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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fulton Sheen and the Idea of Ideas

Yesterday, in the previous posting on this subject, we looked at one of the most important things the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen addressed in his work: the fact that God created human beings, not humanity.  We also noted that most people would be completely baffled by this distinction, not able to see the difference between the actuality of a child, woman, and man created by God, and the ideas of children, women, and men created by human beings.

The fact is, however, that a number of modern philosophers, such as the Great Books philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, have made this same point, as did Monsignor Ronald A. Knox with whom Sheen worked, and G.K. Chesterton.  Knox, in fact, titled the final chapter in his life’s work, Enthusiasm (1950), “The Philosophy of Enthusiasm.”
Msgr. Ronald A. Knox
It was not a compliment.  To Knox, enthusiasm is “an excess of charity [that] threatens unity.”  (Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, 1.)  After a few introductory paragraphs in which he (mistakenly) opined that enthusiasm appeared to him to be in abeyance — for the time being — Knox asked, “At what sources do they feed, these torrents which threaten, once and again, to carry off our peaceful country-side in ruin?” Answering his own question, he replied,
Basically, it is the revolt of Platonism against the Aristotelian mise en scène of traditional Christianity. The issue hangs on the question whether the Divine Fact is something given, or something to be inferred. Your Platonist, satisfied that he has formed his notion of God without the aid of syllogisms or analogies, will divorce reason from religion. (Ibid., 578-579.)
For his part Adler noted the Platonic revolt against Aristotle, while Sheen put it in terms of undermining the philosophy of Aquinas. The rebellion is rooted in the fact that both Aristotle and Aquinas stressed the primacy of the Intellect over the Will, and thus the necessity of both faith and reason. For the Platonist, however, the Will — personal faith and opinion — is everything, the Intellect nothing; “nothing really matters [for the Platonist] except the Divine will.” (Ibid., 579)
Aquinas: primacy of the Intellect
Relying on one’s personal opinion of God’s Will (or whatever one puts in the place of God, such as the State or your own ego) without reference to empirical evidence or logical argument, however, causes disagreements and contradictions to appear with an alarming, albeit unsurprising regularity. Using reason is anathema to the truly spiritual person who “will have God served for himself alone.” (Ibid.)
Knox traced this capacity for contradiction in Christian religious society to perversions forced on the philosophy of Saint Augustine of Hippo. As Knox wrote, “Exaggerated now from this angle, now from that, St. Augustine’s theology has provided, ever since, the dogmatic background of revivalism,” (Ibid., 580.) “revivalism” being a manifestation of enthusiasm.
This is because Plato taught the obvious truth that ideas exist just as do the things of the physical world. He then made the mistake, however, of claiming not only that generalizations — abstractions — exist (which they do), but that they exist independently of the particular, i.e., that ideas exist apart from the human mind (which they do not). As Adler explained,
More than a full measure of reality, the world of ideas had for [Plato] a superior grade of reality. The physical things that we perceive through our senses come into being and pass away and they are continually in flux, changing in one way or another. They have no permanence. But though we may change our minds about the ideas we think about, they themselves are not subject to change. . . . The world of changing physical things is thus for Plato a mere shadow of the much more real world of ideas. When we pass from the realm of sense experience to the realm of thought, we ascend to a higher reality, for we have turned from things that have no enduring existence to enduring and unchanging (Plato would say “eternal”) objects of thought — ideas. (Mortimer J. Adler, Six Great Ideas. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1981, 8.)
Aristotle: truth is true
Some people will thereby be tempted to deny particular, concrete things because within the Platonic framework they are transient, compared to seemingly eternal, general abstractions. An actual human being (so the reasoning goes), is therefore lower than the abstraction of humanity. A human creation thereby becomes greater than human beings and He Who created them.
In extreme cases, the ultrasupernaturalist will claim to ascend to such a higher, mystical level of existence, or raise his or her consciousness to such an elevated plane, that this world becomes completely unimportant, sometimes even illusory. Truth itself ceases to be true and becomes subject to change as new truths displace old truths, just as the supernatural displaces the natural. (See, for example, E.F. Schumacher’s New Age classic, A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper Collins, 1979.)
For his part, Chesterton believed that mysticism enlightens, it does not obscure; it is specific and concrete, conveying true knowledge, not vague opinion. It does not give special knowledge only to a gnostic élite. As he said of one New Age guru,
G.K. Chesterton: mysticism is not abstract
Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), an American-born British occultist and mystic, best known as the co-developer of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck and author of Key to the Tarot (London: Rider and Co., 1910),
He is enslaved by the one great fallacy of the mystics, that mysticism, religion and poetry have to do with the abstract. Thinkers of Mr. Waite’s school have a tendency to believe that the concrete is the symbol of the abstract. The truth, the truth at the root of all true mysticism, is quite the other way. (G.K. Chesterton: The Speaker, May 31, 1902.)
The Platonist, then, utterly rejects what the Aristotelian-Thomist accepts as a matter of course: that the principles of reason illuminated and guided by faith put actual God, not the abstraction of Collective Man, at the center. As Adler concluded, distinguishing — as he put it — reality from existence (or, as Sheen put it, existence from conception),*
For those of us who cannot shuck off our commitment to common sense, Plato goes too far in attributing reality to ideas, and much too far in exalting their reality over the reality of sensible phenomena — the reality of the ever-changing world we experience through our senses. We do not hesitate to reject Plato’s theory of ideas, and declare him wrong in attributing reality to ideas as well as to physical things, and a superior reality at that. For us commonsense fellows, it is the world of ideas that is comparatively shadowy as compared with the tangible, visible, audible world of things that press on us from all sides. (Adler, Six Great Ideas, op. cit., 8-9.)
* Illustrating the problem of accurately translating difficult concepts from other languages such as Greek and Latin, Sheen made the same argument in Religion Without God. Sheen, however, said that ideas are conceived, but do not exist, where Adler said that ideas exist, but are not real — yet both Adler and Sheen were making the same point.