Etienne Gilson’s Centenary


September 1, 1984

Had Etienne Gilson lived, he would have been one hundred years old this past June 13th. As it was, dying in 1978, he came within six years of living a century, and this summer Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies celebrated their founder’s centenary by publishing Gilson’s biography. Father Lawrence K. Shook, C.S.B.’s Etienne Gilson is a superb presentation of the life, work, triumphs, and controversies which marked the years of this dynamic scholar.

For those of us who were undergraduates in Catholic colleges and universities of the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s, the names of Gilson and Jacques Maritain were most familiar. In that pre -Vatican II period of the continuing Thomistic revival, our professors made regular references to such works as The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The University of Philosophical Experience, The Degrees of Knowledge. God and Philosophy, Essence and the Existent, Being and Some Philosophers. It was a stimulating era. We were confident the answers were there in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and we only had to look them up, assisted in our study by the two foremost French interpreters of Aquinas: Gilson and Maritain.

Our first impression, subject to later correction, was that Gilson was the historian of medieval philosophy, and Maritain was the more creative applier of Thomistic principles to contemporary problems. For there were Gilson’s studies of St. Augustine, St. Bernard. St. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Abelard and Heloise, Dante, Descartes, and a number of studies on Aquinas, as well as histories of medieval and modern philosophy. And there were Maritain’s analyses of problems in the philosophy of the sciences, politics and aesthetics, and art criticism. It seemed a kind of partnership with Gilson doing the medieval scholarship, the textual work, and Maritain invading the world of art, science, and politics and making our contemporaries sit up and take notice.

This somewhat superficial view had its element of truth but it failed to match the reality of the contributions each man made. Maritain’s Moral Philosophy is a historical review, and in his critiques of modern sources — Three Reformers, The Dream of Descartes — Maritain had done his historical homework. Gilson’s creative contributions to philosophy have been more in danger of being overlooked: his work in epistemology, the metaphysics of art, his writings on the social and political questions of our time, and towards the end of his career, in his study of Darwin’s evolution and finally, the philosophy of biology.

Now there can be no excuse for any lack of balance in our assessment of Gilson. Fr. Shook’s story of his life begins with Gilson’s roots in Paris and Burgundy, and takes him year by year, stage by stage of his life, through his education, military service, dissertation, first teaching jobs, marriage, World War I active service, prisoner of war, and the steady and pursuing work of scholarship which was to carry him from the Sorbonne to the College de France, Harvard, Aberdeen, Toronto, and any number of international lectureships in Europe, as well as North and South America.

Since Fr. Shook is a member of the Congregation of St. Basil, the order which created St. Michael’s College within the University of Toronto, as well as the University of St. Thomas, Houston. and St. John Fisher. Rochester, Gilson’s contribution in founding what became the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, gets special loving attention. Fr. Shook, an English professor, former President of the Pontifical Institute and currently President of the Medieval Academy of America, has already translated Gilson’s Le Thomisme, 5th edition, as The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Heloise and Abelard: close to Gilson. Fr. Shook approached Gilson in his late 80s and proposed the biography project. Gilson resisted at first, then later agreed that if his biography were to be done, it was better done by a North American who would pay attention to Gilson’s contributions here, whereas a “European biographer might overlook significant aspects of this side of my activity.”

Thereafter, Fr. Shook continued to enjoy the complete confidence of Gilson, who shared his papers, letters, memorabilia of a lifetime with him. Even better, Gilson in retirement at Cravant was available for long interviews which were taped and so Fr. Shook was able to gain insights into the details of incidents to which Gilson sometimes made only cryptic reference, such as in his autobiographical The Philosopher and Theology. Also, there were the interviews with Gilson’s family, and such scholarly co-workers as Professor Therese d’Alverny and Henri Gouhier. The result is a history of man’s life of challenge in scholarship which develops this evolution in the human context of a man’s feelings, fears, hopes, and faith. I mention faith last, but in Gilson’s life and work it was always first and foremost, and he took quiet enjoyment in his work as a scholar of theology, and as a theologian.

Etienne Gilson is a beautiful book; the type is clear and the spacing is generous; there are many photographs: Gilson the father, Gilson the soldier and prisoner of war, Gilson and his friends, Gilson and the French Academy, as well as in academic situations. Best of all, Fr. Shook has integrated his documentation in the text so that the reader sees the source immediately without having to check footnotes at the bottom of the page or at the end of the chapter. It is rich in detail and reads very well.


  • Desmond J. FitzGerald

    At the time this article was written, Desmond J. FitzGerald was a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

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