The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter IX: The Neo-Scholastic Revival in Italy

The direct initiator of the neo-Scholastic movement in Italy was Cajetano Sanseverino, canon of Naples.

Sanseverino (1811-1865) was at first an enthusiastic admirer of Descartes. The episode of his life which marked the turning-point of his philosophical career has been told by many historians. In the year 1840, Sanseverino received the visit of Father Sordi S. J., who had read and annotated St. Thomas's Summa Theologica. Sordi pointed out to Sanseverino the shortcomings of Descartes's thought and the superiority of the Thomistic principles in the solution of all philosophical problems. Great was the struggle for the devout canon. For twenty years, he applied himself to a thorough study of St. Thomas's philosophy. At the light of the Summa Theologica he read all modern writers and became more and more convinced of their insufficiency. The result of his investigations was the Philosophia christiana cum antiqua et nova comparata, a work which, unfinished as it is, consists of seven quarto volumes and displays an uncommon erudition, a remarkable knowledge of modern philosophy, and, above all, an enthusiastic admiration for the Angelic Doctor.

According to Cardinal Gonzalez, the Philosophia christiana has a double defect. With regard to its method, it presents a somewhat awkward distribution of arguments, and, at times, exceedingly diffuse articles. With regard to its spirit, it is too narrowly attached to the philosophy it defends. Sanseverino accepts St. Thomas's conclusions even in the minutest details, and despises modern thought as altogether vain and worthy of contempt.[1]

In spite of these defects, the Philosophia christiana has exercised an immense influence upon Catholic thinkers. For many years, it has been the great work of neo-Scholasticism, the fountain at whose pure waters all came to drink the spirit of the Thomistic regeneration. In its narrow-mindedness itself, it has found a multitude of followers. Too often have neo- Scholastics shared Sanseverino's contempt for modern thought. They have not even taken the trouble to read non-Scholastic writers in their original works. Why submit, indeed, to such a wearisome task? Had not Sanseverino done the work once for all? Had be not, from the narrowness of his cell, pronounced an ultimate verdict upon modern thinking? And thus, Sanseverino's word has been taken, not only with regard to the exposition of modern philosophical systems, but also with regard to his very criticisms.

The Philosophia christiana was at first the object of violent attacks. Cartesians and Rosminians agreed in denouncing it. But Sanseverino was defended by his disciple Signoriello, and encouraged by his archbishop, Riario Sforza. Shortly afterwards, an Academy of St. Thomas was founded at Naples, and honored by the approbation of Pius IX. All seemed to indicate that the efforts towards a Thomistic revival would be crowned with success.

The archiepiscopal see of Perusa was then occupied by Joachim Pecci who, as early as 1858, had founded an Academy of St. Thomas. Pecci was in close connection with Cardinal Sforza, with whose cooperation he had already written a refutation of Ontologism. He greatly sympathized with the Thomistic revival which was taking place in Naples, and addressed a memoir to Pius IX, asking him to declare St. Thomas patron of the universities.

At the same time, there lived, in another point of the Italian peninsula, a remarkable man, who was destined to be the very life of the new movement, to impose it bon gré mal gré, and to silence all malcontents. It was the famous Jesuit John Mary Cornoldi.

Cornoldi is undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures of the neo-Scholastic revival. As soon as he heard of the work done in other places, he intended not to remain behind. Academies had been founded in Naples and Perusa: he would found in Bolonia an Academy of his own. Unwilling, however, to be a mere imitator, he made up his mind to create something truly original. The two other Academies were simply philosophical; his would be medico-philosophical. The Academia filosofico- medica di San Tommaso was accordingly founded (1874), in which Travaglini, Venturoli and Zanon represented science; Cornoldi, Battaglini and Rubbini, philosophy. The review La Scienza Italiana, the organ of the new institution, has been published until 1891.

In the Roman universities, however, Thomism did not as yet seem to gain a footing. The philosopher most in view in Rome at the time was the Jesuit Tongiorgi, a remarkable thinker, sometimes called by his admirers "the Balmes of Italy." On the whole, Tongiorgi's philosophy may be regarded as Thomistic. The few questions in which he departs from Scholastic principles are precisely those in which Scholastic principles are the weakest. He thus refuses to admit the theory of Matter and Form as an adequate explanation of the nature of bodies, and advocates a kind of Atomism. Nevertheless, Tongiorgi felt no sympathy for a revival of Thomism.

