President's Corner

A Philosophia Perennis? St. Thomas Aquinas and "Post-Modern" Sensitivities

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

In the title to my lecture is written “a perennial philosophy” followed by a question mark. The question mark is deliberate. After all, to inhabit the 21st century is to be familiar with contradictions, oppositions, polarities. We live in a "pluralistic" society, by which we seem to have come to mean that there can be no general or common agreement even on fundamental moral questions. We speak of "culture wars" and expect little or no possibility of reconciling political divisions of the left and right. It is difficult for our century to think beyond the individual and, in our assertion of individual rights, we cannot so much as agree upon what is marriage or what is a family. Were the Declaration of Independence to be issued tomorrow, it could no longer read, “We the People”; the best we could muster would be, “We, the undersigned.”

In a cultural climate such as ours it would seem ridiculous to speak of a "perennial philosophy" and thereby to hold that there could be what Etienne Gilson termed "a unity of philosophical experience ", an ongoing preoccupation with philosophical questions that are common to humanity through time. Even, and perhaps especially, in philosophy we confront two apparently contradictory claims:

On the one hand we are heirs to the Enlightenment and to what now appears to many to have been an exaggerated confidence in the rule of reason. For the philosophers of the Enlightenment the universe we inhabit is a cosmos which functions according to necessary laws that reason can perceive. In this view, there can indeed be "perennial philosophy", a notion which Leibniz popularized, referring, of course, to his own philosophy. Philosophers of the Enlightenment did not tend to be encumbered by weak egos.

While God is given a role in the cosmos, philosophy cast in this mold does not require a theological tradition which, indeed, it tends to hold in contempt, for the role of God is limited to being the guarantor of order in things. Even such a skeptic as Hume insists upon the possibility of "clear and distinct ideas" as the cornerstone of his philosophic edifice. The fact that reason can grasp the order in things was evidenced in our capacity to manipulate the things we find in nature, turning them to our own ends. So complete was the confidence in the capacity of reason that society was convinced of the possibility, or better, the fact, of progress, each generation being capable of advances over the last.

The influence of Enlightenment philosophy persists in the confidence we invest in our science and in the assumption that there is a direct correlation between our understanding and our ability to manipulate things. Having, for example, decoded the human genome we may now be capable of engineering social interactions so as to eliminate criminal behaviors. This chilling possibility was discussed at a conference I recently attended at Notre Dame.

On the other hand, we witness a rebellion against the "modern" world of the Enlightenment. There is no cosmos that functions according to necessary laws, but a "reality" that we ourselves impose. God, the guarantor of order in things, is dead, for we have taken his place. Our experience of the world, cast in "postmodern" terms, is individual and private and ultimately incapable of generalization. Any notion of progress had to be abandoned with the social cataclysm following two world wars. "Reality" can no longer be conceived as something that reason discerns but is, rather, an artifact of our making.

We should likely concede some truth to these propositions which represent, after all, a rebellion in the face of the overconfidence of the Enlightenment. However, while we might understand how social or political phenomena might be approached in this manner, we would expect that anyone engaged in the pure or applied sciences might – or should – be more open to the assumption that experience can be generalized and that there is order in things. Otherwise there would be no possibility to increase our knowledge through experimentation. While extreme examples never afford a generalization that is entirely fair, they do tend to be useful in illustrating a point and, for that purpose, I will offer one:

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised when we discover that Bruno Latour and others have pursued their skepticism even into the realm of experimental science. Latour holds that the objects themselves of scientific study are socially constructed within the laboratory and that no existence can be attributed to phenomena apart from the minds that interpret them. Latour follows this “social constructionist” approach to interesting conclusions. In responding to the research that suggests that Ramses II died of tuberculosis Latour responds, "How could he pass away due to a bacillus discovered by Koch in 1882? ... Before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence." He asserts that to hold that Ramses died of tuberculosis would be as anachronistic as claiming that he died of machine gun fire. We might notice, in passing, that Latour has a curious notion of what it is to “discover;” in common usage (in English and in French) to discover –découvrir– means to light upon something that is already present.

Clearly, the divisions and oppositions that characterize much of our political and social experience are reflected in philosophy: on the one hand there is an assertion of the essential intelligibility of things, and on the other hand we are confronted with skepticism concerning reality itself. What would seem to be necessary would be a philosophy that would insist upon both the intelligibility of things and their incomprehensibility. But this is, in fact, what St. Thomas Aquinas held. Moreover, he asserted that both the intelligibility of things and their incomprehensibility derive from the same source. To quote Joseph Pieper,

The philosopher who also has faith… regards the world as a creation which issued from the divine Logos and which, although it is fundamentally luminous, lucid, clear, and bright, at the same time reflects a design which by its very nature is inaccessible to human understanding.[1]

St. Thomas asserted both that there is truth –an actual correspondence between the mind and things– and that the order in things is finally inaccessible to the human intellect in its source, which is God. To the Enlightenment philosophers he could hold that there is, indeed, an order that the intellect can grasp but with a caveat: we cannot, finally, reason to the necessity of that order. God is not merely the guarantor of an order that reason perceives; he is the author of that order. To the “post-modern” philosophers he can respond that yes, there is an essential incomprehensibility to human experience and yes, the human subject is active in its engagement with the world, but with a caveat: the mind, even in imposing order so as to manipulate things, is nonetheless receptive in its engagement with the world. In the moment that we perceive any object we cannot perceive it other than as it presents itself to us. Reality itself is, indeed, an artifact but the artist is God and not man.

St. Thomas, I would argue, is able to avoid both the excessive rationality of the Enlightenment, the tendency to reduce reality to encompass only what reason is able to perceive, and the unwarranted skepticism of some "postmodern" philosophers as to the possibility of any claim to the truth. What, then, do we see when we look with St. Thomas at the ideas and assumptions that preoccupy our modern or “post-modern” world?

It would certainly be disquieting to him (at least) that disputation as he knew it has been replaced by polemic, that the lawyer would supplant the philosopher or the theologian. He sought the truth – what is so – and he presumed argument to have that purpose, not mere persuasion in order to win votes, or to triumph in court, or advance one's own rights. He presumed goodwill, that no one would take a position for the sake merely of convincing, let alone of deceiving. He would be profoundly dismayed to see that the act of understanding, which he called "speculative" knowledge, would be judged subordinate and inferior to the urgency to apply what is known, what he termed "practical" knowledge. Ideology was unknown to him; he would be deeply dismayed, for example, to hear the Catholic faith characterized as a "belief system" or an "ism" – "Catholicism" – and his own conclusions treated no longer as expressions of what is most fittingly to be thought, but as principles in the construction of an argument.

Our first task, therefore, if we are to look with St. Thomas, is to be instructed by his method: to presume goodwill in such a way that we take the positions of others seriously and, in cases that they are not seriously proposed, then to receive them more seriously than they were intended. We must hold that there is truth to be found and that the truth is one but that, like St. Thomas, we must also hold that we cannot exhaust its possibilities: the best that we can achieve in the face of the mystery of God and his creation is what is most fittingly said, given the limitations of our seeing. This suggests a strategy for dealing with contemporary challenges: nothing unravels ideology or sophism more quickly than to take it seriously; nothing is more disarming of polemic than the invitation to understand the matter at hand.

If our seeking can be in the manner of St. Thomas then we will begin, perhaps, to notice things that we might, otherwise, overlook and to open conversations that we might not otherwise engage. We may well discover that we have a great deal of sympathy for elements of what is loosely called "postmodernism", insofar as that movement represents a sort of rebellion against the overconfidence of the Enlightenment.

We will notice, for example, that every Enlightenment thinker predicated being univocally of God and creatures. In other words, when we say that the world is or exists and that God is or exists we assume that God is or exists in the same way as the world does. The effect of this was, on the one hand, to render ridiculous the appeal to anything beyond what is finite, temporal, and imminent to experience (that is, God exists in the same way that the world does), and, on the other hand, to expect a certitude about contingent things to a degree that St. Thomas would have found staggering (that is, the world exists in the same way that God does).

