Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I Literary, Philosophical, Theological

In one of my lectures last spring, I happened to mention an oddity about canons. For those who are unfamiliar with the usage, canon nowadays refers to any standardized body of texts that someone being trained in a certain discipline is required to know. In that sense, the word is a carry-over from ancient controversies about the Bible. For roughly the first four centuries of the Church’s life, debate persisted about what books did or did not belong in the Bible. Christians eventually came to agree that twenty-seven books form the second part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament. On this, all Christian bodies now agree. As to what constitutes the first part, what Christians call their Old Testament, disagreement still reigns, with Protestants (joined by St. Jerome, by the way) subscribing only to those books that for Jews now go under the name of the Hebrew Bible, while Catholics and Orthodox admit certain Jewish books that were written in Greek (or survived only in Greek translation) but that are now excluded by Jews and Protestants. (Jews of course are united, for obvious reasons, in holding that the New Testament has no part in their Bible.) In those controversies, the term used to describe the books that made it into the Bible was kanōn , a Greek word meaning "rule" or "standard." But the biblical canon is not my concern here. I merely want to mention that later disciplines took up the same word to describe those books that were not claimed to be inspired (theologically speaking) but rather were regulatory , at least in this sense: They were regarded as indispensable for understanding the discipline in question. It will come as no surprise to anyone that most humanistic disciplines have such canons of required texts. This holds true even after the attacks by some postmoderns a few years back on the very notion of a canon, which by their lights represented a "hegemonic" imposition by those notorious imperialist ogres, Dead White Males. But that attack, though heated and certainly silly at times, had little effect on the need for a canon, however defined. After all, since the time allotted for learning a discipline is necessarily limited, attacks on the canon led, at most, to a mere expansion of the canon, usually to include women authors (Toni Morrison in literature, Teresa of Avila in theology, etc.). Anyway, there first has to be a canon to attack. In that sense, no one disputed then¯or disputes now¯that in literature we have Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, the two Eliots (George Eliot and T.S. Eliot), and so on; in philosophy, such obvious figures as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger have their "place at the canonical table"; and in theology we can cite, equally noncontroversially, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Thomas Aquinas, among of course many others. With the Protestant Reformation, things become slightly more controversial, as both the Protestant norm for orthodoxy and its means of adjudication differ from the Catholic view. But within Protestantism no one would dispute the place of Luther, Calvin, or Karl Barth; just as in post-Reformation Catholicism, no one disputes Robert Bellarmine or Blaise Pascal. Notice that I have, with the exception of Barth, studiously avoided mentioning any twentieth-century theologians, for the very good reason that the verdict of history has yet to be heard (though I have no doubt that Barth will always be regarded as canonical for Protestant theology). My question here¯the same one that I posed to my class¯is both how authors come to be regarded as canonical and why , whether we are speaking of literature, philosophy, or theology. Although I am not concerned in this posting so much with the literary canon, I think we can all agree that, at a minimum, style is crucial for admittance into the literary canon. The critics C.S. Lewis , Harold Bloom , and Frank Kermode are in this all agreed: any author that one is willing to read more than once for literary pleasure belongs, at least provisionally, in the literary canon. And for that admittance a pleasing style is essential. To put it mildly, I think it can go without saying that such a standard hardly counts in philosophy. No one disputes Hegel’s status as a canonical philosopher; but anyone who has tried to work through his rebarbative prose quickly comes to see how little literary merit counts when it comes to admittance into the ranks of the canonical philosophers. Arthur Schopenhauer, himself a canonical author of the second rank, railed time and again against Hegel’s ugly style, and utterly to no effect. Ironically, no mean stylist himself, he shows in brilliant prose (as we might expect) how little style counts in philosophy. Thus in the first volume of his The World as Will and Representation he marvelously rants against the style of several canonical German authors in a veritable romp of vituperation:
Kant’s style bears throughout the stamp of a superior mind, a genuine, strong individuality, and a quite extraordinary power of thought. Its characteristic can perhaps be appropriately described as a brilliant dryness . . . . I find the same brilliant dryness again in the style of Aristotle, although his is much simpler. Nonetheless, Kant’s exposition is often indistinct, indefinite, inadequate, and occasionally obscure. This obscurity is certainly to be excused in part by the difficulty of the subject and the depth of the ideas . . . . But the greatest disadvantage of Kant’s occasionally obscure exposition is that it acted as an exemplar vitiis imitabile [an example inducing one’s epigones to imitate its defects]. Indeed, it was misinterpreted as a pernicious authorization. The public had been forced to see that what is obscure is not always without meaning; thereupon, what was senseless and without meaning at once took refuge in obscure exposition and language. Fichte was the first to grasp and make vigorous use of this privilege; Schelling at least equaled him in this humbuggery, and a host of famished scribblers without intellect or honesty soon surpassed them both. But the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scribbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel . It became the instrument of the most ponderous and general mystification that has ever existed, with a result that will seem incredible to posterity, and be a lasting monument to German stupidity. (Schopenhauer’s emphases)
OK, granted, Hegel couldn’t write his way through a paper bag. But did such an attack remove Hegel from the canon, or bring Schopenhauer up to his rank? No. And that’s the enigma. What also strikes one immediately upon looking at the canon of philosophers versus the canon of theologians is how much orthodoxy, however defined, counts in the latter case but not the former. Arius (author of the Arian heresy) and Cornelius Jansen (author of the Jansenist heresy) might have been brilliant theologians (they were), but they are little read today except by historians of dogma. (This is why I hesitate to list twentieth-century theologians, since the verdict of their orthodoxy is still outstanding; although, needless to say, I have my hunches.) But such diverse figures as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hume, and Hegel continue to be read (or should be) despite their irreconcilable doctrinal differences about the nature of reality. And that has to mean something. As the Polish writer Leszek Kołakowski puts it in his book Metaphysical Horror , the doctrinal confusion in philosophy could hardly be starker:
For centuries philosophy has asserted its legitimacy by asking and answering questions inherited from the Socratics and Pre-Socratics: how to distinguish the real from the unreal, true from false, good from evil . . . . There came a point, however, when philosophers had to confront a simple, painfully undeniable fact: that of the questions which have sustained European philosophy for two and a half millennia, not a single one has been answered to general satisfaction . All of them, if not declared invalid by the decree of philosophers, remain controversial. It is just as possible, culturally and intellectually, to be a nominalist or an anti-nominalist today as it was in the twelfth century; no odder now than in ancient Greece to believe or to deny that phenomena can be distinguished from essences, no more unusual to hold that the distinction between good and evil is a contingent one, a matter of convention, than to claim that it is embedded in the necessary order of things. Belief and non-belief in God are equally respectable; no norms of our civilization prevent us from claiming that language creates reality or the other way around; we shall not be barred from good society because we embrace or reject the semantic conception of truth. (Emphasis added)
To add to the problem, there is a fact of Western intellectual history that no one fails to notice: Science makes progress, philosophy doesn’t. The repetition of both errors and truths embarrasses the history of philosophy when compared to the history of science, where¯according to the standard modern (as opposed to postmodern) narrative¯error is corrected by truth and does not recur. I now return to that fateful day last spring when I merely listed the canonical philosophers and theologians in class and then went on to other matters. I did, however, also pose to my students the question of how and why some philosophers made it into the canon and others didn’t. Somewhat to my surprise, when the next class day came round, they were all eager to find out the answer, as if I were posing a puzzle-question for them to answer, like asking for the location of a hidden treasure or the solution to a riddle: something to think about overnight, knowing I would be giving them the answer in the next class. Imagine their shock when I told them, "I don’t know either!" So why are Hegel and Nietzsche in, yet others who get closer to the truth (at least by my lights) are out? I think Etienne Gilson gets close to my point when he drolly says in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience :"There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being a Cartesian." Nearly all philosophers of whatever stripe are united in contemning Cartesianism; yet there Descartes sits, like the Cheshire cat perched on his branch in the canonical tree, smiling at all the derision he gets from behaviorists, Thomists, Aristotelians, animal psychologists, neurologists¯undislodgeable. I could also name any number of logical positivists from the Vienna Circle who wanted to dethrone Hegel, and many analytic philosophers today would dearly love to excommunicate Heidegger (or Hegel for that matter). But it never seems to happen. I wonder why.