Such was the state of affairs when, in 1878, Joachim Pecci was elected Pope. The situation was at once greatly changed. Pius IX had sympathized with the Thomistic revival. He had even sent a letter of approbation to the archbishop of Naples. In Rome, however, unwilling to vex his anti-Thomistic professors, he had done nothing. As we shall see, the new pope will not hesitate to act more resolutely.

In the very letter in which he announced his elevation, Leo XIII quoted from the text of St. Paul: videte ne quis vos decipiat per philosophiam, and greatly commmended the philosophy of St. Thomas as the true philosophy. The Roman College at once adopted the views of the head of the Church; and, at the solemn session by which the school year 1878-79 opened, Father Cardella, speaking in the name of all, declared "that he would take St. Thomas as the rule and law of his teaching."[2]

The pope was delighted. His Roman professors, whom he had believed so obstinate, were as docile as children. Before he had said a word, they had understood and anticipated his wishes. So perfect seemed their dispositions! So splendid were their promises! Unhappily, they were promises only, and nothing was done. Father Palmieri, who had taken Tongiorgi's place, not only did not act in accordance with the papal instructions, but applied himself to point out from his chair the inconsistencies of St. Thomas's thought, the contradictions to which Scholasticism necessarily leads. As for Caretti -- Palmieri's co-worker -- he did not dare depart a whit from his dear Descartes, save to adopt metempsychosis. The pope's endeavor was decidedly a flat failure.

What could be done? Leo XIII's own brother and operator in Perusa, Joseph Pecci (1807-1890), then advised him to establish in Rome a free course of Thomism and to confide it to Father Cornoldi. The advice was judged excellent and immediately followed. Cornoldi arrived at Rome, proud of the reputation he bad gained in Bolonia as a scientist and a philosopher, and of the honorable mission he had just received of implanting the philosophy of St. Thomas in the very capital of the Christian world.

Cornoldi's course was open to all the students of the Roman University, and presided by the regular professors of the Roman College, to whom was added Joseph Pecci, who was soon made a cardinal. The subjects discussed were chiefly physics, psychology and metaphysics. To all questions whatsoever, Cornoldi, St. Thomas in hand, could answer! In the Summa Theologica was to be found the key to all difficulties of modern science!

At the same time, there began to spread a rumor that Leo XIII was preparing an encyclical letter about Christian philosophy. The uneasiness of the Cartesian professors was growing day by day. That Thomistic revival they had so much despised when confined to Naples and Perusa, was now taking Rome by storm. The dreaded encyclical appeared. Leo XIII greatly commended the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and insisted upon a study of the genuine works of the great Scholastics:

"Providete ut sapientiam Thomae ex ipsis ejus fontibus hauriatur."[3]

More than any other Scholastic must St. Thomas be studied because he gathered all previously discovered truths in a great synthetic system, which he still considerably increased:

"Illorum doctrina, velut dispersa cujusdam corporis membra, in unum Thomas collegit et coagmentavit, miro ordine digessit, et magnis incrementis ita adauxit, ut catholicae Ecclesiae singulare praesidium et decus jure meritoque habeatur."[4]

There is no part of philosophy which he has not solidly discussed:

"Nulla est philosophiae pars, quam non acute simul et solide pertractarit: de legibus ratiocinandi, de Deo et incorporeis substantiis, de homine aliisque sensibilibus rebus, de humanis actibus eorumque principiis ita disputavit, ut in eo neque copiosa quaestionum seges, neque apta partium dispositio, neque optima procedendi ratio, neque principiorum firmitas aut argumentorum robur, neque dicendi perspicuitas aut proprietas, neque abstrusa quaeque explicandi facilitas desideretur."[5]

This return to the past, however, is far from being a retrogression. All Mediaeval vain subtleties must be discarded. All Scholastic teachings which are not in harmony with modern scientific discoveries must be abandoned:

