The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part III

22 04 2010

Personal Neoplatonism and when tradition really isn’t tradition

We left off yesterday with the dissolution of Thomism as the “official” philosophy of the Church. In McCool’s telling of the story, Thomism collapsed under its own scholarly weight. Either people were too concerned with dialoguing with modern philosophers (Marechal and Rousselot) or they wanted to make Thomism into a bulwark of liberal modernity (Maritain), or they were too concerned with finding “real Thomism” (Gilson), for all of this to last as a monolithic system. Even though Thomas is still respected, he is far from the sole source of Catholic philosophy and theology.

I suppose the personal lesson that I took away from McCool’s book is that there is really no such thing as “Thomism”. Even in the time of Aquinas, philosophy was too fluid for one approach to be defined as “the” correct approach. Of course, this type of realization has come to me at many points in my life. As a Marxist, once I began to dig more in depth into revolutionary theory, I found that what was at its heart was vulgar authoritarianism. Once you begin to peal the Thomist onion, you will find a hodge-podge of Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and Patristic concerns. Simply put, Thomas did not know that he was a Thomist; he was not obsessed with the epistemological and theological concerns that plague Catholics in the context of postmodernity.

My own prejudice, of course, is Neoplatonic. I say that not as some doctrinaire advocate of a particular system. Neoplatonism is most useful to me in my studies of popular religion, symbolism, and culture. Really, if you break things down, Gilson’s view of all things having their own act of existence is a philosophical dead end for me. A blade of grass as a blade of grass means nothings. As a symbol of inanimate existence fallen from the original One, it means all sorts of things. I suppose that, with Rousselot, I cannot give up on the idea that there is indeed something higher than discursive reason at work in the human experience. Life only prepares you for that barren and rich contemplation stripped of common human reasoning. Thought is more a game of trying to achieve those moments of contemplative clarity than a simple adequatio intellectus ad rem. That may make for some inconsistent if not to say sloppy thinking, but life is not all too consistent, and quite sloppy.

Paradoxically, that is also why I have no problem with such ideas as pure nature. Just because all X is Y, and all Y is Z, it does not always follow that all X is Z. Just because God is the final cause of all things doesn’t necessarily entail that there can’t be a secondary end. Connected to this, I am not too crazy about black and white ideas of good and evil either. I am thus willing to concede the existence of such medieval creatures as neutral angels, jinn, duendes, fairies, and other entities. Such exercises as de Lubac’s critique of pure nature assume a cosmic consistency that does not necessarily exist. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Nevertheless, I still think elements of Thomism are quite useful. Inevitably, the philosophical problems that have weighed down modernity since Ockham and Descartes are really a problem of the will and not of the intellect. As McCool writes in his recounting of early Neo-Thomism:

…Kleutgen asserts that every man, by the very force of his nature, has to assent with certitude to his own existence, the existence of God, and the basic truths of the moral order. Although he might never have reflected formally on the validity of these assents, the normal man makes them without hesitation because he is implicitly aware that the objects of those fundamental judgments are not projections of his own mind. To withhold assent to these basic truths through a real doubt until the mind can acquire the apodictic reflex certitude about them that Cartesian “philosophical reason” demands is not only philosophically unwarranted; it is morally irresponsible. (my emphasis)

That, I think, is truly the problem with any dialogue with modern philosophy in terms of epistemological questions. To bring up a favorite philosopher of mine, Pierre Hadot, philosophy is primarily a way of life, and your way of life would be seriously hindered if you doubted the existence of your toaster every time you tried to make breakfast. It would also be difficult to live in a world where people do not inherently know that stealing your car when you are asleep is wrong. If I were to agree with one neo-Thomist principle, it is that in 99% of our lives, the truth is what is abstracted from what we get from our senses, and it is the same for pretty much everyone. To start splitting hairs about what color the sky really is is not a philosophical problem; it is a moral problem. One should not usually have such problems outside of kindergartens and pre-schools. Unfortunately, they seem to run many a philosophy and comparative literature departments.

To that affect, I really would not mind if someone waved a magic wand and Thomism once again became the “official” philosophy of the Church, even though, as we have seen, it hadn’t been that for very long, or very consistently. Like many pre-Vatican II “traditions”, it was far less traditional than most people thought. As in the case of Gregorian chant, canon law, and liturgy, Catholic philosophy had been evolving for a long time, with many diverse voices competing to be heard. Nevertheless, I deem it more savory than all of the other crypto-phenomenological, romanticist alternatives. Perhaps we can never go back again, but at the very least, we can appreciate the attempts of these men to unite Catholic thought under one solid edifice.



