On Recovering a Genuine Thomism in Our Times

by Peter Kwasniewski

“There is no doubt that Bonaventure thought of himself as a theologian, and was, moreover, seen by his contemporaries as a theologus. But, keeping in mind the whole history of philosophy, we should not neglect the fact that the model of philosophy which celebrates the so-called “autonomy of philosophical thought” is itself an historically contingent model. Can one credibly speak of “pure philosophical thought” in Aristotle, Averroes, or Albert the Great?” [1]

It takes little effort to draw out the moral of Andreas Speer’s observations. If scholastic philosophy had not allowed itself in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to become detached from the fullness of Christian life, from speculative theology as well as the communal liturgical life of the believer, if it had not over time sequestered itself in a strange nook situated between empirical science and daily life, it would not have suffered the fate of being overshadowed and eventually disregarded by its more impressive, or at least more insistent, rivals. The recovery of philosophy’s rightful place will require the undoing of many false steps, not the least of which was the divorce of philosophical exploration from theological discourse, and the concomitant divorce of systematic theology from liturgical worship and a valid and comprehensive aesthetic sense. If these diverse areas are one day to be synthesized again, they stand in need of philosophy, with the inestimable services it provides in dialectic and demonstration, method and vocabulary; they stand even more in need of sacred liturgy, the solemn worship of God, the end to which they should all be ordained on our earthly pilgrimage.[2]

It seems to me that the Christian thinker must detect and root out a lingering intellectualism, an exaggerated and therefore distorted elevation of one aspect of man. Indeed, one must recognize that such an elevation distorts the larger and more fully human framework in which Aristotle places the very nobility of intellectual activities. Aristotle had seen a part—the most important part, it is true, but not the whole—of what it means to say that man bears within him a divine spark. Book X of the Ethics marks both an advance and a regression for the theory of human perfection and the imago Dei. Compared with Presocratic panpsychism and pantheism, it is an advance; compared with Plato’s insight into the cosmic and psychic eros that urges man and even, in a way, the whole of creation, toward assimilation to God, it is arguably a step backwards. However, as Josef Pieper (and Bonaventure long before him) recognized, the Aristotelian and Platonic accounts are not rivals but halves in need of reunification. And I think Pieper is right to see St. Thomas as having effected the theoretical reunification, which took place by means of fusing Augustine, Dionysius, and Aristotle in the furnace of the Christian mystery.

These considerations coalesce around the mystery of the human body, a subject concerning which Gabriel Marcel, and more famously Pope John Paul II, have carried out incisive metaphysical and theological investigations. I say “mystery” because, though it is the soul that is enslaved to sin and cries out for the freedom of grace, it is nevertheless the body—the body of the Word Incarnate making contact with our bodies in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist—through which this salvation comes to us, with all its spiritual perfections originating in God and destined for our souls.

*          *          *

There is a still deeper problem, and I confess I do not see that it permits of an easy solution. The Church teaches us authoritatively that we are to study the works of the Angelic Doctor—there can be no doubt about her counsel, so often and so forcefully has it been repeated. Therefore we set about doing so, in full confidence that Holy Mother Church is guiding us along the right path. The question immediately arises: Exactly how are we to study St. Thomas? At our place in history, occupying a certain position with regard to all the upheavals and developments, good and bad, that have taken place in the last seven hundred years, how are we to carry out this study? It seems to me that there are two basically different ways of going about it.

First, there is the historically sensitive approach, what one might (in a generous mood) call the hermeneutics of incarnation, which attempts to place Thomas in all the right factual contexts—social, cultural, psychological, spiritual—in an effort to recover something of the immediacy of environment, subtlety of contemporaneous influence, and depth of intellectual background within and behind Thomas’s teaching. For example, one would insist on reading Thomas as a theologian first and foremost; one would understand him as not only an Aristotelian but also an Augustinian and a Neoplatonist of sorts; one would see him as a moment, albeit an exceedingly bright moment, in the larger and very complex development of medieval theology; one would make an effort to view his works steadily in the light of the Fathers, in the light of Boethius, Dionysius, John Damascene, the Victorines, Peter Lombard, and so forth, recognizing that Thomas is above all a Patristic and Scriptural author; one would take into account the extraordinary history of the Hellenistic, Jewish, and Islamic interpretations of Aristotle and other ancient authors that reached Thomas after being handled by numerous philosophical merchants and middlemen down through the centuries.

A very different approach, found in Great Books or liberal arts programs, may be styled “letting the text speak for itself. Students and teacher grapple with a text from St. Thomas, without in most cases having done the background work that the historically sensitive method would consider absolutely necessary. Partisans of the hands-on approach tend to argue that the historical method collapses into historicism and that sometimes the worst way to read an author is to submerge him, or his individuality and his works, in a network of infinitesimally charted associations. To open up a book written by a great author and simply read its contents, doing the best one can: this is taken to be not only possible but desirable, since it clears away distractions, prevents disproportionate attention to details at the expense of a general but decisive grasp of the whole, and relieves to a large extent the philosophically paralyzing pressure exerted by the demands of cultural history. The person who advocates “just reading the text” really means to say that the text is important only insofar as it raises and answers, or makes an attempt at answering, the “perennial questions”; the text as an artifact (and in a certain sense, even the author as an writer) ceases to be central, giving way to the thing itself which is being discussed. We use the text in order to find out, or come closer to apprehending, the truth about things; as Thomas himself says, we are not interested in knowing what men’s opinions happen to be, but rather what the truth of the matter is.

These two methods are compatible to some extent, as any good scholar knows. But it is obvious that they are on a collision course with one another, if one considers strictly their inner trajectory, their foundational assumptions, their systematic claims. And each method, by itself, is defective. If the goal of our studies is not to know just what Thomas says, at the same time our goal cannot be just to know the truth of a certain matter; for why, then, should we study St. Thomas’s works—why not a scholastic manual, or a catechism, or a thick book written by a German scholar who summarizes the entire history of Catholic thinking on x, y, and z? Why would the Church recommend Thomas? It cannot be simply that he has a logical mind or shows an extensive familiarity with the great sources. There are many such thinkers in our tradition. It must be something about Thomas’s personally achieved synthesis; the spirit that breathes in his works; the peculiar gifts of mind and expression that belonged to him; the insights he had, which others have not surpassed.

