We closed the previous posting on this subject with the statement that while American type liberalism and European and English type liberalism are all “liberalism,” there is a fundamental difference between the American version and the other two. In brief, where European liberalism puts sovereignty into the abstraction of the collective, and English liberalism puts sovereignty into the abstraction of an élite (ultimately the same thing, for an élite of some sort always ends up in control of the collective), American liberalism puts sovereignty solely and exclusively into the human person.
While this sounds to most people like a difference that makes no difference, the distinction is profound. By putting sovereignty into an abstraction, whether a private sector plutocracy (capitalism) or a public sector bureaucracy (socialism), a Platonic ideal is established as the model toward which to strive. Depending on the power of whoever wishes to force his vision of the perfect society (or anything else) on to others, the institutions of the social order may bear little or no resemblance to human nature and thus have little or no capacity to assist actual human persons in meeting their wants and needs or — especially — in acquiring and developing virtue, i.e., becoming more fully human.
Specifically, in European and English liberalism knowledge and opinion of any absolutes is delivered to people by an élite that thereby controls access to the common good by limiting the possession and exercise of natural rights. In American liberalism, on the other hand (consistent with Aristotelian-Thomism), knowledge and opinion regarding absolutes derive from human nature, and the common good is open to all through organizing with others and the exercise of natural rights. Instead of having the duty of conforming society and individuals to an ideal that may or may not have any connection to reality, people are charged with the duty of organizing and conforming their personal behavior and their institutions to the principles they discern that govern human nature.
Thus, as John Henry Newman pointed out so many times in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), human beings go from the particular to the general, that is, from the concrete observations about human nature to the ideal or conceptualization of the abstraction of humanity or the institutions of the common good. This is nothing more than what Aristotle had said some 2,500 years before Newman, but it was and remains a key point — enough so that Newman would take twenty years by his own admission to write a nearly 150,000-word “essay” taking that as his starting point. As he said,
By our apprehension of propositions I mean our imposition of a sense on the terms of which they are composed. Now what do the terms of a proposition, the subject and predicate, stand for? Sometimes they stand for certain ideas existing in our own minds, and for nothing outside of them; sometimes for things simply external to us, brought home to us through the experiences and informations we have of them. All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence, no counterpart, out of it. (Newman, Grammar of Assent, Chapter I, § 2.)
That is, things external to the human person have an objective, “concrete” existence. Abstractions and generalizations — ideals — on the other hand, have no existence apart from the human mind.
|John Henry Newman|
Newman himself may not have realized the full implications of his Aristotelian “grammar of assent.” Still, the fact remains that he completely rejected European liberalism, and partly rejected English liberalism as an Anglican — and completely (if not wholly consistently) when he became a Catholic — both of which are based on the Platonic concept that there is an ideal form of everything. In an extremely brief ultra-oversimplification, then, Newman’s “grammar of assent” was nothing more than realizing that human beings have three ways of accepting or assenting to truth:
· Knowledge of what one understands and can prove,
· Belief in what one does not understand but which is subject to proof, and
· Belief in what one does not understand, and which is not subject to proof.
|Mortimer Jerome Adler|
Strictly speaking, these last two are generally categorized as opinion rather than knowledge. In the modern age, however, as Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902-2001) explained in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985), there is massive confusion between knowledge, which is always true, and opinion, which may be true.
Adler therefore divided the three ways of giving assent to truth the same way as Newman, but explained them differently:
· Knowledge, or that about which we can be certain beyond any shadow of a doubt; that which is manifestly true (Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985, 84),
· Knowledgeable opinion (or opinionated knowledge) — not Adler’s terms — or that about which we are persuaded beyond any reasonable doubt (ibid.), and
· Mere opinion, or anything about which we have doubt. (ibid.)
Having said this, we are immediately faced with a problem. Adler was referring to “scientific” truth and the matter of everyday life. Newman’s concern, however, was religious faith . . . and faith is defined as applying to that which is not manifestly true.
|First edition of Newman's Apologia|
This does not, of course, change the fact that knowledge and opinion are two different things and must not be confused. That is why, for example, Newman titled Part III of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua “History of My Religious Opinions.” He did not mean that he considered religious beliefs less true or more true than other truth, but that the process of assenting to or accepting religious truth is different from that required for other truth.
This puts an entirely different aspect on the question that Newman addressed and takes it out of the realm of the “scientific” that deals with everyday temporal affairs. Adler, too, addressed this issue. After noting that what he had just said does not for various reasons apply to “fields such as philology, the comparative study of religion, or the fine arts,” he pointed out that,
Reference to religious belief or faith has also been omitted. It claims to be knowledge and would lose all its efficacy if it were reduced to mere opinion. But the grounds on which it makes such a claim are so utterly different from the criteria we have employed to divide genuine knowledge from mere opinion that it is impossible in the brief scope of this discussion to put religious faith or belief into the picture we now have before us. (Ibid., 105-106.)
Another factor inserts itself into the equation. Possibly unique among popular religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, Newman seemed to take no notice of the world outside religion. It was only with difficulty that he was in any degree cognizant of affairs beyond the church to which he belonged, whether Anglican or Catholic. For Newman, the world outside religious society was simply there, something to be taken for granted unless it infringed on the area of faith.
|Fulton J. Sheen|
Thus, European and English liberals (socialists and capitalists, respectively) began with the material world and developed their opinions of God to conform to their ideals of man, putting an abstraction of humanity at the center, creating what Fulton Sheen would later term “Religion Without God.” In sharp contrast, Newman began with the spiritual world and developed his opinion of man to conform to the ultimate reality or knowledge of God. As one commentator noted,
[A]lthough he took full advantage of technological innovation and was to commit himself to helping its victims as well as to rectifying the philosophical superficialities it engendered, Newman’s ideas had not begun in contemplation of the scientific revolution taking place around him. (Louis McRedmond, Thrown Among Strangers: John Henry Newman in Ireland. Dublin, Éire: Veritas Publications, 1990, 30.)
Thus, Newman took from the world what was given, accepted that which was of immediate utility to religion, and ignored or rejected that which was contradictory or not useful. His thought “belonged to another era only in the sense that Newman drew his lessons from eternal verities which he judged true for every age and he illustrated them from a fourth-century debate if that happened to make the point most effectively.” (Ibid., 38.)