"Si quid enim est a doctoribus Scholasticis vel nimia subtilitate quesitum, vel parum considerate traditum, si quid cum exploratis posterioris aevi doctrines minus coherens, vel denique quoquo modo non probabile, id nullo pacto in animo est aetati nostrae ad imitandum proponi."[6]

Modern scientific progress must be welcomed as a benefit to philosophy:

"Non eos profecto improbamus doctos homines atque solertes, qui industriam et eruditionem suam, ac novorum inventorum opes ad excolendam philosophiam afferunt: id enim probe intelligimus ad incrementa doctrinae pertinere."[7]

The influence of the pope's encyclical was simply immense. The revival of Thomism, which had been limited to some isolated efforts, was then taken seriously by most of the Catholic thinkers. Suffice it to mention the celebrated professor of the Catholic University of Lille, Amédée de Margerie. Mr. de Margerie, although more than fifty years of age when the papal encyclical appeared, at once made a thorough study of the works of St. Thomas -- which were completely unknown to him --and adopted his doctrine in a great many points.

In Rome itself, the success of the pope was complete. This was due in great part to the fact that Leo XIII, instructed by his first failure, took the precaution to corroborate his instructions by forcible measures. Palmieri and Caretti were discharged from their chairs, and the new appointments made left no doubt as to the final issue of the affair. All understood that this time the pope would be victorious.

The men honored by the papal choice as professors of philosophy, in Rome, were the following: Cornoldi was made professor at the Roman College, Zigliara at the Minerva, Lorenzelli and Satolli at the Propaganda, Talarno at the Apollinaris. As all these men have distinguished themselves by eminent productions, I will say a few words about each of them.

Giovanni Mari Cornoldi, S.J. (1822-1892), besides his two great works: Institutiones Philosophitae Speculativae and La Filosofia Scolastica di San Tommaso e di Dante, and numerous shorter treatises in which he defends the Scholastic principles and attacks opposite doctrines, especially Rosminianism (Cf. Bibliography), has contributed many articles to the Civiltà Cattolica. Less profound as a philosopher than Zigliara or Sanseverino, he has nevertheless done the greatest service to the neo-Thomistic cause by the very activity he has displayed. The direct aim of his great works, as well as of his numerous essays, is most praiseworthy. He strove to point out the perfect harmony existing between Thomism and science, to give a scientific basis to neo-Scholasticism. This is the very spirit which has recently inspired Desiré Mercier and the Institute of Louvain. Unhappily, Cornoldi's efforts have not always been intelligent and have met with little success. He is chiefly known to-day for his bitter criticisms of modern thought. In his Prolegomeni, he divides all philosophers into three groups: the true philosophers, that is to say, the Scholastics; the liberal philosophers, or those who do not accept all Scholastic doctrines; the non-philosophers, to which group all others belong.[8] Well known is Cornoldi's phrase describing modern philosophy as "the pathology of human reason."[9]

Less unfair to moderns has been Thomas Zigliara, O.P. (1833-1893). His Summa Philosophica, in which he closely adheres to St. Thomas's doctrine, has, for a long time, served as a text-book in Catholic seminaries, and is much in use still to-day. His most valuable contribution to philosophy is probably the work entitled: Della luce intellettuale. The author refutes traditionalism and ontologism, and conclusively shows that the ontologists have no right to invoke the authority of St. Thomas to support their theories.

Benedetto Lorenzelli, actual archbishop of Lucca, has followed Aristotle in his Philosophiae Theoreticae Institutiones. How closely he shares Cornoldi's contempt for modern thought may be inferred from his division of philosophy into the four following periods: (1) a period of formation, from Thales to Aristotle; (2) a period of decrease and perversion, from Aristotle to Christ; (3) a period of increase and perfection, from Christ to Thomas Aquinas; (4) a period of corruption, from Descartes to our own day.[10]

Francesco Satolli is a faithful disciple of Cardinal Cajetan. At the example of the great commentator of the sixteenth century, he chiefly applies himself to the writing of learned commentaries on the works of the Angelic Doctor. In Summam Theologicam Divi Thomae Aquinatis is the title of three successive treatises in which many questions of the Summa Theologica are expounded and studied.