We do, then, want to study Thomas, both to know the truth about things and because of the special quality of Thomas’s works, or rather, the theological genius responsible for them. We are interested in the saint as well as the subject matter; we cannot divide the person who probed reality from the reality he probed. This relationship is a corollary of our belief in the living communion of saints. When we study Thomas properly, we are communicating with him in a manner difficult to put into words. That is why many Thomists I know preface their study of St. Thomas with a prayer to him. It may be no more than a silent “pray for me,” a prayer that places the thinker in the presence of the teacher who lives in eternal life. In this way, studying and teaching Thomas or any great Christian thinker can be a form of prayer, a dialogue that rises above the historical contingencies binding the student to his place and time. When we place ourselves into communion with Thomas, we are necessarily linked to his and our common Teacher, the Word “who enlightens every man that comes into the world.” In a similar vein, Gabriel Marcel writes that “to pray to God is without any question the only way to think of God, or more accurately, a sort of equivalent, raised to a higher power, of the action which would, on a lower plane, be thinking of someone.”[3]

It is difficult for me to find exact words for the notion I have in mind, but it would go something like this: we commit a fundamental act of betrayal when we treat a man or his works as a mere springboard, a set of exercises, a bag of ideas, a toolshed of mental rakes and trowels. There is an inseparable link between a person and his works (a point well developed by Wojtyła in Person and Act), but even more so between the saint and his sanctity, his theology, his life in God.

Thus the second method described above seems to prescind from Thomas the thinker, from all the ideas, books, influences, surroundings, agitations, assignments, devotions that made him who he was—and thus made his works what they are. The first method, on the other hand, never seems to ask a question or pursue a train of thought for its own sake; in fact, it appears to have a problem exactly contrary to that of the other method, namely, the problem of not being ahistorical and disinterested enough to become wholly absorbed in the matter at stake just because of what it is. And would it not be strange to claim to be studying the “real” Thomas if one did not enter wholeheartedly and passionately into the substance of what he discusses, exactly as he did? In other words, to the extent that Thomas himself was thoroughly transhistorical in his thinking, the most historically accurate appropriation of his legacy is to enter into the transhistorical domain of truth alongside him. A pure historicist could never be a good interpreter of Thomas the truth-lover, just as a pure theorist could never grasp what is contingent about Thomas the 13th-century Dominican.

The first or historical method is artificial and, at worst, servile, whereas the second or theoretical method can be naive and, when exaggerated, incapable of coming to grips with its materials. The historical attitude risks becoming a lifeless catalog of data, whereas the philosophical stance may shrink into empty disputation, pointless repetition, stony insensibility, and ultimate irrelevance. The historian may degenerate into an historicist, the philosopher into a philosophist.[4] That such degeneration frequently occurs is obvious to all; its prevention, or better, the surmounting of any reductionism, must be among the ends actively willed and worked towards by a Catholic thinker.

We are living in an age acutely conscious of history, which is as much as to say, acutely self-conscious. As thinkers we have become convinced that our judgments are steeped in temporality and contingency. Marcel expresses this point vividly, if hyperbolically:

Our appreciations of a work of art are always, say what we will to the contrary, affected by the “climate of the age,” they reflect the unconscious general assumptions which we share with our contemporaries during some given period in history; the historically conditioned attitude is something which, for all of us, is quite inescapable; and perhaps we cannot even imagine, without tangling ourselves in contradictions, a dehistoricized attitude in the name of which completely objective judgments, judgments quite untainted by the local, the temporal, the personal, and, in a word, quite free from relativity, could be made about works of art, literature, and philosophy.[5]

We cannot shirk off this consciousness as though it were a stifling garment, not only because it is a powerful and ubiquitous force but, more importantly, because it contains some truth.

How, then, should we bring together history, that is, historical consciousness with all that it implies (for example, a basic honesty and humility, an awareness of the severe limitations of any period or thinker—one cannot expect even the greatest mind or school to have asked all the questions that need to be asked, or to have given answers incapable of improvement or development), and the unhistoried act of philosophy which wells up in a soul animated by wonder and the longing for truth? Evidently, we have to aim at a difficult reconciliation: one and the same person needs to be a philosopher (who, qua philosopher, has no concern with history) and a person attentive to historical context and its lessons, or, to look at it from the other side, a historian (who qua historian is not competent to resolve questions of meaning) awake to philosophical implications and unafraid of drawing them out.

These and other problems are evoked the moment one is told to “study St. Thomas” or “follow St. Thomas as a guide.”[6] One must sort them out and arrive at an intelligent practical solution; one has to choose a line right down the middle and try to hold a steady course against the winds of either extreme. But before all else, one has to be aware of the difficulty. If, for example, a Thomist dismisses secondary scholarship, historical research, and textual criticism, he betrays the very truth he claims to be serving by failing to take advantage of ways in which he could come to understand it more deeply.[7] If a Thomist fails to realize that Thomas can be fully appreciated and thus kept within a living tradition only to the extent that he is consciously read in light of—or better, kept in constant companionship with—the Fathers of the Church and his own medieval contemporaries,[8] then such a one will perpetuate (and unless God intervenes, will even add to) the simplistic positions, peremptory dismissals, shallow appraisals, inadequate categorizations, unintelligible formulations, and unappealing lumps of detached and dessicated scholasticism with which our heritage is loaded, and in so doing, will, by an exquisite contradiction, continue to undermine the tradition to which he has dedicated his efforts. St. Thomas only lives to the extent that he is placed into dialogue with the best thinkers of our own time—or at least, to the extent that the study of his work, even when done for the sake of understanding it on its own terms, does not terminate in a kind of literary fetishism which has as its end the preservation of a secret initiatic knowledge. What is needed are men like Josef Pieper and Charles De Koninck, who, having become familiar with its fertile richness, can apply Thomas’s thought to contemporary problems, and at the same time can take modern insights and incorporate them positively into the investigation of the perennial questions with which philosophy must be chiefly occupied. As Maritain observes:

Thomism is not a museum piece. No doubt, like other systems of medieval philosophy, indeed, philosophic systems of all ages, it must be studied historically. All the great philosophies, whether of the Middle Ages or any other period, have that in their substance which to an extent triumphs over time. But Thomism does so more completely than any other since it harmonizes and exceeds them all, in a synthesis which transcends all its components. It is relevant to every epoch. It answers modern problems, both theoretical and practical. In the face of contemporary aspirations and perplexities, it displays a power to fashion and emancipate the mind. We therefore look to Thomism at the present day to save: in the speculative order, intellectual values; in the practical order, so far as they can be saved by philosophy, human values. In short, we are concerned not with an archaeological but with a living Thomism. It is our duty to grasp the reality and the requirements of such a philosophy.

