Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 12

St. Augustine: The Father of Modern Philosophy?

Ronald P. McArthur
In a nationally published interview of Rocco Buttiglione, identified as The Popes Theologian in
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, he makes the following statement:
Descartes proposes a philosophy that does not need an Aristotelian metaphysics and can
therefore be reconciled with modern science. The access to metaphysics and Being is found in
the interiority of man and not in the external world. So, whatever rules science discovers in the
external world pose no problems. In order to reach Being, you must start with the depth of
your own soul. This is an Augustinian turn. Descartes wanted to be a Catholic philosopher; his
philosophyand therefore all modernitycan be understood as Augustinian.
This position, so blandly stated, is surely not as evident as its author seems to think. I would like, by
way of inquiry, to consider Descartess status as a Catholic philosopher, the claim that his
philosophy can be understood as Augustinian, and the conception of modernity as Augustinian.

Descartes begins The Meditations Concerning First Philosophy with an open letter To the Deans
and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology of Paris. He hopes with this letter to elicit their
support for the meditations which will follow, and wherein they will find philosophical
demonstrations for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, the principal questions
among those that should be demonstrated by philosophy. The importance of these
demonstrations lies, according to Descartes, in the possibility of persuading those without faith that
our faith might be true. We would at least, he says, be able to persuade them to prefer the just to
the useful because of the fear of God and the expectation of another life.
Is the believer, without the demonstration of Gods existence, justified in holding that He does
indeed exist? According to Descartes in this same letter [i]t is absolutely true both that we must
believe that there is a God because it is taught in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that
we must believe the Holy Scriptures because they come from God.
This is, of course, to argue in a circle, and one is left to wonder how anyone could be a believer.
Descartes himself seems to see the difficulty, for he says, concerning the circular argument,
that [t]he reason for this is that faith is a gift of God, and the very God that gives us faith to believe
other things can also give us faith to believe that he exists. If however, God gives us faith in His
own existence as well as faith in other things (presumably, what we find in the Scriptures) there is no
circular argument. We do not hold A because of B, and B because of A. They are both held
antecedently, so that neither is held as a consequence of the other. Why then does Descartes say
that this faith, a gift of God, is the reason for the circular argument? If the faith by which we hold
both destroys the fallacy, how can it be a reason for it? Descartes doesnt help us, for after stating
that we hold both by faith we could hardly, he says, offer this argument to those without faith,
for they might suppose that we were committing the fallacy the logicians call circular reasoning.

But how, if there is no fallacy, might those without faith suppose one if the believers argument
destroying it was explained to them? They might indeed reject our faith, but both we and they
would understand that neither the belief in Gods existence nor in other things were dependent
upon one another. Why then did Descartes come to think the believer commits the fallacy in the
first place? And why at the same time say that the reason for the fallacy is that, finally, there isnt
one? And why say that though there isnt one those without faith might suppose it? Descartess
own reasoning is opaque, but it does reveal his conviction that without the demonstration of Gods
existence the believer is foolish, and looks foolish as well to those without the same faith.
It is of further interest that Descartes does not say that there is any heretofore available proof of
Gods existence; if there were, one would suppose, there would never have been the difficulty
Descartes will attempt to surmount in his meditations. Is he, in other words preparing us for the
undiscovered defense of our faitha defense without which all the believers throughout the
centuries have been unable to give reason for the hope that is in them?
As Descartes proceeds further to enlist the support he covets, our difficulties mount. He notices
that the Doctors he is addressing along with all other theologians, assure us not only that the
existence of God can be proved by natural reason, but also that we can infer from Holy Scripture
that our knowledge of God is much clearer than the knowledge we have of various created things
in fact so easy to attain that those who do not attain it are blameworthy.
Note that Descartes is claiming not only that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason,
but that such knowledge is much clearer than the knowledge we have of various created things.
This leads us to think that we will not come to the knowledge of God through a knowledge of a
manifold of created things; if we did, that knowledge could not be clearer than the knowledge of
those very things through which it has arisen.
Does Descartes attempt to justify his claim? He does indeed with two texts from Scripture. He first
quotes from The Book Of Wisdom, where it is said (XIII,9): Howbeit they are not to be excused;
for if their understanding was so great that they could discern the world and the creatures, why did
they not rather find out the Lord thereof? He then quotes from Romans (I,20) where St. Paul says
those who do not come to the existence of God are without excuse and [t]hat which is known of
God is manifest to them.
Descartes wishes us to see in these texts a conformation of his position. If the world can be known,
so much more can we know God, as Wisdom itself teaches when it asks why those who know the
world of creatures did not rather find out the Lord thereof?as if to say that they could have
found out the Lord leaving those creatures aside, and more easily. When, further, St. Paul says that
which may be known of God is manifest to them, Descartes takes him to mean that Gods
existence is easily and clearly demonstrated as if with an immediacy which eliminates the necessity of
Descartes draws, and not unsuprisingly, this general conclusion from the texts he cites: It seems we
are being told that all that can be known of God can be demonstrated by reasons that we do not
need to seek elsewhere than in ourselves, and that our minds alone are capable of furnishing us.

