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Philosophia Perennis

The first volume of the letters exchanged between Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon has just been published. To read it is to be reminded of Wordsworth on the French Revolution: bliss was it that day to be alive and very heaven to be young. There are readers, and I, Deo gratias, am among them, for whom these letters stir memories of the vibrant days of the Thomistic Revival and the foundational role that Maritain and Simon played in our thinking. Other readers will relate to the letters as vehicles of historical truth, which are not supplemented by personal memories. In either case, these letters provide an incomparable opportunity to share the thinking of two of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.

In the post-Conciliar years bumptious readers of the Council documents have declared that the hegemony of Thomas Aquinas is over, that Thomism no longer plays a favored role for the Catholic philosopher and theologian. Nothing in the documents supports this claim, nor do the repeated endorsements of the popes, but that scarcely matters to a certain kind of Catholic. Having lived through the decades of this condescension toward Thomas, it is refreshing to turn to the letters of two men for whom Thomas Aquinas was the major inspiration and whose work developed ever new lines of relevance between the Thomistic text and modern times.

Something similar is to be found in the book of Aidan Nichols’ called Dominican Gallery, in which he puts before us seven English Dominicans whose works exhibited in delightfully different ways the impact that an early immersion in the texts of Aquinas had on them. Readers of a certain age will know these Dominicans and recall their books, which had such an influence on English and American Catholics. Victor White. Gerald Vann, Thomas Gilby, Sebastian Bullough, Gervase Mathew, Kenelm Foster, and Conrad Pepler. Several of them are still being read and a few, like Gilby, who edited a bilingual edition of the Summa theologiae, and Kenelm Foster, student of Dante, will be known to fellow professionals.

A similar gathering of Jesuit authors of the period could be made but not perhaps with so insistently common a Thomist background. It is that immersion, to be expected of members of the Order of Preachers, that links these men with Maritain and Simon, recalling a time when a recognized Catholic tradition and intellectual patrimony defined Catholic culture.

The Church’s centuries old and reiterated preference for Thomas Aquinas is sometimes looked upon as an untested hypothesis, a promissory note that might or might not be redeemable. That is why the concrete efforts of those who followed the Church’s advice and produced work of lasting interest is important. Here is variegated proof of the fruitfulness of turning to Thomas Aquinas as one’s principal guide in philosophy and theology.

Another complaint that one often heard is that by following the Church’s advice and turning to Thomas we would end up with a vast amount of homogeneous and repetitive work. Once more, the actual literary products of such men as Maritain and Simon and these seven Dominicans belie this fear. Simon was a student of Maritain’s and a deep admirer of his work and yet in these letters we see the two men disagreeing on many matters, not least the stages of practical reasoning with Simon rejecting an interpretation dear to Maritain’s heart. Of course philosophers will disagree. Of course there will be levels of intensity in their agreements.

It would not be too much to say that the passion for originality begins with modern philosophy. Each thinker is intent on developing his own system and contrasting it with previous efforts. One wants a personal stamp on what one proposes: the Bullwinkle theory of knowledge, the Basil Faulty account of moral evil. There is indeed a lot of originality in modern philosophy, a lot of novelty. Most of it has a very short shelf life, pushed aside by the new and improved. In philosophy, as in the arts, novelty is all too easily come by, but truth is neither new nor old.

Try to imagine a Thomas Aquinas regarding his own efforts as the attempt to produce Thomism. This would be suggestive of something true for him and not for others – in short, not true at all in any serious sense.

One of Maritain’s great achievements was to convince artists and poets that Thomas is as important to their work as he is to philosophy and theology. Flannery O’Connor was following that suggestion when she described herself as a hillbilly Thomist who read some of the Summa theologiae every day. But then she was one of the beneficiaries of the time when Maritain and Simon and Aidan Nichols’ gallery of Dominicans flourished.

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.