This duty gives rise to a double obligation. We must defend the traditional wisdom and the continuity of the philosophia perennis against the prejudices of modern individualism, insofar as it values, seeks, and delights in novelty for its own sake, and is interested in a system of thought only insofar as it is a creation, the creation of a novel conception of the world. But equally we must show that this wisdom is eternally young and always inventive, and involves a fundamental need, inherent in its very being, to grow and renew itself. And so doing we must combat the prejudices of those who would fix it at a particular stage of its development and fail to understand its essentially progressive nature.[9]

Thomism has its timeless side and its time-bound side, just as Thomas has his unparalleled stretches of genius and his occasional weaknesses. Theology neither began nor ended with St. Thomas; even more is this true of philosophy. Too much scholastic learning leads, moreover, to “canned” or “instant” answers, where a person behaves as if, when faced with a given question, he need only select the right package and unwrap the ready-made answer. One is reminded of the way that the Cartesian or Baconian experimenter confronts nature with his calibrated instruments, ready to inject the intelligibility furnished by hypothetical ideas, already anticipating the answer to whatever questions he may pose. There is another problem with the type of philosopher at hand: he has far too great confidence in his own education and reasoning powers, as evidenced by a strong habit of answering quickly, without (one is tempted to say) really thinking. He will propose the swift and exhaustive answer, which, in one stroke, destroys not only the question as an opportunity for dialectic wherein the nature of the difficulty as well as different pathways into its resolution are glimpsed, but also all of its wonder and complexity as a question that will always recur.

Anything that is not won with labor, any fruit we taste without having earned a right to its savor, can be a cause of frustration or weariness, whereas that which is purchased with labor is used with greater enjoyment. Attractiveness, whether physical or intellectual, seems to result chiefly from the possibility of disclosing a hidden beauty whose outward contours prepossess us to want to see it naked. That is to say, we have to know that what we see is not all there is, that our sight has only glanced upon the surface; and this awareness of limitation in our knowledge of a thing impels us onward to know it in full, “to penetrate its very core,” as Thomas says when treating of the effects of love.

The origin of philosophy is wonder; and wonder naturally expresses itself in the form of questions, the most important being the “why” or “for what purpose.” Philosophy, then, expresses its origin in the question, it takes its point of departure from questioning and formulating questions. To remain true to its origins, it must never lose sight of the wonder which initially inspired the questions, the restless search for better formulation, the deeper wonder arising from the always partial answers that outline a path to fullness of truth. For philosophy to remain alive, then, it must never “settle” a question in such a way that it becomes impossible to raise the question any longer. The moment that an answer is prepackaged, provided in a bottle or given as an instant mix, it ceases to respond to the living question, and detaches itself both from the activity of philosophizing and from its goal, which is the truth seen through the medium of the question.

The “technique” or treatment of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or unsympathetic. For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. . . . A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.[10]

A question must be invested with a personal meaning before an answer can acquire its due importance or significance. The questions make possible the answers, they are the condition for the truth’s appearing. If the questions as real questions are lost, the truth contained in traditional answers is lost as well, replaced with a simulacrum that one can only idolize or ignore—a peril to thought, in either case. The question in philosophy is like a good wine that must breathe before its full flavor can be tasted. The materials from which the question arises are like the grapes that must be crushed to yield their sweet liquid; and just as this liquid must be allowed to sit and ferment before the wine can be produced, so too the question must have time to ferment, to develop its own potencies and work upon itself, before it can acquire the flavor that invites the palate to savor it. The same is true when it comes to proposed answers. An approach to philosophy which makes it consist in a correspondence of formulaic questions and catechetical answers threatens to suffocate the motivating eros of philosophy, the loving exploration which sustains thoughtful inquiry. “Just as the imagination of a form without estimation of fittingness or harmfulness does not move the sensitive appetite, so neither does the apprehension of the true without the aspect of goodness and desirability” (Ia-IIae qu. 9, art. 1). The wise man tastes what he knows, he rejoices in the feast.

Clarity of thought, or getting a purchase on the truth about something, often requires not only distance from the object but removal from the place where one thinks one will find the answers. Instead of reading a treatise on poetry, for example, one will understand its essence better by relishing a large number of good poems and, moreover, listening to a lot of music and taking many walks in the fields and mountains. If one has not explored the thing and its cousins first, one will get nowhere with formal considerations. In like manner, one can understand St. Thomas much better by making forays into Augustine, Gregory, Dionysius, Bonaventure, and more importantly, by living (with necessary adjustments) the kind of life he lived; one will return to Thomas with brighter and keener eyes, and will discover more riches there than if one had restricted oneself to a strict Thomistic diet. It is in the same spirit that I once recommended to an overly rationalistic friend that he take a “vacation from thinking”; why not spend some time listening to Gregorian chant and Beethoven’s string quartets, or visit museums where you can gaze for hours at Rembrandt portraits?

System-building is among the greatest evils of modern philosophy. It is contrary to the genuine nature of philosophy as one sees it, for example, in Plato, Bonaventure, or Marcel. Thomas himself is not a system-builder because he does not pretend to deduce everything from a handful of first principles. He leans on Scripture; he leans on his predecessors; he leans on natural reason and experience; he leans on dialectic with others. He is not unfolding a predetermined pattern which he finds wrapped up in his own mind, à la Spinoza. The synthesis he produced is designed to be a beginning and to admit of perfecting by others, even as it perfected what preceded it. Thomas is a dialogical thinker; anyone who ponders the format of most of his works will appreciate this fact. It is a decisive fact, for it means that we must use Thomas dialogically, as a guide to the truth who wishes to apprentice us in a way of life, as did the desert fathers when young aspiring monks came out eagerly to hear their apothegms. Thomas’s most characteristic activity as a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris was to engage in quaestiones disputatae et quodlibetales, the redactions of which give us a keener appreciation for the role of living speech, dialectical encounter, in Thomas’s thinking; one sees, in the format of the actually disputed question, the open-ended nature of scholastic discourse.

That Thomas’s greatest work looked, to him, like so much straw in comparison with the vision he had been granted on December 6, 1273, does not mean that we should dispense with this masterful “summary of theology,” but rather, that we should study it in such a way as to be straining ever closer to the realities it evokes, realities which infinitely transcend the letter of the text. How absurd it would be to give any student the impression that sacra doctrina begins with the confusion of Scripture but culminates in the clarity of the Summa theologiæ! St. Thomas himself, the magister sacrae paginae, would be shocked to see his own “straw”—useful though it is as a bed on which to lay the Christ-child—taken as the centermost principle of Catholic formation, when in reality this principle is, and shall always be, the Word of God in his written tokens and Eucharistic presence. We are all familiar with Thomas’s admission that he learned more from his crucifix than from all the books he had read; we have heard that he rested his head upon the tabernacle and sought divine help whenever he encountered a difficulty; we know that he celebrated a Mass in the morning and immediately served a second Mass afterwards. Can we say the same—are we imitators of him, as he was of Paul, and Paul of Christ? The Church proposes him to us as a model of the holy theologian, and holiness counts a great deal more than knowledge, or rather, knowledge is worthwhile when it is a cause and effect of deification.