That is why I have believed that it would not be inappropriate if I showed here how that can be
done, and by what means we can know God more easily and more certainly than we can know the
things of the world.
Descartes will, it seems, by supplying the demonstration of Gods existence, fulfill the claims of
Scripture, provide us with a way out of a seemingly (though not really) circular argument, open the
way for gaining the attention of the unbeliever, and show the believer how to escape the
embarrassment with which he has suffered because he did not realize either the proof or the method
by which he could gain it. He will, then, establish his credentials as a Catholic philosopher, whose
role, among others, is to defend the faith which is at the same time the very faith he serves.

Do the Scriptures Descartes has used justify his claim? To answer we must look at the more
complete text from which he has extracted a small part. First The Book Of Wisdom, from the
beginning of the thirteenth chapter (1-9):
But all men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things
that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have
acknowledged who was the workman: but have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift
air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the
world. With whose beauty, if they, being delighted, took them to be gods: Let them know how
much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the first author of beauty made all those
things. Or if they admired their power and their effects, let them understand by them, that he
that made them is mightier than they: For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the
creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby. But yet as to these they are less to be
blamed. For they perhaps err, seeking God, and desiring to find him. For being conversant
among his works, they search: and they are persuaded that the things are good which are seen.
But then they are not to be pardoned. For if they were to know so much as to make a judgment
of the world: how did they not more easily find out the Lord thereof?
When we look at this text in its entire thought it stands in sharp contrast with the claim Descartes
brings to it. Whether we take the passages one by one, or whether we take their general meaning
through a reflection upon the whole they compose, it becomes clear men are not to be excused for
not knowing God; they should, from the things that are seen, from his works, from the delight in
their beauty, from a consideration of their powers and effects, from their greatness, have come to a
corresponding knowledge of their Creator, the author of their beauty, the power behind their
powers. Though it is understandable that, becoming entranced by the beauty of creation, they rested
therein, they are yet blameful. Somewhere along the way they should have risen to grasp the
existence of Him Who has made all things and Who possesses perfectly all the attributes they have
found in the world of His creatures which fell under the apprehension of their senses. The
important point is, of course, that God can be known from things he has made, that they are a

means of knowing Him, that they lie outside our minds, and that we sense them.
St. Paul, in his Epistle To The Romans restates more succinctly the same point (I,18-21):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men
that detain the truth of God in injustice: Because that which is known of God is manifest to
them, for God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation
of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power
also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable. Because that, when they knew God, they have
not glorified him as God or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish
was darkened.
We can, says St. Paul, know God through his creation; in fact some of Gods attributes are plain in
the things He has made. Those who deny God are inexcusable because His creation manifests His
eternal power and dignity. God is here said to be manifest in the sense that He shows, or exhibits
Himself in His works, which are immediately perceivable through the senses.
It is important here to note that these same texts do not teach that the only way to know God is
through His visible worksmerely that this is a way to know Him. Descartes, so far as we know at
this point, might without contradicting these texts prove Gods existence from within the mind
alone, and show thereby that we do not need to seek elsewhere for the starting points of our proof;
he cannot, however use the Scriptures to which he refers as his authority.
Any perceptive reader can see the difference between the teaching of the Scriptures and Descartess
attempt to use them for his purposes; all the more Descartes himself. Why then does he obfuscate
something relatively easy to grasp?, why bring up the seemingly circular argument which, finally by
his own account doesnt exist?, and why say that though it doesnt exist it will most likely look to the
unbeliever as if it did?
While I dont know the answers, there are yet some I would like to propose as provisional.
Descartes, it seems to me, wishes, in order that his Meditations be accepted by a Catholic audience,
to link himself with the Catholic theological tradition. That tradition, based upon the Scriptures, the
theologians and the teaching of the philosophers, had said that the existence of God can be
demonstrated, that it has been demonstrated through the things he has madewhich means that we
begin our demonstration from the things we sense. Descartes does not agree with that tradition,
and in fact does not think there has ever been a demonstration of Gods existence because there has
not been, until he discovered it, the right method of going about such a proof. His problem, then
comes to this: How can he, separating himself from the Catholic tradition, yet present himself as
within it? Only by quoting Scripture out of context, and hoping for a casual acceptance from the
Doctors of Theology who have neither the time nor the interest to investigate the claims of his
How, further, make those claims seem important? By showing (to repeat) that, without his proof
for the existence of God which proceeds from within the mind alone, the faith itself is defenseless,
and in fact chained to a circular argument, whether it exists in fact or by misunderstanding.

To summarize: Descartes is claiming, (no matter how muted the claim) to be not only a defender of
the faith, but perhaps its only successful defender. We are left to wonder how it is that the whole
Christian tradition of learning could have appeared so successful to so many of the most intelligent
theologians and philosophers while at the same time being in fact based upon a disastrous
misunderstanding of the Holy Scriptures themselves.
We should be wary not only because of the way Descartes seeks to persuade, but because he is
cunningly careful with the use of his language. He says, for example, that our knowledge of God is
easier to obtain than is our knowledge of various created things, because his own proof will start
with the activities of his own mind... a mind which is after all created. He is not, then, saying that we
do not prove Gods existence through something created, but that we do not proceed from the
created things around us. This is why he can interpret the texts in Wisdom as teaching that it is
easier to know God than it is certain created thingsthe things around uswhich is why we are
taught that they who grasped created things should have reasoned more easily to the existence of
We should, for all these reasons, be on our guard when we are asked to accept Descartes as a
Catholic philosopher, no matter his own aspirations.

Buttiglione, in his statement with which we began, claims that Descartes is in agreement with St.
Augustine about the starting points of philosophy. They are found, he says, in the interiority of
man and not in the external world. You reach Being by starting with the depth of your own soul.
It is, then, interesting, and of some importance to see what St. Augustine thinks about our
knowledge of God, for whatever vicissitudes the meanings of metaphysics and Being have suffered,
the knowledge of God is yet thought metaphysical, and God is certainly Being.
In Book X of the Confessions, Augustine, in reflecting upon his love of God, finds it to be a love
within his inner self, when, as he says, my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it
listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind;
when it tastes food that is never consumed by eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is
not severed by fulfillment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God. He describes his
love of God by using comparisons with the love of things corporeal as apprehended through the
senses and the appetites dependent upon sensation. His love of God then, whatever its origin,
demands for its description the experiences we undergo through the use of our senses, experience
which must be somehow better known to us; otherwise how use the negation of their imperfections
as a means of description?
In the same place Augustine asks what God is ---But what is my God? Here, in his own words, is
the path he follows to find out:
I put my question to the earth. It answered, I am not God, and all things on earth declared