II Error in the Philosophical Canon

As I say, I can’t answer that question; but the sheer fact that the canonical philosophers all disagree so radically with one another does lead to a further question: Since they can’t all be right, how do we determine who, if any, is right? It seems to me there are four possible answers. The first is skepticism : The reason there are so many well-reputed thinkers in the canon who radically disagree is because the human mind can never get at ultimate truth in any case. That might be right, but how can the skeptic know that without contradicting his own principle? Notice, too, that no consistent skeptic (like Pyrrho) has ever made it into the canon. Like Groucho Marx, who famously wisecracked that he would never join a country club that was willing to accept him as a member, the consistent skeptic can hardly expect to be invited to a group of thinkers he thinks belong to a country club where the sport is not golf but chasing after wild geese. (With the possible exception of a poem honoring Alexander the Great, Pyrrho, we are not surprised to learn, wrote nothing, the one sure disqualification to canonical membership there is.) The second option would be to pick and choose : Concede ahead of time that each philosopher is right on some things and wrong on others and then build one’s own philosophy on that. The trouble is, isn’t that what most philosophers claim to be doing anyway? True, some, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, haughtily disdain reading the classical texts (which had no impact on at least Wittgenstein’s canonical status!). Most philosophers from Aristotle on, though, pay careful attention to their predecessors; but they hardly win over followers just on that account. Their knowledge of the past, however encyclopedic it might be, is no guarantee of being right, since others can pick and choose differently. The third option, the genealogical , is a variant of the second: It recognizes both truth and error in the great philosophers of the past but sees that a narrative of progress can be gleaned from the zigging and zagging of earlier doctrinal debate. This option holds most true, of course, of G.W.F. Hegel; but Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger also adopted something like this genealogical method, although in their case they could barely see any progress at work until they themselves arrived on the scene (how lucky for the human race): Heidegger thought everyone but the pre-Socratics got it wrong (on ontology anyway); Nietzsche too contemned Socrates but drew inspiration more from the tragedians and the aristocratic heroes of Homer’s epics than from Heraclitus and Parmenides. But what all three have in common is that each saw himself, not so coincidentally, as the culmination of the history of philosophy. But the genealogical option still solves nothing. For needless to say, those who reject their doctrines root and branch (met any Hegelians lately?) obviously reject their self-proclaimed coronation as the Great Culminators of philosophy too (although notice: tellingly, all three are still in the canon). The fourth option, the Thomist , selects one philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who, it is claimed, more or less got everything right; but since he didn’t come at the beginning or at the end, the task is first to show how all the legitimate insights before he came on the scene led up to him; at this point, the genealogical method kicks in, which then tries to show how all later philosophers, by rejecting him, went astray. The great French Thomist Etienne Gilson managed this option with extraordinary flair. For him the history of modern philosophy is like one vast experimental laboratory that shows the consequences of abandoning the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: These wild swings, from Descartes on, between materialism and idealism, rationalism and empiricism, behaviorism and Sartrean existentialism¯all these crazy gyrations can be accounted for by the modern abandonment of the Thomist synthesis. But how did Thomas get it so right and everyone else (at least in modern times) get it so wrong? Gilson’s answer is simple: because of Christian revelation . Most textbooks in the history of philosophy follow what might be called the Sleeping Beauty narrative: Philosophy thrived on its own from the pre-Socratics to Plotinus, at which point the Christian Church intervened with a faith-based philosophy (a contradiction in terms in this telling), at which point philosophy went to sleep until awakened by the Frog Prince Descartes, who kissed the slumbering Lady Philosophy awake with his method of radical