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.
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Iamblichus on the gods

20 04 2010

For those that are good are the causes of good; and the Gods possess good essentially. They do nothing, therefore, that is unjust. Hence other causes of guilty deeds must be investigated. And if we are not able to discover these causes, it is not proper to throw away the true conception respecting the Gods, nor on account of the doubts whether these unjust deeds are performed, and how they are effected, to depart from notions concerning the Gods which are truly clear. For it is much better to acknowledge the insufficiency of our power to explain how unjust actions are perpetrated, than to admit any thing impossible or false concerning the Gods…

De Mysteriis

Root work

19 04 2010

image credit

I thought that this was an interesting article:


Practitioners claim to offer supernatural help,
but often at steep prices

When drug agents kicked in the door of Minnie Pearl Thomas’ trailer at 5 a.m. on March 12, 1999, in the tiny community of Allentown, they walked into an eerie scene.

On the dresser in her dimly lit bedroom they found an altar. On the altar burned several candles. And on the candles were fastened written notes, asking for the spirits’ help with love, money and protection from the law.

The agents were not surprised. They knew that Thomas had been to a root doctor.

It was root work. Since the earliest days of settlers and slaves in this country, the practice, which is akin to voodoo, has flourished in the South. Even in the year 2000, when modern technology has superseded the old ways and Southern culture is becoming more homogenized, root work still thrives out of view from mainstream society.

The candles were not the only root work in Thomas’ house.

Peppers were scattered in [the] space above the ceiling.

Powder was sprinkled around the door.

As they rousted the sleepy Thomas and arrested her for trafficking in crack cocaine, they learned about the powder.

“She said it was Law Stay Away powder,” said Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman.

Read the rest here

The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part I

19 04 2010

Leo XIII to transcendental Thomism

In my life as a Catholic, it has veritably all been a game of “the more you know, the less you know”. You go through most of your life thinking that such-and-such is traditional, only to find out that it is less than a hundred years old: a drop in the bucket in the vast well of human history. The obsession of the Catholic Church, even prior to Vatican II, was an obsession for novelty, which was often compensation for the shame Catholic scholarship felt before that bitch goddess we know today as “historical scholarship”. Having not paid attention to what was really thought and believed, we found that what we had been doing and saying for centuries was all the fruit of novelty. And the only anecdote for novelty was more novelty. God forbid that we should actually stay the course.

In my own life, nothing has more tormented me in this regard than the all-too-modern Catholic obsession with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Like a finicky child told to eat his vegetables, I was made quite scrupulous through finding that, for me, understanding the thought of the Angelic Doctor was work, but not in the good sense. Years in the local town library slaving through the thick volumes of the Summa and hours suffering through seminary classes on the difference between the agent and possible intellects made Aquinas no more palatable to me. But surely, the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII in the encyclical Aeterni Patris was not wrong in officially making the Doctor of the Church’s moderate realism the “official” Catholic philosophy? In true quixotic fashion, I failed to realize that the rest of the Church had moved on, primarily because that which Leo XIII had seen as a bulwark against the “dictatorship of relativism” (to use another phrase preferred by a Vicar of Christ) really wasn’t very “Thomistic” at all.
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Traditional faith healing in the Catholic world

18 04 2010

Above, the opening of a film that you can watch on-line concerning a curandero and bone-setter in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Sorry, no subtitles.

The second set of videos I found was on a newsite in Lake Charles, LA, regarding Cajun traiteurs. AG’s great-grandfather was a Creole traiteur, according to my father-in-law. This is the first extended video I have seen on-line concerning this practice:

Unveiling the mystery of traiteurs

Profile of a traiteur: Helene Boudreaux

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Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

17 04 2010

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Generic weekly music post

16 04 2010

And… Pandit Jasraj sings a raga

A sum of disunities

15 04 2010

The dynamic of eighteenth century French society, what Cobban meant by the “sum” of disunities, is somewhat more difficult to explain. But it is important to understand, for it is what constituted the French social ethos and set it off from that of England. Disunites, remnants of medievalism, plagued early modern European states generally. Individuals moved with a high degree of freedom and security within their corporate group, protected by its rights, but the groups themselves were often at odds with one another… Eli Heckscher put it succinctly when he said that for mercantilists the collective entity was not “a nation unified by common race, speech, and customs” but “the state,” which is to say, the crown and the territory and the populations it governed. In most cases, early modern states included many varied social and ethnic groupings, with which the crown authorities, particularly in France, were willing to “deal tolerantly so long as they did not conflict with the interests of the state.”