the same. I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things which creep in them,
but they answered We are not your God. Seek what is above us. I spoke to the winds that
blow, and the whole air and all that lives in it replied Anaximenes is wrong. I am not God. I
asked the skies, the moon and the stars, but they told me, Neither are we the God whom you
seek. I spoke to all the things that are about me, and all that can be admitted through the door
of the senses, and I said, Since you are not my God, tell me about him. Tell me something of
my God. Clear and loud they answered, God is he who made us. I asked these questions
simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they gave.
St. Augustine is here an example of the honest seeker The Book Of Wisdom admonishes us to be
who, sensing Gods works, understands them to be made. This becomes clearer if we follow St.
Augustine in his quest:
Then I turned to myself and asked, Who are you? A man, I replied. But it is clear that I
have both body and soul, the one the outer, the other the inner part of me. Which of these
ought I to have asked to help me find my God? With my bodily powers I had already tried to
find him in earth and sky, as far as the sight of my eyes could reach, like an envoy sent upon a
search. But my inner self is the better of the two, for it was to the inner part of me that my
bodily senses brought their messages. They delivered to their arbiter and judge the replies which
they carried back from the sky and the earth and all they contain, those replies which stated We
are not God and God is He who made us. The inner man knows these things through the
agency of the outer part. I, the inner man know these things; I, the soul, know them through the
senses of my body. I asked the whole mass of the universe about my God, and it replied I am
not God. God is he who made me.
Notice here that the inner man, without which we would not know that the universe is not God,
knows through the use of the bodily senses, which brought their messages to him. Augustine
Surely everyone whose senses are not impaired is aware of the universe around him? Why, then,
does it not give its same message to us all? The animals, both great and small, are aware of it,
but they cannot inquire into its meaning because they are not guided by reason, which can sift
the evidence relayed to them by their senses. Man, on the other hand, can question nature. He
is able to catch sight of Gods invisible nature through his creatures, but his love of these
material things is too great. He becomes their slave, and slaves cannot be their judges. Nor will
the world supply an answer to those who question it, unless they also have the faculties to judge
it. It does not answer in different languagesthat is, it does not change its aspectaccording to
whether a man merely looks at it or subjects it to inquiry while he looks. If it did, its appearance
would be different in each case. Its aspect is the same in both cases, but to the man who merely
looks it says nothing, while to the other it gives an answer. It would be nearer the truth to say
that it gives an answer to all, but it is only understood by those who compare the message it
gives them through their senses with the truth that is in themselves. For truth says to me, Your
God is not heaven or earth or any kind of bodily thing. We can tell this from the very nature
of such things, for those who have eyes see how their bulk is less in the part than in the whole.

And I know that my soul is the better part of me because it animates the whole of my body. It
gives it life, and this is something that no body can give to another body. But God is ever more.
He is the life of the life of my soul.
While the relationship of the mind, the inner part of man, to the senses, the outer part, is not wholly
clear here, it is yet certain that, if we question nature, we can come to the invisible nature of God
through his creatures. Our failure does not lie with the nature of the things we sense, nor with our
powers of sensing and knowing, but rather because we become enamored of the very things we
sense, and become their slaves.
We can, further, know that God is not bodily because we see that the bulk of sensible things is
greater in the whole than in the part, because the soul, animating the whole of our body is wholly in
each part and therefore superior to it, and because it gives life, which is superior to merely bodily
existence, and which no body as such can give another body.
Put it another way: The God whose existence we seek we understand to be the supreme being.
Hence, since the soul gives life, and life is superior to body as such, the soul is superior to everything
which is merely body. Our path to God passes through the souland through those powers of the
soul which are superior to sensation, and by which we can judge the sensations we acquire in sensing
the external world.
The rest of St. Augustines argument about Gods existence concerns itself with sense memory, the
intellectual memory proper to man alone among the animals, and the mind of the inner man.
Though it is intensely interesting and of course most instructive it does not contribute to my main
point, which is that Augustine, though he does indeed speak about the mind, the intellectual
memory and the truth within him, is yet not at all emancipated from the senses when he speaks
about the existence of God; rather it is the results of sensation that lead to memories, and to the
reflection of the mind which is indeed necessary if anyone is to know that God exists. Notice that
Augustine, through the sense of sight, comes by reflection to think that that which is wholly in each
of its parts is superior to that which is only partially in each of its parts, and through sensing living
things to think that they are superior to all that is merely body. Nothing has come, in this
discussion, from that which our minds alone are capable of furnishing us.
St. Augustine is connected as a knower to the external world through his bodily senses and the
intellectual reflection upon their exercise and effects within him. In his many arguments and
reflections upon his internal experience, he is unique only because in his greatness he is able to
undertake the arduous task of laying bare the inner experience which is proper to all men, but which
remains unknown in most of us because we are not St. Augustine. When we think about living
things, for example, we must base ourselves upon such internal experiences as imagining,
remembering, delighting, fearing, thinking and willing. Without such internal experience the world
of the living would be as such unknown to us; but without the mind working upon the effects of the
internal senses, which are themselves connected to the external senses, which in turn know the
world directly, we could never arrive at any intellectual principles, and consequently there would be
no philosophy at all.

