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Illumination in Bonaventures Epistemology

By Alexander Koudlai


The telos of this essay is to support the axiology of the literary work of the great man, which impressed me who lives almost eight hundred years later. What makes it so important to me and may be to our contemporary culture? The epistemology and metaphysics are considered there together and in such a way that the ethics of human life is affected in a reasonably defensible manner. Probably our contemporary axiology (and particularly in the matters of acquiring and evaluating of knowledge) may benefit from the investigation of Bonaventures theory.

Today we are used to hear that a theory has to be verifiable in order to be considered as knowledge. By verifiable it is usually meant empirically provable. The latter means observable to senses and capable of repeated observations. The theories of ancient and medieval thinkers are usually treated lightly and accused of dogmatism, i.e. of claims not supported by experience. Nevertheless, it is not accurate because the spiritual and miraculous experiences reported by many individuals from different countries in every century and the communities of monks and nuns living in the monasteries (those laboratories of spiritual life) do support those theories again and again. Our W. James wrote of those prejudices of the scientific community of his time and of their refusal even to consider those “hard cases” not easily explicable by the contemporary scientific theories. There is still a huge problem in this department today, and we just have to be aware about its existence. As James, claiming himself to be a radical empiricist, suggested, if a theory (and he meant a modern theory) cannot deal with some facts reported by honest people, it is too bad for the theory and not for the facts. This sounds at least consistent and fair.

When observation is artificially limited only to the observation by physical senses, the observer risks to lock himself into a dogmatic circle, especially when he judges about non-empirical claims, or claims of the human observations which transcend merely sensual ones*. Those people who do this usually claim themselves materialists and are opposed to theories of spiritual thinkers. As we can see, the empiricists are not all materialists, who are extremely dogmatic themselves, but even though their theories are based on axioms which are not always shared by the rest of humanity and may seem dogmatic in certain respects to those who prefer to think differently. Another objection to theories of spiritual thinkers was that “they all disagree”, hence the truth, the existence of which they claim, could not be the universal truth.

In my opinion, the ontological claims of different prominent thinkers from different traditions have more points in common then not and others are arguably convertible. Those thinkers from different times and cultures universally claim the existence of truth beyond sensual experiences and somehow human access to that truth. They also say that some people persist in some kind of blindness to the truth and teachings of it. This blindness does not exclude productive thinking in the empirical mode, but it does secure the dissatisfaction of the soul and many kinds of suffering.


*Professor D. Robinson said once: “A scientist taking a corpuscular approach to explanation of the world, usually sets parameters for observations of corpuscles, build instruments capable to pick corpuscles, observes what those instruments show him and then says: I claimed that the world was corpuscular and see: it is corpuscular …” (The Great Ideas of Philosophy)

Jesus says:

But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. . . . And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears Gods words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God”. (John 8:45-47)

In the Lankavatara Sutra Buddha says:

Then there are materialistic philosophers. No respect nor service is to be shown them because their teachings though they may be explained by using hundreds of thousands of words and phrases, do not go beyond the concepts of this world and this body and in the end they lead to suffering. As the materialists recognize no truth as existing by itself...(D. Goddard “A Buddhist Bible”, p.312-313).

Bonaventure respects the empirical knowledge. He read Aristotles Physics and Metaphysics, but he also read Neo-Platonists and was impressed by Platos theory of archetypes, which we cannot say where he received from*. Bonaventure is a friar and a mystic, and the existence of the spiritual light, bliss and the visions beyond physical senses is an immediate reality for him; also he is a scholar. Therefore, he attempts to synthesize different theoretical views into one consistent theory, which would account for the empirical, speculative and spiritual knowledge, and would be consistent with the Revelation of the Holy Scripture and Bonaventures favorite thinker St. Augustine, “the wisest of them all”.


How do we know? Plato used to say that there is knowledge and beliefs or opinions, and there are lovers of knowledge, or wisdom philosophers, and lovers of opinions philodoxers. The beliefs (opinions) could be beautiful but not true, while


* Possibly Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine or some medieval writers before Bonaventure.

knowledge is always true. While certain beliefs when tested could collapse, the truth is resilient to any tests whether empirical or speculative (logical). Of course, Bonaventure is a believer, but he also thinks that he can show for something more then just a belief. For Bonaventure the question: “How do we know that something is true with certitude?” - is important. He thinks about this kind of knowledge of anything as of illumined by light.

