The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter XIII: The Neo-Scholastic Revival in Belgium

Ontologism, or the doctrine of the direct intuition of the Deity, was the system in vogue in Belgian philosophic circles by the middle of the nineteenth century. Ubaghs's philosophy, as is well known, is directly inspired by Malebranche, whose principles it faithfully reproduces. Similar beliefs were professed by Ubaghs's co-workers at the University of Louvain: Laforet, Claessens and Moeller.

This tendency of Belgian thought did not, however, preserve for a long time its original force. After ontologism had been condemned by the Church in 1861, Ubaghs's philosophy was gradually abandoned, and a return to St. Thomas began to take place. Among the professors of the University of Louvain who contributed to bring about this return let us mention Dupont, Bossu, and Lefebvre.

No man, however, worked more bravely for the final victory of Scholasticism than the Dominican Lepidi, then prefect of studies in the College of the Immaculate Conception of Louvain, later professor at the Minerva in Rome.

An Italian by birth, Lepidi belongs to Belgium by his philosophy, not only because he wrote there his most important works, but chiefly for the immense influence he exercised upon Belgian thought by bringing about the downfall of Ontologism.

A solid refutation of ontologism is indeed the work entitled Examen philosophico-theologicum de ontologismo. The author not only shows that the theory of the Divine Vision is groundless, but he proves that the passages from St. Augustine and St. Thomas generally adduced by ontologists in support of their views are not, when properly understood, favorable to ontologism.

No less recommendable is Lepidi's Elementa Philosophiae christianae (1875-79). It contains a clear and methodic exposition of Scholastic logic and metaphysics, and may be regarded as one of the best contributions to neo-Scholastic literature written previous to the encyclical AEterni Patris.

A distinguished worker of the first hour was also Van Weddingen, chaplain of the court. His first work, Essai critique sur la philosophie de saint Anselme (1875), was crowned by the Royal Academy of Brussels. Proposed by Leo XIII to teach philosophy in the University of Louvain, he declined the offer, preferring to keep his functions at the court, but he powerfully contributed by his writings to give to the Thomistic revival a sure footing in Belgium. Besides a commentary on the encyclical AEterni Patris, in which he splendidly sets down the program of neo-Thomism, and important treatises on St. Anselm, Albert the Great and St. Thomas (cf. Bibliography), Van Weddingen has given to neo-Scholastic literature an extensive work, his Essai d'introduction à l'étude de la philosophie, which consists of no less than 900 pages quarto, and studies the question of the objectivity of knowledge, a question to which the Critique of Pure Reason has given a capital importance.

The neo-Scholastic revival in Belgium has been chiefly fostered by two great centers of learning: the College of the Jesuits of Louvain and the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie.

The most celebrated among Belgian Jesuits are De San, Lahousse, Castelein, Van der Aa, and Carbonelle.

Louis de San (1832-1904) is reputed as one of the most profound thinkers the Society of Jesus has produced. For more than thirty years he taught philosophy and theology at Louvain. His theological productions are numerous. Unhappily, he has contributed to philosophy a single volume on cosmology, one of the four volumes of a work entitled: Institutiones metaphysicae specialis, which the learned Jesuit had in view, but never completed.

De San is thoroughly acquainted with modern philosophy. He has mastered Spinoza and the German idealists. He possesses a remarkable knowledge of natural science, studies the Scholastic cosmological theories in connection with the laws of chemistry, and finds in chemistry itself the proof of the Thomistic principles.

Gustave Lahousse (born 1846) is less profound than De San and less acquainted with modern philosophy. His Praelectiones at times even display a lack of logical method. In his Cosmology, for example, he first demonstrates the existence of bodies, and next the objectivity of sensation.

John Van der Aa (born 1843) is strictly Scholastic and ignores many modern problems. In his Logic he reduces induction to syllogism.

Much more modern in his method, much more familiar with the spirit of our time, is Aug. Castelein (born 1840), whose Cours de Philosophie (1887), and Institutiones philosophiae moralis et socialis (1889) have been valuable contributions to neo-Scholastic literature. Unlike Van der Aa, he does not limit himself to the classical Scholastic logic, but studies the inductive process, and discusses the value of hypothesis and of experimental methods. In his Psychology, Fr. Castelein examines the Scholastic teaching about the soul in connection with modern physiological data.

Ignatius Carbonelle (died 1889) is primarily a scientist. Like Fr. Castelein, he tries to harmonize scientific discoveries with the Scholastic principles. His work Les confins de la science et de la philosophie has been honored by several editions. Carbonelle has directed the Revue des Questions scientifiques, one of the most important Belgian publications.