It is Descartes, and not St. Augustine, who attempts to sever these various connections; it is with
him that we are to put aside the external world, that we are to seek reasons within ourselves, and
that they shall be reasons our mind alone is capable of furnishing us. This is a revolution in
philosophy, but not a harkening back to St. Augustine. There were those, long before Buttiglione,
who thought Descartes was in fact echoing Augustine. And if we are not careful we can make the
same mistake. Does not St.Augustine, in finding an answer to the skepticism which he had almost
been persuaded to adopt, rely finally on the certitude he has that he thinks, and that he therefore is?
Does he not begin with the certitude of his own existence because in this you cannot fear to be
deceived in your answer , because in case you did not exist you could not possibly be deceived?
And did not Augustine propose a proof for Gods existence through the experience of his own
The answer is, of course, that he did. But these starting points were not exclusive, and some of the
arguments were occasioned by the particular difficulties of his adversaries. Pascal perceived the
great difference between Descartes and Augustine. In his treatise On The Geometrical Spirit he
states it this way:
Indeed I am far from saying that Descartes is not the author of that principle [ I think, therefore
I am ], even if it were true that he came by it through his reading of that great saint. For I know
all the difference there is between writing a word at random, without devoting to it fuller and
broader reflections, and perceiving within that word an admirable series of consequences that
prove the distinction between material and spiritual nature, so as to make it the firm and
sustained principle of a whole Physics,
as Descartes deemed he was doing.......
That word is as different in his own writings from what it is in the writings of those who said it
casually, as a man full of life and strength is from a dead man.
Even granting Pascals overstatement of Augustines use of the principle, he is yet correct in his
contention that Descartes uses that principle as the universal starting point of the reconstitution of
philosophya project completely foreign to St. Augustine.
To say then that Descartes took an Augustinian turn gives the impression that in working out his
new method he cam upon something which could contribute to its success, and so directed his
efforts in that direction. But Descartes knew better, and thought he was starting from scratch---no
turn in anyones direction. When Arnauld, whom Descartes invited to propose objections to his
Meditations, pointed out that St. Augustine had already said the same thing long ago, Descartes
answered: I shall not take up time here by thanking my distinguished critic for bring to my aid the
authority of St. Augustine , and for expounding my arguments in a way which betokens a fear that
others may not deem them strong enough.
Descartes took no turns, nor could he have imbibed St. Augustines doctrines ....witness the
argument for Gods existence in the Confessions, as well as his immediate grasp of the world in all
his works.


Since the most important concern within the intellectual life is the truth, why all the bother as to
whether Descartes and St. Augustine agree or disagree about the avenues which lead to our knowing
the existence of God?; is their disagreement significant?; what, if anything, is at stake?
I will attempt to provide some answers, and then to expand those answers to a more general
consideration of the way we Catholics should live our intellectual lives.
Descartes, first of all, is in a very profound sense the father of modern philosophy, the originator of
a great philosophical revolution. He does indeed claim to begin within himself, to have put aside
through a universal doubt everything other than himself, and to prove through this starting point the
existence and nature of God, and the nature and immortality of the soul. Since, according to
Descartes, God can be shown to be non-deceiving, Descartes can as a consequence be certain that
there is the external world he seems from the beginning to sense, but it is a world now denuded of
all sensible qualities, and understood through clear and distinct laws of local motion.
The importance of this revolution can never be underestimated. Ever since Descartes, the basic
philosophical problem is the problem of knowledge. How can we be sure that we know?; that we
even exist?; that there is an external world?
Descartess aim, however, is not purely speculative. While it may be difficult to give the exact
meaning of modernity, there is yet a characteristic which seems to survive from the beginning in our
various explanations of it. Modernity, as understood by those who called themselves moderns in the
17th century, was first of all an explicit break with all previous thought. The philosophers new task
was not primarily to understand things as they are, but to turn the mind into a maker, to proceed
from it to transform the world, which is itself unintelligible without the interior constructions the
mind brings to it. Hence the modern project, which sees knowledge as power, intends through the
use of the reconstituted intellect to control and subdue nature in order to alleviate the human
condition. From a vague understanding of this project we get the sense that man is creative, that his
freedom is unbounded, that he is a self-contained whole, that technology is the instrument which
delivers him from bondage and, to summarize, that each man is, for himself, the center of the
Descartes has fathered any number of new philosophies, each with a new beginning and a selfcontained orientation, which are offshoots of part of his own revolution. He has fathered Humess
skepticism, Hobbess individualism, Lockes empiricism, Kants critiques, Berkeleys idealism,
Spinozas pantheism, Hegels phenomonology and through him Marxism, Nietzsches will to power,
and the general nihilism which now characterizes our whole civilization. It can be said, and not
simplistically, that as modern thought has gone from one new system to another, each with its
particular author claiming to reconstitute the philosophical enterprise, the life of learning and the
western world at large have become more and more anti-religious....which means more and more
anti-Catholic. Nietzsche was right when he cried most emphatically at the end of the last century

