Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, XIV: “Since the Modern World Began”

One thing became evident when researching what we might call the Decline and Fall of Common Sense in the modern world.  That is, at some point a shift occurred not only in what people think, but in how or even if they think.  As we noted in the first posting in this series, this was a change from a reason-based worldview, to what Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science,” i.e., faith-based, meaning one’s own opinion about what one wants to believe projected on to the world.

Religious innovation led to philosophical innovation.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, by most accounts, the turning point.  The social, political, and religious developments of the sixteenth century laid the groundwork for the philosophical changes and innovations of the seventeenth century.  This, in and of itself, accounts for most, if not all, the thinking errors — that is, philosophical mistakes — that beset the world today, those small errors in the beginning that lead to great errors in the end.

That, at least, seemed to be the opinion of G.K. Chesterton, as we saw in the previous posting in this series.  As this is an examination of the philosophy of common sense, as Chesterton called Aristotelian-Thomism, it should come as no surprise that a number of other Aristotelian-Thomists shared this opinion, especially Ronald Knox and Fulton Sheen (to say nothing of Mortimer Adler and Heinrich Rommen).

Knox, in particular, in his book Enthusiasm (1950), highlighted the critical period between the sixteenth century, when many of the “small errors” had their modern rebirth, and the nineteenth century, when they began reaching maturity.  As the subtitle of Enthusiasm has it, “A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.”

The papacy a supranational moral authority.
The nineteenth century in particular was crucial.  This was when the popes as head of the Catholic Church began reasserting a supranational moral authority, above and beyond that of the modern Nation-State.  This was based not on revelation or “documents of faith,” as Chesterton quoted Aquinas, “but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, op. cit., 94.)

That is, since the revival of Aristotelian-Thomism in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church has employed a philosophy that, while based on reason alone, is allied with and illuminated and guided by faith.  The Church rejects any philosophical system built on false premises, especially one that has as its main purpose to avoid the consequences of having made an error in the first place.  As Mortimer Adler explained the dangers of doing anything else,

"Erroneous premise ... a wolf in sheep's clothing.
“At the very beginning, before the consequences are discerned, the mistake appears innocent and goes unnoticed.  Only when we are confronted with the repugnant conclusions to which cogent reasoning carries us are we impelled to retrace our steps to find out where we went wrong.  Only then is the erroneous premise that at first appeared innocent revealed as the culprit — a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Unfortunately much of modern thought has not sought in this way to avoid conclusions that have been regarded as unacceptable for one reason or another.  Instead of retracing the steps that lead back to their sources in little errors at the beginning, modern thinkers have tried in other ways to circumvent the result of the initial errors, often compounding the difficulties instead of overcoming them.” (Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, op. cit., xv.)

This, as Pope Pius X noted, was the root intellectual cause of “modernism,” that is, moral relativism applied in religious society.  He termed modernism “the synthesis of all heresies,” i.e., a conglomeration of errors about God based on personal opinion or will, necessarily reflected in our understanding of humanity.  As he explained,

“If we pass from the moral to the intellectual causes of Modernism, the first which presents itself, and the chief one, is ignorance. Yes, these very Modernists who pose as Doctors of the Church, who puff out their cheeks when they speak of modern philosophy, and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with all its false glamour because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of being able to recognise confusion of thought, and to refute sophistry. Their whole system, with all its errors, has been born of the alliance between faith and false philosophy.”  (Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 41.)


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