Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


One of the reasons it is thought, incorrectly, that there is enmity between philosophy and religious faith is that believers have answers to most of the questions listed earlier as typical philosophical questions.

The meaning of life? "God made me know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." The catechism answer goes through those questions like a bowling ball. And that, the secular philosopher suggests, is the problem.

The believer can't "do" philosophy because he does not come to those questions with an open mind. He already has answers to them so he cannot follow the argument wherever it goes. Worse, he holds his answers on some basis other than argument. He doesn't know the answers to be true, he believes them.

Behind this objection lies one of the more bizarre assumptions of much modern philosophy, an assumption we will discuss fully a little later because it enable us to put a finger on the radical difference between Thomism and many, perhaps most, other philosophies. For now, let us try to imagine the supposed condition of the philosophical neophyte who is not a religious believer. The suggestion of the objection is that he, unlike the believer, will not hold as true any answers to those questions he now finds are called philosophical.

The suggestion is that the mind of one beginning the study of philosophy is, ideally, a blank slate on which nothing is written. She may be eighteen years old, the eldest of five and a veteran of years of summer camp, but her mind is taken to be a bleak desert across which the winds of doctrine are for the very first time about to blow.

A caricature. There is no such person. No one seriously thinks there is. But many, perhaps most philosophers, feel that their first task in introducing Fifi LaRue to philosophy is to cleanse her mind and reduce it to the condition of a blank slate. How else can the philosopher create there from nothing the system that bears his name?

And of course, that assumes that whatever answers may be rattling around in Fifi's mind are, not to put too fine a point upon it, false. It is not necessarily assumed that, whatever philosophically warranted truths come to furnish Fifi's mind, they will be a wholly different set than that which was initially swept away.

The Universe of Fifi LaRue

The situation imagined, then, is something like this. Fifi has been taught to believe that the earth is flat. Her feet are, she walks upon the earth, she would bristle at arch comments on rotundity, her own or Mother Earth's. At eighteen, she boards a commuter airline and flies off to the big city whence she takes a bus to Upsilon U. Due to a computer error she lands in a course in astronomy where she learns that the earth is round. She is led to this truth by venerable Aristotelian arguments drawn from eclipses, let us say. She is never quite the same again. To place the balls of her feet on a round earth is to put the naïve flatland of her youth forever behind her. The words do not come trippingly to her tongue at first, but she repeats them in the privacy of her own room until the shocking truth can be uttered aloud. The earth is round. That is to say, the earth is not flat.

There is, we can see, a relation between what she now holds to be true and what she hitherto held, a relation called contradiction. Not to be round is to be flat so that if the value of P is "The earth is round" its negation --P will be "The earth is not round" which is equivalent to "The earth is flat."

Why am I spinning my wheels? Because it may be said that Fifi, thanks to Astronomy I and the good offices of Aristotle, now lives in a wholly different world from the one she lived in before. It is often asserted that flatlanders and roundearthers live in radically different universes. It is important to recognize this for the hyperbole it is.

The earth that Fifi once thought was flat, she now knows to be round. If the two claims are not about the same thing, Fifi's change of mind would be like the change of scenery on a stage. The only common note would be her mind; there would be nothing on the one set that is on the other. But that has the unfortunate consequence of making the denial that the earth is flat tantamount to the relatively uninteresting assertion, "The earth that is round is not non-round."

But enough. What is my point? My point is that the religious believer is not alone in coming to the study of philosophy with a mind furnished with what he takes to be truths about the world and himself.

My second point is that there are some philosophers who assume that all such pre-philosophical furniture is false. It is that to which we shall return as MacArthur returned to the Philippines -- with an eye to victory over our enemies. For now, let us look at different ways of holding truths.

We will alter our example and imagine that Fifi has been taught otherwise and that when she arrives at Upsilon she already holds that the earth is round. In Astronomy I, she becomes acquainted with Aristotelian and other arguments on behalf of the truth of that claim. She finds these proofs both sound and cogent. How now might we compare Fifi's second state with her first?

At first we would note, Fifi would have said that the earth is round because she had been told it was. There was a globe in her fifth grade classroom; her parents told her stories of astronauts encircling the globe; she has seen photographs of earth taken from outer space. Her Aunt Betty told her the earth is round.

When Fifi was on the bus to Upsilon, a wicked man sat beside her and undertook to undermine her beliefs. The earth is flat, he whispered huskily, but there is a conspiracy to make us believe it is round. Tales of astronauts are myths at best, stories planted by the CIA at worst. That photograph from space? He laughs a derisive laugh. An obvious fake. His voice becomes suggestive and syrupy. "The earth is flat as a pancake, my dear, and it is time we face up to it." Fifi arrives on campus a confused and shaken young woman.

