My so-called Neo-Scholastic life

22 12 2019

In spite of philosophy having been an obsession for me since I was a teenager, I have only taken three philosophy classes in my life. In college, it was a Chicano Studies class that I needed to take for another reason, which was just awful. The other two classes were my first year of philosophy in seminary, and I failed both miserably. This was due to my ongoing distraction concerning my actual vocation, and also due to the structure of instruction itself. Lectures were often dry and just reading from notes, on the one hand, and tests were literally just “fill in these twelve lines” format. In other words, it was all about rote learning. There was no real deep explanation concerning what any of it meant: they just wanted to see if you “knew the answer”.

A quick aside: In spite of my continued defense of the Society of St. Pius X, I have to say that I don’t think it has produced any enduring intellectual works worthy of deep consideration. Archbishop Lefebvre’s writings won me over more for their sincerity and clarity, and not because they were particularly insightful (in spite of his having earned two doctorates from Rome, no less). While at La Reja, I was charged with translating into English a short work on the Paschal Mystery that one of the professors wrote. I can’t say I was ever convinced by this work; I think that this explanation of the supposed “skeleton key” of Neo-Modernism is rather one dimensional. A lot more went into the resourcement and Neo-Patristic revival of last century than just trying to knock down penal substitution as explained by St. Anselm. Perhaps I am setting up a straw man here, but the Society of St. Pius X’s line is always one of knocking down opponents with flimsy arguments, without any real attempt to understand the other side of the argument. It is very a-historical and myopic; in other words, not very catholic (in the sense of being universal).

I am not totally innocent here in my previous failures to engage the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have been impatient and not very systematic in my approach. I guess it’s just never been a pressing concern in my life to commit to what is needed to really understand the Scholastic mind. Mind you, I am here talking about a scale of decades and not years. I tried tackling Aquinas as a teenager, only to give up, returned to it the next decade after my seminary years with some enthusiasm, then again a few years ago, etc. I haven’t really rejected continued study of Scholastic philosophy, it’s just that time and resources have been lacking. Perhaps I am making excuses, but part of me is also afraid of developing horse blinders for this subject: studying it to the exclusion of all else, becoming a sort of Don Quixote of objections and replies to objections. When I encounter people obsessed with Scholasticism on the Internet (where would you ever encounter them in real life?), a lot of them seem like they are trapped of their own logical labyrinth, unable to see why anyone would think they are wrong. And from my admittedly lax study of the topic, it seems to me that this is the opposite of who Thomas Aquinas was.

I could be accused of setting up straw men here: the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “evidence”. But let’s take the one area where Scholasticism seems to be useful to the modern Catholic mind: artificial birth control. The Scholastic analysis of the problem is that the sexual act has a proper end, and to foil this proper end using artificial means is intrinsically evil, not in keeping with its final cause. None of that reasoning has kept 99% of Catholics from using artificial contraception at some point in their lives, if not during their whole procreative period. (I have known some of the relatively few families who don’t seem to use it, and they all had eight to thirteen children each: not a common sight in the pews on any given Sunday morning.) But the reasoning itself is pretty wonky: we can cut out someone’s heart and put in a new one, we can mess with the human genome to try to cure inherited diseases before they manifest, and we can blow up mountains and flood hundreds of square miles of fertile valleys, but when it comes to toying with a woman’s reproductive cycle, that is a bridge too far? Yes, I can step in and try to explain why that isn’t the case, but is anyone listening anymore? The entire premise of modern human life is centered on control and “just in time” logistics, yet the very process by which human life is reproduced is supposed to be entirely dependent on chance (“if God wills it”)? I hope you are sensible enough to realize why that line of reasoning was never going to work.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy studying Thomistic philosophy. It just seems like an exercise of building a ship in a bottle. It has little to do with my life outside of the book, and it also has little to do with how the modern Church turned out. Neo-scholastic philosophy went from being the imposed majority position to being a minority position no one had time for in a little under a decade. That’s not to say that the Neo-Scholastics were wrong, but again, Aquinas’ project was one of engagement with a wider world, and the project that was carried out in his name starting in the 19th century failed in that engagement. There were noted exceptions: de Koninck’s interest in modern science, Maritain’s involvement with the birth of the United Nations, Gilson’s existential Thomism, and more recently, the appeal of Alisdair MacIntyre’s cultural critique. But overall, Thomism couldn’t even keep the attention of those within the Church, what to speak of those outside of it.  Thomism became something one has to pay lip service to occasionally because of what is “on the books,” but one could easily be even an “orthodox” Catholic thinker without touching upon Aquinas in a serious way.

Maybe it is a matter of being patient, and maybe the mistake was to try to impose it from above. In spite of my bashing it, I think attempts to revive Aquinas’ thought in our age are well-worth the effort. What I find compelling in attempts to reconcile faith and reason is: in the matter of belief, you can either look for a reason to believe, or you can look for an excuse not to. It really is that simple. What I missed in previous attempts to engage with Thomas was that the arguments are only part of it. You have to have a right order to your senses, your mind, and your passions in order to get anything out of it. You have to reach the point wherein you conclude that things make more sense when you believe than when you choose to continue to wander in the desert of unbelief. In the process, you have to surrender your mind and will to something higher, ultimately reality and the Author of that reality. That’s not a process you can impose from the top down, and it’s probably not something you should be arguing about on the Internet. My one insight that I developed last decade was that, in order to understand Aquinas, one has to re-enter the world in which his thought developed. In spite of the pretense of developing a “universal” form of thought, I think there is an ascetical, liturgical, and cosmological context in which Aquinas makes the most sense, and that is quite alien to our own way of life. It might be our own way of life that is wrong, but failing to acknowledge the “architectonic” issues in tacking Aquinas’ thought just leads to hobbyism and dogmatism in my opinion.