When the intellect knows something with certainty, it is because it is enlightened from above. He writes in his On the Reduction of Arts to Theology:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the God of Lights, writes James . . . of the source of all illumination; but at the same time. . . there are many lights which flow generously from that fontal source of light.

Then pointing out the essentially internal nature of illumination of all knowledge he categorizes the varieties of such illumination:

Even though every illumination of knowledge is internal, still we can reasonably distinguish what can be called an exterior light of mechanical art; an inferior light, or the light of sense perception; an interior light of philosophical knowledge; and a superior light or the light of grace and of Sacred Scripture. The first light illumines with respect to the forms of artifacts; the second with respect to natural forms; the third, with respect to intellectual truth; the forth and last with respect to saving truth. (p.37)

In other words, God of Lights gives knowledge to His creatures and directly inspires different kinds of pursuits of knowledge (arts) according to different aspects of that part of human nature, which is currently under investigation, and this is always for the sake of that creature.

The creature is always enlightened directly from the Creator but in different applications of that One Light and normally follows the lead acquiring various kinds of useful knowledge co-operating in that intended enlightenment in all different spheres of its life. This theory truly reduces all kinds of knowledge to theology but in a meaningful and consistent way.

Whatever is our knowledge we can always associate it with light, because we observe it empirically or intellectually. Even perfect spiritual knowledge is called beatific vision. Observing we see by light in all cases, that is why it is proper to relate all our knowledge to light. This approach is universal, and may be even more universal than some Bonaventurians would like to admit. In one of the ancient Upanishads of India it is described in the form of a dialog between a teacher and a student:

How do you see at the daytime?

- I see by the light of the sun.

And when it is night?

- By the light of the moon.

And when there is no moon?

- Then by the light of a candle.

And when there is no sun, moon or candle?

- Then, teacher, I somehow see by the light within.

In the Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ (q. 4, p. 115-117) Bonaventure quotes from St. Augustine On the Teacher:

In every instance where we understand something, we are listening not to someone who utters external words, but to that truth which guides us from the mind itself (1).

The City of God:

Those whom we rightly prefer to all others have said that the very God by whom all things were made is the light of our minds by which we learn all things (4).

On the Trinity:

When our soul so pleases us that we prefer it to all corporeal light, it is not the soul itself that pleases us but that art by which it was created. For a created thing is worthy of approval in reference to that source where it is seen to have been present before it was created. Now this is the truth and pure goodness(5)

When we approve or disapprove of something rightly, we are shown to approve or disapprove by virtue of other rules which remain altogether unchangeable and above our mind (6).

This light, which is the truth and goodness, come from within and there from above. The latter is obvious to Bonaventure, because - he quotes (8):

When the unjust person sees the rules according to which everyone ought to live, where does he see them? Not in his own nature, since it is certain his mind is changeable while these rules are unchangeable. And not in any habit of his mind, since these are rules of justice. Where does he perceive that he ought to possess something that he does not possess? Where then are they written but in the book of that light which is called the truth, from which every just law is copied? (Augustine, On the Trinity, chapter 15)

Further in the argument 8 Bonaventure presents the Augustinian correction of Platos theory of reminiscence:

It is credible that even those who are unskilled in certain disciplines can give the correct answers when they are able to receive the eternal light of reason in which they perceive these immutable truths. This is true, but not because they once knew them and have forgotten them, as it seemed to Plato. (Retractations)

About this, I would argue that it is problematic that Plato speaking of the mind and the eternal ideas did not understand that the mind should ascend from its regular state. On the contrary, Plato speaks about this divine perfection, which is not easily achieved by a philosopher while his soul goes through four stages (symbolically “requires four incarnations”) in his quest for perfect knowledge. So, the Divine Plato rather had quite similar approach (but of course he did not use the terminology of the Christian theology), and his reminiscence does include the possibility that the soul on some deepest level is divine or participates in the knowledge of the Divinity. It is just that in its regular state of forgetfulness of its deepest nature it can have just glimpses of the light that is not essentially external to the soul itself. This seem to be in compliance with Genesis 2:7 and the idea that we are all children of One Father, and not bastards.

Bonaventure continues to quote:

The intellectual nature is linked not only to intelligible things but also to immutable things. This nature is made in such a way that when it moves to those things with which it is connected, or when it moves to itself, it may give correct answers about such things as it is capable of seeing.

