Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc’s philosophical defense during her Inquisition

Question: What sort of help say you that this voice has brought you for the salvation of your soul?

Joan: It has taught me to conduct myself well, to go habitually to church…

Question: Have you some other sign that these voices are good spirits?

Joan: Saint Michael assured me of it before the voices came.

Question: How did you know it was Saint Michael?

Joan: I knew it by his speech and by the language of the Angels, and I believe firmly that they were Angels.

Question: How did you know that they were Angels?

Joan: I believed it quite quickly, and I had the will to believe it… 

The above line of questioning from Joan of Arc’s inquisition, known in most texts as her Trial of Condemnation, caught my attention more than any other. It has held my attention for a decade. I knew immediately that something was hidden it, that there was more here than meets the eye. My intellect leapt forward to understand it. That was my immediate reaction. That also was my fatal mistake. I was using one philosophical orientation to understand; Joan was using another to explain. This is why I did not grasp initially the real profundity of her otherwise simple responses.

Like most of us, I grew up in an Aristotelian dominated world. We are taught, in line with the great philosopher, that we must analyze, scrutinize, and debate all sides of an issue before being willing to believe it, if we believe at all. Most of us remain “skeptical,” indeed, many of us were taught that a healthy dose of skepticism is a wise thing. “Thinking people” lead with their mind as Aristotle did. The heart, that is, the will must have the matter proven before committing. We must “understand before we believe.” 

This all sounds delightfully mature, logical, and rational, and it is. Except that, it is not. Joan of Arc baffled and brought her “thinking” inquisitors to silence through another approach, through another great philosopher’s lens, that of Plato. Joan of Arc was a Platonist in a newly emerging Aristotelian world. In fact, she might have been executed more for being a Platonist  than for any supposed heresy or political insensibilities. A new philosophical model, the antithesis of that which ruled the mind of the Church from its beginning, had recently overcome the world, and Joan would have none of it. I think her inquisitors knew it. This is why they fell silent after Joan’s seemingly simpleton responses to their questions. Joan was far more profound than what we see at first glance.

Joan of Arc “had the will to believe.” In a Platonic sense, and one advocated by the Neoplatonist St. Augustine, we call this “believing that we might understand,” the exact opposite of the Aristotelian “understanding before we believe.” Joan followed the traditional philosophical orientation of the Church based not simply on the pagan Plato’s teachings but in sync with God’s own: “But without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him.” ~ Hebrews 11:6. By believing, God rewards us with the understanding we need to seek Him. Plato knew this; Aristotle rebelled against it. And Aristotle was winning the day by the 16th century.

Joan’s faith was demonstrated in the first response above: “It has taught me to conduct myself well, to go habitually to church…” She came to understand, that is, to know through that faith: “I knew it by his speech and by the language of the Angels, and I believe firmly that they were Angels.” She came to understand, to an intuition as the philosopher and saint Edith Stein would call it, by first believing because she was a person of goodwill toward God: “I believed it quite quickly, and I had the will to believe it…”

Joan had faith, and through her goodwill believed that God is. She believed that she might understand (to seek) in the Platonic and Augustinian sense. God’s reward for seeking Him was a miraculous victory for France and a heavenly crown of martyrdom for Joan. 

Whereas the modern day Aristotelian reads Joan’s responses and smiles skeptically at her simple and naive responses, Joan’s nefarious inquisitors knew better. They knew exactly the point she was making. She had faith and believed in order to understand, to seek God. They? They were from the new school. The new school doubted God until God could prove himself. She was a peasant girl and believed. They were the leaders of the Church and doubted. What more could they do but fall silent? 

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