Pietas

It is an affectation of modern thought that one should have no predecessors, since the past is only a muddle. Kant, in What is Enlightenment?, elevated what had become common practice into a ethical imperative. It is immoral to accept anything on anyone else’s say-so. To have a master in philosophy is a mark of intellectual weakness. For all that, there are Cartesians and Kantians, as there are Wittgensteinians and Heideggerians and Husserlians. It is impossible not to be guided by others, at least in the learning of a language, but of course it goes much deeper than that. Needless to say, if one relied at the end as well as at the beginning on ipse dixit, one would rightly be thought to be parroting, rather than philosophizing.

An obvious casualty of the modern turn is common sense; what can the unwashed know, really know, not having learned the Method? Your grandma lived in a world of confusion. Well, not mine. As the sun goes west and eastward shadows lengthen, I have come to be more and more grateful for having had the mentors that I have had. Chief among them is a man, alas little known now, Charles DeKoninck, olim dean of the Faculte de philosophie at Laval University.

Some years ago I moved and my books got rearranged and I kept discovering old favorites and coming upon books I had never read but owned for years. One day I took down a book of DeKoninck’s, and began to reread. Some hours later I sat back and said aloud, “Thank God I studied with this man.” Now DeKoninck had a master, Thomas Aquinas, who in turn had his, Aristotle. Under the tutelage of DeKoninck I became what I realized later was an Aristotelian-Thomist. There are types of Thomist, kinds of Christian thinker, but, to adapt a phrase, the fullness of Christian wisdom subsists in Thomas Aquinas.

All this as fanfare to mentioning a project I have been engaged in for a few years and will be engaged in for a few more, Deo volente, gathering and translating the works of Charles DeKoninck. A first volume has appeared from the University of Notre Dame Press, the second is in production and I have pretty well finished the third. There will be four in all. A few weeks ago, I finished translating La piete du fils, DeKoninck’s magnificent work on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. He was both philosopher and theologian, as the great Thomists of his generation – Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Cornelio Fabro, etc. – tended perforce to be. To translate a text is to enter into it more fully than one does merely reading it. DeKoninck has been more my master of late than previously. Often I have had the unnerving experience of finding him saying things I thought I had coined. Perhaps most originality is a function of forgetfulness.

One begins by mimicking a master, then assimilating his thought and making it one’s own, and then pressing on into what is new yet related to what one already knows. That is why the great Thomists, although they have a common master, differ so strikingly from one another. We have also been engaged for some time at Notre Dame producing the Collected Works of Jacques Maritain, It is important that the golden years of the Thomistic Revival not fall into oblivion. I have no fear of that. A new generation of thinkers, Catholic and non-Catholic, have turned to Thomas Aquinas for their inspiration.

And of course one grows curious about what earlier readers made of his texts. The writings of Thomists can seem at first to be written in a kind of Esperanto. To the degree that is so, it is a flaw in his followers. The great basis of Thomistic philosophy is common sense, the truths everyone already knows, at least in principle. A sign of this is that when they are enunciated one thinks, “I already knew that.” It is those non-gainsayable truths in the public domain that are the principles of Thomism, and indeed of any good philosophy. What’s in a name?

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.