Category Archives: 4. Religion and Theology

10. Milton’s Paradise Lost

This morning I finished reading another selection assigned in Religion and Theology, Reading Plan 4 of Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Great Ideas Program—Books I-III of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was at least my third encounter with Paradise Lost, my having studied it or part of it in grade XIII or first year of university (in 1955-56 or 56-57, I can’t remember which) and my having read it when working through The Great Ideas Program sometime after being given The Great Books of the Western World in 1967. The Great Ideas Program considers the whole poem in Reading Plan 7, Imaginative Literature II.
Of Milton and Paradise Lost, Encyclopedia Britannica says: “John Milton stands next to Shaekespeare among English poets; his writings and his influence are a very important part of the history of English literature, culture, and libertarian thought. He is best known for his long epic poem Paradise Lost, in which his ‘grand style’ is used with superb power; its characterization of Satan is one of the supreme achievements of world literature.” (Encyclopedia Britannica: The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 12, page 204)
Books I-III of Paradise Lost concern Satan’s plan to bring about the fall of man and are a good companion to our recent family reading about man’s fall in Finis Jennings Dake ‘s God’s Plan for Man ( In Religion and Theology Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain introduce Paradise Lost; consider how Satan, God, and the Son are pictured in Books I-III of it; and discuss five questions about the three books. Here I’ll sketch Milton’s life, summarize what Adler and Cain say about Paradise Lost, and pose the five questions which they discuss.

John Milton

John Milton was born in London, England, on December 9, 1608. His father, who had been disinherited by his father when he converted to Anglicanism, was a successful scrivener. Milton was educated at home and at St. Paul’s School. He took to studies with a zeal, saying later, “From my twelfth year I scarcely went to bed before midnight, which was the first cause of injury to my eyes.” At the age of seventeen he entered Cambridge, where he worked diligently and by the time that he received his MA degree in 1632 had won recognition and esteem. Abandoning his original plan of entering the service of the Church, he spent the next six years with his father, studying classical literature, history, mathematics, and music. Then he spent fifteen months travelling in France and Italy, where he was widely received. He returned to England in 1639, settled in a house in London, and began taking in students.
In 1642 Milton, who was 33, married Mary Powell, the 17-year-old daughter of a Royalist squire. After a few weeks she returned home, but two years later she came back. They had three daughters and a son died in infancy before she died in childbirth in 1654. In the year that she left him Milton wrote The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce asserting that marriage being a “private matter” could be dissolved in cases of incompatibility. Because he published it without a license, proceedings were instituted against him. He responded with Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, published the following year without a license.
After his wife’s death in 1654 Milton’s personal life was lonely. Totally blind at the time of her death, he was dependent on his daughters, who resented and neglected him. In 1656 he married Katherine Woodcock, who died in childbirth less than a year later. Then in 1663 he married the young and amiable Elizabeth Minshull. She brightened his life, which was passed in quiet study tempered with music and the company of friends. He died from complications of the gout on November 8, 1674, and was buried in St. Giles Cripplegate Church in London.
Milton was a prolific writer. While still at Cambridge he wrote “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and while with his father he wrote the companion poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”; the masques Arcades and Comus; and an elegy for a college friend who had drowned in a shipwreck, “Lycidas.” (He wrote many other works while at Cambridge and with his father, but these are the most famous.) He returned to England with plans for an Arthurian epic, but for 1641-60 (a period including the English Civil Wars and government by the Commonwealth under Cromwell and ending with the restoration of the monarchy) devoted himself almost wholly to writing pamphlets in the cause of religious and civil liberty. He became totally blind in the winter of 1651-52, the great poem still unwritten.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Milton was arrested and heavily fined for his writing on behalf of Cromwell and the Commonwealth, but he was released after a short while. At the age of fifty-two, after nineteen years of stormy political activity, he turned again to the studious and literary pursuits of his youth. To this last period of his life belong his greatest poetic achievements—Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671)—and a miscellany of scholarly and historical works.

Paradise Lost

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden…
(Encyclopedia Britannica: Great Books of the Western World, 1952, volume 32, page 93)
Thus Milton introduces Paradise Lost, in which he tells the story of Genesis 3. In doing so he imagines scenes that are not in Genesis. Like Paul, he presents the story of the fall in light of the crucifixion of Jesus, which he sees as atonement for and redemption from man’s original sin. He also introduces many pagan and mythological allusions that are out of date with regard to the story in Genesis. Moreover he introduces a Devil (Satan) and demons that are not in the Biblical account; those devils have definite names and characters and add colour to his story. [Adler and Cain note that you must read the whole poem to get the full sweep of Milton’s rendition of the story of Genesis 3, but they say that their discussion of its first three books will help get you started. I’ll consider the whole poem when doing Reading Plan 7 of The Great Ideas Program.]

