Polemics & Exchanges

On Dissent

Thank you for Don Livingston’s essay, “The Ancestry and Legacy of the Philosophes” (Views, July).  Rarely have I read anything that shed so much light on such a large subject in such a short space.  I have some disagreements with the essay, but they amount, I hope, to a friendly amendment.

As Livingston sees it, Western philosophy contained the seeds of revolution from the beginning because of the totalizing nature of the philosophical act.  The hubris of philosophical reason was kept in check during the Middle Ages by Augustinian faith, but it broke out again in the Renaissance in a far deadlier form.

Fair enough.  But we must remember that Western Europe is not the only civilization that owes its origins to Athens and Jerusalem.  Byzantine civilization had fuller and more sustained access to the classical sources of philosophy throughout the Middle Ages than did the West.  Furthermore, although it was a Christian civilization, it did not adopt the Augustinian conception of faith as an act of the will.  This was partly because the Byzantines read Saint Paul in a very different way than did Saint Augustine.  Even more fundamentally, their vocabulary was different.  Where Latin has a single term for will (voluntas), Greek...

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