How reassuring Astronomy I is against the background of that sordid episode on the bus. Fifi sits straighter in her chair, her eyes shine attentively, she sets down the proofs of the eather's rotundity with a care other girls reserve for new diets. In the days ahead she wishes she could encounter that dirty old flat-earther again and give him the response she was unable to give before.

Now we have the same proposition from first to last: "The earth is round." Fifi held this to be true before taking Astronomy I, she holds it to be true after taking Astronomy I. But more has happened than the passage of time. It is the way Fifi maintains that the earth is round now that contrasts with her earlier condition.

We could say that before she held it to be true as a matter of local lore. She had no grounds other than the anonymous say-so of her early environment. Everyone she knew who spoke on the subject stoutly maintained that the earth is round. Her Aunt Betty told her so. Let us call this. Condition One.

Fifi, like every well-brought up child, has been to school. She has seen a globe. She saw that photograph of spaceship earth. On the bus, she might have brought forth these things to counter what the wicket man was whispering to her. Perhaps she did and he laughed them to scorn. A globe? A man-made object, a monument to ignorance. We have already suggested what he said about the photograph, so Fifi must have brought it up. This suggests that she not only holds the earth to be round, but that she has reasons other than people's say-so for holding it. Let us call this Condition Two.

Condition Three is had when Fifi maintains the earth is round without fear of contradiction. If contradicted by wicked male passengers on the interurban bus, she can counter with unanswerable reasons.

And now we can express the secular philosopher's objection somewhat more clearly. He objects that religious believers already have answers to some or even many--maybe, in principle, all--philosophical questions and these answers are held to be true on the basis of faith. On authority, that is. And this seems accurate enough. What is not clear is why this is thought to be an obstacle to doing philosophy.

Is He, Popinjoy?

Imagine that Fifi LaRue is a Christian. A good girl, she knows her catechism backwards and forwards. Are there certain things one ought never to do? There are indeed. Moses was given the tables of the law on Mount Sinai and Fifi, unacquainted with wicked theologians, knows the Ten Commandments are as true today as they were the day they were given to Moses -- and even before.

Is there life beyond death? Of course. Our earthly life is lived in the vestibule to eternity. It is a brief and testing period terminated by death when, blissful or damned, the human soul, rejoined by its body at the end of time, will exist forever and ever either in hell or in the company of God and his angels and saints.

Jason Popinjoy, Fifi's instructor, hearing this, has his worst fears realized. The girl is some kind of fundamentalist, as credulous as the pope. He manages not to manifest his shock.

"My dear," he says, "let me from this edifying barrage select one or two items. Among the things you seem to be saying is -- so to put it -- that the human soul is immortal and, if I understand you, that there is a mysterious entity called God."

Fifi's ponytail bounces fetchingly between her shoulder blades as she nods.

"God exists," Professor Popinjoy repeats patiently. "You hold this to be true because the Bible says so, right?"

"God has revealed Himself in the Bible and in Jesus," Fifi replies.

"Those are your authorities?"

He explains to her that she thinks it is true to say that God exists because she has been told this is true. And of course she agrees. Why does Popinjoy think it pertinent to say this?

There are several paths along which Fifi might be led from her present condition. Let us say that P stands for "There is a God."

[1] Fifi believes P to be true.

What does 'believe' mean here? It means to hold the proposition on the basis of authority or say-so. [1] imagines Fifi in what we earlier called Condition One. But, if she understands Popinjoy, she might reply that anyone who reflects on the world, on the succession of seasons, the marvelous way in which butterflies come into being, the frisky frolicking of foals, the smile of a baby, a sunrise, on and on, will readily agree that there is a God who is responsible for all this.

That is a smile on Popinjoy's lightly bearded face. He now sees that Fifi is in Condition Two. She has, or thinks she has reasons other than say-so or authority for holding that P is true. But Popinjoy is there to tell her that as good as no philosophers think there are sound proofs for the existence of God. It there were such proofs, we could have:

[2] Fifi knows P to be true.

What does 'know' mean here? If to believe is to hold something to be true on another's say-so, to know is to hold it to be true on the basis of other truths or because it is self-evident. Fifi reveals herself to be in Condition Two when she suggests that, since the world is an orderly place, there must be a cause of this order and that cause is God. Here the truth of "There is a God" depends upon other truths which are not held to be true on someone's say-so.

Popinjoy is suggesting to Fifi that the result of taking his fifty drachma course will be:

[3] Fifi knows P to be false.

This is the only Condition Three he can envisage. [2] could be expressive of Condition Three if there were a sound proof for the existence of God.

