JMC : Jacques Maritain Sampler

IV. Thomism Must Progess Without End

(from Progress and Philosophy)

The philosophia perennis, a philosophy implicitly contained in the certitudes of common sense, given scientific form by Aristotle and further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, counted very great names in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Cajetan was a contemporary of Luther, John of St. Thomas was a contemporary of Descartes; the Carmelites of Salamanca were writing towards the end of the seventeenth century. It is said that a living thought is an evolving thought. This is a flat enough cliché: but it becomes the statement of a primary truth if the evolution in question is taken to mean not change but a development in doctrine. Vegetable and animal organisms stiffen and die, because they are material. But a living thought has never reached the term of its growth. So I am persuaded that in the great Thomists the thought of the master does not petrify, but develops, becomes a living being more perfect, more highly evolved. That is a truth not grasped by many intellectuals, victims of a romantic, and oh! so easy, contempt for the Commentators. The philosophia perennis is a living philosophy, claims to make us alive with a life which is above time, for it is truth. And we should not be living men but dead men if we did not reject the formal determinations in which is expressed the spirit of division, of anthropocentrism, of refusal to submit to the object, with which as we think "modern" philosophy is affected: if we did not see that the goal it has chosen as its term is quite simply the effort to make man a self-existent being, possessed of that absolute independence which belongs to God alone. But, looking at it another way, it is clear that if a doctrine would live among men, it must constantly be assimilating what is other than itself and what is new: for that, it must remain in contact and, as it were, in continuity on the material side with all that is not itself; and the stronger the spiritual principle that animates it, the more able it is to assimilate and integrate all things whatsoever. It would be a mortal sin to isolate truth in a lazar-house of sloth. And I grant you that scholastic philosophers have often committed this sin, a sin to which the professor and the pedagogue are peculiarly liable. But they have paid for it, and I think that to-day they make no mistake about the duty incumbent upon them of following with attention the new formation of ideas, and of re-thinking -- according to the proper mode of their being, of course all the problems of their time.

What is important to us in the multitude of philosophic systems which have come treading upon one another's heels the last three hundred years is not only the sometimes excellent materials which they bring to light, but also their very errors: for these errors -- by the boldness of their movement, by their logical repercussions and their interlinkings, by the splendour of the failure of such as Spinoza or Nietzsche -- serve to bring into the most dazzling light the virtue of the principles and the inner springs of right philosophy. Important, also, in all these systems is the desire for truth which sets so many philosophers in the direction of a goal which they cannot attain -- Comte, for instance, seeks the realisation of human order, Kant, the restoration of the activity of the subject in knowledge, Bergson, recognition of spiritual realities; and again there are the transpositions of truth which they sometimes bring about, as when Leibnitz applies to our material universe many views which are true of the angelic world. And beyond all that is the refinement, the flexibility, the enrichment brought to our philosophic sensibility by modern philosophy.

All this gives us much reason for a broad sympathy with the spiritual effort of the moderns, to say nothing of the sympathy we can feel with them as human beings if not always with them as themselves: for if it is absurd to treat philosophy, which is a science, as a "subjective poem," yet we can, and we must, look with admiration upon the history of the men who make philosophy, as upon a great drama.

Such are the thoughts which I had the honour of setting out more fully some time ago in the noble university of Louvain which has done so much for the Scholastic Revival and which far from being without doors or windows looking upon the outer world, has always taken so wide an interest in the concerns of the day. Thus you see we do not condemn everything en bloc, as you, with a touch of naïveté, seem to imagine; on the contrary, we set ourselves, following the precept of the old logicians, to distinguish and divide.

Nothing is more necessary to man than to discern, and nothing does he find more difficult. Ordinarily we work with intellectual instruments that we have not taken the trouble to sharpen, we use steam-hammers to crush a fly, and telegraph posts to mount a butterfly; and we bring the paws of bears to the task of following out and drawing apart the threads of a spider's web.

The only remedy is that man should learn the art of making right distinctions. That is one reason why philosophical studies, even when they do nothing but teach us this art, are of so vital a utility for the general government of our opinions! Yet it would be a good thing that we should seek to imitate in our knowledge, according to our imperfect mode, the marvellous precision with which the divine action permeates the created thing without sharing its deficiencies -- running through the most tenuous fibres, nerves, ducts, veinules of being.

I make no claim that the development of philosophy ceased at Aristotle or St. Thomas. I believe only that their principles are true and that these principles radiate in all directions throughout the real, so that every new truth will, of necessity, be in agreement with them and will find itself at home in Thomism. As I think, the thing that came to a stop in Aristotle was not the development of philosophy but the genesis of the embryo, the formation of philosophy: so that after Aristotle, philosophy, being formed, could henceforth develop without end.

Grant that a particular metaphysical doctrine is true -- as in my eyes Thomism is true: given the weakness and limitations of the human intellect, it is safe to bet there are many aspects of truth which the philosophers attached to this true doctrine would fail to bring into relief if they, and they only, were pursuing the study of philosophy; and it may happen that these neglected aspects of truth may find themselves brought clearly into light in certain otherwise erroneous doctrines -- for every error affirms some truth. Thus a defect incidental and not essential in the one philosophy, is compensated by an excellence, likewise incidental and not essential, in the other: and the lucky discoveries of the sons of the foreign woman are as the measure of the omissions of the Children of Israel.

This way of looking at things finds singularly powerful confirmation in history which, from age to age, shows us the laziness, narrowness and incompetence of a great many of the pillars of truth. Nor need we be surprised at what is no more than an effect of the infirmity that belongs to the nature of man.

Philosophy is fully self-sufficient, in itself, in the framework that belongs to it ideally -- that is, it is capable of receiving all the immensity of the real within the immaterial web of its principles. But regarded not in itself, but only in the subjects wherein it dwells -- in the men who profess it and represent it, and in this or that moment of human history -- philosophy as an organism scientifically constituted, the philosophia perennis which is always in progress, does undoubtedly leave outside its actually defined and formulated framework many truths which its own principles are in fact especially adapted to bring to light and which must put up with the shelter of false systems for a time.

It is these partial truths, these vital elements, these scattered aspects of beauty -- which sometimes stand out in extraordinary relief in the false light and the crude perspective of erroneous doctrines -- it is these that we must gather and save, with the care which a philosophy worthy of the name must have for all that is. These are the true food which right philosophy must assimilate. Thomism has fasted this three hundred years. The history of modern philosophy has prepared certain tasty dishes for the breaking of its fast.

The progress of philosophy does not concern only the acquisitions of truth within the body of the philosophia perennis: it concerns also truths accidentally or virtually attained outside. It includes not only the actual gains that Philosophy has made, but also its virtual gains which fall to us as of right: for all is ours if we are Christ's.

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