Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The American Chesterton, I: The Triumph of the Will


We come now to the third and final book in our series on “Three Key Books on Common Sense.”  Paradoxically (but consistent with the thought of Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen), Fulton J. Sheen’s God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy was the first written (in 1925), but would make little sense to the reader unless it is read last.  This is because, unlike many books, God and Intelligence is easier to understand by reading it in light of what came after publication, rather than before.

Jacket description of God and Intelligence.
That being the case, we believe that if someone reads God and Intelligence before reading St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” and Enthusiasm, he or she risks throwing aside the book as a piece of obscure academic theorizing with no relevance to real life.  Reading it after the two subsequent books, however, Sheen’s analysis of what he considered one of the most serious problems in the world today becomes clear as the reader meets concepts with which he or she is already familiar.

Thus, it is appropriate that the work of Fulton Sheen that was the starting point for our “Common Sense Trio” should be the end of our short journey here, albeit the beginning of a very long journey for the intellectually honest reader.  (By the way, it is purely coincidence that this posting is published on December 9, the anniversary of Sheen’s death — it just worked out that way.)

So, where Chesterton’s The “Dumb Ox” is a popular account of the error behind the errors, Sheen’s God and Intelligence is an in-depth analysis of the material Chesterton popularized.  Knox’s Enthusiasm, as we have seen, is about how that fundamental error was applied in many different ways, but with certain characteristics that are always there.

And the error?  The “twist to the mind” with which all three of our authors were concerned?  That is the abandonment of the Intellect in favor of the Will, and the consequent development not merely of a new religion, but of a new concept of religion.  As Sheen put it, it boils down to putting God at the service of man, rather than vice versa — “my will, not Thine.”

Bare knuckles defense of truth
Sheen’s book is thus somewhat redundant when read last, but still key.  Chesterton’s book is a very easy, even conversational introduction to a difficult subject.  It omits a great deal of the logical proof and empirical evidence.  Sheen’s book, however, is (in scholarly terms) an in-depth, down and dirty, bare knuckles treatment, from which Sheen’s later skill at communicating difficult thought in a popular manner is largely absent.

This is understandable, as the book was written to qualify for an academic degree, not for public consumption — the “first edition” printing consisted of a mere six copies!  Grasping it therefore requires much more work on the reader’s part as well as a great deal of preparation — fortunately provided by Chesterton’s and Knox’s books . . . assuming we read them first.

If we do that, it becomes evident that there must have been serious discussion among the three men about the abandonment of reason in the modern world.  Specifically, they would have discussed the rejection of the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas and how this led directly to the development of an entirely new concept of religion, especially within the Catholic Church.

New Age: Man becomes God.
The abandonment of reason was, therefore, something of supreme concern to Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen.  All three evidently realized that, paralleling developments in civil society, once moral relativism is inserted into religion by dismissing an understanding of the natural law based on God’s Nature self-realized in His Intellect and discernible by the force and light of human reason alone, what results is (as Fulton Sheen put it in his continuation of God and Intelligence), “Religion Without God.”  Man, not God, becomes the center.

We need to divert for a moment from the thread of our argument.  This is because mentioning Religion Without God (1928) brings in a practical difficulty.  Sheen regarded the book as a continuation of God and Intelligence, and (much like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics are two parts of a larger work) it probably should be read in conjunction with the earlier book.  It expands on the theme — the abandonment of reason — and how this led to the invention of new concepts of God and religion.  It’s also much better written and clearly directed at a popular, rather than an academic audience.  It may not be a coincidence that Sheen began broadcasting in 1928, and this, plus teaching at the Catholic University of America, had honed his communication skills.

The problem is that Religion Without God is a very rare book — the least expensive one of two copies we located recently was $99.99 (and it was on sale).  We only have a copy through the good offices of Guy “the Fulton Sheen Guy” Stevenson, who has made an avocation of the study of Sheen’s thought and its application to the Just Third Way of the Center for Economic and Social Justice, especially the Capital Homesteading proposal.

Clever, but completely irrational.
Fortunately, Chesterton and Knox cover the same material as did Sheen in Religion Without God in The “Dumb Ox” and Enthusiasm, respectively.  This is not surprising, since Sheen consulted both Chesterton and Knox in writing God and Intelligence, and Sheen viewed Religion Without God as the second part of God and Intelligence.

