Brief historical sketch of Mysticism and its influence on philosophy, and present a criticism of it
Mysticism, (from Greek: muein, to initiate), according to its etymology, implies a relation to mystery. In philosophy, Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but on a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite. According to its tendency, it may be either speculative or practical, as it limits itself to mere knowledge or traces duties for action and life; contemplative or affective, according as it emphasizes the part of intelligence or the part of the will; orthodox or heterodox, according as it agrees with or opposes the Catholic teaching. We shall give a brief historical sketch of Mysticism and its influence on philosophy, and present a criticism of it.
Historical Sketch. In his “History of Philosophy“, Cousin mentions four systems, between which, he says, philosophical thought has continually wavered, viz., Sensism, Idealism, Scepticism, and Mysticism. Whatever may be thought of this classification, it is true that Mysticism has exercised a large influence on philosophy, becoming at times the basis of whole systems, but more often entering as an element into their constitution. Mysticism dominated in the symbolic philosophy of ancient Egypt. The Taoism of the Chinese philosopher Laotze is a system of metaphysics and ethics in which Mysticism is a fundamental element (cf. De Harlez, “Laotze, le premier philosophe chinois”, in “Memoires couronnes et autres de l’Academie”, Brussels, January, 1886). The same may be said of Indian philosophy; the end of human reflection and effort in Brahmanism and Vedantism is to deliver the soul from its transmigrations and absorb it into Brahma forever. There is little of Mysticism in the first schools of Greek philosophy, but it already takes a large place in the system of Plato, e.g., in his theory of the world of ideas, of the origin of the world soul and the human soul, in his doctrine of recollection and intuition. The Alexandrian Jew Philo (30 B.C.—A.D. 50) combined these Platonic elements with the data of the Old Testament, and taught that every man, by freeing himself from matter and receiving illumination from God, may reach the mystical, ecstatic, or prophetical state, where he is absorbed into the Divinity. The most systematic attempt at a philosophical system of a mystical character was that of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria, especially of Plotinus (A.D. 205-70) in his “Enneads” His system is a syncretism of the previous philosophies on the basis of Mysticism an emanative and pantheistic Monism. Above all being, there is the One absolutely indetermined, the absolutely Good. From it come forth through successive emanations intelligence (Greek: nous) with its ideas, the world-soul with its plastic forces (Greek: logoi spermatikoi), matter inactive; and the principle of imperfection. The human soul had its existence in the world-soul until it was united with matter. The end of human life and of philosophy is to realize the mystical return of the soul to God. Freeing itself from the sensuous world by purification (Greek: katharsis), the human soul ascends by successive steps through the various degrees of the metaphysical order, until it unites itself in a confused and unconscious contemplation to the One, and sinks into it: it is the state of ecstasis.
With Christainity, the history of Mysticism enters into a new period. The Fathers recognized indeed the partial truth of the pagan system, but they pointed out also its fundamental errors. They made a distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology; they acknowledged the aspirations of the soul, but, at the same time, they emphasized its essential inability to penetrate the mysteries of Divine life. They taught that the vision of God is the work of grace and the reward of eternal life; in the present life only a few souls, by a special grace, can reach it. On these principles, the Christian school of Alexandria opposed the true gnosis based on grace and faith to the Gnostic heresies. St. Augustine teaches indeed that we know the essences of things in rationibus ceternis, but this knowledge has its starting point in the data of sense (cf. Qustiones, LXXXIII, c. xlvi). Pseudo Dionysius, in his various works, gave a systematic treatment of Christian Mysticism, carefully distinguishing between rational and mystical knowledge. By the former, he says, we know God, not in His nature, but through the wonderful order of the universe, which is a participation of the Divine ideas (“De Divinis Nomin.”, c, vii, §§ 2-3, in P.G., III, 867 sq.). There is, however, he adds, a more perfect knowledge of God possible in this life, beyond the attainments of reason even enlightened by faith, through which the soul contemplates directly the mysteries of Divine light. The contemplation in the present life is possible only to a few privileged souls, through a very special grace of God: it is the Greek: theosis, mustike enosis.
The works of Pseudo Dionysius exercised a great influence on the following ages. John Scotus Eriugena (ninth century), in his “De Divisione Natures”, took them as his guide, but he neglected the distinction of his master, identifying philosophy and theology, God and creatures, and, instead of developing the doctrine of Dionysius, reproduced the pantheistic theories of Plotinus (see John Scotus Eriugena. John Duns Scotus). In the twelfth century, orthodox Mysticism was presented under a systematic form by the Victorines, Hugh, Walter, and Richard (cf. Mignon, “Les Origines de la Scolastique et Hugues de St. Victor“, Paris, 1895), and there was also a restatement of Eriugena’s principles with Amaury de Berle, Joachim de Floris, and David of Dinant. A legitimate element of Mysticism, more or less emphasized, is found in the works of the Schoolmen of the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was, as a protest against a sterile dialecticism, a revival of mystical systems, some orthodox J. Ruysbroek, Gerson, Peter d’Ailly, Denys the Carthusian and others heterodox John of Ghent, John of Mirecourt, the Beguines and Beghards, and various brotherhoods influenced by Averroism, and especially Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who in his “Opus Tripartitum” teaches a deification of man and an assimilation of the creature into the Creator through contemplation (cf. Denifle in “Archiv fur Literatur and Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters”, 1886), the “Theologies Germanica”, and, to a certain extent, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) with his theory of the coincidentia oppositorum. Protestantism, by its negation of all ecclesiastical authority and by advocating a direct union of the soul with God, had its logical outcome in a Mysticism mostly pantheistic.