that God is dead, and that we have killed Him.

Descartes could not have foreseen all the results of his revolution, nor can we claim he would have
agreed with most of them. He might well have wanted to be a Catholic philosopher, as witness his
reference to the Scriptures as a guide to his endeavors. But he misused those Scriptures, and
attempted to sever himself from the intellectual tradition of the Church, as well as from all the nonChristian thought prior to his time.
St. Augustine, on the other hand, was in truth as well as in deed subject to those same Scriptures,
and spent his life in living conversation with their whole content. He is, in fact, one of the great
exegetes of the Bible, whose own wisdom set the characteristic tone of Western Civilization for
many centuries. We can as Catholics follow him as a sure guide, and inherit his doctrine as part of
our patrimony.
To imply that St. Augustine is a precursor of Descartess enterprise, whereby Descartes himself
becomes something akin to a disciple leads to this question: Does Buttiglione have a purpose in
uniting the two?
In the statement with which we began this whole inquiry, he gives us his threefold answer: a)
Descartess philosophy does not need an Aristotelian metaphysics, and can therefore be reconciled
with modern science; b) we can adopt Descartess starting points as our own, and be assured that
they are legitimate since they are in agreement with St. Augustines own teaching; c) we can
comfortably situate ourselves within modernity which, when all is said and done, is Catholic in its
While these reasons take away ones breath, there is yet something in them which bears scrutiny, for
I think they reveal a situation which has been alive in the Church for centuries, and which is
reaching a most dangerous culmination in these latter years.
The story goes something like this. The great scientific achievements of the 16th and 17th centuries
were thought, in an ever growing number of respectable intellectual circles, to have shown the
sterility and falsity of Aristotles study of natural things. So much did this come to be the prevailing
view that many of the most influential Catholic thinkers came to agree with it. Wishing, however, to
remain connected to the teaching Church, and thereby to St. Thomas, they separated Aristotles
Metaphysics from his study of nature. Conceding the view which was becoming more and more
prevalent as time went on, they thought as if all the valid philosophy St. Thomas inherited could be
condensed into a general metaphysics of Being, itself immune from the teachings of the new
sciences. This position has always undone itself, however, as Aristotles Metaphysics is based upon
his study of natural things; to deny the one entails denying the other. To propose the Metaphysics
as the whole substance of Aristotles philosophy is to be led into a system of abstractions with
hardly a connection to the world from which we take our bearings. We are in a science likened to
the modern mathematics Bertrand Russell described as the science where you never know what
youre talking about, or whether what youre saying is true.
Some Catholic thinkers in our own century have tried various schemes whereby Aristotle and St.
Thomas might become more respectable in a world dominated by modern philosophies and modern