Then he concludes:

From these authoritative arguments of Augustine it is manifestly clear that everything is known in the eternal reasons.

The essential connection of the intellect to the eternal reasons and its capability of seeing those suggest our relation to those and to the light itself. Bonaventure quotes from Anselm Proslogion, chapter 14:

How great is the light from which shines forth all truth that manifests itself to the rational mind (12) How rich is that truth in which is found everything that is true and outside of which is only emptiness and falsehood!

And he concludes: “Therefore no truth is seen except in the eternal truth”. It is not that dogmatic as it may seem to those contemporary thinkers who claim: “There is no Truth…” Logically, their claim is a universal claim itself, hence aspires to be true universally, hence, it claims itself the existence of the universal truth it attempted to deny, hence does not have any ontological value and constitutes rather invalid critique on purely emotional ground.

Quoting Aristotles Ethics:

We all suppose that what we know by means of science cannot possibly be other than it is. But, when those things that could be other than they are pass beyond the range of our observation, we do not know whether they exist or not. Therefore, the object of scientific knowledge is necessarily eternal. And eternal things are ungenerated and incorruptible (16).

Bonaventure concludes:

Therefore, there can be no such thing as certain knowledge unless the very nature of eternal truth is involved. But this is found only in the eternal reasons.

It is fascinating, how in the world of contingency, where everything what we observe could be otherwise, there could be any certainty. Still we know there is certainty. Where does it come from then? Obviously not from the world of change and uncertainty. And what is this world? It is the world of the eternal reasons, which belong to the very nature of God who is beyond all change and doubt, and who illumines our minds, which are rather attached to this world of change and are used to its various forms of entertainment.

It is very reasonable, that when the intellect is connected to senses, analyzing their data, so to speak, it is habitually in the mode of perception of precisely this kind of data, but when it is disconnected from senses it may be in some other mode of perception, and not only of the sensual memory content, but also what they call super sensual. Isnt it the reason why the monks or hermits everywhere practice asceticism? So, usually one mode of perception and corresponding activity of the intellect excludes or hinders the other mode of perception and formation of the relevant ideas.


The light is always given from God (or that center of light and life) to a creature, but it is used differently for different kinds of understanding and corresponding activity. That is why the scriptures, the true spiritual teachers, and spiritual philosophy are important. It is because without this category of light there is no that category of data and even serious thinking about that dimension of life.

Bonaventure emphasizes:

That by which we have certain knowledge is immutable because it is necessary truth. But our mind is mutable. Therefore, that by which we know is superior to our mind. But there is nothing above our mind other than God and eternal truth. Therefore, the divine truth and the eternal reason is that by which knowledge comes to be (17).

He does not see any other way to explain the existence of the corruptible intellect, changeable world as its regular object, and at the same time the existence of truth by which that corruptible intellect knows something with certainty. And referring to different modes of knowledge he writes:

That by which we know excels every created truth. Therefore, it is uncreated truth (21)

We know only by the truth, which is not a created one (or from this world), but the eternal truth itself. The truth is a category of the intellect. Hence, we know only by the eternal mind when it illumines our mind, and in this way we participate in the eternal. But how is it possible? It is because we are created in likeness of that divine mind itself on the first place, and that divine mind therefore is the closest thing to our mind. That is why Bonaventure considers the knowledge of God the most natural kind of knowledge to the human being. Other kinds of knowledge depend on it.

As God is the cause of being, so the divine reality is the principle of knowing and order of living. But God is the cause of being in such a way that nothing can be done by any cause unless God moves that cause in the action by means of the divinity itself and by the eternal divine power. Therefore, nothing can be understood at all unless God immediately illumines the subject of knowledge by means of the eternal, divine truth (24).

This is the most straight forward and absolute statement, and all other arguments revolve around it just providing different hues and shades to this major picture, this philosophical intuition which is very well supported and expressed in detail. Accordingly, that part of our intellectual activity “is called higher in as far as it turns to the eternal laws. It is called lower in as far as it is concerned with the temporal things” (27).

