Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Metaphysics, Americanism and Penguin Poop

St. Thomas Aquinas
Master of Metaphysics
A few days ago, I presented you, gentle reader, with something of an experiment in creative analogies to be drawn between fighting the culture wars and dragon slaying. As far as I can tell, you didn't read it - which, to be perfectly frank, does not entirely surprise me. I'm pretty sure mixing obscure medieval Germanic lore with even more obscure philosophical issues would top any list of things to avoid in writing popular blog posts.

While the exercise was largely cathartic - my inner medievalist is now thoroughly accoyed (!) and purring like a cat upon a bed of canary feathers - the article was nonetheless attempting to make an important point: philosophy matters. A lot. Unfortunately, however, most people don't understand what philosophy is or what role it plays in their daily lives. The mere mention of a word like "metaphysics" is usually sufficient to cast a thick glaze over the eyes of even the best-intentioned of interlocutors. On occasion, I have been tempted to replace "metaphysics" with "the quantum mechanics of sugar-plum fairies", just to see if anyone would notice. Given the utterly bewildering popularity of hip-hop music and reality TV shows among the general populace, I suspect most would not.

This was not always the case, mind you. There was a time - and not too long ago, actually - when every self-respecting educated person in the western hemisphere had a firm grasp of the essential components of the major branches of philosophy, such as logic, metaphysics, and ethics. As I noted in a recent article on the roots of America's educational system, Scholasticism played a tremendous role in the intellectual life of the American Founding Fathers, though this has been largely forgotten - or intentionally overlooked, depending upon your politics. Having reviewed Dr. James Walsh's book on the subject in some depth, it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for a people thoroughly acquainted with the rudiments of natural theology. The very opening line of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," positively drips with philosophical presuppositions drawn directly from Scholastic metaphysics.

Lest there be any confusion, let me clarify that I am most certainly not asserting that the Founding Fathers were closet Catholics. On the contrary, most of them held the Catholic Church to be a contemptible institution guilty of hobbling the human intellect for centuries. Nonetheless, they begrudgingly recognized the inestimable service she has rendered to mankind by fully developing a rational system of natural theology, anthropology, cosmology and ethics. So impressed were they with this rational system that they constructed the entire edifice of the fledgling state upon it as a sure foundation. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Sadly, an appallingly large segment of the American population today would be hard-pressed to list even one such self-evident truth, let alone to explain what "self-evident" actually means.

Thus, I make no novel claims regarding the particular religious affiliations of the Founding Fathers. Some were Anglicans, some were Presbyterians, some were Congregationalists - there were even a few Catholics, believe it or not. In the wider population, there was even greater diversity, with Quakers and Shakers, Lutherans and Unitarians, and a whole host of assorted sects. While they differed greatly in regards to their understanding of divine or supernatural theology, they all agreed on the rational principles of natural theology and morality. Anyone familiar with the principles of Freemasonry will see why it was so attractive to the Founding Fathers, and how important religious rationalism, divorced from all sectarian views, was to the success of early America.

As an aside, anyone familiar with the Catholic teaching on the subject - i.e. that natural theology intentionally divorced from dogmatic theology quickly becomes a diabolical imitation of true religion - will also see why, prior to the invention of baseball, Anti-Catholicism was the favorite All-American pastime. Catholicism threatened to upset the precarious balance struck in the American intellect: religious rationalism coupled with dogmatic indifference. Catholics were insufferably dogmatic, which required their exclusion from the institutions of higher education, and unquestioningly loyal to the Pope, which required their exclusion from the public offices of government. In short, they refused to go along to get along, which threatened the real purpose of the American Enterprise: making obscene amounts of money.

And the plan worked brilliantly, as far as such things go, provided that everyone who was destined to wield the power of government continued to receive an education in the rudiments of sound philosophy and sufficiently distanced himself from anything resembling genuine religious belief. Of course, people of faith had their role to play: Catholics, with their culture of pious submission to suffering, were ideal cheap labor in the growing cities, and Protestants, with their desire to flee all trace of authority, were ideal settlers in the expanding wilderness, and both would help to make Manifest Destiny a profitable reality. But the most their religious faith could hope to achieve vis-à-vis the state was toleration, never support. To violate the principle of indifference to dogma and enshrine one religion's beliefs in law would be to invite all kinds of internal strife and - ultimately - to threaten profit margins. That is to say, religious faith is tolerated until it interferes with the bottom line.

This is, incidentally, the proximate cause of the rapid reversal of the U.S. government's stance on issues such as same-sex unions. But the cause-in-fact is the near-complete erosion of America's intellectual and moral foundation brought about by the elimination of the principles of Scholastic philosophy from the education of the general population. Even otherwise educated Americans don't know what to make of arguments from natural law, and are perfectly mystified by appeals to objective morality. As a case in point, I provide the following excerpt from a recent article by Margery Eagen, Crux's spirituality columnist, in which she opines:
Wall Street, Main Street, the ultra-macho world of organized sports, most of America, Europe, and the industrialized world has done an about-face on gay rights and even gay marriage. Republicans are looking for a way to finesse the problem away. Yet the catechism of the Catholic Church, like some "Reefer Madness" denial of reality, still describes a "homosexual inclination" as "objectively disordered" and homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered."
Not only does Ms. Eagen betray her own ignorance as to the actual import of the terms in question, she's dilettantish enough to wield actual quotes as scare quotes. It's hard to relate just how ridiculous that looks to anyone with even rudimentary training in Scholastic philosophy, but the following image comes close:

In her defense, Ms. Eagen - though writing for an allegedly Catholic newspaper - has very likely never even seen a manual on Scholastic ethics, let alone read one, and the distinction between moral philosophy and moral theology would, in all likelihood, be completely lost on her. And it's not (entirely) her fault. But expecting people who rely solely upon their typically malformed conscience to guide them through a complex issue such as sexual morality is like expecting a 4th grader to review a critical edition of the collected works of Chaucer. "It must be good, because it has a really pretty picture on the cover." Such an evaluation carries all the weight and intellectual merit of the typical argument in favor of same-sex unions: "They love each other, so it must be OK."

I said it before, and I'll say it several times more on this blog, God willing: The weak point of the culture of death is to be found in the soft underbelly of its metaphysical assumptions. It is there that its weakness is helplessly exposed, and it is there that we must apply the deadly strike.

This means, in the first place, educating ourselves and our children in the principles of Scholastic philosophy, i.e. logic, ontology, natural theology, anthropology, psychology, cosmology, ethics. Of course, these are to be supplemented by dogmatic theology, the natural sciences and moral theology. But these latter are not effective tools in the fight for sufficient breathing space for the practice of our Catholic Faith in a world increasingly hostile to true religion. Not only are they not effective, they can actually be counter-productive, as they give the appearance of pushing our religious beliefs off on other people. This is a fatal mistake in the context of the U.S., for the reasons outlined above. Instead, we must take the fight to the culture of death on rational - particularly metaphysical - grounds. Let the Protestant reactionaries thump their Bibles. Catholics have always excelled at philosophy, and we need not appeal to Sacred Scripture to assert what every man of sound mind is capable of ascertaining through the use of his God-given reason. That's how America - and the modern western world - was designed to work. It's by no means ideal, but it's what we have to work with.


  1. For those of us who would like to educate our children -- and ourselves -- in the principles of Scholastic philosophy, what are your suggestions? Do you have any book or course recommendations?

  2. Dear Wendy in VA,

    Thank you for commenting. This is a question I've been pondering for some time now. There are several very good manuals of Scholastic philosophy written during the century before Vatican II, many of which are worth considering. I'll probably put together a list and post an article on this in the near future. I might even do a series on Scholastic philosophy.

    But for now, off the top of my head, I would recommend a work by the title of An Elementary Course of Christian Philosophy by Br. Louis de Poissy, published in 1893. It was personally approved by Bl. Pope Pius IX, and gives a brief but thorough overview of the whole body of Scholastic philosophy. It was composed as something like a catechism, and can be studied in much the same way.

    There's an e-version of the text at the University of Notre Dame's archive:

    You could also download a pdf of the book from the Internet Archive:

    The direct link to download the pdf is:

    I hope that helps for now. As I said, I'll see about putting together a better list sometime in the near future.

    God bless!


  3. I read it Rad! My take home was that in 100 years society will look around at the squalor and revisit morality and the natural law. But that isn't quite it--with Scholasticism's weaponry we may eviscerate the soft underbelly sooner. Too bad the Supreme Court of the U.S. isn't listening to your arguments in regard to the sodomites. Sigh! We certainly have lost our academic heritage.

  4. Dear Sandpiper,

    Thanks so much for commenting! As the comment above from Wendy in VA shows, Catholics want to learn this material; it's just not being offered. The silent war on Thomism waged from within the Church in the run-up to the Vatican II had horrible consequences, not only for the Church, but for western civilization in general. If I were a better journalist or investigative reporter, that would be a story I would spend time looking into.

    God bless!


  5. Another good beginners' book is:
    An Introduction to Philosophy (Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition) by Daniel J. Sullivan published in 1957 and sold by Tan.
    It was recommended to me by my parish priest who studied St. Thomas in the FSSP seminary.

  6. Regret having missed this when it was first published; grateful to have found and read it now: Brilliant.

  7. Thanks so much for reading, Michael. If you're interested, I have two more pieces in this series of sorts:

    On Reason, Revelation, and Richard Dawkins' Sweaty Upper Lip

    Natural Theology, Pluralism and You

    I'd be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on the last one.



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