I don’t think I will ever consider myself a Thomist, but I think it is a philosophy that I will continue to engage with throughout my life. I am sad that few others will do so, and many of those who will may be too busy trying to master it to engage with those who find this line of thinking completely foreign and even repugnant. I may only be a fellow traveler, but I have an interest in seeing a re-emergence of Thomism as something more than the pet project of Catholic hobbyists and dogmatic historians.



3 responses

4 01 2020

I think you’ve summed up the pros and cons of Thomism and Scholasticism quite nicely. Definitely what you say about it on the Internet is true. I’d only add the following:

1. I think that any philosophical system that takes decades to fully grasp either has some issues, or isn’t being done right. Yes, any discipline requires a lot of effort over years (10,000 hours, and all that). Still, there are some Thomists online–one whose name rhymes with Weezer springs to mind–who, when it comes down to the clinch, tend to resort to, “You just don’t understand the sublime depths of Thomism, because you haven’t studied it for [insert very large number] years like I have!” If you have to be a PhD or some such to have a reasonably accurate, rough-and-ready understanding of the material–at least in something such as philosophy, which as Mortimer Adler always said is about the general, not the specialized–and if you can’t even join the discussion otherwise, there seems to me to be a problem.

2. I don’t think modern science and its implications for Thomism/Aristotelianism have been adequately addressed. Given modern atomic theory, for example, it’s hard to see how Aristotle’s substance/accidents distinction is possible valid on any level above that of quarks. Atomic and molecular structure are responsible both for “substance” (e.g. the number of protons in an atom’s nucleus) and “accidents” (e.g. color, odor, etc. all boil down to interactions in the atoms’ valence electrons, which are determined by their number, which is determined by the number of protons). Neo-Scholastics just keep plugging along on their merry way, though, as if the last century of science never happened.

3. With regard to natural law theory in general, it’s interesting that the pagans never tried to do with it what the Christians did. It boils down mostly to trying to reverse-engineer Christian teaching to make it work without making religious assumptions. It’s purportedly neutral, and involves conclusions that anyone of good faith would come to regardless of religion. Except that doesn’t happen. The pagans in the Aristotelian tradition never came up with a ban on birth control. Islamic Aristotelians never had a problem with polygyny. The problem is that natural law theory is that there are hidden assumptions baked into it that must be accepted to make it work. For example, re contraception, “using artificial means is intrinsically evil, not in keeping with its final cause”. But in discussions I’ve had, I have often asked, “Just why is it intrinsically evil to use something in a way not in keeping with its final cause, anyway?” All I’ve ever heard is crickets or attempts to redirect the question. I mean, the real reason is, “Because it violates God’s will”; but in a natural law argument, you’re not allowed to say that. Of course, the Bible never explicitly expounds God’s will as being against contraception, either, hence the claim that natural law can prove it neutrally. It can’t, but that’s the claim.

Anyway, those are some thoughts. Great post.

1 01 2020
Tomás Palamás

“The entire premise of modern human life is centered on control and “just in time” logistics” yeah, and this shows how idiotic we are. When things go south in life (“don’t go according to plan”), modern people always look for a culprit and may go as far as committing murder by using our modern favorites such as a suction catheter, sopher clamp, etc. They just need to look in the mirror to find him/her (or zir?). Chance is intrinsic in the universe but this presupposes the Logos. Free choice is like a random variable which maps to a measurable space i.e. possible moral actions. But this doesn’t negate the morality (goodness/badness) of the behavior we choose. But even if people do listen, who guarantees they will act in accordance with whats true and good? Seeing is not believing.

I have read some of your posts about your views on culture, which are interesting. I believe that the Medievals and the early Christians had a stronger devotion to and understanding of Divine Providence because of their culture. A farmer who has a family to take care of will beat his “brother ass” and pray for rain as his life depended on it which would make the average catholic today question whether he even believes in God.

Also, I must point out something others might get confused about viz., equating Thomism with Scholasticism. I’m not saying you are making this mistake but that others might draw this interpretation since the only Scholastic you mentioned was St. Thomas. St. Thomas is great but he is not the Alpha nor the Omega. There is more to Scholasticism than Thomism e.g. I am leaning more towards Scotism. I am thankful for St. Thomas for pushing me out of my comfortable theological and philosophical box; to follow the truth wherever it leads me no matter the personal cost. Until we stop treating Scholastic thinkers as relics that belong in a museum and begin to recognize them as lovers of Wisdom (Jesus) and of the Seat of Wisdom (Mary), we will continue to pretend to be “thinkers” when in fact we’re on our way to the asylum.

22 12 2019

I think it’s worth subverting the 99% rejection narrative just a little. My wife and I have three children over an 18-year marriage and we have never used artificial birth control. I have a Catholic acquaintance, in most respects indistinguishable from the “modernist masses,” who deeply and I think truly regrets the surgery that rendered him sterile.

Like you say, the plural of anecdote is not evidence. But it’s a stranger world than the internet leads one to believe.

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