In his Logic (Enchiridion Philosophiae, Pars Ia, continens logicam universam), Mgr. Satolli has been like Lorenzelli, a disciple of Aristotle. He has been reproached with making an excessive use of dialectical reasoning, and thus rendering "intricate and labyrinthic" what is clear by itself. His last work, De habitibus, contains a valuable discussion of Spencer's theory of conduct.

Salvatore Talamo is chiefly known for his work, L'Aristotelismo della Scolastica, one of the most valuable productions of early Roman neo-Thomism. The aim of the treatise is to defend Scholastic philosophy against the unfounded reproach of servile Aristotelism, which, for several centuries, had been almost unanimously directed against the schoolmen.

The first chapters of the work deal with the character of Mediaeval speculation. The author clearly shows that the philosophy of the schoolmen, although intimately connected with theology, had an object and a method of its own, with which theology was not concerned.

In the second part, the author studies the ground of the preference given to Aristotle in the Middle Ages. The reasons he assigns are the following:

1. Aristotle was the greatest master, nay the inventor of one of the most important branches of philosophy, the science of logic, which studies the laws of our mind and the method we must follow in the research of truth.

2. Aristotle's works contained a treasure of information about all branches of human knowledge: natural science, ethics, politics, psychology, metaphysics, etc.

3. Aristotle gave the example of a methodic discussion and a concise style, rejecting the beautiful garb under which Plato often concealed the impossibility of a demonstration.

4. Finally, the Stagirite revealed to the curiosity of the Mediaeval philosophers the origin of philosophy and its development among the Greeks.[11]

The enthusiasm with which the philosophy of Aristotle was accepted was, however, far from mere slavishness. Whenever the Scholastics found in Aristotle some theory they judged erroneous, they did not hesitate to reject it.[12] They likewise modified and perfected the system of the master in a great many points. With regard to the essential relations between the universe and God, the final end of man, the spirituality and immortality of the soul, etc., they taught definite doctrines which Aristotle had denied or very imperfectly treated.[13] Their conception of the act of creation was also essentially different from Aristotle's conception. Aristotle had admitted God as the necessary cause of the world, but had regaded him simply as a demiurge acting upon eternally preexisting matter. The Scholastics conceived creation as a production of the world out of nothing.[14]

While the Professors we have mentioned were working hard for the success of their cause, there came into notice another man who had not attracted the attention at first, perhaps because he shunned public notice, who had written much, however, and who, from the silence of his cell, proved as able a defender of the new movement as the men who were expounding their views from a university's cathedra.

Matteo Liberatore, S.J. (1810-1892), was already an old man at the time we consider. His Institutiones Philosophicae, published many years before, had been often reissued, and, as well as Zigliara's Summa, have proved an excellent text-book in many Catholic institutions. Anticipating the pope's advice, Liberatore had shunned all useless questions, and had defended the essential principles of Scholasticism in a clear and elegant language. Not satisfied with the general exposition contained in his first work, he later took up some special topics, chiefly in the field of Scholastic psychology, and published learned treatises, which have been translated into various languages (cf. Bibliography). He even made use of the dramatic form to defend his philosophical theories, as in L'autocrazia dell'ente, comedy in three acts (Naples, 1880). His works do not evince a deep knowledge of the philosophical thought outsidc, of Italy; but he has mastered Italian philosophy and given thorough criticisms of the doctrines of Gioberti and Rosmini. The latter part of his life was devoted to social studies. He pointed out the way in which the Catholic Church can accommodate itself to a certain kind of socialism. Finally, Liberatore was one of the founders of the review Civiltà Cattolica (1850), which has not ceased to be one of the most efficient organs of Catholic thought in Italy.