For our purposes, then, we can use quotes and cites from Religion Without God to amplify points we’ve already covered in this series under Chesterton and Knox.  It would, therefore, be good if a copy of Religion Without God can be located, but it’s not strictly speaking essential in order to understand and appreciate Sheen’s contribution to identifying the problem of the abandonment of common sense — and where it began.

So, to begin (and to resume our argument), we’ve already seen how Chesterton, Knox, and Adler — and probably a number of others — all commented on how “stale” Aristotelian philosophy (and thus that of Aquinas) had become by the sixteenth century.  To be perfectly accurate, of course, it wasn’t the thought of Aristotle or Aquinas that became stale, but that of Academia, as it has in our day.  As Adler commented from the perspective of the late twentieth century,

Mortimer J. Adler
“In the eyes of my contemporaries the label ‘Aristotelian’ [and ‘that of his great disciple Thomas Aquinas’ Adler added previously — ed.] has dyslogistic connotations.  It has had such connotations since the beginning of modern times.  To call a man an Aristotelian carries with it highly derogatory implications.  It suggests that his is a closed mind, in such slavish subjection to the thought of one philosopher as to be impervious to the insights or arguments of others. . . . Foolish Aristotelians there must have been among the decadent scholastics who taught philosophy in the universities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  They probably account for the vehemence of the reaction against Aristotle, as well as the flagrant misapprehension or ignorance of his thought.”  (Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, op. cit., 195-196.)

As Chesterton remarked, “By the end of the Medieval time, Aristotelianism did eventually grow stale.  Only a very fresh and successful novelty ever gets quite so stale as that.” (Chesterton, The “Dumb Ox”, op. cit., 77.)

Recent events in Academia present a graphic illustration of the results of abandoning reason by rejecting Aristotelian-Thomism.  In a piece in 2015 following the student unrest over trivialities at the University of Missouri, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal compared the suppression of free speech at Missouri, Dartmouth, and Yale to the terrorist attacks in Paris as an example of the inadequacy of modern institutions to deal with reality due to a profound lack of common moral values:

“Missouri and Paris have something important in common.  Both represent the inability of primary social institutions to defend themselves.  American institutions of higher learning are beset by an intellectual anarchy that is eroding their reason for being. . . .

“Institutions survive for many reasons, but one is that they operate inside a common moral order. . . . [Now free speech has declined] as a common value on American campuses. . . . students organize themselves into mini-mobs . . . to silence anyone on campus who they imagine disagrees with them.”  (Daniel Henninger, “From Missouri to Paris,” The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, November 19, 2015, A13.)

The Reformation: A Confederacy of Pedants.
In any event, the rejection of Aristotelian-Thomism laid the groundwork for its replacement with the bewildering array of theories and philosophies that followed hard on the heels of the Reformation.  This caused Chesterton to comment that “[s]ince the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.” (Chesterton, The “Dumb Ox”, op. cit., 145.)

As we might expect, the emphasis on new theories and philosophies led to an overreaction.  As Knox observed,

"Enthusiasm had but to lift its voice. . . ."
“[T]he  leaders of the Reformation had the defects of their qualities; they were scholars, not seldom pedants; they had divided Europe into a patchwork of sects, and deafened the public with their theologizing.  The reform of manners, by common consent, was still an unrealized ambition; there was too much of head, too little of heart, in the religiosity of the period.  Protestantism had created a demand for simplicity, but done little to satisfy it.  Enthusiasm had but to lift its voice, and it was certain of a hearing.” (Knox, Enthusiasm, op. cit., 5.)

Given, then, that people were faced with the choice of boring old orthodoxy or tedious new innovations, the temptation to which many gave in was to chuck the whole presumably discredited reliance on the intellect and go over to the will.  From there, as we have seen, it was a short leap to an entirely new concept of religion itself . . . which would have shocked the reformers even more than it did the orthodox when it reached full bloom in the modernist movement of the late nineteenth century within Christianity, and the New Age movement outside of it.

The intellect and reason were discredited, and thinking became anathema.  Religion, which should consist of human beings’ particular service to God, now became God’s general service to humanity.

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