Although the Jesuit College is thus an important center of neo-Thomism, the city of Louvain is justly proud of another center incomparably more important, of a center which has raised neo-Thomism to an immense height, has transformed its character and method, giving it a new life, bringing it into contact with modern progress and modern ideals. It is the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie of the University.

The peculiar character which distinguishes the Institute of Louvain from earlier centers of Thomism is chiefly due to the initiative of its first president, Desiré Mercier.

Born in Braine l'Alleud (Belgium) in 1851, Desiré Mercier began his studies in the seminary of Malines, and completed them in the University of Louvain. He was subsequently given the chair of philosophy in the seminary of Malines. This was precisely the time in which Leo XIII, having been elected pope, was promoting in Italy the revival of Scholasticism. Cornoldi was then giving his famous course, silencing all opponents with the authority of St. Thomas, resolving all scientific doubts by the Summa Theologica.

Leo XIII who, when a young man, had inhabited Belgium as a papal nuncio, and had kept of that country the most delightful remembrance, was trying to make the neo-Thomistic revival step beyond the limits of Italy, to create in some other country an institution similar to the Roman College, to the Cornoldi school. Nowhere could he find a more favorable ground than in Belgium. By the brief of the twenty-fifth of December, 1880, addressed to Cardinal Deschamps, archbishop of Malines, the pope urgently recommended the foundation of a chair of Thomistic philosophy in the University of Louvain. So great was then the renown of the young professor Mercier, so successfully had he fulfilled in Malines his professorial duties, that he was chosen to carry the papal designs into effect.

The success was great. It did not, however, satisfy the pope, who understood that something still greater could be done. A few years later -- the eleventh of July, 1888 -- Leo XIII sent a second brief to the archbishop of Malines, Cardinal Goossens, recommending the foundation of an institute of Thomistic philosophy, endowed with its own independent life. Having learned that the greatest difficulty was the lack of funds, he sent to Cardinal Goossens the sum of 150,000 francs. Great was the energy displayed by the Belgian Catholics to realize the papal ideals. Their efforts were finally crowned with success, and in 1891 the Institute of Philosophy of Louvain, the glory of neo- Thomism, was officially created.

In a memoir read before the Congress of Catholics held in Malines in September, 1891, Mercier traced the program he had in view to insure the success of the new foundation. After representing and deploring the isolation from the rest of the scientific world to which Catholics had condemned themselves, he outlined the reforms he contemplated, the new road he intended to open to neo-Scholasticism.

The reforms which characterized the school of Louvain may be classified under two heads:

1. Philosophy was not to be regarded as a mere ancilla theologiae, but to be studied for philosophy's sake. Catholic philosophers would thus frankly enter into the spirit of our time, and cease to be looked upon as mere apologists of their Creed.

2. Just as philosophy was to be studied for its own sake, so also was science. Neo-Thomists had to become true scientists, to construct laboratories, to make experiments, and -- this was the point which at first savored of paradox -- to find in St. Thomas himself the reconciliation of science and, philosophy.

This last ambition was not novel. It was the very aim Cornoldi had cherished many years before, the very spirit which had inspired the encyclical AEterni Patris, but thus far nothing serious had been done.

Mercier proposed: first of all, to study St. Thomas in his original works, to open the Summa Theologica, the Summa contra Gentiles, the Opuscula Philosophica, the Commentaria in Aristoteles. It was thus found that a great many opinions which, for centuries, had been ridiculed under the name of Thomism, were not from St. Thomas, but from writers of the time of the Renaissance, from Newton or Gassendi. It was found that Aristotle and St. Thomas were not dogmatic idealists constructing the world a priori, but true scientists, who based their philosophy upon the facts of experience; that their doctrines were not antiquated and useless theories, but possessed a character of modernness which many recent systems might envy.

Modern philosophers were likewise to be studied in their original works. Descartes and Kant were not to be reached any longer via Sanseverino. The Discourse on Method and the Critique of Pure Reason, were to be read and understood. Thus and thus only could the spirit of modern philosophy be grasped; thus only could neo-Thomism keep abreast with the rest of the learned world.

The success of the Institute of Louvain has been prodigious. Mgr. Mercier has found at first many opponents among Catholics,[1] but he has always answered victoriously. The numerous articles on neo-Thomism which, since the foundation of the Institute, have appeared in the Kantstudien, the Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie, the Revue Philosophique, the Rivista Filosofica, and many other publications, show how well he has succeeded in breaking the studied silence with which the Thomistic revival had been previously received.

The Institute of Louvain, so successful in point of philosophy, has also obtained significant results in the field of science. At the head of the department of science is Mr. Thiéry, a former pupil of the famous Wundt, of Leipzig. About the laboratory he has founded in Louvain, Mr. Binet could write in the Année Psychologique of 1896: "For the course of Mr. Thiéry there is a laboratory and complete equipment for physiological psychology such as does not exist at present in all France." A similar laboratory has been subsequently founded at the Sorbonne (Hautes-Etudes).

Under the direction of Mgr. Mercier, a Course of Philosophy has been published to which Mercier himself has contributed the volumes on Logic, Criteriology, General Metaphysics, and Psychology. Less extensive than the Institutiones of Urraburu, Mercier's Course is much more modern. It discards questions which in our day may be dismissed as useless, and studies scientific results in themselves, without giving, at the head of each chapter, a decision of the Councils or a passage from the Sacred Scriptures, with which the data of science must be forced into harmony.

The success of the "Cours de Philosophie" of the Institute is eloquently testified by the numerous editions which have been made in a few years, and the translations into German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish by which it has been honored.

The Catholic Church has not been indifferent to the great service done by Mercier to the cause of neo-Thomism. The illustrious founder of the Institute of Louvain has been offered in 1906 the archiepiscopal see of Malines. Quite recently (April 18, 1907) he has been made a cardinal.

The arduous task that lay before Mercier in 1891 has been greatly facilitated by the action of distinguished collaborators who at once grasped the program of their master and imbibed his spirit. Conspicuous among them is the illustrious historian of Mediaeval philosophy, Mr. de Wulf.

Maurice de Wulf (born 1867) was already known before his appointment at Louvain by a historical work: Histoire de la philosophie scolastique dans les Pays-Bas et la Principauté de Liège, which had been crowned by the Royal Academy of Belgium. Since then he has written numerous works or essays, of which the most important are: a History of Mediaeval Philosophy (1900), which is perhaps the most valuable book we possess on the subject, and an Introduction à la Philosophie neo- scolastique, published in 1904.

In his Histoire de la Philosophie Médiévale, Mr. de Wulf departs from the common view which identifies Scholasticism with Mediaeval philosophy, and discovers in the Middle Ages two antithetical currents: Scholasticism proper, represented by Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Albert the Great, etc.; and anti- Scholasticism, of which Scotus Erigena is the father, and which is continued by the Catharists, the Albigenses and the Pantheistic schools. Mr. de Wulf's view on this point has not met with a ready acceptance. It has been rejected, among others, by Elie Blanc and Picavet. Mr. de Wulf, however, still holds the same opinion, and has defended it again in his Introduction à la Philosophie Néo scolastique.

The aim of this last work is to remove current misconceptions about the nature of Scholastic philosophy; to give, as in a nutshell, the essential traits of Thomism, and to show to what extent neo-Scholasticism agrees with the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and to what extent the old philosophy has been modified. In no other work is the program of neo-Scholasticism, so definitely outlined. The study of Mr. de Wulf's Introduction is indispensable to those who want to enter the field of neo-Scholastic literature.

With the collaboration of Mr. A. Pelzer, Mr. de Wulf has lately undertaken the publication of unedited works of Mediaeval Belgian philosophers. Among the volumes already published let us mention: Le Traité De Unitate Formoe de Gilles de Lessines (1901), Les Quatres Premiers Quolibets de Godefroid de Fontaines (1904).

Mr. D. Nys is the cosmologist of the Institute. Besides two volumes dealing with St. Thomas's conception of time and space, and many articles published in the Revue Néo-Scolastique, he has contributed to the Cours de Philosophie of the Institute the volume on Cosmology.

In no other work -- safe perhaps in Farges's essays -- are the Scholastic theories about the world so satisfactorily expounded. Nys's Cosmology is even more scientific than Farges's works on the subject. All modern discoveries, all recent scientific results are discussed in connection with the Scholastic system. We may fail to agree with Mr. Nys's conclusions -- and I confess that this is my case -- but we cannot entertain for a single instant the idea that his conclusions are not the result of a serious study of the matter.

Among the men who have honored the Institute of Louvain by their philosophical productions we must also mention:

L. Noel, who has written valuable works on the question of Determinism and free will.

Simon Deploige, professor of economics and political science, who has published a treatise on the Thomistic theory of property and a most interesting essay entitled, St. Thomas et la question juive; and E. Crahay, author of a work dealing with St. Thomas's political doctrines.

Finally, the Institute of Louvain deserves the gratitude of all lovers of philosophy by the publication of one of the most interesting and learned reviews Actually existing, the Revue Néo-Scolastique, whose pages are of immense service, not only to those interested in neo-Scholasticism, but to all students of philosophy.

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