doubt, hauling the entire scholastic past before the bar of reason, leaving it in tatters and philosophy finally liberated. Gilson, however, retorted that, far from poisoning philosophy with a sleeping potion, faith illuminates from above the path reason would follow in any event if it only had a map and a flashlight. Philosophy’s goal has always been the truth, but it has to grope because it can’t see that far ahead. To understand Gilson’s thesis, think of it this way: When one is first studying algebra, say, especially when using one of those teach-yourself books, the problems are given in the front to work out on one’s own, with the answers keyed at the back. Now, if one works out a problem only to discover from the answer key that one got it wrong, one knows then and there that one was wrong but not how or why. For that one needs to go back and retrace one’s steps and see how one can rationally prove both the false step and the true path. Similarly in philosophy, a Christian already knows on the basis of revelation that materialism is wrong, which means that any philosopher arguing for materialism must have made a wrong step, or more probably several, somewhere along the line. But that fact alone is not enough to refute materialism. One must then put oneself in the shoes of the materialist and walk through his arguments with him and point out his errors by the rules of rational thought and not by revelation . Correlatively, it is also possible to stumble upon the right answer wrongly, as when two errors in adding sums accidentally arrive at the right answer. (In arithmetic, anyway, if not in morality, two wrongs can occasionally, albeit totally fortuitously, add up to a right.) Philosophically, this means that one can lazily argue for the existence of God using bad arguments, something Thomas always criticized for bringing the faith into disrepute: "The very insufficiency of these arguments would rather confirm [infidels] in their error, if they thought that we assented to the truth of faith on account of such weak reasoning" ( Summa contra Gentiles I, 9). That Thomas proved so successful in applying this method, using revelation to point out errors in the reasoning of past philosophers while keeping what was true in them, can be seen in the judgment of non-Thomist experts in ancient philosophy. The famous Aristotle scholar A.E. Taylor, for example, says that "the so-called Aristotelianism of Thomas is much more thoroughly thought out and coherent than what I may call the Aristotelianism of Aristotle . . . . By comparison with the Thomist synthesis of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, how comparatively incoherent and loose is Kant’s synthesis of Hume and Leibniz." (These lines come from Taylor’s article "St. Thomas Aquinas as a Philosopher" in a 1934 issue of Philosophical Studies , a London journal not easy to track down for those who do not live near a well-stocked research library; so I cannot provide a hyperlink here.) Which brings me to address the specifically modern errors of post-scholasticism. According to Gilson, the failings of modern philosophers begin with their refusal to recognize the debt they all owed to scholastic reflection on God (atheists rail against the Christian God, not the ancient gods). That debt means they were not simply picking up from where Plotinus left off but were continuing a debate bequeathed to them, however unawares, by the scholastics. Even worse, they ignored the careful methodological distinctions Thomas made between what could be known about God by reason as opposed to what faith alone could know; and this overreaching led to a peculiar form of modern gnosticism, as Mortimer Adler noticed so acutely in his Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University in 1938, called St. Thomas and the Gentiles :
Modern gnosticism results from the efforts of thinkers to answer purely theological questions by merely natural means. The theodicy of Spinoza, the knowledge of the Absolute in Hegel, the discussion of the order of the universe in time and space by Whitehead, are examples of philosophy exceeding its domain. Though lacking faith, these philosophers do not seem able to regain the position of natural reason in Greek antiquity. Christianity has somehow been too much for them. When we learn that Hegel’s formative influences were theology and the classics, we can see the root of all his confusions. In a paradoxical sense, then, all modern philosophers are Christian, even when they are skeptical, as Hume, or agnostic, as Kant. Christianity has made problems for them which they cannot solve without faith, but which they will not refrain from discussing in rational terms.
