The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part II

21 04 2010

Maritain – Gilson – Resourcement – VII

In our last segment, we spoke both of the rise of “orthodox” Neo-Thomism, and the rise of a transcendental Thomism more concerned with dialogue with the modern world. Following the line of Fr. McCool’s book, From Unity to Pluralism, we continue with the discussion of Thomist philosophers, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, as well as the scholarship that led to the decline of the Thomist movement. In closing, I will give the reader a sense of my own philosophical sympathies, as well as a brief word on why philosophy matters.

Jacques Maritain needs almost no introduction, but I think it is useful to point out his liberal background and his brief discipleship under the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. Like many in the Thomist movement, he was seeking a way out of the conundrum of modern philosophical skepticism. Because of this, Maritain’s critique was quite blunt and to the point. Philosophy that begins in thought (such as the idealism of Kant) can only end in thought, and that is essentially nowhere. Real philosophy, the philosophy of the Angelic Doctor, is grounded in being. The human mind does not grasp phenomena, but the firmness of being itself. The mind abstracts universal form from the individual matter of the concrete. For Maritain, this was a foundational principle in reinstalling the hierarchy, or degrees, of knowledge, in which metaphysics would retake its primacy over the natural sciences, both informing and augmenting them within a system of integral humanism. For Maritain, the restoration of Thomist epistemology would serve as the cornerstone for the fulfillment of liberal aspirations.

Etienne Gilson, while also a relative outsider to the Catholic world of his youth, had no such social aspirations for his Thomism. He was a historian of medieval thought who found the Thomism of his time vaguely “un-Thomistic”. While Maritain would base much of his metaphysical thinking on the Baroque commentators on Thomas such as John of St. Thomas and Cajetan, Gilson would go to great lengths to prove that such commentators did more to corrupt his system than explain it. Being a historian of thought, Gilson’s expertise was centered not in enforcing post-Aeterni Patris Thomism as a single apparatus, but rather exposing the fact that medieval philosophy was quite diverse and could disagree on very important issues. There was thus no consensus in High Scholasticism that settled on the Thomistic/Aristotelian concepts of being and knowing. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus had differing views, as did many other figures within high medieval Scholastic philosophy. Even later interpreters of St. Thomas, such as Suarez and Cajetan, had their own views on such major issues as the definition of being.

Gilson made this critique in order to uphold the existential concerns of what he considered to be pure Thomism. In this view, theology and philosophy could not be separated as they had been in “decadent” baroque philosophy. Indeed, Gilson defined a “Christian philosophy” based on the Biblical phrase spoken by God Himself to Moses: “ego sum qui sum”. The foundation of this Christian philosophy would be in the act of existence. Man partakes in God’s eternal act of existence which brought all things out of nothing and continues to sustain them. Gilson found that later commentators neglected Thomas’ existentialism. For McCool, then, Gilson is a watershed figure: one who saw that the only way to restore Thomism’s prominence in modern thought was to disassemble Aquinas’ thought as it had been passed down. As it was, it wasn’t “Thomistic” enough.

McCool’s last chapter thus focuses on the real collapse of Thomism as the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. One issue around which Thomism continued to be challenged was the idea of pure nature. Around the baroque controversies over the nature of the grace in the Catholic world, the idea of “pure nature” was posited to preserve the gratuitous nature of grace. While God is the final cause towards which all being is compelled, grace is not “owed” to nature for its perfection. In this sense, some thought, there must be a “purely natural” end of man aside from God that can be achieved without the supernatural intervention of grace. Such a concept was central to the theological theory of limbo, to just name one implication of this reasoning. The problem was, as Henri de Lubac and others pointed out, no such “pure nature” existed in Thomas. It was yet another case of the inauthenticity of “orthodox” Thomism.

Other ruptures began to form along the line of what we now know as the Patristic resourcement. For some Catholic scholars, theology had become too detached from Scripture and liturgy; it was too muddled to tackle the concerns of modernity. The Fathers of the Church spoke a language closer to contemporary existentialism, phenomenology, and anthropology. Others, such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, continued philosophizing in the transcendental tradition of Marechal and Rousselot. Still others, such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, continued to study Thomas’ thought within its original medieval context, concluding that new thought forms were necessary for our time. In other words, Catholic thought is not a static, unchanging entity, but must change with the signs of the times. As Chenu himself famously wrote, “to absolutize Thomas is to give him a first-class burial”.

What the resourcement started, Vatican II finished off. And indeed, in spite of the occasional bows to the thought of the Angelic Doctor here and there, he is no longer mandatory reading for seminarians, nor is complete devotion to his thought seen as a sine qua non of orthodoxy. Indeed, the last two Pontiffs have been decidedly non-Thomistic; one was an “orthodox” phenomenologist, while our current Pontiff seems much more partial to Augustine. The rigors of Thomism, with all of its unforgiving distinctions, have been deemed ill-suited to tackle the complexities of our modern situation. Whereas the model of the Church previously was that of a fortress of absolute truth, even in the most “conservative” post-Vatican II circles, the new paradigm is one of dialogue, development, and tolerance.

In the final segment, I will try to tie it all together and offer more personalized insights.



One response

22 04 2010

My ancestry is Pennsylvania Dutch and Gypsy (Gypsies went to ground all over the Pennsylvania Dutch Appalachians). My first religious affiliations (other than a Sufi commune) were with Charismatic Evangelicals (I was a complete “holy roller”). But oddly, all during this time, I was studying various aspects of “Traditionalism” (hence the Sufis). My search led me to ever more profound respect for the Catholic Church as the only enduring ground for valid (read: Devotional) Traditionalism. That said…

I think it was reading Gilson (or was it the footnotes in the Jerusalem Bible?) that first made me see the profound depth of Catholic Traditionalism. I liked the fact that he seemed more an existentialist Thomist than the scholastic tradition as it came down to us seems to present. Indeed, without being critical to Thomas himself, Being in “Thomism” seemed to be oddly impersonal to a degree that didn’t exist for me even in Aristotle. My reading of Aristotle (in the central and later books of the Metaphysics) suggested that the the essence of Being was Living Being, the essence of Living Being the Person (the “I Am”), and the essence of the person being the Divine Unmoved Mover.

I can’t say I read Aristotle right. Perhaps I perversely choose to read more of existential personalism into his vision than he intended…. Where am I going with this…?

Arturo, you are right on this. Existentialist thought, so profound in the Church in the previous century, so truly wise (quite a change over most Western thinking), is not itself completely adequate to the rigours of fully understanding or expressing the profundity of Trinitarian or Christian metaphysics. It seems to me that we need a new step forward combining the best of the great Catholic existentialist and personalist thinkers of the 20th century with the best of scholastic understand as it has revealed itself. I can’t think of a better Thomist source for that than Gilson.

My recommendation is that we need a neo-neo-Thomism (I’ll leave the correct coining of terms to those who actually have a real education, but the idea is a post-existentialist revival of metaphysics that fully takes the Existential genius into account); and then we specifically need it to formulate anew the profundities of the Nicene Creed (indeed all the Creeds), and to reveal again the utter genius of Trinitarian metaphysics (both of which being inexorably linked, it appears).

I do think it amusing that men of such diverse backgrounds as you and I can come to such similar conclusions, if I can presume that they are indeed similar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: