Thursday, October 8, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, I: How to Read a Book


Through the kind offices of Father Edward Krause, C.S.C., Ph.D., we met recently with the Associate Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame du Lac in Indiana.  Completely by chance, when we were packing and trying to pick out a book to read on the airplane, our eyes fell on a copy of Monsignor Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950), something we had been through before.  We had space in our bag, so we put in Knox’s book as well as the murder mystery we were going to read (not Agatha Christie's Death in the Air. . . .).

Taking to heart the lessons in Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), we started reading Enthusiasm with a little more care than before.  We hadn’t gotten through the first chapter when things started clicking and connections were made.

This was mostly with respect to the decline and fall of common sense in the modern world.  In particular, there is the tendency of even the most respected thinkers to avoid, ignore, or reject data or arguments that appear to contradict a pet thesis.

Nor is this anything new.  Dr. Richard Feynman noted that the tendency was rife in academia in his essay, “Cargo Cult Science” in his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985).

Msgr. Ronald Knox (not the manga character)
In Enthusiasm, Knox found examples of the same thing in the earliest records of Christianity.  Doubtless any thoughtful cave man could have done the same thing fifty thousand years ago.

It struck us that this was simply another manifestation of the “Triumph of the Will.”  Rejecting empirical evidence and logical argument, people tend to go with what they want to believe is true, rather than what their senses and reason tell them is true.

This was, in fact, the burning intellectual issue of the Middle Ages: whether we are to understand reality by the evidence of our senses and the application of human reason . . . or whether we are simply to take something that we accept as the revealed word of a deity, and reject anything that we believe contradicts our faith in that word.

Put in other terms, the essential conflict is between the Intellect and the Will, or between reason and faith . . . and yet, there is no essential conflict between the Intellect and the Will (or between faith and reason), any more than there is between justice and charity.  You need merely understand them and the roles of each properly.

That is what three authors in the twentieth century did in what may arguably be their three greatest works.  Chronologically, these are Fulton J. Sheen’s God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), G.K. Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933), and Ronald A. Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950).

We realized that these were three books that should be read by anyone trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the modern world (at least philosophically).  The problem is that reading them and understanding them takes a bit of doing, and presupposes acceptance of certain postulates . . . such as the first principle of reason: nothing can both be and not be at the same time under the same conditions.

Plus, they should not be read in chronological order.  Sheen’s book, while possibly his greatest intellectual achievement, is hardly light reading, and is not up to his usual literary standards.  It is extraordinarily tough sledding.

Thus, if we were to recommend the books, they should be read Chesterton first, Knox second, and Sheen third.  We’ll explain why in subsequent postings in this short series.

#30#

2 comments:

nail-in-the-wall said...

Okay! Three and a half. “God in relation to the anti-intellectual tendencies of the present day was examined in our previous work “God and Intelligence,” of which this present volume is a continuation. The two are destined to be a complete philosophy of religion from both its formal and material angles.” (Fulton J. Sheen: Religion without God, Preface (page ix, x) 1928. Longmans, Green and Company).

Okay! Four, How To Read a Book.

Michael D. Greaney said...

Well . . . yeah. But if you're going to do that, you have to add Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi and his autobiography, a bunch of Knox's books, and also Sheen's autobiography, as well as a number of those by Adler and Rommen.

It's just neater to say "Three Key Books" instead of "A Gigundy List of Books You Ought to Read By People You Never Heard Of."