The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century


One of the movements that have excited the interest of the world of thought in the nineteenth century has been the revival of Scholasticism. The philosophy of the Middle Ages had been, for centuries past, buried in deepest oblivion. It had been considered inconsistent with the development of natural science; and all, philosophers as well as scientists, deemed it dead -- a most fitting end. It appeared to us, in the dim light of history, as an ill-shapen monster, which had wandered in the darkness of night, amid philters and mysterious juices, during the ages in which men seriously considered alchemy and the philosopher's stone. But the monster, thought we, had disappeared forever at the light of modern discoveries, like the ill-omened bird of night, which cannot abide the rays of the morning sun.

Suddenly, to the astonishment of all, Scholasticism has awaked from its slumber. It has appeared again in the face of the world, has been accepted by great minds, has been expounded and defended by powerful writers, and has given rise to a great number of interesting philosophical works. Its admirers have even tried, not only to prove its congruity with modern scientific results, but to show that it is the only system capable of explaining them.

As was to be expected, such a revival has met with the most severe criticism. Friedrich Paulsen, in the introduction to his work Immanuel Kant, comparing Scholasticism with the Kantian system, expresses himself thus:

"If Scholastic philosophy is at present experiencing a kind of revival in the school of Catholicism, this is due, not so much to its own inner vitality as to its supposed fitness to serve an ecclesiastical political system, which, through the favor of circumstances, -- patientia Dei et stultitia hominum, an old Lutheran would say, -- has attained again in our time to unexpected power. Moreover, there still remains the question whether continuance of existence is in general something of which a philosophy can boast. Perhaps fruitfulness is a better characteristic and this the Kantian philosophy shows; it still gives rise to new systems of thought. Thomism, on the contrary, though of course a great achievement for its own time, yields to-day nothing except unfruitful repetitions. It does not set free the spirit, it enslaves it, which of course is just its intention."[1]

In close connection with Paulsen's view stands the thesis recently defended by Mr. Picavet in his famous Esquisse d'une histoire générale et comparée des civilisations médiévales. For him, Scholastic philosophy and the body of Christian dogmas are identical; the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are the essential Scholastic doctrines. Accordingly, he seems disposed to widen the field of Scholasticism, and to include within its limits a certain number of men whom neo-Scholastics will probably be loath to welcome as brethren. Not only does he admit Descartes and Locke,[2] but also Rousseau and Voltaire.[3] He even feels inclined to add to his heterogeneous list the name of Robespierre.[4] But the man to whom he directs our attention with the greatest insistence, whom he regards as a direct offspring of the Middle Ages, as a man "in the theological period still, a Christian, a Lutheran, a pietist, a Scholastic," is Immanuel Kant.[5]

Why not? Kant quotes the Bible; he develops the proof of the existence of God from final causes, and he is fond of repeating the Hebrew meaning -- God with us -- of his name Immanuel.[6] In religion, Kant is a supporter of the Christian doctrine; he advocates the existence of free-will; when he undertakes his Critique of Pure Reason, he is morally certain of the existence of God and of another life.[7] It is in Christian terms that he expresses the final conclusion he reaches, denouncing, as believers do, the insufficiency of speculative reason and ending with an act of faith.[8] In one word, Kant's work is an apologetic and may be compared to St. Thomas's Summa contra Gentiles. "Son oeuvre rappelle celle des apologistes, en particulier de Saint Thomas qui, dans la Somme contre les Gentils, veut amener au catholicisme, avec le seul appui de la raison, les mahométans, les juifs, les hérétiques de toutes les nuances. De même Kant s'adresse aux athées et aux matérialistes, aux panthéistes et aux fatalistes, aux incrédules et aux esprits forts."

The impulse given to neo-Thomism by Leo XIII is for Picavet as well as for Paulsen, primarily and essentially a political affair. In his survey of the progress of neo-Scholasticism in the different countries of Europe and in America, it is not a speculative, but a political point of view that is invariably taken. The acceptance of Thomistic speculation in Belgium is given as one of the causes of the political successes obtained by Catholics since 188~4. The strength of the Catholic party in Germany is also insisted upon. In connection with the Thomistic revival, Picavet quotes the fact that Prince Bismarck was constrained to abandon the Kulturkampf, that the Catholic minority, giving toasts to the pope and to the emperor, becomes more powerful every day.[10]

Finally, à propos of neo-Scholasticism in the United States, Picavet limits himself to considerations about the growing political and social influence of Catholics in this country, and speaks of Bishop Ireland, and of the condemnation of the propositions known as Americanism and contained in the "Life of Father Hecker."

In short, Picavet and Paulsen are unanimous in regarding Scholasticism as a religious and political affair; but, whereas Paulsen restricts the denotation of the word to Roman Catholicism, Picavet scems ready to enlarge its usual acceptation, so as to make it embrace all Christian denominations. Picavet, however, would probably distinguish between Protestant and Catholic Scholasticism, so that his views as to the revival of Thomism would closely resemble Paulsen's own views.

There are two points which both authors clearly distinguish and strongly insist upon:

1. The essential agreement of the Thomistic philosophical doctrine with the body of Catholic dogmas.

2. The political signiflcance of the Scholastic revival.

We will presently examine each of these points separately.

With regard to the first, we may readily admit that there is a great deal of truth in the foregoing theories. That the immediate cause of the revival of Thomism is its real or apparent harmony with the body of theological doctrines of the Catholic Church, it would be vain to deny. The following considerations will dispell any doubt that might exist on this point:

1. The greater number of modern philosophical systems have been condemned by Catholic theologians as opposed to revealed truth, and many among the leaders of modern thought have seen their works placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. We find in the Index the names of Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, Condillac, Hume, Kant, Rosmini, etc.

2. The neo-Scholastic movement has been encouraged, since its very birth, by the visible head of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII. In the encyclical Inscrutabile Dei Consilio, published in 1878, in the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), in briefs relating to the foundation of the Roman Academy of St. Thomas and of the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie of Louvain, as well as in many other writings, Leo XIII has promoted the study of the great mediaeval philosophers, and in particular of St. Thomac Aquinas.

3. As will be seen in the part of this work dealing with the history of neo-Scholasticism, all the great writers of this school belong to the Roman Catholic faith; most of them, in fact, are Catholic priests.

4. Moreover, St. Thomas Aquinas, who has always been regarded by Catholics as the greatest theologian, whose Summa Theologica is, and has always been, widely studied in ecclesiastical institutions, is the very philosopher to whom the new movement unanimously adheres. It is his doctrine that is expounded and commented upon in all neo-Scholastic treatises of philosophy. The two words Thomism and Scholasticism have become synonymous; periodicals founded to foster the revival of mediaeval thought have been called Divus Thomas and Revue Thomiste; and, in countries in which neo-Scholasticism has been most flourishing, St. Thomas is considered as the patron saint of philosophers.

The element of truth we are actually considering ought not, however, to make us suppose that the Catholic faith and the Thomistic principles are necessarily bound together. The philosophy of Plato and St. Augustine had been the official philosophy of the Church for more than eight hundred years. And, at the appearance of St. Thomas's works, a strong current of opposition to his philosophy arose within the Church, nay within his own order, and gave birth to Duns Scotus's philosophy, which differs so widely from Thomism that it has been said that there is not a single proposition in the works of the Angelic Doctor which has not been controverted by his subtle rival. And despite this fact, Scotists profess to be as decidedly orthodox as their opponents, and, quite recently, Sécrétan has even gone so far as to defend the thesis that the philosophy of Duns Scotus is more in harmony with the spirit of Christianity than the traditional Thomistic philosophy.[12] This seems to be also the view of Mr. John Dewey.[13]

In modern times, Catholic writers have repeatedly formulated systems of thought which can be harmonized without too much difficulty with Catholic dogmas. Descartes, Malebranche, Rosmini, Cousin, Lamennais, De Bonal~d, have had within the Church itself numerous and illustrious disciples. Cousin's eclecticism has been for many years the official philosophy of a great number of Catholic institutions. Finally, in our own day, despite the revival of Thomism and the encyclical of Leo XIII, many of the orthodox, many ecclesiastics, do not think it amiss to adhere to philosophical systems which, in their principles and in their methods, are widely divergent from the Thomistic doctrine. Suffice it to mention the adherence of so many members of the French clergy to the revival of Kantism, and the enthusiasm with which some eminent Catholics of the same country have welcomed the appearance of Pragmatism.

Passing now to the political significance of the Scholastic revival, we will certainly concede that all the beliefs of a nation have a more or less direct influence upon its political institutions. A nation is a great whole, a great social unit, whose spirit is gradually formed by the conjoint influence of all the elements at work among the race, is at the same time the effect and the cause of the educational system, of the philosophy, of the literature of the nation, of all and each one of the channels through which her very blood and life flows.

The political influence of the philosopher should not, however, be exaggerated. It is at once obvious that a man who pretends to rise above mediocrity in any special field must concentrate thereto the energies of his whole life. He who wants to become a great philosopher must not be anything else. A few neo-Scholastics have entered the political arena; but, in so doing, they have so little obeyed the spirit of neo-Scholasticism that their course of action has been deplored by the Scholastics themselves. A man who has been second to none in his perfect grasping of the intentions of Leo XIII, Cardinal Gonzalez, expressed his sincere regret when Orti y Lara abandoned the field of philosophy to devote his talent to public affairs.[14]

The fitness of Scholasticism to serve the Catholic ecclesiastical political system, which -- patientia Dei et stultitia hominum -- Paulsen regards as the only cause of the revival of Mediaeval philosophy, cannot thus be its only cause, nor that which possesses the greatest significance in the history of human thought. Besides the fact that the Church can accommodate itself to all forms of government, and that there is therefore no Catholic ecclesiastical political system -- as was pointed out by Mr. Domet de Vorges in answer to Picavet [15] -- it must be borne in mind that Scholasticism is, above all, a philosophy and must be characterized as a philosophy.

The question of the cause of the neo-Scholastic revival leads at once to the remark that it is not always possible to find in the general conditions of any given period a definite and necessary cause for all the events which form its history. Historical facts are often connected with unimportant, even trivial occurrences, so that it sometimes seems to the thoughtful man that chance governs the world. Would Charles I have been executed if young Oliver Cromwell had not been prevented from embarking for America? Would our civil war have taken place if Henry Clay had defeated Polk in the elections of 1844? Would there have been a neo-Scholastic revival if Sanseverino had died when a young man and Leo XIII had not been elected to succeed Pius IX in the papal see? These are questions to which I would not dare give an answer.

The conditions of the possibility of an event must undoubtedly exist at the moment in which the event occurs; but there must also be found an occasional cause which may fail to appear, in which case the conditions of possibility may remain indefinitely in the same state, without any actual occurrence of the event.

If we thus understand by the cause of the revival of Scholasticism the conditions which made it possible, we will find it bound with a principle which is essential to the Catholic beliefs, and, more distinctly than any other, separates the Roman Church from all Protestant sects: the principle of the unity and immutability of truth. A brief exposition of St. Thomas's doctrine on this point will not be out of place here.

Truth, St. Thomas teaches, may be considered with regard to our mind or with regard to things. With regard to our mind, truth is in one sense multiple, because it consists in the conformity of our knowledge with the object, and there are as many conformities as there are objects. With regard to things, truth is also in one sense multiple, because the truth of a thing is the very essence of the thing, and there are as many essences as there are things. But truth is also one, in so far as the essence of a thing is eternal and necessary, so that of one thing there can be but one truth.

As regards the other property of truth, its immutability, St. Thomas teaches that truth considered in things is immutable in so far as the essential characteristics are concerned, and mutable only in the accidental elements. Truth, considered with regard to our mind, is essentially immutable and accidentally mutable. It is mutable only in the sense that our mind may pass from error to truth. It is essentially immutable, because it is regulated by the truth of things, which is immutable. With regard to the Divine Mind, truth is essentially one and immutable.[16]

This theory as to the nature of truth has been always strongly defended by Catholic writers. They have been unanimous in regarding internal change in a body of doctrine as an infallible sign of error. It is upon the variations that had taken place in Protestant creeds that Bossuet based his immortal Histoire des Variations. You change, said he to Protestants, therefore you err.

Now, this fundamental principle of the Catholic Church is essentially opposed to the individualism which has inspired modern philosophy. Since Descartes to our day, philosophy has not been considered as a stereotyped body of truths. Each philosopher has been the author of a particular system of thought, and there have thus arisen innumerable doctrines, often opposed, sometimes contradictory to one another. This result is essentially antipathetic to a Catholic mind and incompatible with the principle of the unity of truth. A Catholic will no doubt admit that the principle of authority in philosophy is of secondary importance. He will emphatically assert as well as any one else, that every man must think with his own head; but, as he maintains truth to be one and all human minds to be endowed with a faculty of reasoning which works in the same way in all of us, he will assert that we must necessarily reach identical conclusions in our philosophical investigations.

We need but to open the works of the early neo-Thomists to be convinced that they regard the ephemeral character of modern systems as the strongest argument in favor of Scholasticism. Cornoldi's Lectures on Scholastic Philosophy are especially interesting.

"There is such a variety and contradiction in the doctrines taught (in modern philosophy)," says he, "that one cannot adhere to one system without openly denying the others. The diversity which reigns in modern schools is so general that two professors can hardly be found, even in the same college, agreeing, I will not say upon the whole field of philosophy, but simply upon its fundamental principles. Moreover, it becomes impossible to teach the same doctrine for ten years. There is a continuous change and contradiction. From the center of the circle, which is one and indivisible, an infinite number of radii may proceed and extend in all directions. In all fields of human speculation, innumerable errors may likewise be found to diverge more and more from the one and indivisible truth."[17]

And after having shown the diversity which reigns among modern systems, Cornoldi appeals to the twenty centuries during which Scholasticism was taught, to prove that this system, and this system alone, can give an adequate explanation of scientific discoveries.[18]

Now, truth being one and immutable, philosophy, which may be described as a rational expression of the truth of things, will also be one and immutable. And if there arise several philosophical systems, one of them at most will be true.

The difficulty now will evidently lie in finding out the true philosophy. Why should the Catholic Church favor Scholasticism rather than any other system? To this question again, the principle of the unity of truth will furnish a satisfactory answer.

As will be seen in one of the chapters of this work, Catholics admit philosophy and theology to be distinct sciences, having different objects and different principles. They have different objects in so far as philosophy is simply concerned with the truths accessible to the light of human reason, whereas theology is chiefly concerned with truths of a supernatural order. They have different principles, in so far as philosophy is guided by human reason, and theology by the authority of God.

Although philosophy and theology are distinct sciences, they often tread on a common ground. Many principles of faith, many truths known from revelation are also accessible to reason. The immortality of the soul and the existence of God may be discussed by the philosopher as well as by the theologian.

The principle of the unity of truth being admitted, we must also admit that, whenever philosophy and theology tread on a common ground, they must be in perfect agreement. As truth is essentially one, a conclusion of human reason cannot contradict a truth revealed by God. Whenever there is disagreement, there is error on one side. But, as the error cannot lie in the revealed truth, inasmuch as the authority of revelation rests upon the infinite science and veracity of God, it follows that, in all cases of disagreement between a philosophical principle and a theological dogma, the philosophical principle must be rejected.

The only true system of philosophy will, therefore, be in perfect harmony with the body of revealed truths. That Scholastic philosophy is not the only system capable of being harmonized with religious dogmas, we have already shown. This is why, after the speculative principles of the Middle Ages were judged inadequate to meet the requirements of modern science, most Catholics embraced other systems. But these systems have not possessed the character of immutability which, in the mind of Catholics, necessarily belongs to truth. Not only this. The philosophical systems which have been successively accepted in European speculation have departed -- or have been believed to depart, which, for the point we are now discussing, amounts to the same -- more and more from the essential principles of Christianity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the materialism of the encyclopedists was the only philosophy still remaining in France. It was openly professed by Cabanis, Broussais, Pinel and Bichat. It had displaced Cartesianism itself, though a very limited number of ecclesiastics still adhered to that system. At the same time, some of the emigrants whom the ferocity of the Revolution had compelled to seek a refuge abroad, were coming in contact with new-born Kantism, which they were destined to introduce into their native land.