It is obvious which one is preferable. Hence, it constitutes an ethical foundation for the pursuits in the area of philosophy and the lifestyle in general. This maxim could be expressed in the following manner: Love God, know God and act with and for God. And this style of life is suitable for all who understand this doctrine. It will be developed even further in the Itinerarium, but in the Disputed Questions (IV) Bonaventure gives the last argument for the Gods participation in the human knowledge (summarizes his position on the illumination) in the following way:

According to the Saints, God is said to be master of all knowledge. This is the case because God cooperates in general with every intellect, or because God infuses the gift of grace, or because - in the act of knowing - the intellect attains to the divine. If God cooperates in general, then we would be lead to say that the divine being teaches the senses as well as the intellect. But this is absurd. If it is because God infuses the gift of grace, then all knowledge would be gratuitous or infused, and non would be innate or acquired. But this is most absurd. Nothing remains, therefore, except to say that our intellect attains to the divine as to the light of our minds and the cause of the knowledge of all truth (34).

Here the ideas of cooperation and grace are understood as having only limited application and not in general, while the preference is given to the idea of attaining of the intellect to the divine in the general case of knowing.

The arguments for the negative position are considered in their turn. They do not break the Bonaventures conviction that God does participate in all our knowledge and that the latter is ultimately based on the illumination, but they oblige him to explain the complications and restate his positive position carefully in the Conclusion:

For knowledge with certitude, even in the state of wayfarers, the intellect must attain to the eternal reasons as that reason which regulates and motivates. It is not the sole principle of knowledge, nor is it attained in its clarity; but together with the proper created reason it is known obscurely and as in a mirror.

Bonaventure clarifies this conclusion explicitly on the next four pages, but I would

emphasize a few important points:

1. In the case of certain knowledge the mind must be regulated by unchangeable and eternal rules which operate not by means of habit of the mind but by means of themselves as realities which are above the mind in the eternal truth (p.133).

2. For certain knowledge, the eternal reason is necessary involved as a regulative and motivating principle, but certainly not as the sole principle nor in its full clarity (134).

3. But along with the created reason, it is continued by us in part as is fitting in this life.

4. A creature is related to God as a vestige (as to its principle), as an image (as to its object), and as a likeness (as to an infused gift) (p.135).

Bonaventure proclaims divine cooperation “in any work accomplished by a creature”:

as far as it is a vestige. . . as the creative principle

as far as it is a likeness. . .in a manner of an infused gift

as far as it is an image . . . as the moving cause (136)

The difficulties with the opposition are resolved in the following paragraph:

Since certain knowledge pertains to the rational spirit in as far as it is an image of God, it is in this sort of knowledge that the soul attains to the eternal reasons. But because it is never fully conformed to God in this life, it does not attain to the reasons clearly, fully, and distinctly, but only to a greater or lesser degree according to the degree of its conformity to God. . . . . it always attains to the reasons in some way (136).

So the mysterious existence of certainty in our seemingly contingent minds is explained

with this doctrine of light. The fact that we can doubt sometimes even the very existence

of God and his light is explained by the lesser degree of conformity of the image to the

exemplar. The latter is due to the deformity of gift and glory and could be mended. The

observable fact that we do learn from the world of sense is also explained:

Since the soul is not an image in its entirety, together with these eternal reasons it attains to the likeness of things abstracted from the sense image. These are proper and distinct principles of knowledge, and without them the light of the eternal reason is insufficient of itself to produce knowledge as long as the soul is in this wayfaring state.

But at the same time mysterious cases of knowledge by saints an prophets which

seem to break the rule are also explained in the following lines:

. . . unless perhaps because of a special revelation, it transcends this state. This happens in the case of those who are drawn up into ecstasy and in the case of the revelations of certain prophets (p.136).

We can see that the theory does explain natural kinds of knowledge as well as the

supernatural ones and gives it a real metaphysical perspective. Aristotles knowledge and Platos wisdom find their reconciliation, and the teachings of the Fathers are paid homage, the theology is confirmed by the philosophy. Doesnt it look like an ideal picture? To me it is very attractive, and it gives me a great pleasure to continue the investigation of the theory, going through more and more details. So let us also look at the Itineraruim.

As we have seen in the On the Reduction of Arts to Theology and the Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, there are various kinds of knowledge and the knowledge of the eternal reasons or the divine mind is the highest of them all. While all of them naturally desirable to the human beings - as Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” (I:1) - the knowledge of God is the most desirable. I have also shown that Bonaventure believed that this knowledge depends on the degree of minds conformity to God, and those degrees differ in different human beings. Therefore, the question arrives: “How to get there?” Bonaventure attempts to answer this in his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. He wants to show how this conformity can be increased in the mind, and the model for the project (Saint Francis) is chosen not accidentally.