7 responses

24 02 2012
Tobi (@tobizwitschert)

Dear Arturo,
Thank you very much for these series of posts. One is tempted to conclude with MacIntyre that there are too many Thomisms (see his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry). The different groups of Thomists would realise how much they have in common if they (together with the neo-Aristotelians) were focusing their efforts more on helping the non-Aristotelian philosophers to see the rich intellectual resources of Aristotle/Aquinas.
I am conscious that some may object to this that I am talking about Catholic philosophers rather than Catholic theologians. Whoever thinks that theologians can do without philosophy should read some of Ralph McInerny’s writings. Especially his Praembula Fidei. His discussion of Chenu and Nouvelle Theology is very enjoyable and thought provoking.

The problem with histories of moral theology is that they are often written from a partisan perspective (e.g. Gallagher writes from the perspective of Lonergan’s theology). These histories are self-fulfilling prophesies: they want to show the decline of the enemy and the rise of their own caste. Rather than engaging with the enemy on philosophical or theological grounds, they ascribe the enemy to the past and call their reader to turn their eyes to the bright new future. This pattern repeats itself constantly. A striking example is the Protestant invention of the history of moral philosophy. Pufendorf, Thomasius, and others invented the genre of history of moral philosophy in order to assign late scholastic Catholic thought to the historical archives and thereby make space for their own views. They only managed to portray Catholic thought as antiquated because they presented a caricature of it. To turn back to the manuals of the early 20th c.: of course, they failed in some respects, but there was no radical break with most of the neo-Thomist textbooks. Moreover, before condemning the textbooks one should recognise what they are: introductions. Reflection does not end, but rather start with a textbook.

If a historian welcomes the “fall” of neo-Thomism (perhaps because he thinks that it is inherently linked to an Aristotelian metaphysics which has been made redundant by modern science) he will make less effort to identify evidence that shows that neo-Thomism is still flourishing in some quarters and capable of guiding us to meet the challenges of today’s world. Authors such as Ralph McInerny or the new natural law school (even if the latter departs in some respects from Aquinas) show that neo-Thomism is very well adapted to address the issues of today. In their hands Aquinas comes to live.

In any event, it is an illusion to think that something like Aquinas’ theory of action could ever become outdated. Many catholic moral theologians continue to agree on the importance of Aquinas for an understanding of e.g. moral psychology, moral and theological virtue, grace, etc (good evidence of this is Pope (ed). The Ethics of Thomas Aquinas 2002). This does not mean that Aquinas is the only source of moral guidance. Would he have argued that he was? Apart from scripture there is the WHOLE tradition of Christian and non-Christian moral thought. Any source that is excluded should be excluded on the basis of philosophical grounds not by means of a partisan history.

24 04 2010
Sam Urfer

This was pointed out in the other thread, but that doesn’t conflict with Catholic theology as such, but with some interpretations of Thomism.

When the Orthodox use the word “energy”, it brings all sorts of New Age mumbo-Jumbo to mind. A better way of talking about the ἐνέργεια in English and other languages with a Latinate heritage is “action” or “operation”. If we start talking about God’s operations in everything, it makes more sense to the Western context than energies. St. Thomas even says that we come to experience and knowledge of God through His operations.

24 04 2010
Henry Karlson

I have not admit, I really don’t find Ficino’s astrology to be that troubling. What most forget is that astrology itself is found in the works of the schoolmen. For example Bonaventure, in his Breviloquium “As regards operation, we should hold these truths about corporeal nature: namely, that the planets influence terrestrial and elemental things by introducing the distinctive division of time, namely, days, months and years. […] They even influence as regards the effective production of things generable and corruptible, namely, mineral, vegetative and sensitive life and human bodies. Nevertheless they are signs of times and have a governing effect on operations though they are not certain signs of future contingencies, nor do they exert influence upon the freedom of choice through the power of the constellation, which some philosophers say is fate” (II-IV).

Ficino’s discussions of astrology (in those places I have read, like in his Books of Life and some of his letters) actually fit in that light. He makes it clear that he believes there is an influence, but it should not be seen as contradicting free will; but he would point out if we don’t know the influence, it is hard to go against it, and his astrology was in part trying to contend against these influences so one could be freer in their will. Of course, attempts to determine the future as fate through astrology is condemned, but Ficino really seems to work within the context of the medieval world.

23 04 2010

In Orthodoxy, every aspect of creation has as its cause and goal a divine logos or tellos (divine energy) that it reflects.