In the meantime, the success of the Roman professors was becoming more and more complete. In 1880, Leo XIII ordered the preparation of a new edition of the works of St. Thomas. At the same time, an Academy of St. Thomas was founded in Rome itself (October 13, 1879). It was composed of thirty members: ten taken from Rome, ten from the rest of Italy, ten from other countries. Pecci and Zigliara were chosen as presidents.[15]

The work of the Accademia Romana di San Tommaso soon attracted the attention and the criticisms of the Italian thinkers. It was claimed that the new Scholastics were not following the precepts of Leo XIII, that they applied the Thomistic principles to scientific discoveries in the most ridiculous manner, that they had produced nothing original, save repeated attacks on Rosmini. These charges, formulated as early as 1886 by Benzoni in the Rivista italiana di Filosofia, have been taken up again by Besse, in his pamphlet, Deux centres du mouvement thomiste. The aim of Mr. Besse in this little treatise is to compare the work done at Rome by the early neo-Scholastics with the work done at Louvain to-day, and to show that at Louvain only something truly philosophical has been accomplished; that the Louvain professors alone have acted in agreement with the papal instructions and with the necessities of our time.

The most important charges formulated by Mr. Besse against the Roman Thomists are the following:

1. On all points common to philosophy and faith, the Roman Thomists strove to connect the natural and the supernatural, and became mere interpreters of the Christian dogmas.[16]

2. They did not study modern philosophy, but uncritically accepted Sanseverino's conclusions. Their criticisms, therefore, contain nothing personal, nothing serious, and have brought discredit upon the cause their authors pretended to defend.[17]

3. Lacking all principles of critical method, the Roman Thomists have not even succeeded in their interpretations of St. Thomas.[18]

Mr. Besse excepts from his wholesale condemnation Signoriello for his Vocabularium peripatetico-scholasticum, and Talamo for his study on Aristotle. But these examples, the author continues, have found no imitators.[19]

The truth contained in Mr. Besse's pamphlet must be frankly acknowledged. Roman Thomists have often remained in a complete ignorance of the spirit and the contents of modern philosophy. Without understanding modern thinkers, they have mercilessly condemned them. Non-Scholastic philosophical productions have been described as heretical; their authors, even the most inoffensive, as men who had wilfully opposed all rules of common sense and truth. The neo-Scholastic movement has thus ostracized itself from the current of modern thought. It has failed to attract the attention of the non- Catholic world. Its very existence has been, for a long time, systematically ignored. Only in recent years, and after taking another direction, has neo-Scholasticism been deemed worthy of study. Only after neo-Kantians have become convinced that the professors of Louvain possessed a knowledge of the Kantian philosophy which would honor any center of learning have they begun to ask themselves whether neo-Scholasticism could not contain something good, whether it is not a philosophy.

Mr. Besse, however, has probably overlooked a most important fact, which might have led him to modify his sentence of condemnation. The early Roman Thomists were not in the same position as their followers of the present day. Their aim was not to impose the Thomistic revival upon the consideration of the world of philosophy at large, but to effect its acceptance from the part of the Catholic Church. Only after Thomism had gained a sure footing among Catholic thinkers could it step boldly forward and proclaim its existence to the outside world. This is the reason why the Roman Thomists have worked hard and fast to show the perfect harmony of their system with the body of revealed truths. It is the reason why they have made merciless attacks upon all other philosophies, and have seen a heresy where there was at most an error.

The neo-Thomists of the present day ought not to censure too hastily the work of their older brethren. It is the Roman Scholastics that have firmly implanted Thomism in the Catholic world. They have faithfully grasped the task that lay before them, and have fulfilled it with the greatest success. The means they have taken were, on the whole, the best they could take, the only ones, perhaps, that could insure success.

The early neo-Thomists we have studied have found numerous disciples who have continued and perfected the work of the masters. In 1879, the Lazarist Albert Barberis (1847-1896) founded in Piacenza a Latin philosophical review, the Divus Thomas, which has been the organ of neo-Scholasticism in Italy, and in which Tornatore, Vinati, Ermoni, and other eminent men, have published learned dissertations. The professors of Louvain themselves have occasionally honored the Divus Thomas by their articles. Quite recently, the publication of the Divus Thomas has been interrupted. Nobody regrets the fact more sincerely than we do. It is perhaps true that modern languages are a more suitable instrument than Latin for philosophical discussions. All interested in neo-Scholasticism were none the less glad to read dissertations written by modern Scholastics in the very language of the schoolmen. After having enjoyed the Divus Thomas for so many years, we feel that its actual absence is a real lack to Scholastic literature, and we sincerely implore the distinguished professors of Piacenza to alter their decision and begin their work anew.