Protestant Mysticism is represented by Sebastian Frank (1499-1542), by Valentine Weiler (1533-88), and especially by J. Bohme (1575-1624), who, in his “Aurora”, conceived the nature of God as containing in itself the energies of good and evil, and identified the Divine nature with the human soul whose operation is to kindle, according to its free will, the fire of good or the fire of evil (cf. Deussen, “J. Bohme ueber sein Leben and seine Philosophie”, Kiel, 1897). Reuchlin (1455-1522) developed a system of cabalistic Mysticism in his “De arte cabalistica” and his “De verbo mirifico”. We may also assign to the influence of Mysticism the ontological systems of Malebranche and of the Ontologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The romantic Mysticism of Fichte (1762-1814), Novalis (1772-1801), and Schelling (1775-1854) was a reaction against the Rationalism of the eighteenth century. A pseudo-Mysticism is also the logical out-come of the Fideism and evolutionistic Subjectivism of modern Protestants, inaugurated by Lessing (1728-81), developed by Schleiermacher (1768-1834), A. Ritschl (1822-89; cf. Goyau, “L’Allemagne Religieuse, Le Protestantisme”, 6th ed., Paris, 1906), Saba-tier, etc., and accepted by the Modernists in their theories of vital immanence and religious experience (cf. Encyclical “Pascendi”). (See Modernism.)
Criticism. A tendency so universal and so persistent as that of Mysticism, which appears among all peoples and influences philosophical thought more or less throughout all centuries, must have some real foundation in human nature. There is indeed in the human soul a natural desire for, an aspiration towards the highest truth, the absolute truth, and the highest, the infinite good. We know by experience and reason that the knowledge and enjoyment of created things cannot give the fulness of truth and the perfection of beatitude which will completely satisfy our desires and aspirations. There is in our soul a capacity for more truth and perfection than we can ever acquire through the knowledge of created things. We realize that God alone is the end of man, that in the possession of God alone we can reach the satisfaction of our aspirations. Cf. S. Thom., Theol., I, Q. ii, a. 1, ad lum; Q. xii, a. 1; Q. xliv, a. 4, ad 3um; I-II, Q. iii, a. 8; “Contra Gentes”, III, cc. i, xxv, 1; “De Veritate”, Q. xxii, a. 2; “Compend. Theologlae”, 104, etc. Cf. Sestili, “De naturali intelligentis animas appetitu intuendi divinam essentiam”, Rome, 1896. But the rational effort of our intelligence and positive aspirations of our will find here their limits. Is there truly possible a union of our reason and will with God more intimate than that which we possess through created things? Can we expect more than a knowledge of God by analogical concepts and more than the beatitude proportionate to that knowledge? Here human reason cannot answer. But where reason was powerless, philosophers gave way to feeling and imagination. They dreamt of an intuition of the Divinity, of a direct contemplation and immediate possession of God. They imagined a notion of the universe and of human nature that would make possible such a union. They built systems in which the world and the human soul were considered as an emanation or part of the Divinity, or at least as containing something of the Divine essence and Divine ideas. The logical outcome was Pantheism.
This result was a clear evidence of error at the starting point. The Catholic Church, as guardian of Christian doctrine, through her teaching and theologians, gave the solution of the problem. She asserted the limits of human reason: the human soul has a natural capacity ( potentia obedientialis), but no exigency and no positive ability to reach God otherwise than by analogical knowledge. She condemned the immediate vision of the Beghards and Beguines (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion”, nn. 474-5), the pseudo-Mysticism of Eckhart (ibid., nn. 501-29), and Molinos (ibid., nn. 2121-88), the theories of the Ontologists (ibid., nn. 1659-65, 1891-1930), and Pantheism under all its forms (ibid., nn. 1801-5), as well as the vital Immanence and religious experience of the Modernists (ibid., nn. 2071-109). But she teaches that, what man cannot know by natural reason, he can know through revelation and faith; that what he cannot attain to by his natural power he can reach by the grace of God. God has gratuitously elevated human nature to a supernatural state. He has assigned as its ultimate end the direct vision of Himself, the Beatific Vision. But this end can be reached only in the next life; in the present life we can but prepare ourselves for it with the aid of revelation and grace. To some souls, however, even in the present life, God gives a very special grace by which they are enabled to feel His sensible presence: this is true mystical contemplation. In this act, there is no annihilation or absorption of the creature into God, but God becomes intimately present to the created mind and this, enlightened by special illuminations, contemplates with ineffable joy the Divine essence.
GEORGE M. SAUVAGE