The first three books of Paradise Lost describe the journey of Satan from the depths of Hell, where he has been cast for leading a rebellion against God, to Earth to tempt God’s new creation, man. Satan dominates this part of the poem, having more speeches and being displayed more forcefully than any other character. His opening speech to Beelzebub sets the stage:
“…What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.…” (ibid., pages 95-96)
Satan’s mood is that he has just lost a battle and the war is to be continued. He gathers his chiefs together and proposes that they carry on the fight. He urges that they do it by guile rather than by war and they agree. He then offers to go alone on a mission to discover the new world and subvert man and they bow to his will.
Satan finds the gates of Hell guarded by a woman-serpent and a shapeless monster. The monster challenges Satan, who prepares to give it battle. However the woman-serpent tells Satan that the monster is their son, she being Sin and the monster being Death. Satan pleads with them to let him through the gates of Hell, promising them freedom and prosperity on Earth. They let him through and he begins the hard and risky journey to Earth.

From His throne the Father and the Son see the bliss of Adam and Eve in Paradise and Satan speeding to put an end to it. In their conversation the Father distinguishes Satan’s purposeful sin through self-temptation, which is unforgivable, and Adam’s sin through being tempted, which is forgivable. The Son urges mercy for man, but the Father answers that man cannot by his own power redeem himself from sin and so is utterly condemned unless someone suffers vicariously for him. The Son offers to do so.
The Father hails the Son as the new Adam and the redeemer of the world, proclaiming:
“And be thyself man among men on Earth,
Made flesh, when time shall be, of virgin seed,
By wondrous birth; be thou in Adam’s room
The head of all mankind, though Adam’s son.
As in him perish all men, so in thee,
As from a second root, shall be restored
As many as are restored, without thee none.”
(Ibid., page 141)
The Father goes on to say that the Son will be judged and die, will rise (and with him his ransomed brothers), and will rule over the universe until the final judgment. A hosanna by the heavenly host of angels follows.

Questions about the Reading

1. Is Satan like Prometheus? (See
2. Is Satan’s fall analogous to Adam’s?
3. Why are sin and death linked in Milton and in the Bible?
4. Why is the portrait of Satan so much more vivid than that of God and the Son?
5. What is Milton’s portrait of Christ in this poem?

9. Montaigne’s The Essays

I’ve finally read another selection assigned in Religion and Theology, Reading Plan 4 of Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Great Ideas Program—Michel de Montaigne’s The Essays. It was my second look at a selection of Montaigne’s essays in my current reading from The Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program. The first was when I was working through Reading Plan 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education. I introduced my report on that reading with this quotation from The New Encyclopedia Britannica: “In the 20th century, [Montaigne] is fully recognized in all his aspects as a great writer, and his public is worldwide. Most of his readers see him as friend, mentor, and master of the essay, of the ‘art of being truthful,’ and of the art of living.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 12, page 396)
In Religion and Theology Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain comment on three of Montaigne’s essays [I – XXXI on judging divine ordinances, I – LVI on prayers (their commenting separately on what he says in it about prayers and on what he says in it about the reading and the translation of the Bible), and II – XIX on liberty of conscience] and consider four questions about what he says in them. Here I’ll sketch Montaigne’s life, comment on the three essays guided by what Adler and Cain say about them, and pose the questions that Adler and Cain consider.

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne was born Michel Eyquem on February 28, 1533, in the Château of Montaigne near Bordeaux. His father was a prosperous merchant and lord of the seigneury of Montaigne, and his mother was descended from a family of Spanish Jews that had recently converted to Catholicism. He was their third son, but by the death of his older brothers became heir to the estate.
Montaigne was brought up gently and until he was six was taught to speak only Latin. At that age he was sent to the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux. After seven disappointing years there, he studied law at Toulouse. In 1554 his father obtained a position for him in a new tax court in Bordeaux. In 1557 the court was abolished and its members were absorbed into one of the regional bodies that composed the Parlement of France, the king’s highest court of justice.
In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de La Chassaigne, whose father was also a member of the the Parlement of Bordeaux. Although fond of women, he accepted marriage unenthusiastically as a social duty. However he lived on excellent terms with his wife and bestowed some pains on the education of their daughter, Léonore, the only one of six children to survive infancy.
In 1568 Montaigne’s father died, leaving him the lord of Montaigne. Two years later he sold his Parlement position, abandoned the name of Eyquem, and retired to his estate, intending to collect his ideas and write. While there (1571-1580) he wrote the first two books of the Essays, which were published in 1580 at Bordeaux.
The year after publishing the Essays Montaigne left the estate for extensive travel determined to find relief from internal disorders that had been troubling him. In 1581 while he was at La Villa in Italy, he learned that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. Returning there he served as mayor efficiently and was re-elected to a second term, which ended in 1585. He again retired to Montaigne but shortly after was driven from his estate by the plague.
Montaigne had begun revising the Essays almost immediately after their publication, perfecting their form and added new ones. While in Paris in 1588, he supervised the publication of the fifth edition of the Essays, the first to contain Book III. However he continued working on the Essays after returning to his estate, not writing any new books or chapters but adding numerous passages.
Sometime after returning to his estate in 1588, Montaigne was stricken with quinsy, which brought about a paralysis of the tongue. On the evening of September 13, 1592, he had his wife call together some of his neighbours so that he might bid them farewell. He requested mass to be said in his room and died while it was being said. He was 59.
The above is taken from the report which I made on the first selection of essays that I read from The Essays,