It seems, at first blush, that the philosophy thus growing in Germany was more in harmony with the great truths of Christianity than the impious materialism of the eighteenth century. Whether the philosophical systems of Kant and his successors may be interpreted from a Christian standpoint is a question which has been frequently discussed and does not admit of an easy solution. It is well known that the modern defenders of Hegelian philosophy in America invoke St. Thomas's authority in support of their principles.[19] For my part, I feel inclined to admit that their claim is not altogether devoid of foundation. Although St. Thomas and Hegel present evident points of contrast, it may be seriously questioned whether there exists between the systems they have built that abyss which neo-Scholastics are wont to point out. Whatever the truth may be, there is no doubt that Kant and Hegel have been invariably regarded by Catholics as the most dangerous opponents of the fundamental Christian principles. "More than any other philosophical system,~ says Jules Didiot, Kantism has been a serious menace to faith and natural virtues in Catholic countries."[20] Didiot is more severe still with regard to Hegelianism:

"If he (Hegel) has not intended to mock at his pupils, at his readers, at his predecessors in subjectivism and monism, we must admit that his mind was at times in a state of delirium. It is a shame for the nineteenth century not to have rejected such a philosophy with indignation. . . . That Protestant ministers in Germany may have endeavored to harmonize the doctrines of Hegel and Schelling, of Fichte and Kant, with the dogmas and laws of Christianity, can perhaps be conceived; but that Catholic priests, such as Hermes, Baader, Günther, may have dared imitate them, even from afar and with a certain moderation, is indeed hard to understand."[21]

This influence of Hegel among German Catholics, so vividly deplored by Didiot, was indeed a fact in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Holy See was obliged to interfere. Hermes's doctrines were condemned in 1835 and 1836, Günther's in 1857 and 1860, Frohschammer's in 1862, pantheism and all forms of rationalism by the Syllabus of 1864.

Meanwhile, some distinguished French writers had endeavored to oppose the anti-religious tendency of the day, and to build systems of thought in harmony with the spiritualistic doctrines of the Catholic Church. Joseph de Maistre, Victor de Bonald and Félicité de Lamennais sincerely sought a new method by which Christian beliefs might be saved and impiety checked. Unhappily, they endeavored to build a monument to faith upon the ruins of reason. The ultimate criterion of certitude they sought in a primitive revelation. But as the truth of this revelation could not rest upon our mental faculties, which had been proclaimed impotent, it had no sure basis and the brave effort of the traditionalists was doomed to become in the end a lamentable failure. Traditionalism was finally condemned by the Church, and, in 1855, its last great representative, Bonnetty, was compelled to subscribe to four propositions opposed to the errors he had maintained.

It is in such circumstances that the Catholic Church seriously thought of returning to the old Scholastic doctrine. An honest endeavor to seek the true philosophy in modern systems had been made for several centuries. But, from a Catholic standpoint, this endeavor had completely failed. The systems which had arisen in the course of time had been gradually abandoned and replaced by others, so that, as pointed out by Cornoldi, there had been a continuous change in the speculative world. The most recent systems, Materialism, Kantism, Hegelianism, Positivism, were opposed to the Catholic faith. The influence of these systems had led many Catholics to advance dangerous theories. A system born of the laudable intention to protect the religious ideals had been a decided failure. Such being the case, was it not better to return frankly to the philosophy which had reigned for centuries in the schools, to endeavor to reconcile it with modern discoveries, to find out whether the old Scholastic philosophy was not the true system which, for so long a time, had been sought in vain? Such is, in my judgment, the fundamental idea which inspired the neo-Thomists.

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