Connection between Faith and Reason in Augustine’s, Aquinas’ and Dante’s Works

The definition of tradition in society has always been the passing of one’s customs or beliefs from generation to generation. For some it may have a symbolic meaning and for others perhaps a significance on past origins. But when tradition meets theology in Catholicism, it sits in a class of its own; helping to create an evolving and developing quest that is one of human inquiry, human formation and divine revelation. Thus, with this, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is born introducing a 2000-year-old conversation between the church and the world surrounding the mysteries that leave the human mind wondering; one being the belief that faith and reason are compatible (Hellwig). With such a theory, it is through philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas and Dante, that we are able to see a connection between faith and reason within their writings; all having a common message that faith cannot be known through reason alone as it reveals truths that we cannot fathom.

The writings of Augustine, Aquinas and Dante have set precedent within the Catholic Intellectual Tradition representing the third claim of a correlation between faith and reason. St. Augustine, through his Confessions, found amidst his confusion and struggles that reason places man on the path toward God but it is faith that informs and upraises reason, taking it beyond its natural limitations (Olson, par. 3). Much like Augustine, St. Thomas has comparable views through probably his most influential accounts, the Summa Theologia and Summa Contra Gentiles.

His thinking was that one will never have the ability to fully understand the knowledge of God solely through human reason; therefore, faith is needed in order to see God’s revelation leaving both in a harmonious search for the truth. Similarly, Dante also concurs with the compatibility of faith and reason in the Divine Comedy. His point being that while human reason was Dante’s crucial guide through both Hell and Purgatory it was not adequately enough to help him reach Heaven. It would be with faith that he would arrive at the gates of Heaven making it evident without faith, reason is powerless. Clearly, these authors all share in the same thoughts regarding faith and reason and its compatibility, yet each have their own personal journey travelled and their own influential story; both of which must be told to truly understand their findings.

St. Augustine’s passage was one with obstacles to say the least, but eventually led to the Catholic Church by reasoning through his doubt and welcoming faith into his life. Confessions presents as Augustine’s admission of his sins while at the same time providing an understanding as to the relationship between a man and his creator. As Confessions begins it is introduced as more of an autobiography through prayer rather than that of a religious text showing the growth of a boy into a man. We see an Augustine who in his early days was consumed by sin, greed and lust; in return causing him to stray from his Christian roots in pursuit for answers to life’s questions.

It was then that Augustine became enticed by various philosophers associating himself with Manichean and eventually becoming disheartened by their teachings as he was somewhat haunted by questions of good and evil (The Catholic News Agency, par. 7). He turned to Christianity after being fascinated with the Bishop’s speaking in Milan as it gave him a new understanding and perception of the Bible and Christian Faith. But perhaps Augustine’s biggest revelation toward Christianity would be upon him reading a scripture that said “Not in carousing and drunkness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision of the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:13-14). It was then that St. Augustine turned an eye away from a life of sin.

Augustine would later write “I had been rash and impious in that I had spoken in condemnation of things which I should have learned more truly of by inquiry… Thus I was ignorant how this image of yours could be; but I should have knocked at the door and proposed the question how it was to be believed, and not jeeringly opposed it as if it were believed in this or that particular way.” (Augustine 6. IV.164). Here, we see him conversing with God about his regrets not only because of his ignorance toward Catholicism but also because he was blinded by reason. Upon Augustine’s enlightenment, he realized that to prove the truth solely through reason was not attainable without applying faith, it is then through the conjoining of those two elements that he was able to move forward with his conversion.

Augustine’s desire for the pleasures in society was the cause of his reluctance and unwillingness to surrender to faithfulness of the Catholic Church. Once he was able to come to his senses and put such sinful behavior behind him, he would then welcome faith into his life (Guglielmo,1). Augustine stated, “From this time on I found myself preferring the Catholic doctrine, realizing that it acted more modestly and honestly in requiring things to be believed which could to be proved…” (Augustine 6.V.165). With these words, he confirms that he now sees scripture as rationally true and accepts the teachings of Catholicism. In hindsight, these are the same teachings that he doubted with confusion as he was attempting to use human reason to unravel things beyond human knowledge with the absence of faith.

When Augustine puts both faith and reason together then he is able to place his trust in God and attain the understanding that there are merely things that one cannot explain. Augustine makes this clear when he says “This, since men had not the strength to discover the truth by pure reason and therefore we needed the authority of the Holy Writ… I saw that many passages in these books, which had at one time struck me as absurdities, must be referred to the profundity of mystery” (Augustine VI. V.8). This quote corroborates the philosophy that faith and reason are compatible showing an understanding that reason can only take one so far before faith has to step in and permit God to take over.

St. Thomas of Aquinas has been perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in setting forth the relation between faith and reason in showing the notion that compatibility exists. As a matter of fact, this was said to be Aquinas main goal in the Summa Contra Gentiles as it was his intention to explain the validity of Christian faith to the non-believers (Cerniello, 2) through this work. He would go on to reveal that we solely cannot grasp an explanation of the divine as it is beyond the ability of human reasoning and human knowledge. St. Thomas would say “…there are many who are naturally not fitted to pursue knowledge; and so, however much they tried, they would be unable to reach the highest level of human knowledge, which consists in knowing God” (Augustine 4.250).

In other words, there are theological truths that surpass human reason, therefore, if one does not possess the height of intelligence to grasp the knowledge needed, they will not be able to find God. However, as Aquinas falls into a more in depth justification of the claim that reason and faith are compatible, he makes it clear that it is impossible for anyone to ever have the full knowledge of God (Guglielmo, 3) saying “if the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of the reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance” (Augustine 4.251). Evidently, his thoughts are that if we relied on human knowledge to help discover the divine revelation of God, then our attempts would fail as the capacity of this state of mind is not conceivable.

Dante’s writings also reflect the thought that faith and reason are compatible as he describes his progression through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven along his journey. It is through his voyage that he also comes to the realization that human reason is only able to give someone the capability to comprehend so much. (Cerniello, 4). Like Augustine, you see Dante trying to leave a life of sin and find his way back to God as he travels through Hell and Purgatory. Yet, he is not alone along this expedition as it is when he is in a “dark wood” that he meets is guide, Virgil who represents human reason. As Dante attempted to escape the darkness of the woods he “faced a spotted Leopard, all tremor and flow and gaudy pelt. And it would not pass but stood so blocking my every turn that time and again I was on the verge of turning back into the wood. . . . I shook with dread at sight of a great Lion that broke upon me raging with hunger, its enormous head held high as if to strike a mortal terror into the very air. And down his track, a She – Wolf drove upon me, a starved horror ravening and wasted beyond all belief” (Canto I:33-49).

Undoubtedly, it is the beasts that represent the temptation that people try to flee as when Dante tries to turn away from sin they emerge. It is not until Virgil appears who is “human reason” that he is finally able to break free and pass the beast. This is confirmed by his saying “And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence gathered before me on the discolored air, the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence. . . . are you then that Virgil and that fountain of purest speech?. . . . And he replied, that mad beast that fleers before you there, suffers no man pass. . . . Therefore, for your own good, I think it well you follow me, and I will be your guide and lead you forth through an eternal place” (Canto I:61-108)           

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