Plato's Academy

Joan of Arc’s philosophical defense during her Inquisition

Joan of Arc by herself and her witnesses

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…

~ Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, Regine Pernoud

Jeanne before judges

The line of questioning above 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 in 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 initially I did not grasp the real profundity of her seemingly 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, depending on your school of philosophy. 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 her Platonic mysticism 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 in the face of Joan’s otherwise apparent naivety. Joan was far more profound than what we see at first glance.

“I believed it quite quickly, and I had the will to believe it…”

Jehanne and shields

Joan of Arc “had the will to believe” and “believed it quite quickly.” We call this willingness to believe Good Will: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.” ~ Luke 2:14. Joan was saying foremost in her defense that she was a person of “good will.” How can the Inquisitors argue with that?

In a Platonic sense, and one advocated by the neoplatonist St. Augustine and the more modern St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), we then interpret Joan’s “I knew it by his speech…” as her “knowing” by intuition the true state of affairs based on how it fits logically into the beliefs of the faith that she, and supposedly they themselves, accept in good will as noted in the first argument. “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. As a person of good will who believes, she has faith, as they supposedly should, that God will lead her in truth: “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness.” ~ Isaiah 11:2. Therefore, “I knew it by his speech and by the language of the Angels, and I believe firmly that they were Angels.” If they spoke the language of Heaven, then we know they are telling us the truth. Joan simply was following the Church’s traditional understanding of knowledge and truth. How can the Inquisitors argue with that?

Joan effectively defended herself by saying that she “knew” what she saw and heard was true because it fit rationally with what she, and supposedly they, “believed” in good will through the Church, a good will that by the Church’s own testimony can come only from above. “And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” ~ Matthew 16:17). How can the Inquisitors argue with that? With an economy of words, Joan philosophically and theologically out-maneuvered the intellectual elites from the University of Paris.

Joan had faith, and through her good will believed that God is. She believed that she might understand (to seek) in the Platonic and Augustinian sense. Her military adventures made no sense, in fact were virtually impossible, through the lens of the newly emergent Aristotelian logical deduction. However, they made perfect sense through the lens of Platonic mysticism. God’s reward for her goodwill and faith-filled belief 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 simplicity and naivety, Joan’s nefarious inquisitors knew better. They knew exactly the point she was making. She had faith and believed in order to understand. 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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