Barberis is also the author of two Latin dissertations: Positivismus ac nova methodus psychologica (1887), and Esse formale estne rei intrinsecum an non? (1887), which, by the solidity of the reasoning and the depth of the doctrine, assure their author a place among the most profound metaphysicians of our day.

Among the recent defenders of neo-Scholasticism in Italy, the best known are: the Jesuits Schiffini, De Maria and Salis Seewis, and the distinguished professor of Pavia, Giuseppe Ballerini. Santo Schiffini (1841-1906), for a long time professor at the Gregorian University, published a complete and detailed course of Scholastic philosophy. His Principia philosophica deal with logic and ontology; his Disputationes metaphysicae specialis, with cosmology; his Disputationes philosophiae moralis, with moral philosophy. In 1888, in a learned article of the Annales de Philosophie chrétienne, Count Domet de Vorges praised Schiffini's Ontology as the most solid and profound then existing.[20] One of the most interesting studies Schiffini's volumes contain is an analysis of the influence of will upon belief, which reminds us of the tenets of our pragmatists.

Michael de Maria became famous in 1892, after publishing three volumes of philosophical studies with the title Philosophia Peripatetico-Scholastica. In his criticisms of modern philosophy, De Maria closely resembles his Roman predecessors. In his contempt for modern thought, he is not far from Cornoldi's position, as may be gathered from the following passage of his preface:

"Principio quidem semper persuasum habui, philosophiam ad tot absurda et incredibilia amplectenda in ipsa Christianae societatis luce eo misere nostris temporibus declinasse, quod paulatim et pedententim ab illis principiis discessit quae S. Thomas ex Aristotele accepta mirifice illustravit et cum Christiana revelatione composuit. Ex quo facile erat intelligere nullam meliorem expediendae salutis reperiri posse viam, quam ad illam sapientiam plane reverti, a qua inconsulte admodum et temere discessum est."[21]

De Maria's work, however, is excellent in many respects. Besides its intrinsic value as an exposition of the Scholastic philosophy, it presents a special interest on account of the profound studies it contains about St. Thomas's doctrine on some special topics, viz., on essence and existence,[22] on the nature of the individual,[23] etc.

Francis Salis Seewis (1835-1898) is chiefly known for his treatise, Della conoscenza sensitiva, published in 1881, and a study of the doctrines of St. Augustine, St. Thomas and Suarez on spontaneous generation, published in 1897. The author studies the Scholastic doctrines from the point of view of modern physiology and compares the teachings of St. Thomas with the positive results obtained in our day by Helmholz, Wundt, Weber, etc. By his careful study of modern scientific discoveries, Salis Seewis frankly departs from the contemptuous neglect of the early Roman Thomists and opens to the neo- Scholastic movement in Italy an era of progress.[24]

Giuseppe Ballerini, already known by a treatise on socialism and a theological dissertation about the Eucharistic dogma, published in 1904 a study on the principle of causality and the existence of God, Il principio di causalita e l'esistenza di Dio di fronte alla scienza moderna. He regards the principle of causality as the real point at issue between the Scholastics and their opponents. He discusses its objectivity, combats Hume's theories, and shows the connection of the idea of cause with the belief in the existence of God.

A complete study of neo-Scholasticism in Italy should contain the names of the Jesuits De Mandato, Remer, and Taparelli d'Azeglio, the author of the celebrated Saggio di Diritto naturale; of Prisco, Chiesa, Cappellazzi, Puccini, and of the distinguished logician Lorenzo Schiavi. It should not fail to mention the accurate and painstaking edition of the works of St. Bonaventure, begun in 1882 by the Franciscan fathers of Quaracchi, near Florence, who have thereby done an immense service to the cause of Scholasticism. The same fathers are actually promising to the learned world a critical edition of the works of Roger Bacon. Finally, one of them, Mariano Fernandez Garcia, has just published a work which will be of great help for the study of Duns Scotus's philosophy. Its title is: Lexicon Scholasticum Philosophico-Theologicum, in quo continentur termini, definitiones, distinctiones et effata a B. Joanne Duns Scoto Doctore Subtili.

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