books in the “Essais d’art et de philosophie”: (1) La société de masse et sa culture and (2) Les tribulations de Sophie. Between 23 February and 16 March 1968, Gilson lectured in Toronto on problems related to atheism: (1) “The Problem of the Non-Existence of God: The Difficulties of Atheism”; (2) “Is God Dead?”; (3) “The True Problem”; and (4) “Is the Non-Existence of God Even Thinkable?” Shook claims that Gilson had intended to do a major work on atheism and the idea of God, intending to call the to-be-published book “Constanes philosophiques de l’être.” While he never completed this work, after Gilson died, his friend Henri Gouhier made parts of the contents available in the 1979 book L’atheisme difficile.

Before returning to Toronto in 1969, Gilson took a detour to Berkeley, where he arrived on 03 January to give two courses, one public, one specialized seminar, at the University. His public lecture, based upon the Summa theologiae, was on the authentic Thomism of St. Thomas. His seminar was devoted to texts of Avicenna and St. Thomas.

Back in Toronto after three days in San Francisco, Gilson gave three lectures entitled: (1) “Language is Metaphysical”; (2) “Words and Meanings”; and (3) “Poetry and Metaphysics.”

Throughout 1969 and 1970, Shook reports that some members of Chicago’s “Great Books” team had pursued Gilson to help them create a “Library of Mediaeval Civilization” on microfiche. At this time, Shook maintains, “Gilson’s position on metaphysics had much in common with that defended by Mortimer J. Adler in The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967).” He adds that, in correspondence with John N. Deely, “Gilson had spoken favourably of Adler’s ‘long first step toward the proper assessment of an immaterial element in material reality.’”

Gilson devoted his 1970 lecture series in Toronto to the general topic, “Finalism Revisited.” The series consisted of four lectures: “The Case for Mechanical Causality,” “The Case for the Mechanical Cause,” “Finalism and Physical Probability,” and “Evolution: Teleology and Theology.” In 1971, Gilson published the material contained in these lectures in his book D’Aristote à Darwin et retour. In December 1970, he also gave a paper entitled “Propose sur le bonheur” to the Académie Française.

The general topic of Gilson’s 1970 Toronto lecture series apparently generated the general topic for his 1971 and 1972 series. Gilson gave his 1971 series the general title, “In Quest of Evolution.” This series consisted of three lectures: “Darwin without Evolution,” “Evolution without Darwin,” and “From Malthus to the Twilight of Evolution.” He gave the 1972 series (his last series of lectures in Toronto) the general title, “In Quest of Species.” This series also consisted of three lectures: “Species for Experience,” “Species for Science,” and “Species for Philosophy.” Among other things, within these lectures, Gilson expressed appreciation to Adler for pointing “out the mistake of those scholastics who confuse logical with biological species.” He added, “True species are found in zoos. There are no other.” And “[Aristotle] merely says: ‘No part of an animal is purely material or purely immaterial.’ Drop the immaterial and the notion of species makes no sense. It is not a scientific notion but a philosophical one.”

On 07 March 1972, the Brazilian Academy of the Latin World awarded Gilson the Gulbenkian prize for philosophy in Paris. On 30 July 1972, he completed three more lectures that he had intended to give in Toronto the next academic year. The general topic of these lectures was “In Quest of Matter.” It consisted of three methods of considering matter, the: (1) ancient Greek, (2) Christian philosophical, and (3) “scientific” method followed after Descartes. His age and weakened health did not permit him to go to Toronto to present the lectures.

Gilson spent his remaining years in the village of Cravant, France. During this time he received many visitors. On one occasion, his friend Henri Gouhier, a Commander in “La Légion d’Honneur,” conferred on Gilson the insignia of the “ordre pouré le Mérite.” On 20 February 1975, Gilson traveled to Paris, where the Académie de France conferred on him the gold medal they give to members who have reached at least the age of 90.

In September, 1978, then age 95, Gilson moved from his house in Cravant to the Centre Hospitalier in Auxerre. While he continued to weaken physically, he remained intellectually alert and talkative until his death on 19 September 1978. .... He is buried beside his wife, Thérèse, in the cemetery of Melun.

In her Étienne Gilson: A Bibliography, Une Bibliographie (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1982), Margaret McGrath (ed.) reports that, during his intellectual life, Gilson’s known publications amounted to 935 works: 172 monographs, 8 edited books, 4 series editions, 2 anthologies, 307 scholarly articles, 36 prefaces, 296 general interest articles, 104 book reviews. A brief online bibliography of Gilson’s work is available at:
*Except for a few minor additions, all the content in the above Biography is derived from Lawrence K. Shook’s Gilson biography entitled, Étienne Gilson (Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, The Gilson Series 6, 1984).

Shook also in his book on this major 20th century intellect, does not leave out, "the two Gilson cats."

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