Not long ago I noticed a sign in the office of an editor at a university press announcing that this was a “Thomist-Free Zone.” That is a warning that could be posted over many philosophy departments in Catholic colleges and universities. The abandonment of Thomas Aquinas by so many Catholic philosophers and theologians in the wake of Vatican II is a story in itself. Many years ago, when the dismantling had just begun, I wrote a book called Thomism in an Age of Renewal in which I tried to understand what was going on around me.
Often the disenchantment was attributed to uninspired textbooks or awful representatives of Thomism and since most philosophy books are uninspired and most philosophers awful, this excuse had a certain plausibility. After all, the disenchantment might even have involved philosophical reasons, though these were in rather short supply among the disenchanted. Far more prominent was the assumption that things were much more intellectually lively in Thomist-Free Zones, that non-Thomists were a pretty impressive bunch and signing on with them was a matter of upward mobility.
Reading Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word, in which this engaging NYU philosopher addresses the widespread tendency to adopt some version of what might be called the Protagoras position – what’s true for me is true for me, what’s true for you is true for you – it occurred to me that it must have come as a shock to my erstwhile comrades to find that, no matter where they fled, they would find the current condition of philosophy subjected to fundamental criticism. Being discontented with prevailing opinion is scarcely confined to Thomists. It is in a way the mark of the philosopher.
Nagel set out to show that fundamental relativism is, as Plato had argued long ago, self-destructive, ultimately incoherent. There are inescapable fundamental truths that can be only verbally denied. Now, as it happens, that is the key to the thought of Thomas Aquinas as it was to Aristotle’s before him. There are starting points of human reasoning that are grounded in the way things are and those starting points are indeed the principles of philosophizing.
No wonder then that Pope John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, begins with them. Imagining that his reader would be alarmed to find that he is reading an encyclical devoted to philosophy, the Holy Father sought to allay that fear. Philosophy takes its rise from questions that are inescapable for human beings – What does it all mean? Is death the end? What is the difference between good and evil? Sooner or later everyone will ask them in one form or another. Human beings in a sense are those questions. But the pope goes on to say that there are answers to them that are commonly held and those answers make up what he calls an Implicit Philosophy. Only after that does he take up the somewhat embarrassing fact that there are a large number of rival philosophical systems. Implicit philosophy turns out to be a means of appraising those systems. Philosophical systems that are at odds with Implicit Philosophy are for that reason suspicious.
Descartes said of common sense that everyone is sure that he has enough of it. This suggests that we should be wary of identifying Implicit Philosophy with common sense. The latter may be merely prevailing opinion and include such oddities as that people once thought the world was flat or that killing unborn babies is a natural right. A good deal of philosophizing consists in appraising candidates for the status of self-evident truths.
There is an old adage: primum vivere, deinde philosophari. One needs lived experience in order to philosophize. That order seems reversed when we are taught philosophy. A teacher takes us along for the ride and we learn to mimic the moves he makes but often this amounts to what Newman would call notional rather than real knowledge. After learning philosophy one must still assimilate it, make it one’s own. A lot of people studied Thomas but didn’t become Thomists. It was that realization that prompted, I think, the discontent among so many in the 1960s. Descartes had a similar epiphany in winter quarters. One reaction is to jettison what one has been taught but not really learned. The other is really to learn it.
In Orthodoxy Chesterton likened himself to a man who set sail from England on a voyage of discovery. Much later, sighting land, he stormed ashore only to find that he was planting his flag on the island he had left. Wandering Thomists may have a similar experience. The older we get, the more simple things engage us, starting points, principles. Getting right about those is to get right about the basis for Thomism. Or any other philosophy worthy of the name. In the end, there are no Thomist-Free Zones.
Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught for many years at Notre Dame.
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