science. Some, calling themselves Thomist, said that Aristotles wonder, the beginning of
philosophy, was the same as Descartess universal doubt, and that St. Thomass thought was
therefore incipiently modern. Others tried to tie St. Thomas to Kants Critique Of Pure Reason,
which culminated in something called Transcendental Thomism.
These efforts were, I believe, attempts to keep the intellectual tradition of the Church alive in
modern times. In each case we would escape relatively unscathed from the overthrow of Aristotle
by modern science, and the supplanting of his thought by modern philosophy. To put it another
way, these positions imply a certain embarrassment, beginning with Aristotle and extending to St.
Thomas, with an attempt to circumvent that embarrassment. They are not based upon the reading
and study of Aristotle and St. Thomas from within and according to the order of learning they
recommend. They are rather attempts to render St. Thomas, whom they wish to defend, more
palatable to the modern taste. In this way the Church itself would become more accessible within
the modern intellectual climate ---which is of course hostile to it.
Now take this same tendency further. Rather than having to transform Aristotle or St. Thomas into
Cartesians or Kantians, rather than be faced with the defense of a metaphysics which is tied to a
philosophy of nature, let us reach a new plateau, one which is immune from the ever changing
hypotheses and theories of modern science. Let us finally get rid of Aristotle himself, Metaphysics
and all, and let us at the same time get rid of St. Thomas, who so much depends upon him. Let us
however remain Catholic thinkers by showing that our emancipation from the philosophical
tradition of the Church is nevertheless clean, based as it is on a starting point which is traceable to
St. Augustine, whose authority in the Church is undisputed.
Such a position would have us jump from Augustine to Descartes, ignore the works of St. Thomas
as if they never existed, forget the Churchs teaching concerning the study of St. Thomas, and put us
four-square in agreement with modernity, which has continued the development of Christian
thought by circumventing its derailment at the hands of that very St. Thomas and all his disciples.
This latest gambit among the more advanced Catholic intellectuals reminds one of Hitlers
conviction that the establishment of the Third Reich entailed spreading concrete over the remains of
the towns and villages he conquered so that it would be as if they had never existed.
It will not be a victory; rather it is a surrender of the patrimony of the Church to its enemies. Just as
the Protestants harken back to the true Church before it was corrupted by Rome, so these latest
Catholic intellectuals join them, but with an optimistic twist. Genuine Catholic thought is at its
roots Augustinian, but then so is the modern world. The authentic Church and the modern world
are in fact one in their intellectual inspiration.
But this leaves us with enormous problems. If there is a magisterium within the Church, and if that
magisterium is itself authentic, what will we do when we find that it teaches, even after the scientific
achievements of which we have spoken, that St. Thomas is to be our master in the intellectual life,
and that we are to follow him, his method and his doctrine? The same magisterium has not at the
same time opposed modern science; it has, on the contrary, been most laudatory in its praise of
those who, through their own experimental methods, have contributed to our common


understanding of the universe. This must mean that if we rightly understand the whole intellectual
enterprise we will never find any contradiction between the perennial philosophy, rightly
understood, and the findings of the scientists.
If however we can ignore the magisterium here why not elsewhere? And if the magisterium is
insignificant why care whether we rest our philosophical positions on St.Augustine?, whether we
think as Catholics at all? And why bother to distinguish ourselves from the Protestants, or any other
religious body?
But then how are we sure we build our house on rock rather than sand? How will we know the
contents of the Gospel we are never to forfeit under pain of losing our soul?
St. Augustine provides a good example. Where does one see the flowering of his theological
insights, the defense of those insights, as well as their development? In no better place than in the
thought of St. Thomas, who was himself a faithful disciple of St. Augustine. And so is it with all the
Fathers and Doctors of the Church which were known to St.Thomas. Their doctrines are found
better stated and more cogently explained in the works of St. Thomas than they are in their own
works. That is why St. Thomas has been lauded for having inherited the intellect of all.
The present condition of so many Catholics makes clear the result of our emancipation from St.
Thomas. Since one finds in him the flowering of the whole tradition of the fathers and doctors of
the Church and hence of the very life of Catholicism itself, we speak without him as outsiders far
more removed from the truth than those who have never been touched by him. The reason is that
the Catholic outsider is in revolt; as such he cannot come to the intellectual tradition of his church.
He has, to become free, abandoned it. If it is clear to him that he has abandoned it he will most
likely spend a large part of his time obscuring it, ridiculing it, or making sure it is ignored.
But where will he go? He will most likely adopt some version of a current philosophy which the
world accepts, or which he thinks the world accepts. Since it is not his own he will cling to it after
the world has repudiated it. As such he will indeed be a rebel without a cause... until he can find the
newer philosophy, where the cycle will be repeated. Such has been the history of those inside the
Church but outside of its intellectual tradition.
To emancipate ourselves from the magisterium is to throw ourselves to the wolves, who wait, in
their various species and varieties, to destroy us. Because we will have defied our Church,
obliterated our history, ignored our tradition and forfeited our claim to the authentic intellectual life
of that Church, we will indeed be eaten alive. Or to put it another way, the salt will not have lost its
savor, for it will have ceased to be salt.
As has been said before in another context: We fiddle while Rome burns; our only possible excuse is
that we dont know it is burning.