The saint was that ecstatic soul who perceived the world pure and beautiful and loved every creature in it as an expression of his Beloved, the Creator of them all. This pure love, so common among saints, is understood by Bonaventure as the most important precondition for that spiritual journey of the mind to perfection. It is not by accident Bonaventure calls “upon the Eternal Father through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that through the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother . . . . and through that of blessed Francis. . . . He may enlighten the eyes of our mind…” (Prologue 1, p.31.) Jesus had such love, that he sacrificed himself for the sake of men. His Mother Mary had such love to her Son, and St. Francis had such love and deep respect to Jesus and Mary.

It is interesting to me that a Russian Saint Seraphim Sarovsky (1754 - 1833) also loved and worshiped the Mother of God, constantly remembered her and often was visited by Mary and her Blessed Son Jesus. The Saint even died before the icon of the Mother of God standing on his knees in his final prayer. He was extremely like St. Francis, and also many great miracles happened in his life. The Saints ecstatic love to all creatures and God, their source, was constantly felt by all people who ever met him and received multiple blessings from that encounter. May be there are also other means to conform the mind to God, but pure love surely is the most commonly mentioned by great Saints condition, and they know it from their own experience. The latter is not easily understood by those empiricists who speak of “impossibility” of spiritual knowledge.

Thеy do not have the necessary precondition for sufficient conformity of their minds to the divine mind, therefore, they do not have the spiritual experience, hence , for them the theory like Bonaventures cannot be easily verifiable. It is very much like when people who were told about certain observable facts do not want (or incapable) to go to the laboratory and see for themselves. Those are usually indifferent to the achievements of science or very often even hostile to the whole enterprise, because they feel that the talk about that knowledge of others reveals their ignorance, laziness or other infirmities and incapability, which is not flattering to their egos. Modern psychologists call it defense mechanisms, and denial in particular, when the truth when painful for the psyche is denied explicitly but at the same time is driven into sub-consciousness implicitly causing other trouble. But the itinerary of the mind into God leads the soul to the ecstatic peace, as Bonaventure puts it, and this very peace people of all ages and nations observe in the characters of those saints and sages who are conformed to their exemplar. This peace and extreme happiness are usually felt like physically emanating from those wise men and women, and they do not depend on anything material but on rather something extremely subtle. Saint Seraphim of Russia described that in following words:

Fast, prayer, vigilance and all other Christian deeds are very good in themselves, but not only observing of those constitutes the purpose of our Christian life. Those are only means of the latter. The true purpose of our Christian life is accumulation of the Holly Spirit of God. (Reverend Seraphim Sarovsky, p.26-27, my translation).

I quote this Saint as well as some other enlightened teachers of different times and places here only in order to show the universal appeal of those ideas expressed by Bonaventure in XIII century, which constitute the object of my investigation. When we read the descriptions of lives and teachings of real Saints and sages, it becomes obvious that they possess certain extraordinary knowledge and powers. It is also obvious that they live extraordinary style of life. One is connected with the other. So, it is not just about theories we have to learn in school in order to acquire similar intuitions and other abilities, but we have to consider also the lifestyle variable in this experiment. I believe that in this way we have much better chances to receive the data, so to speak. It is precisely on this account Bonaventure writes his Itinerarium, where besides another theoretical representation of his doctrine of light he also emphasizes the desirable character of the soul which might be successful in this journey to God, so in the process she might see for herself the light from above together with the eternal archetypes this light might reveal to the soul. Of course, as students of philosophy we are interested mostly in the doctrine expressed there, but would those really speak to us if the intuitions were nor ours? Is not it the reason why any doctrine seems appealing to some and crazy to others? People often say: “It may be clever, but it is not real”. As we remember, Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason: “Concepts without intuitions are empty…” We can consider mere concepts only on the basis of their internal consistency, but the mind unenlightened by intuitions can still think about any of them as possible dreams of a logician. It is not the case with Bonaventures concepts in the Itinerarium, because they refer to the real experiences of light by Saints and others being on their way to become Saints. I see that it is, without a doubt, also an experience of Bonaventure himself. Having said this, let us gather some more information on illumination presented in seven consequent steps but looking at the theory expressed only in Chapter II:

We may behold God in the mirror of visible creation, not only by considering creatures as vestiges of God, but also by seeing Him in them; for He is present in them by His essence, His power and His presence. And because this is the higher way of considering than the preceding one, it follows as the second level of contemplation, on which we ought to be led to the contemplation of God in every creature that enters our mind through the bodily senses (1).