The Essays

On Judging Divine Ordinances
Montaigne classes as tellers of fables those who attribute reasons to God for the occurrence of our good and evil fortune, observing, “God, being pleased to show us, that the good have something else to hope for and the wicked something else to fear, than the fortunes or misfortunes of this world, manages and applies these according to His own occult will and pleasure, and deprives us of the means foolishly to make thereof their own profit. And those people abuse themselves who will pretend to dive into these mysteries by the strength of human reason.” (The Essays, in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 25, page 98). Adler and Cain agree with Montaigne, commenting, “From the religious point of view, the best thing is to accept whatever happens as the will of God, without presuming to know the inscrutable divine purposes and meanings behind events” (Religion and Theology, in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, volume 4, page 146). I also agree with Montaigne, but I don’t agree with Adler and Cain that everything that happens is the will of God.

On Prayers
Montaigne encourages the use of the Lord’s Prayer and discourages our praying while our souls are impure and our praying for God’s help in our endeavours without considering whether what we want is just. Regarding the former, he notes that the Lord’s Prayer was the only prayer that he used regularly. Regarding the latter, he observes, “He who calls God to his assistance whilst in a course of vice, does as if a cut purse should call a magistrate to help him, or like those who introduce the name of God to the attestation of a lie” (The Essays, page 156). In agreeing with Mointaigne, Adler and Cain emphasize that prayer is a spiritual matter, concluding, “It is our whole life that attests to our devotion, repentance, at-one-ness with God. God finds the sacrifice of a contrite heart more pleasing than a stockyard full of burnt offerings or other outward show” (Religion and Theology, page 147). I also agree with Montaigne (and with Adler and Cain).
Midway in the essay, Montaigne comments on the increasing availability of the Bible. He criticizes the casual reading of it and affirms that only select people should study it and write about religion, observing, “A pure and simple ignorance and wholly depending upon the exposition of qualified persons, was far more learned and salutary than this vain and verbal knowledge [of ordinary people from translations into their own language], which has only proved the nurse of temerity and presumption” (The Essays, page 154). Adler and Cain observe that Montaigne was just supporting the policy of the Roman Catholic Church of his day and further on (in the questions about the reading; see below) consider whether ordinary believers can understand the Bible.

On Liberty of Conscience
Montaigne opens this essay by observing that in the current religious civil war good intentions resulted in vicious effects. He devotes most of the essay to a consideration of the noble qualities of Julian the Apostate, the Roman Emperor who renounced the Christian faith and tried to restore paganism. On the topic, he points out that although Julian allowed freedom of religion to inflame dissension between Christians with different beliefs so that they wouldn’t unite against him and paganism, the princes of Montaigne’s day allowed it to lessen dissension and thus to encourage peace, concluding, “I think that it is better for the honour of the devotion of our kings, that not having been able to do what they would [establish that the religion of country must follow that of its ruler, according to Adler and Cain], they have made a show of being willing to do what they could” (The Essays, page 326). Besides summarizing the essay, Adler and Cain observe regarding its focus on Julian, “Montaigne sees Julian as the prime example of the Christian tendency to approve all emperors who were pro-Christian and to condemn completely all emperors who were anti-Christian. Montaigne demonstrates that it is possible to give a perceptive and honest account of a man whom he considers ‘wrong throughout’ in religious matters” (Religion and Theology, page 149). I agree with them.

Questions about the Reading

1. Is religion, for Montaigne, a purely spiritual matter, without relation to the everyday, empirical world?
2. Does prayer have any effect?
3. How does Montaigne regard the social effect of religion?
4. Can ordinary believers understand the Bible?

8. Hobbes’s Leviathan

In an earlier article,, I presented Thomas Hobbes’s view that a nation’s sovereign should have absolute power. In this article I’ll consider how he applies that view when civil law and religious belief are in conflict, guided by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain in the eighth reading of volume 4, Religion and Theology, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961). The reading is on Chapter 12, “Of Religion”; Chapter 31, “Of the Kingdom of God by Nature”; and Part III (Chapters 32-43), “Of a Christian Commonwealth,” of Hobbes’s Leviathan. I’ll just share and comment on two of the quotations which Adler and Cain make from Leviathan and one of the questions which they raise at the end of the reading.

“I define a Church to be: a company of men professing Christian religion, united in the person of one sovereign: at whose command they ought to assemble, and without whose authority they ought not to assemble.… [A] Church … is the same thing with a civil Commonwealth consisting of Christian men; and is called a civil state, for that the subjects of it are all men; and a Church, for that the subjects thereof are Christians. Temporal and spiritual government are but two words brought into the world to make men see double and mistake their lawful sovereign.” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, in volume 23 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

Hobbes viewed Christian sovereigns to be descendants of Abraham, Moses, the high priests (whom Hobbes claimed on the basis of Numbers 27:21 were sovereigns over Israel between Moses and Saul), and the kings who governed Israel by means of a covenant between God and the people of Israel. Thus he argued that Christians should obey them in both civil and religious matters, claiming that the role of the clergy is just to prepare people for the heavenly kingdom. He also argued that Christians should obey non-Christian sovereigns in the same way. How far he went is illustrated in this passage in which he considers what Christians should do if their sovereign forbids them to believe in Christ.

“To this I answer that such forbidding is of no effect; because belief and unbelief never follow men’s commands. Faith is a gift of God which man can never give nor take away by promises of rewards or menaces of torture. And … what if we were commanded by our lawful prince to say with our tongue we believe not; must we obey such command? Profession with the tongue is but an external thing, and no more than any other gesture whereby we signify our obedience; … whatsoever a subject … is compelled to in obedience to his sovereign, and doth it not in order to his own mind, but in order to the laws of his country, that action is not his, but his sovereign’s; nor is it he that in this case denieth Christ before men, but his governor, and the law of his country.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, pages 245-246)

Adler and Cain ask, “Do Scriptures support Hobbes’s contention that the civil authority should rule in religious affairs?” (Adler and Cain, Religion and Theology, page 138) They point out that in the Old Testament there were prophets who struggled against kings whom they condemned as godless men. They also refer to Jesus’s injunction, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV; all Scriptural quotations are from the ESV) and observe that in the early church staunch believers chose civil disobedience and possible martyrdom when imperial edicts conflicted with Christian faith. I agree with Adler and Cain that the Bible doesn’t support Hobbes’s contention. Moreover I think that the context of a Scriptural passage which he cited in support of it, Numbers 27:21 (see above), indicates otherwise, God’s telling Moses to “invest [Joshua] with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey” (Numbers 27:20). Thus God ordained that Joshua (and the judges) would have power in Israel as well as the high priest.

7. Dante’s The Divine Comedy

At rare moments in a cultural tradition, great works are created which sum up all the strands of thought and imagination that have gone into the making of that tradition. Such a unifying work is usually the work of a poetic genius. In the case of Western Christendom, that moment comes in the early part of the 14th century; the work is The Divine Comedy, and the poet is Dante Alighieri. (Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, page 109)

Thus Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain introduce their guide to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which I’ve now reached in my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program. They conclude their introduction to The Divine Comedy with this claim regarding it, “The result is both a literary masterpiece and an unforgettable view of man’s spiritual nature and destiny” (Adler and Wolff, page 110).

Adler and Wolff go on to: (I) consider the purpose and subject of The Divine Comedy; (II) survey its first two sections, “Hell” and “Purgatory;” (III) introduce the assigned reading, “Paradise;” (IV) identify and explain the significance of the figures that Dante meets in his ascent through Paradise; and (V) discuss three questions which they ask on Dante and The Divine Comedy. Here I’ll sketch the life of Dante, note what Adler and Wolff say about the purpose and subject of The Divine Comedy, and pose the three questions asked by Adler and Wolff.

Dante was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265. He received a rich education in classical and religious subjects. His idealized love for a beautiful girl, Beatrice Portinari, provided much inspiration for his writings. However, although grief-stricken by her early death, shortly afterwards he married Gemma Donati and they had at least three children.
Dante was active in the political and military life of Florence. He became involved in a political dispute between two groups, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. A group within the Guelphs that was hostile to Dante gained control of Florence about 1300 and banished Dante. He spent the last few years of his exile in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.
Dante began working on The Divine Comedy in about 1308 and completed it in 1321. It was his masterpiece, but his other works also “hold an important place in the history of Italian literature and make their essential contribution to the formation of a literary awareness and tradition, establishing new literary forms and new aims of thought” (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 5, page 481).

The Purpose and Subject of The Divine Comedy
The original title of the work was The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with “comedy” referring to its happy ending at the throne of God. “Divine” was added in the 16th century, expressing admiration for its high quality as well as indicating its sacred theme. Dante’s aim was to affect human character and action. In a letter to his patron he wrote: “The subject of the whole work, taken merely in its literal sense, is the state of souls after death, considered simply as a fact. But if the work is understood in its allegorical intention, the subject of it is man, according as, by his deserts and demerits in the use of his free will, he is justly open to rewards and punishments.” (Adler and Wolff, page 111)

Questions asked by Adler and Wolff:
1. Are we to take Dante’s story as an imaginative fiction or as an allegory of religious truth?
2. Who was Beatrice? What does she represent in the poem?
3. What are Dante’s theological views?

6. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve come to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The only systematic theology in the original Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia |Britannica, 1952), it occupies two volumes (19 and 20) of the 54 books in the set even though parts of it are omitted. (The 1990 edition of the set also includes selections from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.) It constitutes the sixth reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology, by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

Adler and Cain conclude their introduction to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in The Great Ideas Program by observing that although it was questioned and even attacked as heretical in some of its doctrines in its day, “this synthesis of reason and revelation has become in modern times the accepted intellectual structure of the Roman Catholic Church” (Adler and Cain, Religion and Theology, page 86). They go on to consider: (I) its sources and form of exposition; (II) First Part, Question 1: The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; (III) Second Part, Part II, Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity, Question 1: Of Faith; (IV) Second Part, Part II, Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity, Question 2:Of the Act of Faith and Question 3: Of the Outward Act of Faith; and (V) six questions which they ask on the reading.

Here I’ll sketch Aquinas’ life, summarize the first section in Adler and Cain’s guide, pose the questions which they ask on the reading, and summarize briefly how they answered the questions.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas was born in 1224/25 near Naples and entered the University of Naples in 1239. In 1244 he joined the Dominicans, who immediately assigned him to study theology in Paris. Opposed to his doing so, his family abducted him on his way to Paris. However finding that nothing could shake his determination, they released him the following year.

Arriving in Paris in 1245, Thomas began studying theology at the Dominican convent under Albertus Magnus, a champion of Aristotle. When Albertus was appointed to organize a Dominican house of studies at Cologne in 1248, he took Thomas with him. After four more years of study, Thomas received his bachelor’s degree in 1252 and returned to Paris to teach and to train to become a master in theology, which he became in 1256.

Although only a little more than thirty-one, Thomas was appointed to fill one of the two chairs allowed the Dominicans at the university. However, in 1259, after three years of theological teaching there, he returned to Italy, where he remained nine years, teaching and writing. Suddenly, in 1268, he was called back to Paris to combat both those who were opposed the use of Aristotle in theology and those who were presenting an Aristotelianism seemingly incompatible with Christianity.

In 1272 Thomas was recalled to Italy to reorganize all the theological courses of his order. He went to Naples, where he taught at the university and continued to write. However his writing career came suddenly to an end on December 6, 1273. While saying mass that morning a great change came over him, after which he stopped writing. Urged to complete Summa Theologica, which he had begun in 1267, he replied: “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw, and I now await the end of my life” (quoted in Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page vi).

The following year Thomas became ill on his way to attend the Council of Lyons, stopped at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, and died on March 7, 1274.

Summa Theologica

“The Summa Theologica is a systematic exposition of theological knowledge, compiled from all available sources with the master purpose, of course, of setting forth and defending Christian doctrine” (Adler and Cain, page 87). Theological knowledge includes knowledge about man and the world as related to God as well as knowledge about God. The sources of Summa Theologica include classical Greek (especially Aristotle) and medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers as well as Christian thinkers.

Summa Theologica consists of three parts divided into treatises. (The Second Part is also divided into two parts.) Each treatise is divided into questions, which are divided into articles. The title of each article gives the question in affirmative form. It is followed by a general negative answer, introduced by “We proceed thus to the [number of the article] Article,” and a listing of specific negative points called “Objections.” Then Aquinas summarizes the opposite view, introducing the summary with “On the contrary.” The body of the article, introduced by “I answer that,” gives Aquinas’ judgment on the various views. Finally Aquinas replies to the numbered objections in order. According to Adler and Cain, this form was typical of the day.


Is the God of philosophical reason the same as the God of religious faith?
Adler and Cain give three possible answers‒the first affirming that “philosophy provides an objective norm for the religious view,” the second affirming that “religious faith gives the only true picture of God’s nature and attributes,” and the third affirming that “both the philosophical and religious views do justice to the divine reality” (Adler and Cain, page 102)‒and ask which view Aquinas takes. In Question I, Article 1, of the First Part Aquinas speaks favourably of both the philosophical doctrine and the divine revelation about God, suggesting that he takes the third position. However in the same article he affirms that “besides the philosophical sciences discovered by reason there should be a sacred science obtained through revelation” for “man’s salvation, which is in God” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page 3), suggesting that he takes the second position.

Is a man free to refuse the gift of faith?
Adler and Cain suggest seeing Question VI, Article 1, of Part II of the Second Part. In it Aquinas says that two things are required for faith: that the things which are of faith be proposed to a person and that the person assent to the things which are proposed to him or her. He also says that for a person to believe his or her will needs to be prepared by God with grace. However he doesn’t specify whether or not a person can refuse the gift of faith.

How can sacred theology be a science if its origin is faith, and its aim salvation?
Adler and Cain note that Aquinas deals with this question in Question I, Articles 2 and 4, of the First Part. In Article 2 Aquinas compares sacred theology, which draws its first principles from divine revelation, with the sciences of perspective and music, which draw their principles from mathematics, and in Article 4 he decides that sacred theology primarily provides theoretical knowledge about God rather than practical knowledge about what people should do. However Adler and Cain claim that “the question is still an open one for us, since Aquinas’ answers are in terms of medieval notions of science and are inconclusive” (Adler and Cain, page 103).

How does a believer know that what he believes is divine revelation?
Adler and Cain observe, “The traditional answer is that he knows this through faith,” but continue, “But faith involves the gift of divine grace. How do we know that it is a genuine faith we have, and not mere conformity to what has been handed down to us?” (Adler and Cain, page 104). Aquinas claims that miracles and “the inward impulse of the Divine invitation” confirm the authority of Divine teaching but admits that the believer “has not…sufficient reason for scientific knowledge” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 20, page 399).

Is it legitimate for theology, as a scientific discipline, to use figurative expressions?
Adler and Cain note that Question I, Articles 9 and 10, of the First Part deals with the interpretation of scriptural symbols. In Article 9 Aquinas argues, “It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths under the likenesses of material things” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page 9). In Article 10 he considers different senses that a word may have in the Bible‒historical or literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical.

Does “faith” mean anything besides intellectual assent to propositions?
In Question II, Article 1, of Part II of the Second Part Aquinas concludes that “to believe is to think with assent” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 20, page 391; on the previous page he defined “to believe” as “the inward act of faith”). However Adler and Cain distinguish between faith as intellectual assent to propositions and as personal trust in God.

5. St. Augustine’s The Confessions

In this text St. Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of the early Christian Church, gives us a profound and impressive example of Biblical interpretation. We witness a unique combination of personal piety and spiritual vision fused with literary and philosophical judgment. We see a man with an impassioned soul, wrestling for the truth, using all the highly developed faculties of his mind, and at the same time relying on divine grace to get at the supremely important meaning of Genesis. The words almost steam from the page in the heat of his ardor, but they bring us light and depth as well as heat.

Their speaker is no mere archaeological specimen in the history of thought. Augustine has had a remarkable, continuing influence on religious thought in the Western world from the 4th century to the present day. Texts like this one have earned him that perennial, vivifying influence.

(Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, pages 67-68)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve come again to St. Augustine’s The Confessions. Earlier I read and reported on its Books I-VIII; see Its Book XI, Sections I-XIII, and Book XII constitute the fifth reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

The quotation with which I opened this article comes from the introduction to Adler and Cain’s guide to the reading. They go on to consider: (I) some of the views held by Greek philosophers about the origin of the world; (II) how Augustine interprets“In the beginning God created” of Genesis 1:1; (III) how Augustine interprets “the heaven and the earth” of Genesis 1:1; (IV) Augustine’s admission that, although he holds to his interpretation of Genesis 1:1, other interpretations may be true; and (V) four questions which they ask on the reading.

Here I’ll just pose the questions which Adler and Cain ask on the reading and summarize briefly how they answer them.

Does Genesis say that the world was made out of nothing, or out of formlessness?
Adler and Cain consider both options.

If God is omnipotent and perfectly good, why did He create an imperfect world?
By “imperfect world” Adler and Cain mean a world that can fall away from perfection. They suggest different answers to the question by means of a series of questions.

Are graded levels of being necessary for an interpretation of Genesis?
After noting that Augustine held that all things were distant from (or close to) God, Adler and Cain discuss whether there may have been “qualitative distinctions in the various aspects of created being” (Adler and Cain, page 81).

Wherein is Augustine a Neoplatonist and wherein is he a Christian?
Adler and Cain summarize the Neoplatonic and Christian views of creation and ask a series of questions about the presence of each in Augustine’s view of creation.

4. New Testament’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached The Bible’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It constitutes the fourth reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

Adler and Cain introduce the reading by observing that the New Testament Gospels are not only historical documents and literary masterpieces but also an expression of the early Christian Church’s faith that God had directly revealed Himself in the life, teaching, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. They conclude their introduction thus:

The New Testament proclaims that God took on human form, suffered gross indignities, and died an ignominious death. In this humiliation and this death, as well as in the subsequent resurrection, lie the meaning and the glory of the Gospel story for the Christian faith. (Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, pages 49-50)

Adler and Cain go on to look at the land, people, religion, and politics of Palestine in Jesus’s time. Next they explain how the New Testament came into being and why they selected Matthew for their Gospel readings. Then they summarize the events recorded in Matthew, noting their significance in Jesus’s life and ministry. Finally they ask and discuss some questions about the Gospel. Here I’ll just pose the questions which they ask and summarize what they say in response to the questions.

Why does Jesus put together the two commandments‒to love God and to love one’s neighbor? (Matthew 22:34-40)
Adler and Cain observe that some people stress one of the commandments over the other, ask a series of questions on the relationship between the two commandments, and suggest seeing I John 4:20-21 for one view of the double commandment.

Is Jesus’ commandment to leave one’s family destructive of human relations and hence contradictory to the law of love? (Matthew 10:34-39)
Adler and Cain observe that there are many possible interpretations of Jesus’s injunction, consider two of them, and suggest rereading the passage and Matthew 12:46-50 and venturing your own interpretation of them.

Was Jesus’ ethical teaching influenced by his expectation of the imminent advent of the Kingdom of God?
Adler and Cain observe that some thinkers, notably Albert Schweitzer, think so but that others think that Jesus’s ethical teaching is addressed to ordinary earthly existence.