23 04 2010
Arturo Vasquez

There is a really good quote by Angela Voss regarding Ficino:

“As we begin to unravel the threads of his astrology, it will become clear that Ficino moves between two languages, that of Christian orthodoxy and that of the symbolic imagination, and the distrust of the former of the latter is the reason for his frequent guardedness and occasional seeming self-contradiction on the question of the legitimacy of astrology. He keeps his pagan and Christian voices separate, moving effortlessly between them and never allowing astrological showings to determine the workings of the divine; as a Platonist, he will see through the cosmos to the Divine Mind; as an orthodox Catholic, he will locate God beyond the limits of the stars; as a Hermetic magician, he will use images and invocations to sympathise with the world-soul; as a faithful follower of Aquinas, he will deny the legitimacy of talismanic magic; as a physician, he will claim that the powers sown in the world by the anima mundi are natural, health-giving properties; along with Plotinus, he will suggest that they are gods; as a true occultist, he will remain silent when necessary.”

We are most accustomed to thinking of philosophers at most as academics, clergy, and perhaps in some cases, saints. Ficino does not fit that idea of the philosopher. His philosophy is often in the service of something else.

22 04 2010
Henry Karlson

As a fan of Ficino, what do you think of his relationship with Thomism? The thing is, it is clear to me he is working within the Thomistic tradition in his Platonic Theology, but supplementing it and transforming it as he needed to do so. But reading it, I was surprised at how much of Thomas he borrowed. Of course, I think he had to — for various reasons (including protecting himself from false accusations), and of course, I think it also shows how fluid “Thomism” could be/was without it becoming the stale Neo-Thomism we saw (and that’s not saying there was no good with Neo-Thomism).

Nonetheless, the three greats of the renaissance for me are Ficino, Cusana and Bessarion (the last two, I believe were saints, though I doubt they will be canonized anytime soon). Thomas, I respect, Thomism, I respect, as long as it isn’t reified into a system it wasn’t meant to be. And I think you are right in bringing that problem up!

22 04 2010

I traveled through Aryan Traditionalist circles for a time (Guenon, el al.) because of my own interests in “one solid edifice”. I have to confess that my previous grounding in Platonic and Aristotelian works made these “tradtionalists” at times seem fairly shallow. But I sympathized with their project, as I do even moreso with yours.

Gee, you don’t seem like a gnostic… you’re so… incarnational. Even if you are a “gnostic”, you are clearly no mere gnostic. I really get your interest in the One and perhaps the “realm of ideas”– Eternal Veritas and all that. Of course, Plato himself put forward that this realm was perhaps centered around the “Idea of the Good”.

To my mind, Aristotle simply took this Idea of the Good and explored it in his metaphysics, revealing it to be Supreme Living Being. And of course Essene thought took this into the Logos as a living idea (which Aristotle showed, perhaps correctly, to be the highest, or at least ruling Idea).

My reading of the Catholic though of the 20th cen. is that that Supreme Living Being is what the real, true and good Person is– all other persons being “participants” in the Personhood of the Supreme Person.

The view I put forward here (poorly, since I am but a mere hillybilly) uses (or could use) the apparatus of Platonic/NeoPlatonic decent to explain not Ideas per se, but Persons. It takes the Person as being the Supreme inexpressible Idea, from which all idea descends, from which all persons descend, and ultimately from which all matter descends.

Alternatively, this “Supreme Person” –Logos if you will, the Living Idea of the Good– can be seen as not “most high” but most central; but only if one takes a 3 dimensional view that makes the Center a high mountain from which movement even to the metaphysical north is seen as a decent. I personally don’t mind either.

All this for me is why there is no conflict between the recent Papal views and the original formulations of Universal Christian thought by the Fathers.

Of course, ignorant simplicity makes easy bold pronouncement, at least for me.

Speaking of “black and white”, I think there is both a digital realm, and an analog one. I’ve heard it called Quantity and Quality, or some such. Here’s my two cents:

Quality is essentially a moral determination, of the Will if you prefer. Quantity is not a decision, but an analytical measurement, a weighing out, a coming to grips with. Hence we have venal sins of degree, and mortal sins of Motivation.

Unfortunately, as far as I have ever seen, motives in an of themselves do tend to the extremes of either accepting or rejecting “others”.

Anyway, I should mention that it seems to me the reason that the Patristics didn’t ground the Trinity more explicitly in “The One” is that at the time they were in quite a pernicious ongoing struggle with The Gnostics (or Manicheans etc…), and to do so would have muddied waters they were seeking to make and keep separate. I see Aryan Traditionalism on the rise again today, and I do think it will be a more powerful and pervasive heresy than ever before. So just how one deals with “The One” without opening the door to the kinds of things that probably shouldn’t have happened at Vatican II (albeit from the opposite direction this time) is a question of keen interest to me.

I note you are more a Devotionalist than a Supremacist– something a bit unusual in NeoPlatonic circles. Intriguing.

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