It is not that Bonaventure suddenly becomes a pantheist here speaking of essential presence of God in creatures, but creatures get their reality only because of that presence of God (the only true, and not merely superficial reality!). They are real and could be known as real only through this kind of contemplation and not by sensual contemplation with abstraction. Still he says that those creatures on this stage enter our mind through the bodily senses. This is one of the legitimate categories of knowledge Bonaventure does not want to ignore (being in this an Aristotilian), so he repeats:

It should be noted that this world, which is called the macrocosm, enters our soul, the microcosm, through the portals of the five senses in so far as the sense objects are apprehended, enjoyed and judged. (2)

I would notice also that this kind of knowledge heavily depends on the connection of the mind to the senses and looses its secondary reality as soon as the mind gets disconnected from the senses in the case of those saints who meditate in isolation for a long time. And who still sometimes show their knowledge of this physical world; and not just a confused knowledge, but sharp and precise. Here I will give a description by witnesses of one of those cases:

Once a peasant from the nearby village came to us when we were visiting to Saint Seraphim in his retreat place a few miles in the forest from the Sarov monastery. He asked: “Who is the man of God?” We pointed at the old man working in his small garden. The peasant ran to the Saint and fell face down before him embracing his feet: “Help, my horse got stolen - and now all my family will surely die!” St. Seraphim lifted the man and embraced him pressing his forehead against the mans one. Then he said: “Go to the village so and so, enter the second fenced property on the left. There you will find your horse tied to the fence behind the house. Quietly untie it and take it home without talking to anyone”.

The peasant left in a hurry. On the next day he came back and thanked the Saint heartily: “You saved us all”. The saint answered: “Go and thank God who helped you and not the humble Seraphim who is nothing”. The man returned to his family (My translation by memory).

Having mentioned the existence of the Intelligences (angels) and that they receive power from the first cause, God, which they in turn dispense in the work of administration . . . , i.e., the work which is assigned for them by God (like also in the case of those great Saints with miraculous powers) sent for service, for the sake of those who shall inherit salvation, Bonaventure continues to present in detail the regular kind of knowledge of the physical things:

Man . . . . has five senses, which serve as five portals through which knowledge of all things existing in the visible world enters his soul . . . Through these portals . . . enter also common sense objects, such as number, form, rest and motion. And since everything that is moved is moved by another . . . .we are led, when we perceive bodily motion, . . . . to the knowledge of spiritual motions, as through the effect of the knowledge to the knowledge of causes (3).

In this common mode of acquiring knowledge the sense perception in connected with the active intellect, which forms an immediate idea of an object in passive intellect by means of abstraction. The knowledge of super-sensual but real is deduced in a manner of philosophical speculation. Again:

The whole of the visible world enters the human soul through apprehension. . .

Yet things enter not through their substances, but through similitudes generated in the medium, and through the medium they pass into the organ and thence into the apprehensive faculty. Thus the generation of the species in the medium, and from the medium they pass into the organ. From the external organ they pass into the internal organ, and the directing of the apprehensive faculty upon it leads to the apprehension of all those things which the soul apprehends outside itself (4).

When does the divine light belong in this doctrine? For Bonaventure it is the certainty of knowledge even of sensibles constitutes the ground for deduction of the existence and even the necessity of that light in the process of knowing. As C. M. Cullen mentioned of the theory: “The mind is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the attaining of truth”. And I would add that the mind could be in different modes depending on different degrees of its conformity, therefore, the above portion of the theory applies only to the empirical mode.Bonaventure following Aristotle (in his Metaphysics) continues with the notion of “the delight we take in our senses” (A I,1):

From this apprehension, if it is a suitable object, pleasure follows. The senses are delighted in an object, perceived through the abstracted similitude . . . , proportion is observed in the similitude in so far as it has the character of the species of form, and then it is called beauty, because beauty is nothing other then numbered equality, or a certain disposition of parts, together with a suavity of color. Again, proportionality is observed in so far as it has the character of power or strength, and then it is called sweetness, when the active power does not disproportionally exceeds the recipient sense. For the senses are pained by extremes and delighted by moderation . . . . Thus through pleasure, external delights enter the soul by means of their similitudes… (5).