Jerah Johnson, found in the collection of essays, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization

This is a very rich passage in terms of dissecting the transition of societies in modernity. The pre-modern model was very much focused on the local for necessary reasons. The idea of the nation-state being a dominant force in determining your identity was not possible because the means of mass communication simply were not there to create such cohesion. A Frenchman in the 18th century probably had no idea that he was French, especially if he spoke Occitan or a dialect of German. The nobility probably had a sense of being “French” only insofar as they wanted to imitate the habits and customs practiced at the court of Versailles. It is arguable, however, that the homogenization of all peoples within a political boundary into “one nation” did not take place until the nineteenth century.

Modernity in its highest phase thus equals the death of the local. Local accents die, local foods die, local tales are cast into the oblivion of anthropological scholarship. They either die, or they are assimilated into the “national whole”, just as foods and language are changed to “fit into” the ethos of the dominant culture. (American “Italian” or “Chinese” food for example.) This is not so much a “tragic” thing, as an inevitable thing. I am not one to be reactionary for reaction’s sake, nor “localist” just for the sake of romanticist provincialism. After all, every time honored tradition is at bottom an adaptation of something else that has its origin in a not so pristine past.

But neither should we overlook the dangers of this drive to unify everything. Especially in our deepest philosophical and theological beliefs, we cannot disregard the fact that we function under a daily regime where difference is to be stamped out in the name of societal harmony. Even in the most “postmodern”, politically correct acceptances of “diversity”, there is a subtext of totalizing liberalism: it’s okay to be diverse, as long as you are diverse “like us”.

For me, when I look at such institutions like the Catholic Church, for example, I cannot help but see the dangers of homogenization being at the heart of all things that I fear. We must sing the same songs, use the same ceremonies, have the exact same points of view. It is not that I am arguing for the “liberal” pluralism that I despise. I more argue for a Catholicism where “difference” is tolerated, if only under the table, in an unspoken agreement that maybe some Catholics are “better” than others, but we are all in the same boat. Perhaps it is a pipe dream on my part, but I dream of being Catholic in the context in which perfection does not equal conformity. That is not at all clear, but I hope at least some of you know what I am talking about.


14 04 2010

A folk phenomenon among the Creoles of color of southern Louisiana, the cauchemar is an evil spirit that comes to ride on the chest when its victim is asleep. The evil spirit or witch is not visible, but can be felt pressing on the chest, not allowing the victim to be heard. In contemporary French, “cauchemar” is just another word for nightmare, but for the Creoles of southern Louisiana, it was interpreted as a preternatural phenomenon, often sent as a warning not to commit a particular kind of transgression. AG’s aunt once told her as a child about it, although AG thought that she was just making all of it up. It was also known as “witch riding”. Remedies for the cauchemar have much in common with other methods of “fooling” preternatural spirits found in other places:

…what my mamma said for me to do is put some stones or some beans under my bed, under my mattress, and put them in a circle ’cause he can’t count and, ’cause he doesn’t come in the daytime. He only comes at night. And, uh, she said cauchemar’s gonna see the stones under my bed, and he’s gonna keep counting in a circle, and he’s so dumb that he won’t know to stop, and then by the time he finished keep counting it’s gonna be daytime. Or he counts the . . . put a fan in your window and he counts the little holes in the screen and by the time he finished counting it’ll be daytime.

More information of the cauchemar can be found in Katherine Roberts’ essay on the subject

The depths inside

13 04 2010

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of

From: ‘The Subject Tonight is Love’

Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

taken from this site