In the Summa’s structure of part, treatise, question, article, objections, sed contra, corpus, and responses, I see not a rigid systematization or ossification of inquiry but a Socratic model of amicable confrontation distilled into polished notes, seminae conversationis, condensed dialogues for the student and teacher to consult in common when they wish to open up a problem anew and come to grips with what is at stake in it. Every article is a locus meditationis, which can therefore also function as a principle of true dialogue, since all dialogue presupposes an awareness of participating in truths common to all the speakers, or put differently, speech can become philosophical only to the extent that it evokes and invokes what is truly common to many. The writings of St. Thomas, organized according to scholastic custom, should be considered loci meditationis, readily assimilable and abundantly nourishing, capable of fostering the contemplative act whereby the student rises above the text—rises, in a certain sense, outside his contingent place in the material conversation—into the heart of the problem or mystery being considered; and as this act becomes habitual to him, the student can rise past the problem, can go through the mystery, into the very Heart of Christ, towards whom everything in St. Thomas is ultimately directed.

Philosophy (a fortiori, theology) are endeavors wherein a stable depositum of questions, ranging from the highest universality to the lowest particularity, must be posed again and again, not only to make progress, but more importantly, to return to the sources of thought and life—sources to which man is always in danger of growing numb, of which he can lose sight, from which he often wanders in forgetfulness. “This perpetual beginning again, which may seem scandalous to the scientist or the technician, is an inevitable part of all genuinely philosophical work; and perhaps it reflects in its own order the fresh start of every new awakening and of every birth.”[11]

The need always to “begin anew”—which has nothing to do with the Cartesian artifice of razing the foundations and starting from scratch—stems from the inescapable task of self-criticism, the task of purging dross, reassessing terminology, weighing antitheses, pursuing new insights, and incorporating new givens. The commitment to clarity and precision forces the philosopher to question his own questions and retain an inward distance from his answers. “Let us remember that for the philosopher everything is in some way a trial; how can he fail to be almost overwhelmed by the disconcerting multiplicity of the empiric data which he has to take into account, by the fear of falling into arbitrary simplifications?”[12] In the continual striving for greater breadth and height and depth, he preserves the attitude of beginning anew even when he has gone far into the truth.

For this reason, stubborn attachment to a favored terminology or network of distinctions might actually undermine the meaning of the terms and the legitimacy of the system in use. In one of his unforgettable metaphors, Marcel says that when we adhere to certain expressions or formulae too fixedly, “what I am tempted to call a mental clot is formed, which interrupts the circulation of thought; and it is precisely this circulation of thought which we have to re-establish. I mean that the words, so to say, interpose themselves between me and the thought I am driving at; they get a bogey-like and unwelcome reality of their own; they become an obstacle instead of remaining an instrument.”[13]

Keeping in view St. Thomas’s manner of doing theology and the proper way to approach his indispensable textbook, it is evident why Marcel errs in saying, evidently with Thomists in mind, that

the very structure of duration and of life show[s] that philosophical thought is unfaithful to reality whenever it attempts to proceed from conclusion to conclusion towards a Summa which, in the end, needs only to be expounded and memorised paragraph by paragraph.[14]

If my analysis is correct, St. Thomas, the most famous Summa author of the Church, is not touched at all by Marcel’s complaint. Thomas never attempted to capture the whole of natural reality—much less the infinity of God and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ—by “proceeding from conclusion to conclusion” so as to “sum up” everything that can be known. The fact that he has been presented in this way is a great misfortune whose evil effects we can never too diligently combat. If one bears in mind the kind of students for whom Thomas was writing—young men who would be steeped in the fruits of lectio divina, beneficiaries of a constant encounter with the word of God in prayer, in the divine office, in the sacred liturgy, in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament where the Word escapes its textual prison and comes to us in the flesh—if one bears in mind the life of these young men, and if one is careful to cultivate among modern pupils of St. Thomas a comparable discipline, it will not be difficult to see how much more subtle is the true relationship between a Summa of theology and the life of oratio et labor to which the Christian is called.

In St. Thomas’s mind, there is always something preceding and something succeeding the use of a theology textbook or attendance at a series of lectures; the theologian provides no more than an evanescent middle term between life and thought, experience and reflection. Beforehand there must be the praeparatio of prayer and penance; afterwards, there must be action and contemplation, transcendence and incarnation, a continual circulation from earth to heaven, self to neighbor to God. If there is no prayer and no active charity, the study of theology (even more, the study of a textbook or a disputation) is perfectly useless, as St. Bonaventure stressed over and over to his Franciscan brethren.


[1] Andreas Speer, “Bonaventure and the Question of a Medieval Philosophy” in Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997): 43.

[2] From a different angle, John Inglis, in his article “Does Aquinas Do Epistemology?” (Journal of Neoplatonic Studies 5.2 [1997]: 29–57), joins a larger movement critical of the once-common effort to separate out independent disciplines, e.g., ontology, epistemology, psychology, from the writings of St. Thomas. The modern university’s division of the sciences has well-nigh destroyed the unity of ancient-medieval thought by failing to apprehend its root cause, the integral vision of “the Catholica,” which resists atomization and automation, the splitting apart and separating off of internally connected goals, methods, and activities.

[3] Being and Having, trans. Katherine Farrer (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 31. The words of Balthasar are even more pointed: “There is no truth except in prayer.” From the letter he sent to his Jesuit confreres in 1950, quoted in de Lubac, Service of the Church, 375.

[4] The historicist also tends to revel in a Walpurgisnacht of scholarly references and cross-references, infinite rounds of commentary and counter-commentary, tome-thick textual apparatuses, much like the brainy deconstructionists who delight to exhibit their linguistic and hermeneutical dexterity. Yet I have always felt suspicious of such pyrotechnical displays. I notice at any rate the great distance that separates a supreme genius like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, or Thomas from the flock of contemporary scholars with their flamboyant academic phylacteries. There is a different feel, having everything to do with the presence or absence of eros for truth and for God. There is something irredeemably empty about any act of analysis or synthesis, however brilliant it may be, when this eros is absent. “Dilettantism treated seriously, and knowledge pursued mechanically, end by becoming pedantry” (Goethe, Maxims, n. 132).

[5] The Mystery of Being, vol. I, 197.

[6] Any attempts to downplay the Magisterium’s clear and oft-repeated recommendations of St. Thomas as the foremost guide in Catholic philosophy and theology are short-sighted, harmful, and in many cases dishonest. Of course, a Catholic thinker need not style himself a Thomist. But someone who is not a Thomist, or who does not wish to be placed into a certain school, does not thereby acquire the right to attack or dismiss St. Thomas. A deep respect for Thomas’s teaching, as well as a consistent and sustained effort to consult his works, is mandated by the Church, even in the period of the Council and the post-Council.

[7] Even the simplest text has a history; and the weightier or older or lengthier the text, the deeper and more complex its history. Take the example of Thomas’s “Treatise on Law.” If you hand it to a beginning philosophy student, he will learn much from it; one can go a long way in the classroom with so rich a segment of the Summa. But consider how we excerpt that treatise and read it in isolation, from a later vantage in history, when tremendous philosophical transformations in law, society, government, nature, have long since occurred. Consider then how, owing to our tendency to isolate passages, the true context of this particular treatise, along with its presuppositions and implications—its bearing on the whole of Thomas’s theology and theory of law—have been forgotten, if not undermined. Much recent scholarship has shown how grievously the fabric of Thomas’s thought has been rent by false divisions and lack of balance, by neoscholastic assumptions and agendas, by undetected modern suppositions. What I have illustrated using the Treatise on Law could be illustrated with any commonly used (and commonly alienated) portion of Thomas’s work. Inglis gives a fine example, the attempt to carve out a formal “epistemology” from the Summa theologiae or the De veritate. To be aware of the historicity of a text also involves an awareness of its “negative history,” the story of its misinterpretations or mishandlings and the way these mistakes have given rise to the wrong questions, the wrong critiques, the wrong appropriations. Reading an old and venerable text is no simple matter after all!

[8] The writings of Josef Pieper exemplify of the kind of approach I have in mind: one thinks especially of his introduction to St. Thomas, his trilogy on the theological virtues, his work on the cardinal virtues, his little book on eschatology, and his remarkable book The Silence of St. Thomas.

[9] From A Preface to Metaphysics.

[10] Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key.

[11] Gabriel Marcel, “An Essay in Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harari (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 125.

[12] Marcel, Mystery of Being, vol. II, Faith & Reality, trans. René Hague (Chicago: Regnery, 1960), 160.

[13] Mystery of Being, vol. 2, 12-13.

[14] Ibid.

Excommunication and the Efficacy of Ecclesiastical Sanctions

by Peter Kwasniewski

When I was in my twenties and thirties and becoming more of a traditionalist by the year, one of the most frequent refrains I heard from my friends and acquaintances had to be: “It’s a scandal how few bishops excommunicate the heretics [insert specification: abortionists, Democrats, modernists, proponents of women’s ordination, etc.] in their dioceses. If only they would flex their episcopal muscles and do something about the problems, our troubles would eventually go away.”

Through my involvement with a papal institute in Austria, I got to know several bishops and cardinals and even had the opportunity to talk at some length with a high-ranking member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These and other experiences prompted me to think about how much more is required to keep the Church on course than anathematizing heretical propositions and excommunicating heretics, and, in particular, how feeble such penalties are in isolation from a larger Catholic culture and from those profound Catholic instincts and intuitions that give penalties their meaning.

The very notions of law, discipline, and duty no longer have much presence or significance among churchmen and laity. Cardinal Burke has spoken of the crisis of antinomianism that prevents Canon Law from being studied, followed, and implemented. Today, when the CDF sanctions theologians or bishops, the response is often complete contempt. What does one do then? Excommunicate more and more vehemently, in broad swathes? But how will that solve any problem? Authority and obedience are correlative. If you don’t have obedience, authority means nothing; it cannot function in a vacuum.

The problem in the Church is not a failure of papal commands but a failure of Catholics to obey clear instructions already given, clear duties established by Scripture and Tradition. In the solemn language of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, to take one vivid example, John Paul II reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church that women cannot be ordained priests, and excommunicated several women who went through with an “ordination” ceremony. Will this kind of action get to the roots of the problem? All that the pope can do is to make the Church’s teaching clear, and then to follow through with the appropriate canonical sanctions.[i] Christ and His Church speak above all to consciences. If people (including priests) do not want to obey, the Church cannot make them obey, nor will any amount of disciplining, as such, improve the situation. What is necessary is conversion of heart and of culture, and this is what we should spend our time praying for, exemplifying, and promoting as best we can.

I can make my point with an analogy: why did Paul VI get rid of the Index of Forbidden Books? Most certainly not because he thought no books were bad and there could no longer be any danger of reading harmful literature in this enlightened age. It was because the Index was out of date the moment it hit the press. In fact, for hundreds of years it had sorely lagged behind the spread of evil literature. A truly accurate and reliable Index would have to be twenty or thirty volumes of tiny print, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let us pleasantly imagine the Vatican producing such a comprehensive Index, and then condemning everyone who, without explicit permission, reads any book listed in it. What would happen? Would the world become more Catholic, or would the Vatican look like a bunch of raving lunatics? The Index, like the Inquisition, functioned well in a different cultural setting, but it would not work today. The Church is a free society, free with the gifts of grace, and it invites men and women freely to listen to Christ, the one true teacher and ruler of mankind. One might welcome the shift that has occurred in this regard, or one might (with equal or better reason) lament that certain truly intolerable abuses, such as the flagrant disobedience of bishops in matters liturgical, continue to be tolerated by the Vatican. In any case, one must recognize the practical and theoretical conditions necessary for the very concepts of law, discipline, and duty to be intelligible and efficacious.

It may be that someday the culture of a given country will shift so decisively back towards Catholicism that things like an Index, bookburning, excommunications, and even corporal punishments, frequently recommended by popes of ages past, will all find their rightful places once again. The Lord in heaven knows how desperately we need them all. For now, however, it seems we must be content with moral suasion and the slow work of rebuilding a coherent culture of faith, worship, and life.


[i] Certainly some hierarches have been deficient in doing the latter, which cannot be omitted, but its effectiveness (both short-term and long-term) presupposes a consistency, clarity, and boldness of teaching and preaching, and a receptive and supportive Catholic culture, that are often woefully absent.

Error as a Parasite

A Philosophical Bagatelle

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

I wrote this little piece in 1997, when reading an article on parasites that had appeared in National Geographic.


There can be a philosophy of error—a “love of wisdom” in regard to error—only per accidens. As Aristotle says, a true explanation will at the same time refute the objections or opposed positions. So, too, it may be said that an understanding of how error works, the way error grafts itself onto truth, is implicitly present in understanding what truth is and how it presents itself.

Perhaps the most elegant example is Aristotle’s refutation of Parmenides and Melissus in Book I of the Physics. When he has laid out his own explanation, he returns to the difficulties and shows why the partial truths contained in the erroneous theories can be saved only when they are integrated into the whole he has set forth. There is thus a kind of wisdom attained about the errors, if wisdom signifies a knowledge in reference to the end of a given genus, which is always some whole. The man who is “wise about war” is one who understands the particulars of warfare in reference to the end of victory. There can thus be a “wisdom” about error insofar as one is studying the manner in which wisdom offers the pattern according to which a deceiver or an ignoramus could approximate the truth by a likeness yet not attain it. Without the pattern, there could not be a bad copy; without the whole there could not be a rebellious part.

A theory or philosophy of error has to begin from the fact that error is a parasite which lives by attaching itself to some truth, or host-organism, from which it derives its sustenance, that is, its credibility. The host organism is a larger body of truth which contains enough superfluity, so to speak, to permit an error to be drawn off of it. In other words, if one starts with a very simple truth, like the principle of non-contradiction or the principle of identity, it is rather difficult to generate an error from it immediately. The principle is in itself so clear, and so “thin” as a proposition, that it has no fatness from which a falsehood could derive nourishment. Alhough Hegel’s comment that the concept of being is the emptiest of concepts is false, he is pointing out a truth: when speaking of “being in general,” one has already committed the error of making being a genus. “Being” that is applicable to all things is a logical abstraction. When we say that the principle of non-contradiction is “thin” we mean that its truth is so transparent as to admit of no unclarity, no possibility of mistaking the meaning. At the level of the undressed principle of non-contradiction, no one who was capable of thought or perception could fail to embrace it. Related to this inherent transparency is the principle of non-contradiction’s infinite fertility as a principle, its “thickness” in applicability or extension.

Accordingly, while it is true to say that the principle of non-contradiction contains within itself the truth, or truth-value, of all possible particular propositions, nevertheless it must also be admitted that the universal is the emptiest, as far as its concretion or application is concerned. Its power only becomes apparent when it is “fleshed out,” as the phrase goes; and the more fleshed out it is, the more food it affords for error. As Aristotle observes, we are rarely mistaken about the universals which can be gathered easily from experience (e.g., the whole is greater than any of its parts), but we frequently err in applying what we know in general to what we encounter in particulars. For example, we may know that all mules are sterile, but we may not know that this particular animal is sterile if we do not identify it as a mule. As long as we stick to the simplest axioms and theorems of geometry, we are not likely to fall into error; but the further we go in drawing conclusions, the more complex the proofs become and greater room opens up for making a mistake in reasoning. Room for error becomes broader still when thought shifts from reasoning in the strict sense (i.e., in a manner reducible to syllogism) to reasoning on the basis of probabilities—as when we reason about natural events which are “for the most part,” or about ethics, where tight logical inference is weakened by the factors of free will and custom—or on the basis of likenesses, as when we draw arguments from features common to man and other animals, or properties analogously predicable of God and man.

A superfluity of expanded truth, an unfolded system, a fully-formed and well-nourished body of observations, inferences, or deductions, affords opportunities for a parasite, which is not equal to the task of appropriating the whole, to seize some part of the whole and maintain its independent life by removing and transforming that part into its own life-system. Superfluity, as suggestive of useless excess, may be the wrong term; but I wish to convey the notion of a sort of “padding” around a system of truth, portions of which can be stolen from it without destroying the fundamental truths of the system itself. Without these truths, the parasites can no longer live; paradoxically, their survival depend on the health of the principles and many of the conclusions as well.

Some elements of an “organic” theory of error would be as follows.

  1. The connection of error and truth, or more accurately, the necessary subordination of falsehood to the truth from which it derives its sole means of subsistence. Error is intelligible to the extent that it still contains in its stomach the digestibilia of truth.
  2. The dependence of the parasite idea upon the host idea which precontains the segment used by the parasite; precontains it, moreover, in a holistic way whereby it serves as a part that benefits the greater organism. It is precisely this holistic function of the particular truth that the parasite directly counteracts by isolating a part and taking it out of the whole. The truth is only a “full” or “functional” truth within the organism of which it constitutes an element; when removed, it is dead, like the hand severed from the body which is called a hand only equivocally. Thus, the truth taken by the parasite becomes, in isolation, a falsehood because it is taken out of or away from the context, the body, in which it has a purposeful place in the entire organic structure. The particular truth or element is teleological, in that it contributes to the good of the entire organism; an organism is in fact an “organized body,” a multiplicity governed by the soul for the sake of some end or hierarchy of ends (nutrition, sensation, cognition, volition).[i]
  3. The Mystical Body of Christ can be parasitized; that is the essence of heresy. Heresy is in the theological realm what intellectual error is in the philosophical realm. Protestantism lives to the extent that Catholicity remains within it, as digestibilia. When a Protestantism which has cut itself off definitively from the Body thoroughly digests what it has taken, it dies for want of nourishment, as can be seen clearly in the liberal Protestantism of the 19th and 20th centuries which has now metamorphosed into agnostic social activism, usually with a diabolical twist.
  4. Error cannot be understood independently of truth, as though it were an isolated item that could be placed in a separate category or box. The very being of a falsehood is relative to a truth to which it must remain somehow attached, even if in an attitude of antagonism or hostility, or minimally, in an attitude of selfish utility. Thus, for example, the early modern philosophers cannot develop their systems except in contradistinction and opposition to the ancients and medievals[ii]; the modern systems are in fact parasitical in nature, in so far as they start from a rejection of the old whole and carve out whatever portions of it they wish to maintain for their own sub-holistic purposes. They can exist only to the extent that the old whole still exists and provides nourishment to their errors and a whole to which their systems (which are really “sub-systems,” in that they result from a constriction of the prior whole, and not from a separation and independent development) can be opposed.
  5. Biological parasitology can teach us this, too: by far the greater number of animal species in existence, perhaps as much as three-quarters of known species, are parasitical.[iii] By analogy, one would expect error mingled with truth to outweigh pure truth—and so it does, as we can see from looking around us at the errors in which most of mankind is embroiled. The fall of man is a fall from friendship with God, where there is mutual cooperation, to a kind of parasitism off of God’s creation. This is also the essence of capitalism: a mechanism of preying off of other members of the social body for the benefit of the predator.

The truth of the theory of error presented here is confirmed by the simple fact that there could never be a philoplanē or philosphalma—that is, a “love of error” analogous to “love of wisdom”—for the simple reason that the mind of its very nature is borne towards the true and cannot accept anything false except because it has first persuaded itself that the false is true.[iv] A “thought-experiment,” for example, means a situation where one adopts a certain thesis as true, even if it is false strictly speaking, and proceeds to deduce the consequences, as in Lobachevsky’s non-Euclidean geometry. Moreover, if an opponent of non-Euclidean geometry grants that it “works” when applied to curved surfaces, he is admitting precisely that the geometry is true so far as curved surfaces are concerned, but not with plane surfaces where the straight line has an unbending definition.

It seems only fitting to let that great truth-lover St. Augustine have the final word:

People have such a love for truth that when they happen to love something else, they want it to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be proven wrong, they refuse to be shown their mistake. And so, they end up hating the truth for the sake of the object which they have come to love instead of the truth.


[i] The term “system” in its original etymology should be examined more carefully along the lines sketched here.

[ii] Gabriel Marcel says that Sartre’s ethical position can exist, as a position, only when there is a contrary understanding of freedom and truth for it to oppose. (The same is true, one might point out, of James Madison’s understanding of man and political community.) One might say that an error only exists as a position, that is, something posited or placed against something else. Truth has a kind of independent or self-sufficient being, which does not stand in need of something extraneous in order to stand; not so with error.

[iii] See National Geographic, October 1997.

[iv] Vincent McCabe argues this point exceptionally well in his book The Catholic Church and Philosophy.

Freedom as Choosing the Good, Against the Nihilists

by Peter Kwasniewski

All the same, one might enquire how what happens under the impulse of desire can be self-determined [i.e., voluntary] when desire leads one to what is outside oneself and has deficiency in it; for that which desires is led, even if it is led to the good. And a difficulty must be raised about intellect itself, whether, when its activity is what it is by nature and as it is by nature, it could be said to have freedom and anything in its power, when it does not have it in its power not to act [for the sake of the good]. . . . But then how can there be freedom when even these higher beings [intellects] are slaves to their own nature? Now, to speak the truth, where there is no compulsion to follow another, how can one speak of slavery? How could something borne towards the good be under compulsion, since its desire for the good will be voluntary if it knows that it is good and goes to it as good?

—Plotinus, Ennead VI.8

The connection between choosing the good and attaining greater freedom is not easy to set forth deductively. Let us begin with the end. Willing and final causality are utterly wed to each other. Where there is a natural power, there is a natural purpose. There is no willing that is not for some end; there is no voluntary end which is lacking a moral content. This moral content, the object of the act of willing itself, is what gives the species or type to the action. The moral content, the intentional target of the deed, is what enables us to classify an act of killing as murder or as self-defense—the former punishable, the latter praiseworthy.

The will is a power that inclines towards the good apprehended by reason. That the will can choose false goods or lesser goods over genuine or higher goods is due to the fact that reason is capable of viewing things from many different angles, and can therefore see some limited good in what is nonetheless evil for the whole man. If a good is cognizable, reason can apprehend it and the will can choose it. Hence, we may glimpse the answer to the question, Does choosing the good necessarily lead to more freedom? Freedom is the perfection of the natural faculty of will; the ultimate perfection of a faculty results from its proper use, its being put to the right use again and again. If a state of freedom (self-command) is the result of choosing what is objectively best, namely the genuine good, then freedom should be defined as a perfection of the will when it has chosen consistently well. In light of this, we see the extent to which the will’s perfection depends upon the condition of man’s reason, how reason views various desirable things. If reason is in good estate, the will is the first beneficiary.

Is the truth of things the object of the intellect? Is the goodness of things the object of the will? If one answers “no” to either question, one is compelled to maintain either that there is no natural end to the intellect and the will, i.e., the power is wholly indeterminate and has no orientation whatsoever, or that the end is arbitrarily chosen and set up, in the manner of an idol. Either position destroys objectivity and morality, leaving us with no way of arguing against any intellectual or moral position, however absurd, cruel, or disgusting. Any human being who takes his own life and the lives of other people seriously implicitly accepts an objective order (however difficult it may be to articulate it) by which the wiser and better person can judge the actions of others who offend against the principles of this order. Try to think or live as though there were not a built-in predetermined purpose to your faculties; it will not work. The orientation to goodness is not a gloss on the dark purposelessness of nature, nor is it a condition that compromises freedom. In order to be truly free, does one have to be free to create oneself? Contemporary existentialists look upon all determination or form as irrational impositions over which the individual has no control; the individual, they say, ought to be absolutely free to determine what and who he will be. This is none other than a doctrine of uninhibited metaphysical license that has as its counterparts political anarchy, ethical relativism, and intellectual nihilism.

Is it problematic, on the other hand, to say that one is free to determine the way in which one will realize his own good—that one can choose what is to count as happiness for himself in this life, even though happiness is the end all men desire by nature? Such an individual does not lose his freedom, if, with an eye towards happiness, he can choose the manner of life he wants to lead. What sort of freedom is the existentialist looking for—freedom to create new worlds, to pursue unhappiness as an end, to annihilate himself, to experiment with the space-time continuum? Even God has an end, namely, Himself, the Goodness that is He. Judging from the remarks of some philosophers, one would think the very notion of an end is arbitrary and stifling. Yet nothing can exist without ordering to an end; it is against the nature of being itself. One cannot think “being” without co-thinking “end”—another way of saying, with Aristotle, that the formal cause cannot be divorced from the final cause. In short, only nothing has no purpose.

Moderns assert that to have freedom is to be able to determine oneself absolutely. To be free, they hold, one must be able to give oneself an end. But what else could this mean, except to give oneself a nature—which amounts to creating oneself? The very thing which distinguishes creation from making is that the maker (or poet) only makes some part or aspect of the thing made, whereas the creator brings the whole thing, including its act of being, into being. Now to bring a thing into being means to bring a “this something” into being; there is no creatio without some boundaries as to the appetites and abilities characterizing the creatum. To create is to give being to something—and this something, even to be a something, must have a certain form and thus a certain end, since form and end are unintelligible apart from each other.

It seems to me, therefore, that to speak of a rational creature, a creature having as its highest reality a power by which to apprehend the true and the good, which nonetheless does not have as its necessary end the resting in that very truth and goodness, is to speak without meaning. It is to say that a creature is made capable of partaking in the perfections of its origin, yet is left wholly on its own as to the end towards which it will be inclined to go, or without determination as to whether or not it will even have an end. I do not see how any sense can be made out of that.

All men desire happiness, or, if the word reminds you too much of Hollywood, substitute another term: completion, fulfillment, enduring bliss. There is nobody who does not will this end, because to be rational is to be the sort of creature that (a) is capable of knowing or being aware of itself; (b) in knowing itself recognises that there is such a thing as the full possession of and rejoicing in what is good, viz., happiness; (c) upon glimpsing the possibility of happiness, desires it ardently as a way of reaching the zenith of what it is; and (d) strives always to reach this maximum actuality. The question of what exactly is taken as the end should not be mixed up in this discussion. We are only concerned with the universal question: what does it mean to live a human life? It means to work for one’s completion. We should not ask why man desires this end; for how could he not? A creature endowed with the power to partake of truth and goodness necessarily tends towards that which he takes to be true and good. This is not compulsion or slavery, this is simply a precondition of all action and passion. If a man did not naturally want something, he could never move himself to want anything voluntarily. We never deliberate about means until some end is fixed; we would never deliberate at all were there no distant target which was seen as the ultimate justification of our actions. If we designated our final end, if we created our own natures, action could not be other than totally arbitrary, neither right nor wrong, and neither describable in itself nor communicable to others. We could not act in concert with other human beings; we could not even act as a single subject of a life of action. Each man would be his own species, or non-species; each act would be an isolated fact with no prelude, no postlude, no context. And then we would have to ask: could love or hatred, the most basic of our responses to the world and its inhabitants, survive in this metaphysical wilderness?

A large impediment to accepting the Thomistic account is the routine failure to distinguish between the end as given generically, and the end as “coloured” by a particular person’s life, choices, habits, opinions. Our perceptions of what makes for happiness can differ dramatically, as is obvious from living in a world where some people would identify fulfillment with (say) endless and unfatiguing electronic entertainment. Because reason can have different apprehensions of the good, the will can tend towards different goods in the right or the wrong order, putting lower goods above higher ones, or, albeit more rarely, higher goods above lower ones when it is not appropriate to do so. The will is not automatically harnessed to the natural and supernatural means of human perfection, nor is the intellect prepackaged with instructions as to what will ultimately fulfill it. This is why Aristotle says that education counts for just about everything, together with habituation to virtuous or vicious actions (and, as Christians, we can add the presence or absence of grace). If men can mentally locate their fulfillment in wealth or pleasure, the two most common follies of our fallen race, then they can go about living as though wealth or pleasure really were the final end for which they exist. There has been a conscious decision, a choice or free act to orient oneself to some “x” as constitutive of happiness, where “x” can be anything that is perceived to have some degree of goodness in it.

Perhaps, after all, the modern replies: to have freedom to choose what I will construe to be my happiness is no freedom at all, if I am still naturally made for a certain final end and will be miserable if I do not choose it.

Yet is this argument sound? Consider some examples. Is the murderer not free because he commits an action that will make him miserable? Is any man less free for doing something stupid? In one sense, of course, he is not as free as he might be if he were acting in a way that would perfect him rather than damage him, but he is free as long as the origin of action remains in him and is not the result of instinct, chance, or coercion. If this freedom were not real, would there be any basis for distinguishing between manslaughter and murder, as criminal investigators and courts of law do on a daily basis? It seems as though moderns need to go back to school with Socrates in the Gorgias. The entire point of having morals, of striving to be virtuous, is to live in such a way that one will not be miserable. To be tending towards happiness or misery is, at least on the natural level, within our power.

The modern may still object that if the rational creature has been given a will, it should be free to choose what it is going to be for. That is perfectly true if by “choosing what it is going to be for,” one means the choices all men make about what goods to pursue here and now, what to construe as happiness, for what (or whom) am I living my life. It is obvious that not only are we free to do this, we are always doing it. Our experience of freedom is undeniable and all-pervasive: we are in charge of ourselves whenever we say “I could do this or that or neither, but I choose to do this.” All of a man’s life is taken up with decisions about this step or that, this object or that. Reading the plays of Sartre, one might almost begin to think that such decisions are irrelevant and somehow too ignoble to be taken seriously as free acts! Comparatively speaking, speculation about the final and absolute good is a luxury for the few who are capable of bearing the strain of concentration. Most people carry on from day to day trying to be happy in some fashion, without rising to the level of secondary reflection where we pose the question “what’s it all for.”

On the other hand, if by the statement “the rational creature should be free to choose what it is going to be for” one means that a rational creature should be free to endow itself with an end or have authority over its orientation to the good, then I say: impossible. Doing so would involve defining what is actually good, producing goodness as an artist produces an artifact. The creature would cease to be a creature; it would become God, and a strange God at that, since there would no longer be any such thing as “the good.” All would be chaos, relativity, meaninglessness. But the Good Itself cannot be defined by the creature; not even God defines the Good. He is the Good, He cannot be otherwise, and there is no need for Him to be able to be Not-Good in order for Him to be free.

The existentialist is worried about preserving the creature’s freedom. If he were thinking rationally, he might rather turn his mind to the problem of God’s freedom. For on his view, God not only could not be free, He would be the most unfree being of all—He would be a total and complete slave. Yet what fool at this point would not blush from embarassment and retire to his room, eager to find a less ridiculous position?

The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good (Part II)

by Peter Kwasniewski

Today we present the second half of the article posted yesterday, which is forthcoming in the next issue of The Latin Mass,vol. 23, n. 4 (Winter/Spring 2015): 28–35, and appears here at The Josias by permission.

The Human Self is Fulfilled in the Common Good

Up to this point in our reflections we have seen that the way in which “the problem of love” is usually cast—that allegiance must be given to altruism or egoism—involves a false opposition from the start, built upon a superficial metaphysics. Because neither position recognizes ecstatic generosity as the rule of creation, neither position recognizes the fundamental distinction between private goods, which cannot be shared by many, and common goods, which can be shared by many. To this distinction we now turn.

Continue reading “The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good (Part II)”

The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good

by Peter Kwasniewski

This is the first half of an article published in the The Latin Mass, vol. 23, n. 4 (Winter/Spring 2015): 28–35, and appears here at The Josias by permission.  The second half is here.

It is a well-known axiom of Thomistic ethics that whatever good a person loves he loves as his own good (bonum suum). How, then, can there be a true “ecstasy,” that is, a true going out of oneself in love for the other?[1]  How can there be authentic love of the other for the other’s sake?  Does not love collapse into egoism?  And would not the only practical or theoretical alternative be altruism—a sort of spontaneous giving away to others that has no reference whatsoever to oneself or one’s good?

Continue reading “The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good”