We might notice that we ourselves can be coerced, if we are not careful, by this tendency of the Enlightenment, and that we can read St. Thomas through an Enlightenment lens. For example, the Benzinger translation of the Summa, which was (I blush to admit it) the work of Dominican student brothers of the English Province, appears to fall prey to this tendency when "An deus sit" is translated "Whether God exists", which is an Enlightenment question. St. Thomas's question is not "Does God exist?" but “Whether God is?” To point this out is not, I submit, a symptom of overindulgence in the favorite Dominican sport which is to multiply distinctions; in this case, the difference matters.

At no point in the second question of the Summa does St. Thomas ever employ the verb, “exsistere”, “to exist”, which connotes, in Latin and in English, an appearing, a coming or springing forth in the manner that things in the world present themselves to us. In the theology of St. Thomas this is precisely what God does not do. God does not appear or spring forth like the palm trees that line your boulevards. That being which is the first apprehension of the intellect, what St. Thomas calls “common being” or “being-in-things” is what “exists”; in that sense we might say that “existence” or the “appearing” or “coming forth” of being is what first awakens the human intellect, and, as St. Thomas teaches, instantaneously perfects the intellectual habit. It cannot, however, be predicated univocally of God. God, pre-eminently, is; all other things exist.

If we predicate being univocally, then we would have to say with Levinas and others that God cannot be said, strictly, to “exist”. Rather, that God is can only be spoken through an analogy of improper proportion whereby any tendency to think of God in the manner of being-in-things is carefully denied. We grasp, imperfectly, what it is “to be” through, for example, our grasp of the difference between life and death. But every being that presents itself to us is temporal and contingent: it could not be. God, St. Thomas insists, is esse ipsum subsistens, “being subsisting in himself,” being that cannot not be. The deism of the Enlightenment according to which God “exists”, but as belonging to the same order as being in things, as a sort of first principle or guarantor of order in nature and in society, is not at all what St. Thomas understands by God and the reaction against that deism is something of which St. Thomas would heartily approve. Many of our contemporaries would be astonished to learn that, in their quarrel with modernity, they might be seen to have a champion in St. Thomas Aquinas. To the degree that we are attentive to their questions, we have the opportunity to open for them possibilities in the Catholic tradition that would not otherwise occur to them.

We have, I think, a similar opportunity to open up conversation around the contemporary assumptions concerning pluralism. As I remarked at the onset, it has become a matter of popular contention that our society is pluralistic, to the degree that it is not possible to agree upon fundamental moral norms concerning marriage, family, human sexuality, the obligations and limits of social life, and so on. Appeals to the idea of a “natural law” are held by many to be naïve: if there were a natural law, they argue, then there could be no fundamental disagreement on these matters. After all, St. Thomas himself insists that the first principles of the natural law apply to all, and in the same way. Even Pope Benedict has called the natural law a “blunt instrument” in the midst of contemporary debates.

Yet, that there is a natural law is of huge significance, in that our very comprehension of the idea of law itself depends upon the fact that there is order in human acts and that we can perceive that order. For this is what St. Thomas meant by the natural law: not a “law of nature” in the manner that the Enlightenment assumed a necessary order in things that reason can perceive, but an order in human acts –in our own acting– which every person can intuit in the same way. There is, for example, a grasp of the idea of law that is natural to every human person such that every person intuits it in the same way. But if there is such an order, and we can perceive it, at least to the extent that we can grasp the very idea of law, then there must be some limit to the “pluralism” we all assume: fundamental disagreement on moral questions cannot pertain in the first place.

St. Thomas is very careful in what he attributes to the natural law in that, for him, it refers to order in human acts insofar as that order is intuited by the reason through its conscious awareness of our natural inclinations. It is, as Jacques Maritain has insisted, an inchoate knowledge, a knowledge that is not immediately conceptual. As such, the natural law is prior to principles of the practical reason in the manner that Immanuel Kant, for example, postulates them. It is for this reason that, the more the principles of the natural law are applied to particular circumstances, the greater the possibility that there will be disagreement concerning their application.