Whether [2] or [3] is the outcome of studying philosophy is a philosophical dispute. It is a dispute between philosophers, not between believers and philosophers. (Quite unsurprisingly, the believer, even if he is not a philosopher but is a Roman Catholic -- will agree with the philosopher who thinks there are sound proofs of God's existence.)

Popinjoy is right to point out that most professional philosophers nowadays deny that there are sound proofs of God's existence. In most periods of the history of philosophy, however, the vast majority of philosophers held that there are sound proofs of God's existence. The student of philosophy will be struck by this peculiarity of our own times and wonder why so many earlier philosophers, most of them more eminent than Popinjoy, thought themselves in possession of sound proofs. Does Popinjoy know something they did not know? Surely this is a matter worthy of investigation. One hopes that Popinjoy himself will take note of this startling fact about our own day.

Beyond Belief

We have in imagination followed Fifi LaRue from Condition One and Two to Three in the matter of the roundness of the earth. We then suggested that a similar trajectory might be described by our young friend with respect to the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. But, of course, there are dissimilarities as well. The faith on the basis of which Fifi holds that God exists and that she herself will exist forever is religious faith, divine faith, a gratuitous gift from God.

The faith on the basis of which Fifi holds that the earth is round is human faith.

We are not surprised to hear that at Upsilon, in the matter of the roundness of the earth, Fifi will learn sound arguments on behalf of what she previously only believed or held on the basis of inchoative arguments.

Nor, alas, are we surprised to hear that at Upsilon -- it is all too typical of its kind -- Ffi will be told that there are no known sound arguments for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Popinjoy may even be so bold as to suggest that there are sound argument for the non-existence of God and the mortality of the soul.

It may unfortunately be the case that pupils pour from Popinjoy's classroom convinced that we now know that God does not exist and that there is no life after this earthly one. Fifi LaRue, we are happy to see, is not among them.

Fifi continues to go to Mass and say her prayers and marvel at the universe while always acting with an eye to her eternal destiny. She rides the interurban bus without proximate peril to her soul. In class, she ponders her professor's passionate agnosticism with patience and compassion. Popinjoy is furious.

His fury is not explained by Fifi's intransigent refusal to accept the pellucid proofs he places before her. In the dark recesses of what he would not call his soul, Popinjoy knows that he does not know there is no God. He thinks there isn't one. He can cite reasons why he thinks so. But those reasons are never so tight that they convict his adversary, or even Fifi, of irrationality. It may even occur to him, though I doubt it, that we live in an aberrant bubble of time when it has strangely become a widespread belief among university philosophers that theism is untenable. There are some who would take such opposition as good news for theism -- the same philosophers believe that the claim to know anything for sure is untenable. Once it was otherwise. Philosophers good and bad undertook the defense of religion, such philosophers as Leibniz and Descartes and Malebrance and Berkeley, even more dubious types as Kant and Hegel. Some of these defenses led other like Kierkegaard to want to rescue Christianity from the embrace of the philosophers. Of course we should not permit Popinjoy to stand for all the philosopher of the present time. He interests us largely because Fifi LaRue happened to take his course.


Knowing and Believing

The gifts of grace are added to nature in such a way that they do not destroy but rather perfect nature. Thus the light of faith which is infused in us by grace does not destroy the natural light of reason divinely given us. And although the natural light of the human mind is insufficient to manifest what is manifested through faith, nonetheless it is impossible that what has been divinely given us by faith should be contrary to what is given us by nature. One or the other would have to be false, but, since both come from God, God would then be the author of falsehood, which is impossible. Rather because there is some semblance of the perfect in the imperfect, the things known by natural reason are likenesses of the things given in faith.

Just as theology is founded on the light of faith, so philosophy is founded on the natural light of reason, which is why it is impossible that what philosophy teaches should be contrary to what is of faith, though it falls short of it. But they do contain similitudes of them as well as things which are preambles to them, as nature is the preamble of grace. If then anything in the teachings of philosophers is found to be contrary to faith, it is not so much philosophy as an abuse of philosophy due to defective reason. That is why errors of this kind can be refuted with the principles of philosophy by showing them to be wholly impossible or at least not necessary . For just as matters of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, so some things contrary to them cannot be demonstrated to be false, but can be shown not to be necessary.

Thus we can use philosophy three ways in theology. First to demonstrate the preambles of faith, things faith requires to be known, such as what natural reason can prove of God viz. that God exists, that there is only one God, and other like things proved of God from creatures in philosophy. Second, to make known what is of faith by way of similitudes, just as Augustine in On the Trinity uses many similitudes taken from philosophical teaching to manifest the trinity. Third, to counter what is said contrary to faith whether by showing them to be false or showing them not to be necessary.

-- Exposition of Boethius's On the Trinity, Question 2, article 3.

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