What does the term “Son of Man” mean?
Adler and Cain observe that in Jesus’s native Aramaic “Son of Man” meant mankind but that in apocalyptic literature it signified the Messiah. They note that the phrase is common in Matthew and that in each case the reader will have to determine from the context what it means.

3. Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and Book of Exodus

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached the Bible’s Book of Genesis and Book of Exodus. They constitute the third reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

Adler and Cain introduce the reading by describing Abraham and Moses, identifying the former as “a patriarchal ancestor” and the latter as “the founder of a people and a religion.” They conclude their introduction thus:

The Bible deals with the whole of human life as imbued with religion: mating and begetting, war and work, historical events and communal acts. In the Bible, domestic, ethical, and political activity‒as well as religious worship‒express and embody the service and imitation of God. These early books of the Bible help us to realize the full scope of the religious life. ( Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, page 32)

Adler and Cain go on to explain what the Old Testament is and why they chose the passages that they did for the reading, to seek the “special Old Testament version of the relation between God and man” (Adler and Cain, Religion and Theology, page 34). Next they comment on the passages which they’ve chosen from Genesis about Abraham‒12:1-9; 13:14-18; 15; 17; 18:17-33; and 22:1-19. Then they comment on the passages which they’ve chosen from Exodus about Moses‒3-4 and about the Israelites‒6:1-8; 14-15; 19-20; and 24. Finally they ask and discuss some questions about the passages. Here I’ll just pose the questions which they ask and summarize what they say in response to the questions.

What, exactly, is a covenant, in the Biblical sense?
Adler and Cain had considered the Covenant on Mount Sinai in their earlier comments. Here they look at a few other covenants in the Bible, most between a higher party and a lower party. They describe the one at Mount Sinai as “a binding relationship with a people, bestowed by the higher power [God]. The higher power rules and guides; the lower one serves and obeys.” (Adler and Cain, page 42)

What is the religious meaning of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac?
Adler and Cain identify the two main interpretations of the episode, one seeing it as an advance from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice and the other stressing Abraham’s utter obedience and trust.

Is Old Testament religion essentially personal or communal?
Adler and Cain note that, although the experiences of Abraham and Moses were personal, they were done in the context of Abraham’s seed and the people. They ask a number of questions on the personal and communal elements of religion.

What does the name I AM THAT I AM mean?
Adler and Cain identify and discuss the two main interpretations of God’s giving it as His name, one holding that He is announcing Himself as eternal being (I AM) and the other that He is announcing His continual presence with Israel.

How can the God of one people be the God of the whole world?
Adler and Cain reword the question “[Is] the idea of a special revelation of the Eternal Being to a particular people at a particular place and time…not offensive to reason‒especially when the claim is made that this revelation discloses God’s nature, will, and purpose for all men at all times and places?” and discuss it at length.

2. Plato’s Euthyphro and Laws

The relation between the good and the holy, between the ethical and the religious, has perplexed men for thousands of years. Is holiness or piety a matter mainly of ceremonial correctness and ritual purity, or is it above all a righteous life? Does the ultimate power over things care what men do or do not do on this earth? Why do the wicked prosper if there is a righteous divinity overseeing things? Plato takes up these and other questions in the Euthyphro and in the famous Book X of Laws. (Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, page 17)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Plato’s Euthyphro and Laws. They constitute the second reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

After a brief introduction, which opens with the passage quoted above, Adler and Cain (I) explain why Euthyphro charged his father with murder, (II) summarize Socrates and Euthyphro’s discussion of piety in Euthyphro, (III) present Plato’s views on religion given in Book X of Laws, and (IV) ask and consider six specific questions on religion raised in Euthyphro and Laws. Here I’ll identify Plato, summarize briefly what Adler and Cain say in (I) to (III), and pose the questions which they ask in (IV).


Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people.


Socrates and Euthyphro meet on the porch of the chief magistrate of Athens in charge of religious matters. Socrates is there for preliminary hearings on a charge of impiety, and Euthyphro is there to lay a charge of murder against his father. A field labourer on the father’s estate had died of neglect while being held for the murder of a domestic servant. Viewing his father as responsible for the labourer’s death and thus involved in religious pollution, Euthyphro thinks that he must prosecute him even though he is his father.

Socrates and Euthyphro’s Discussion of Piety

In the discussion Socrates tries to arrive at a general definition of piety. Euthyphro auggests, “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them” (Plato, Euthyphro, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 7, page 193). Under questioning by Socrates, he suggests two alternate definitions of piety, “Piety or holiness, Socrates, appears to me to be that part of justice which attends to the gods, as there is the other part of justice which attends to men” (in the same work, page 197) and “piety or holiness is learning how to please the gods in word and deed, by prayers and sacrifices” (in the same work, page 198). However before leaving, he returns to his first definition, that piety is what is pleasing to the gods.