Related to that error is another one that took a while to make itself felt: After having hubristically usurped theology with, say, Hegel’s speculative idealism, philosophy now despairs¯with delicious irony¯that it can know anything independent of the sciences (with the postmoderns providing an extra fillip of irony by claiming the sciences don’t know anything either). This is why Adler wrote St. Thomas and the Gentiles , to show contemporary Thomists that they have a new set of "gentiles" to fight. But unlike Thomas’ address to the Muslims of Spain, the task is more difficult now: "For by the very fact that our adversaries deny that philosophy is knowledge in the sense we claim, we are necessarily precluded from using philosophical arguments of any sort to show the distinction, the independence, and the harmony of philosophy and science . . . . Strange as it may seem, the task of the philosopher contra positivists appears to be much more difficult than that of a Christian theologian addressing Moors on questions of faith." So how does one take up this challenge? The temptation for the Thomist here is to make Thomism a fully coherent, internally cohesive, locked-in whole, a sealed-off bathysphere or an impregnable siege engine, impermeable to the lessons, both good and bad, that modern philosophy teaches. But that would represent a huge blunder, not least because it so radically misinterprets the achievement of Thomas. But good luck trying to overcome that prejudice. Because of the influence of seminary Thomism before Vatican II, the impression often arose that Thomism is a fully formed system, an impression that Gilson, Adler, and Jacques Maritain tried so hard to obviate. Here’s Adler’s view, easily the most remarkable of the three Thomists in its daring claims (written, by the way, long before he became a Christian):
St. Thomas has no more a system of philosophy than Shakespeare has a point of view or a message. In Shakespeare’s poetry nature is imitated so well, so properly, that all the wide world is presented to us with artistic objectivity. So, too, in the philosophy of St. Thomas the world is laid before us; his thought about it is diaphanous, a perfect medium of vision. In both cases, the art conceals itself by performing its task so well. And in both cases, the art introduces order and proportion into a vast multiplicity of things. Let us not confuse the notion of "system" with the more general ideal of a good arrangement of parts. System in the mathematical sense is rigid, selective, exclusive: it has the kind of artificiality which is appropriate only to mathematical objects; but where mathematics deals with the ideal and the possible, philosophy deals with the real and the actual. The real can be ordered by art without distortion; it cannot be systematized.
In his William James Lectures at Harvard, published as The Unity of Philosophical Experience , Gilson says virtually the same, albeit perhaps a bit more soberly: "For us, as for them, the great thing is not to achieve a system of the world as if being could be deduced from thought, but to relate reality, as we know it, to the permanent principles in whose light all the changing problems of science, of ethics and of art have to be solved." Maritain, too, insists on this same point in The Degrees of Knowledge :
Matchless in its coherence, closely knit in all its parts as it is, Thomism is nevertheless not what we call a "system." . . . The word "system" evokes the idea of a mechanical connection or of a more or less spatial assemblage of component parts, and consequently a choice which, if not arbitrary, is at least personal, as it is in all artificial constructions . . . . One is not a Thomist because one has chosen it in the emporium of systems as one among several others, as one may tentatively choose a pair of shoes at a bootmaker’s until one sees another brand more suited to one’s feet. On those lines, it would be more stimulating to fabricate one’s own system, made to one’s own measure. One is a Thomist because one has abandoned the attempt to find philosophical truth in a system fabricated by one individual, that individual who is called Ego , and because one intends to seek for the truth¯albeit by oneself and by one’s own reason¯learning from every form of human thought, so that nothing that is may be neglected.
"Learning from every form of human thought": I wonder if that line might not serve as a useful examination of conscience for contemporary Thomists. Are they still engaged in the task performed so brilliantly by Adler, Gilson, and Maritain? Are Thomists being trained in the history of modern philosophy to take up where, for example, James Collins left off in his magisterial God in Modern Philosophy ? St. Paul says, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Why should Christian philosophers be any less daring? Yes, it’s hard work. But as Adler says in his Aquinas Lecture: "I owe to a friend the insight that it is not possible to be a good disciple of a false doctrine; but it must be added that it is not easy to be the good disciple of a true one." Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles