Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, X: In Defense of Common Sense

In St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”, G.K. Chesterton made a point of calling himself stupid — a fool or a moron, in fact.  If it were anyone other than Chesterton, a reader might tend to think Chesterton was trying to get people to contradict him and say, no, how intelligent he really is, he’s just being modest, etc., etc.

Chesterton a dunce?
Chesterton’s goal might have been a little different.  In context, he seems to have meant that, in matters with which Aquinas and serious students of philosophy dealt, he was a complete novice.  He was so unlearned as to be to all intents and purposes a fool or a moron.  As he put it: “It will be understood that in these matters I speak as a fool; or, as our democratic cousins would say, a moron; anyhow as a man in the street.”  (G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  New York, Image Books, 1956, 146.)

There also seems to be a little dig at trained philosophers who lose sight of the common sense to which such “esoteric” subjects as philosophy and theology must be connected if they are to have any meaning.  Chesterton seemed almost to take something of an un-Christian delight in pointing out that Aquinas, one of the greatest intellects who ever lived, was called “dumb” and considered stupid.  This should serve as a graphic warning to us not to judge by appearances . . . especially if we have an interested motive in maintaining a previously established position or opinion — such as someone (else’s) presumed stupidity in opposing us, or anything else.

Early Sheen
The bottom line here is that Chesterton considered the philosophy of Aquinas to be something anyone who dared to use his brain honestly could figure out, as well as the “golden mean” (so to speak) of common sense.  That is, when Thomism wasn’t being twisted all out of recognition by creative reinterpretations, re-editing of the dictionary, or replaced with will-based fantasies bolstered by personal opinion and self-interest.  Possibly influenced by Fulton Sheen’s book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925) — of which more anon — Chesterton shifted his focus in his book on Aquinas from what was wrong with the way people were pretending to think, to why it was wrong.

That was the whole point of Sheen’s God and Intelligence.  It wasn’t that people weren’t using their reason.  That was not the question.  The fact that they were not being rational was obvious, at least to Sheen, Chesterton, and Knox.

Rather, the problem behind the problem was the reason they weren’t using their reason.  It was not enough, as Chesterton had done in his previous books, to point out the flaws in specific reasoning.  He seems to have realized that he had to get to the root of the problem: that reason itself had been suborned.  In its place was total reliance on faith disjoined from reason, making it in all cases mere opinion — the triumph of the will.

Specifically, what Chesterton identified at some point as the “small error that leads to great errors in the end” was the shift from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law.  That is, instead of basing fundamental values and moral principles on knowledge-reason-intellect, the modern world bases what it terms “values” and “morality” (when it’s not rejecting the whole concept of values and morality) on opinion-faith-will.

The Abolition of Man
This, as we’ve already noted above (Posting VIII in this series, “The Paradox of Il Poverello”) by quoting Heinrich Rommen on the tendency inherent in William of Occam’s distortions of Duns Scotus’s reliance on the Primacy of the Will instead of the Intellect, leads straight to pure moral relativism and totalitarianism.  By violating the first principle of reason, the modern world has opened the floodgates to what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.”  As Lewis explained,

“This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call natural law or Traditional Morality or the first Principles of Practical Reason or the first Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value.  It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Way” (Ch. 2), The Abolition of Man, 1943.)

This tendency applies in any field where opinion has supplanted knowledge.  Possibly the greatest constitutional scholar of the twentieth century, William Winslow Crosskey, made it his life’s work to explain how the shift from knowledge to opinion — from reason to faith, or from the intellect to the will — resulted in the “living constitution” theory, by means of which courts can make law and effectively overthrow the very constitution that gives them their authority.  (See William Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States.  Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1953.)

Mortimer Adler, Great Minds in Great Books.
Decades after Chesterton, Mortimer J. Adler joined him in identifying the tendency to replace reason with faith, knowledge with opinion, or the intellect with the will, as one of the “Ten Philosophical Mistakes” that plague the modern world.  As he said,

The fifth mistake also draws a line between what is genuine knowledge and mere opinion.  This time it places all judgments about moral values — about what is good and evil, right and wrong, and all judgments about what ought and ought not to be sought or done — on the side of mere opinion.  There are no objectively valid and universally tenable moral standards or norms.  This denial undermines the whole doctrine of natural, human rights, and, even worse, lends support to the dogmatic declaration that might makes right.  (Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought — How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985, xvii-xviii.)

Adler and Chesterton were not alone in this assessment.  As the solidarist political scientist and jurist Dr. Heinrich Rommen noted, alluding specifically to the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933, the year Chesterton published “The Dumb Ox”,

". . . the depths of evil and perversion . . ."
“[T]otalitarianism has opened the eyes of more and more thinking people to the ultimate consequences to which the denial of the natural law must lead.  Such consequences were not obvious or clearly predictable so long as modern society, though infected with positivism, continued to live on, beguiled by an optimistic faith in an inevitable and automatic evolutionary progress and under the protection of a constitutional form of government which was still feeding on an inherited Christian substance.  People and their leaders were therefore not yet sufficiently aware of the depths of evil and perversion to which the evolutionary product, man, supposedly determined by blood or mere economic conditions, could sink, if once the age-old moral and intellectual molds and floodgates were shattered.” (Rommen, The Natural Law, op. cit., 136.)

Pope John Paul II was of the same opinion.  In Fides et Ratio, his 1998 encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, the pope made these rather pointed comments about systems of thought that separated faith and reason:

"A fateful separation [of faith and reason]"
From the late Medieval period onwards . . . the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. . . . [One] of the many consequences of this separation was an ever-deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself.  In a spirit both skeptical and agnostic, some began to voice a general mistrust, which led some to focus more on faith and others to deny its rationality altogether. . . .

It is not too much to claim that the development of a good part of modern philosophy has seen it move further and further away from Christian Revelation, to the point of setting itself quite explicitly in opposition. . . . [V]arious forms of atheistic humanism, expressed in philosophical terms . . . regarded faith as alienating and damaging to the development of a full rationality.  They did not hesitate to present themselves as new religions serving as a basis for projects which, on the political and social plane, gave rise to totalitarian systems which have been disastrous for humanity.  (Fides et Ratio, §§ 45-46.)

To someone like Chesterton, the writing was on the wall.  There could be no hope for anything as long as people — his own followers, especially — insisted on substituting their subjective opinion, faith, or will, for objective knowledge, reason, or intellect.  Ronald Knox and Fulton Sheen joined Chesterton in this conclusion.

That is, as long as people insisted on substituting nonsense for common sense.  To try and correct the problem, Chesterton wrote Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”, a graphic warning to everyone, but (again) with special focus on people who claimed to agree with him, but who, through “one twist to the mind,” managed to change completely the meaning of what he said.



shalomes2012 said...

can you comment on Chesteron's reference to " It is the conviction, which I have expressed once or twice in the course of it, that the sixteenth-century schism was really a belated revolt of the thirteenth-century pessimists." who were they and how do they connect with Aquinas? thanks

Michael D. Greaney said...

The reference is to those who wanted to shift from the Intellect (God's Nature, self-realized in His Intellect, reflected in human nature, and therefore discernible by "the force and light of human reason alone"), to the Will as the basis of the natural law. This, as Heinrich Rommen and Mortimer Adler agree (although Rommen has the better quote in his book on the natural law), is the ultimate pessimism. It leads inevitably to pure moral positivism, and even nihilism:

"For Duns Scotus [who promoted the primacy of the Will over the Intellect] morality depends on the will of God. A thing is good not because it corresponds to the nature of God or, analogically, to the nature of man, but because God so wills. Hence the lex naturalis could be other than it is even materially or as to content, because it has no intrinsic connection with God’s essence, which is self-conscious in His intellect. For Scotus, therefore, the laws of the second table of the Decalogue were no longer unalterable. . . . an evolution set in which, in the doctrine of William of Occam [a leader of the Fraticelli] (d. cir. 1349) on the natural moral law, would lead to pure moral positivism, indeed to nihilism." (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 51-52.)

The "sixteenth-century schism" was simply a reformulation of the Medieval Intellect v. Will debate, updated to whether one accepted the Catholic Church's authority as the interpreter of Scripture, or whether one went with one's personal understanding based on an interpretation of God's Will . . . which, as Ronald Knox pointed out, inevitably meant one's personal will.

Thus, to Chesterton the pessimists (Manichees) were those who, like Siger of Brabant, William of Occam, and Michael of Cesena, who abandoned reason, and went with their private understanding of God's Will. They ended up adopting forms of "eastern" spirituality, that ended in negation, typified by Chesterton as Buddhism and Manicheaism. This makes today's Chestertonians' and distributists' adoption of the "Buddhist" economics of E.F. Schumacher rather baffling, as it represents the very thing Chesterton opposed.

Consequently, Thomists stood for the primacy of the Intellect, the pessimists for the primacy of the Will as distorted by Occam. Ironically, what Duns Scotus meant by the primacy of the Will was not what Occam meant, although those who took Occam's position were called "Dunces" by the Thomists, the term coming to mean a stupid person who rejects reason . . . which the real Duns Scotus did not.