Plato’s Views of Religion in Laws

The people engaged in dialogue in Laws are an Athenian stranger with experience somewhat like Plato’s, Cleinias (a Cretan), and Megillus (a Lacedaemonian). Book X deals with religion and theology and is the only systematic presentation of Plato’s views on religion. The Athenian argues against three positions which he thinks are irreligious: (1) that Gods do not exist, (2) that if they do, they don’t care for man, and (3) that they may be swayed by sacrifice and prayer. He also considers the penalties that should be meted out to those who hold these positions.


Should filial piety outweigh all other religious and ethical considerations?

What kind of service should men render the gods?

Are the mental aspects of reality primary, rather than the physical?

Is the world ruled by a supreme will?

Does God care about human affairs?

Do sacrifice and prayers have any ethical and religious value?

1. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound

Divine power has not always been regarded as just and beneficent. The tension between the divine and the human is a perennial problem. Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, has dramatized this tension by staging the myth of Prometheus, the Greek hero, or demigod, who was cruelly punished by Zeus for bringing culture to mankind. This myth of the benefactor of man, chained to a rock and tortured for countless ages but always maintaining his defiance of the supreme power, has stirred the imagination of readers for thousands of years. (Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, page 1)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. It is the first reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).

Adler and Cain introduce their study of Prometheus Bound with the above quotation and the presentation of some basic religious problems raised by Prometheus Bound. They go on to: (I) describe the mythical background of Prometheus Bound, (II) outline Prometheus Bound, (III) discuss what Prometheus Bound says about the nature of the ultimate power in the universe and of man’s relation to that power, (IV) compare Prometheus Bound and the book of Job, and (V) pose and discuss three questions. Here I’ll identify Aeschylus and share briefly from Adler and Cain’s study.


Aeschylus was a Greek poet who lived in Athens around 525-456 B.C. He write more than eighty plays, of which seven (including Prometheus Bound) survive. He is regarded as the founder of Greek tragedy because he added a second actor to the single actor and chorus previously employed. He won the prize at the annual contest in tragedy at the festival of the City Dionysia at least twelve times. He is noted for the religious element in his tragedies.

Mythical Background of Prometheus Bound

Essential parts of the mythical background of Prometheus Bound are that Zeus is the supreme ruler of the gods; that Prometheus, one of the gods under Zeus, angered him by stealing fire from heaven and bringing it to men and by teaching men all the useful arts for maintaining themselves on earth; and that Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a rock on Mt. Caucasus, where an eagle ate his liver every day and it was restored at night.

Plot of Prometheus Bound

The play opens with Kratos and Bia bringing in Prometheus and holding him while Hephaestus, the divine smith, shackles him to a rock. It closes with Prometheus (and, because of their loyalty to him, the daughters of Oceanus) sinking into the abyss. Others appearing are Oceanus, the god of the water which surround the earth, who offers to intercede with Zeus on Prometheus’s behalf; Io, a girl with whom Zeus had fallen in love and turned into a heifer to protect her from the wrath of his wife Hera and who is now being driven by a gadfly sent by Hera to wander over the face of the earth; and Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, who threatens Prometheus with horrible punishment unless he reveals a secret which he knows about Zeus’s future.

What Prometheus Bound says about the nature of the ultimate power in the universe and of man’s relation to that power

Adler and Cain discuss whether Zeus is the ultimate power. They observe that in the play he is “overpowering force, not only omnipotent, but tyrannical, merciless, and unjust” (Adler and Cain, page 6). However they also present evidence to show that he is bound by Fate or Necessity, that his power is not eternal, and that he is not omniscient.

Adler and Cain also discuss the characteristics of Prometheus and why he protests against the divine power. They note these interpretations: he is “the benevolent enlightener of mankind and the defiant protagonist of spiritual liberty against a divine tyrant”; he is “a tragic hero of noble character who falls through the defect of self-willed pride”; or he is “a heavenly being who tries to ursurp the supreme power, in this case for the good of mankind” (Adler and Cain, page 10). They conclude that perhaps none of the interpretations is quite true.

Prometheus Unbound and the Book of Job

The Great Ideas Program considered the Book of Job in an earlier volume. See Here Adler and Cain discuss how the Book of Job deals with the problem of the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked in a world ruled over by a Good of righteousness and compare Prometheus and Job,

In the latter Adler and Cain begin their comparison of Prometheus and Job by observing that there is one basic similarity between them‒both question the sufferings they are forced to endure. Then Adler and Cain show how Prometheus and Job have different attitudes: Prometheus complains about the injustice of his punishment but doesn’t expect justice from Zeus, whom he views as the Enemy, but Job’s resistance is that of a man of faith who can’t understand why he is suffering so when God is the Friend. Finally Adler and Cain show the different ends for Job and Prometheus, Job’s accepting (“I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” Job 42:6, ESV) and being rewarded with earthly happiness and Prometheus’s remaining intransigent and being punished with endless torment.


Is it right or wrong to rebel against divine power?

\What is the religious evaluation of man’s acquisition of the arts and sciences?

Is there a nonrational, nonethical element in the divine?

Adler and Cain discuss what both Prometheus Bound and the Book of Job say about each question.