The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume 1
edited by Ralph McInerny
University of Notre Dame Press, 496 pages, $50
Founder of the Laval school of Thomism, a school known for highlighting the importance of Aristotle for the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Charles De Koninck (1906-1965) is perhaps the least known scholar of the great twentieth-century revival of Thomism. His only notoriety came with his decisive intervention in the mid-century debates among Thomists over the nature of the common good, but much more of his writing is devoted to what used to be called the philosophy of nature. While many Thomists addressed questions about modern science only in passing, De Koninck devoted much of his career to a rearticulation of Aristotelian and Thomistic thought in relation to modern science.
The great Thomist Ralph McInerny—a student of De Koninck's at Laval University—is working to make sure that he is not lost to posterity. The first volume in The Writings of Charles De Koninck focuses on De Koninck's early writings: his thesis at Louvain (on the philosophy of the physicist Sir Arthur Eddington) and an ambitious and unfinished text on evolution and Thomistic philosophy called “The Cosmos,” as well as shorter works on indeterminism in nature and the relation between experimental science and the philosophy of nature.
In the course of these studies, De Koninck addresses all sorts of questions: What is the relation between the world as described in mathematical physics and the world of our ordinary experience? Is there chance or indeterminism in nature? Does indeterminism undermine the rationality of science or belief in divine causality? Is the Thomistic conception of the cosmos and human nature friendly or hostile to the notion of evolution?
Contemporary readers are apt to be most surprised by De Koninck's response, in “Cosmos,” to the last question, a question he was considering some thirty years before Etienne Gilson published From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again. De Koninck's early work shows a philosophical mind, trained in the sciences and in theology, developing a cosmology that accommodates evolution and chance while recognizing order and hierarchy, a capacious theory that accounts for the place of human beings in the cosmos and for the drama of human existence in all its brutality and nobility.
De Koninck begins “Cosmos” with a reflection on diametrically opposed tendencies in the universe. The physical order, seen most clearly in the indefinite expansion of the universe, tends to increasing disorder—to entropy—while the biological order tends to “growing concentration.” Or, in other words, “Time disperses, life gathers, tending toward structures that are more and more tight,” he writes. Tight here does not mean enclosed or predetermined; on the contrary, as we ascend in the hierarchy of living things, we encounter beings capable of ever more complex interactions with the world and of greater degrees of self-determination and freedom.
Even more important and more fundamental is the distinction between the living and the nonliving. Going against the modern tendency to begin with the nonliving and then to try to establish the living, De Koninck argues that we know the living better than we know the nonliving and that we define the nonliving by negation of the living.
Interiority and self-movement are the marks of the living. As Thomas Aquinas notes, “we experience in ourselves that we have a soul and that it is a source of life.” We know that we think, will, sense, and move and that we do so in and through a body, even if, in thinking, the activity itself transcends every bodily organ. The bodily condition of human life signals our animality. The insistence of Aristotle and Thomas on analogies between human activities and those of other animals means that at least one of the assumptions of evolution does not trouble De Koninck. He detects in much of the resistance to evolution a kind of angelism. He wonders why it should be more demeaning of the dignity of human nature to say that it arises from a monkey than to say that it comes from the slime of the earth.
Yet, however much other animals might anticipate the human intelligence, human persons are distinctive. We share with them the capacity for memory, but our memory does not merely preserve the past. It also recognizes that past as past. Even in the operation of memory, the human animal transcends memory and, in a sense, time. In man we can discern the “triumph of spirit over the dissipation of time.” In man, the “world is bent in upon itself.”
Being composed of a spiritual principle and prime matter, the human being “integrates the cosmos.” De Koninck draws out the cosmological significance of Aristotle's claim that the human soul is “potentially all things.” He makes a nice point—a Socratic point—about the peculiar character of human ignorance: The human intellect's very awareness that it does not comprehend the whole of being underscores its orientation toward that whole, its capacity to make a “tour of being.”
The evolution of the higher from the lower, made evident from paleontology, requires for its explanation not ad hoc interventions by some higher power but the intentionality of a universal cause, which acts not so much externally on things as internally. De Koninck has no patience for the sort of occasionalism that passes for creationism. By contrast, the Thomistic tendency, inspired by St. Augustine, “enriches as much as possible the causality of the creature, not with the goal of eliminating creative intervention, but in order to increase it: For the creative power, envisaged from the side of its effect, is most profoundly at work where created causes are most causes.”
Of course, matter cannot generate human souls (or angelic creatures), but the development of the animal body prepares the way for, and calls forth, or at least calls for, the spiritual soul. De Koninck speculates that in the higher animals, activities enjoyed for their own sake, such as play, might be said to call intelligence into the world.
De Koninck's argument here goes well beyond what can be established in experimental science, but it is a great merit of his work that he is careful to distinguish what we know from experimental science, what philosophical reflection on science might contribute, and what further speculation from metaphysics and theology might add to our understanding of the cosmos. One wonders how many contemporary debates about evolution are doomed to futility and incoherence simply by the failure to make disciplinary distinctions.
Part of what he is at pains to clarify is the very notion of creation, which is different from alteration, a change introduced into preexisting matter. The failure to distinguish creation from alteration appears to let some cosmologists equate the Big Bang with creation without wondering whether there did not have to be something there to explode and then expand.
Working from metaphysics and theology, De Koninck proceeds to consider God's motive in creating: “If God creates, necessarily he creates in order to manifest his glory outside, not to manifest it to himself, as if by creation he could grow in his own regard. Creation is essentially a communication. His work must be capable of appreciating the gratuitous gift that communication is and that is achieved in the person, that is, in an intellectual creature who can give glory to his Principle.” Divine creation is “essentially a communication,” but communication involves conscious reception and reciprocal recognition.
The abundant liberality of nature means that we cannot calibrate in detail the way other natural things serve the end of the human species: “The image of the entire cosmos as essentially ordered to man would appear grotesque from the perspective of the astronomy which provides him a poor little planet born of a catastrophe.” From the prodigality of nature, together with the presence of chance and randomness, there emerges not only life and biological order but the most baffling creature of all, the human species, which has an affinity with the whole.
This emergent order is not incompatible with loss, pain, and suffering on an enormous scale. “Tragedy,” writes De Koninck, is “essential to cosmic life.” Indeed, the greater the order, the greater the prospect for loss and suffering. As we ascend the scale of being, the passion for living becomes increasingly intense and the desire for preservation more ferocious. Death becomes more “terrible.”
So much of modern thinking about human nature tends to extremes, to the complete reduction of human beings to the subhuman or to their exaltation above the order of nature. De Koninck shows us that the presence in the universe of self-conscious life, which recognizes life itself as a good, makes possible both the transcendence of matter and bodily goods through self-sacrifice and the savage, bloodthirsty desire to eliminate all potential threats to one's existence.
At one point in “Cosmos,” De Koninck takes aim at those, much more numerous today than in his own time, who construe the “intervention of man in nature as an evil.” Perhaps the most striking feature of “Cosmos” is the way it finds a place for human beings in the cosmos and predicates human self-knowledge on an education in metaphysics and cosmology, and history and paleontology. As De?Koninck puts it: “We will only be able to understand ourselves when we understand the universe. Our present is filled with the past.”
Thomas S. Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University, is author of Virtue's Splendor and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.