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Truth, for Its Own Sake

As an old man who has been a lifelong Catholic, I am (I think understandably) depressed at the moment about the condition of the Catholic Church, especially in America.  The factors that most of all make me unhappy are these two:  (a) our many remarkably incompetent bishops, and (b) our many homosexual priests and their “lavender mafia.”  Based on my study of the history of the Catholic Church, however, I am relatively confident that the Church will eventually bounce back from this awful slump.  But the bounce-back probably won’t come for a long time, and, given my age, it almost certainly won’t happen while I’m on earth to see it.  I will die an unhappy man.

I look for consolations.  One of them is that the Notre Dame football team – which is Catholicism’s official college football team (at least my father, a devoted Catholic who never himself went to college, so considered it when I was a boy) – is having a strong winning season.  This, I take it, is a sign that God has not abandoned his Church.  I don’t go so far as to think this means that God will allow Notre Dame to beat Alabama for the national championship, for to do so he would have to disappoint many good Evangelical Protestants in the state of Alabama; and as far as I can see the Evangelicals of Alabama, despite their doctrinal deficiencies, have been in recent times more faithful Christians than the Catholics of northern and western states.

I also console myself with the thought that the official teachings of the Church, despite the apparent wishes of some German bishops, remain true to the teachings of the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, and the Doctors of the Church.  The Nicene Creed has not been openly repudiated.

And I especially console myself with the thought that the theology of the Church has for many centuries borne a strongly Aristotelian flavor.  This is of course particularly true of the theology of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

One of the great shortcomings of the modern era is that we (and by “we” I mean the modern world in general) have repudiated Aristotelianism, above all Aristotle’s concept of mind (or intellect or reason – whatever you want to call it).  We have replaced it with what I suppose may be called the utilitarian concept of intellect.


According to Aristotle (384–322 BC), the highest purpose or function of intellect is to know truth.  “All men by nature want to know,” he said in the opening sentence of his Metaphysics.  According to the modern or utilitarian concept, the intellect is a tool for doing or making.  Aristotle held that knowledge is an end-in-itself.  We moderns hold that knowledge is a means to a further end, an end that is more valuable than knowledge itself.

The modern view was perhaps best summed up by Karl Marx (1818-83) when he said in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”  In the United States, the thinker who did the most to explain and defend this modern view of intellect was John Dewey (1859-1952) in his philosophy of Instrumentalism.

For Aristotle, the mind and the universe were made for one another.  Mind is a faculty that has the potential for understanding the universe, and the universe is an entity (or a system of entities) that has the potential for being understood by mind. Mind reaches its fulfillment in understanding extra-mental reality, and the universe reaches its fulfillment in being understood by mind. The wedding of the two is the ultimate point of reality.

Not so for us moderns.  For us, the intellect is a useful tool.  And a marvelous tool it has been.  Not only did it enable us to survive as a species, as Charles Darwin (1809-82) pointed out; but in the last few centuries it has, in its function as tool, done amazing things, godlike things.  Our science-based technology has transformed the world in a million ways, most of them (but not all) genuinely beneficial.  These transformations have taken place not just directly in the obvious spheres (medicine, transportation, communications) but indirectly in social spheres (economics, politics, psychology, social equality, sexual relations).

This modern idea that knowledge should be pursued, not for its own sake but for the sake of good things beyond knowledge, has even benefited the pursuit of knowledge.  In the old pre-modern days, science was a plaything for super-smart people who didn’t have to work for a living, people like Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, and Newton.  Ordinary people didn’t mind if super-smart people liked having fun that way.  We were tolerant of harmless scientists. But once we figured out that scientists were making discoveries that allowed engineers to create useful and pleasant things, we decided to devote lots of money to science, private philanthropic money and public taxpayer money – so as to multiply the number of scientists and the number of useful discoveries.

But if I’m somebody who believes that truth is not a thing of value for its own sake, then it will be quite logical for me to conclude that lies are allowable provided these lies seem likely to produce beneficial results.  Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany have been the most striking examples of that kind of “utilitarian” lying.

We Americans have not been immune to this kind of thing.  Politics, of course, has always been replete with lies, but I have the impression that it’s getting worse.  Maybe I’m wrong; I hope so.  But wherever I turn to national politics, no matter which party I look at, I seem to see falsehood running wild.

That’s one of the reasons I hope Catholicism soon recovers from its present corruption – so that the world will once again be safe for at least a few Aristotelians, people who believe in truth for its own sake.

*Image: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt (van Rijn), 1653 [The Met [1], New York]. From the Met catalog: “Aristotle wears a [barely visible] gold medallion with a portrait of his powerful pupil, Alexander the Great; perhaps the philosopher is weighing his own worldly success against Homer’s timeless achievement.”

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.