Saturday, January 28, 2012

On the memorial of the Angelic Doctor

"The abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each (modern philosophy) started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view"- G.K. Chesterton
This is exactly the kind of smug assertion that Chesterton was so full of and that so many people admire. I think Chesterton's propensity to generate such profound insights at the rate of one every thirty seconds would quickly grow tiresome. Despite loathing modernity more than Chesterton (and expressing his disgust in a brilliant and honest, that is, artistic manner), I have often wondered how my beloved Huysmans would have responded to Gilbert Keith. I do not think his response would be favorable, which probably doesn't matter to many people apart from myself. Frankly, such observations, stated in this absolutist manner, precisely because they do not come close to taking all of the necessary factors into account, drive me nuts. Now, don't get me wrong the synthesis achieved by Angelic Doctor is amazing by any measure and has relevance for us now. Lest I provoke an overly strong reaction, I think there is also much of value in the prolific writings of Chesterton. However, to dismiss all philosophy from Descartes forward as lacking sanity and failing to address reality is not a sustainable position. If nothing else, Descartes blew away the tenability of an unreconstructed realism by showing the gap between the subject and the object. Too often such quotes are invoked to support an anti-intellectual position. After all, life's big questions become much easier if someone has figured it all out for you, n'est ce pas?

The odd thing is most people who use such quotes, like one on philosophy after Aquinas by Chesterton, have read precious little, or even no, Aquinas and they certainly have not read Descartes, let alone Wittgenstein, whose honesty before reality is breathtaking, or Heidegger, whose philosophical project was what he saw as the necessary destruction of the metaphysics of substance in order to fully recover the question of being, or Husserl, whose phenomenology, the school to which Heidegger belonged, came along as the necessary response to the gap posited by Descartes and as an attempted correction to the various idealist philosophies (Kant, Fichte, Hegel et al.) that began to proliferate in the late eighteenth century. Also, it seems to me that from a straight-up Christian perspective, one of the main grounds that cause people to question Thomism, even authentic Thomism, as opposed to the stilted school Thomism, the later of which was called into question by theologians such as the Dominicans Chenu and Schillebeeckx, along with the Jesuits de Lubac and Von Balthasar in the middle of the last century, is the overly-optimistic view of the human person, especially when contrasted with the theological anthropology of St. Augustine, whose own experience prior to his conversion, it seems to me, made him more realistic in this regard. Besides, Bl. John Paul II, who was a philosopher, not a theologian, was deeply influenced by phenomenology, especially the personalist philosophy of Max Scheler, which, like Heidegger's work and that of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (a.k.a. Edith Stein), even after her conversion (Ex: The Science of the Cross), both of whom worked with Husserl, was a notable development of the methods of phenomenology.

I am not advocating disregarding Aquinas, as if such a thing were either desirable or even possible, but putting his work in conversation with what followed. How can we do this if we dismiss all philosophy after Aquinas as insane and out-of-touch with reality a priori? Obviously, that is a rhetorical question, the answer to which is, "We can't."

It is of great interest to me that at the time of his death, according to his friend Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens was working on a piece about Chesterton. I am not endorsing it without reading it, but I find the prospect of an incendiary Hitch-bomb to get the party started somewhat exciting. At least in my experience, faith is more about holding things in tension instead of just letting one end go slack and, as a result, being violently thrown to the other extreme. Wasn't it the Angelic Doctor who wrote, "evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it;...Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean" (Summa Theologica, Question 64 of the Prima Secundæ Partis).

Reaching way back, below are two posts on the Angelic Doctor from the Καθολικός διάκονος archives:

A tale of two (complementary) theological anthropologies: Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas

Christians & Muslims must Worship God and "promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity"

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