By way of example: St. Thomas holds that, according to the natural law, it is in the same way evident to all human persons that we should live together in society in a reasonable manner. From this it follows that goods entrusted to another should be restored to their owner. Yet St. Thomas does not hold that this pertains in the same way in every case, but only in most cases. In certain cases it might be contrary to reason to restore goods held in trust; for instance, if they are used for the purpose of fighting against one's own country. The more we multiply particular circumstances or conditions, the greater the possibility there will be that the direct application of principles of the natural law will become obscured. St. Thomas offers the interesting example that, according to Julius Caesar, theft was not considered wrong among the Germans. (In all fairness we might, of course, counter that exaggeration was not considered wrong among the Romans.)

If we are truly to follow St. Thomas, we must be careful in our application of the natural law. Recently I had occasion to correct a well-intended appeal to the natural law concerning marriage: the argument had been advanced that, according to the natural law, marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman. Recall that, when we make this claim, according to St. Thomas, we hold that this must be evident to everyone, and in the same way. In fact, St. Thomas does not hold that this is the case: that procreation involves male and female is, indeed, a principle that follows from the natural law. However, St. Thomas holds that it does not immediately belong to the natural law that marriage is monogamous, for he reminds us that the Patriarchs –Abraham, Isaac and Jacob– each had more than one wife. That marriage is monogamous is by no means contrary to the natural law, but it must be deduced, and it is perfectly possible that there are those who are incapable of the deduction.

To be careful in this manner is not at all to admit of moral relativism. If anything, it is the tendency of the Enlightenment to confuse natural law with laws of nature and a consequent moral positivism of which St. Thomas would deeply disapprove, that tends in practice to foster relativism: when such claims (as to monogamy, for example) are shown not to hold, then any appeal to fundamental moral norms is denied, and relativism is the result. If we are truly to follow St. Thomas, then the task before us is twice difficult: first we must immerse ourselves in the tradition that is our patrimony so as to learn it well, but, second, we must also be hospitable to the ideas and concerns of others, so that we may respond to them in the manner of St. Thomas.

I want to conclude my remarks with the insistence that St. Thomas was able to embrace both the fact of the intelligibility of the world along with the fact of its incomprehensibility precisely and only because he was a man of deep faith. The greatest temptation, the greatest danger to philosophy is "the natural desire to create a clear, transparent and unified image of the world."[2] Only a person imbued with faith can accept a reality that is not tidy or face an uncertain future with sufficient hope to be alert to all its possibilities. I again refer to Joseph Pieper:

A philosophy of history which takes into account the possibility of a catastrophic end to history within time and yet, on the grounds of the same apocalyptic theology, is opposed to the conclusion, born of despair, that existence is therefore absurd, must inevitably prove far more arduous, more complex, and, so to speak, "less satisfying" than any philosophy of progress (whether based on idealist, Marxist, or evolutionary conceptions) or any metaphysics of decline and fall…. Thus the person who engages in the philosophical act appears to derive a certain handicap from his collaboration with theology, but simultaneously he derives an enrichment which can be summed up in the term: higher truth. For the essential thing in philosophy is neither the avoidance of knotty problems nor the bewitchment of the intellect with plausible or conclusive proofs. Instead the essential thing is that not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed – not one element of that unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the concept of "truth."[3]

To be faithful means, in the end, to remain, to stay, to look and not look away. If I am faithful to my Lord I remain with him, I stay, I look and I do not look away. I seek to see the world as he sees it; I look with him and I do not look away. Faith demands that "not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed" and it is this disposition alone which will open to us the truth of things. Happily, it is this disposition that will enable us, in the manner of St. Thomas, to engage the challenges of our own times.



[1] "Speculations and the Future of Philosophy", Problems of Modern Faith, tr. Jan van Heurck, Franciscan Herald Press, 1985, p. 272. Back to text.

[2]Joseph Pieper, ibid., p. 273 Back to text.

[3] Ibid., pp. 273-274