Where does the beauty come from? It comes from the Good, or the ordering aspect of the First Principle, which is reflected in nature and the human soul. Many goods, or those mini reflections, become possible for the soul because of the constant participation in the Good, or “contuition of God, and the divinely given signs wherein we can see God” (11).

Explaining further judgment as “an action which, by purifying and abstracting the sensory likeness received sentiently by the senses, causes it to enter into the intellective faculty” (6), and repeating that “this whole world must enter the human soul through the doors of the senses”, Bonaventure says:

“Yet these activities are vestiges in which we can see our God. For the perceived species is a similitude generated in the medium and then impressed on the organ itself, through this impression it leads us to its starting point, that is to the object to be known. Hence, this process manifestly suggests that the Eternal Light begets of Himself a Likeness or a co-equal, constubstantial, and co-eternal Splendor; that He who is the image of the invisible God and the brightness of his glory and the image of his substance, Who is everywhere by His first generation like an object that generates its similitude in the entire medium, is united by the grace of union to the individual of rational nature as the species is united with the bodily organ, so that through this union He may lead us back to the Father, as to the Fountain-head and Object” (7)

In this formula the explanation of the regular knowledge finds its teleology and transcends the empirical knowledge itself forming the true metaphysics.

Here the big question: WHY? finally may be answered. The final cause of this kind of knowing finds its explanation, and it is inseparable with the notion of the Eternal Light.

If, therefore, all knowable things must generate likeness of themselves, they manifestly proclaim that in them, as in mirrors can be seen the eternal generation of the Word, the Image, and the Son, eternally emanating from God the Father (7).

Bonaventure emphasizes this final cause in his theory of knowledge again and again. He follows Aristotelian logic but shows that the philosopher stopped short and never actually became a true metaphysician. That is why he also needs Plato, whom he also attempts to correct, taking him as having proclaimed the impossibility of empirical knowledge at all. There is the way of knowing by abstraction and the way of knowing by ascending directly to archetypes into the divine mind. There is also a midground where the regular knowledge is judged by the eternal, which is never completely absent from the human mind. That is what Bonaventure says about judgment, which speaks for “beholding of eternal truth”:

For judgment has to be made by reason that abstracts from place, time, and change, and hence it abstracts from dimension, succession, and transmutation by a reason which cannot change nor have any limits in time or space. But nothing is absolutely immutable and unlimited in time and space unless it is eternal, and everything that is eternal is either God or in God. . . .

All things shine forth in this light. . . . Therefore, those laws by which we judge with certainty about all sense objects that come to our knowledge, since they are infallible and indubitable to the intellect of him who apprehends, since they cannot be eradicated from the memory of him who recalls, for they are always present, since they do not admit of refutation or judgment by the intellect of him who judges, because St. Augustine says, No one judges of them but by them, these laws must be changeless and incorruptible, since they are necessary. . . . eternally in the Art (9).

As I see it, the theory is consistent, broad, has many levels, answer many questions and reconciles different positions. It is realistic and highly speculative, includes empirical considerations but also transcends their artificial limitations. It entails the moral theory and calls for a certain type of action. These actions are seen in efforts of self-perfection in the traditional Christian mode where the highest respect is shown to the First Principle, the Word and the Holy Ghost. The final destination of all efforts to know invariably lies there, and our minds being created and in this sense unsubstantial are still grounded in the divine source and in this way participate in the divine light of this source. It could be considered more and more but now is the time to stop at this point leaving the rest for the future investigation.


1. Works of Saint Bonaventure: 1) Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, The Franciscan Institute, 1956; 2) Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, 1992; 3) Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, 1979; 4) On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, 1996; 5) On the Eternity of the World, Marquette University Press, 1964

2. Aristotle: The Basic Works, Random House, New York 1941: 1) Phyisica; 2) De Anima; 3) Metaphysica; 4) Ethica Nicomachea

3. Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Publishing Company, 1997: 1) Timaeus.

4. The Holy Bible, the New King James Version, 1990

5. Cullen C. M. , Bonaventure, Oxford University Press 2006.

6. Gilson E., History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Random House< New York, 1954.

7. Великие Святые России, Преподобный Серафим Саровский в воспоминаниях современников, Сретенский монастырь, 2000.

8. A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard, Beacon Press, Boston 1994.

9. Upanishads, the principle texts selected and translated from the original Sanskrit by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, © 1975.

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