JMC : The Metaphysics of the School / by Thomas Harper, S.J.


THERE is a passage in the Leviathan of Hobbes, which I will set before the reader, not without a definite purpose, as a sort of Introit to my Preface. It is, as follows: 'There is yet another fault in the discourses of some men; which may also be numbered amongst the sorts of madness; namely, that abuse of words, whereof I have spoken before in the fifth chapter, by the name of absurdity. And that is, when men speak such words, as put together, have in them no signification at all; but are fallen upon by some, through misunderstanding of the words they have received, and repeat by rote; by others from intention to deceive by obscurity. And this is incident to none but those, that converse in questions of matters incomprehensible, as the School-men; or in questions of abstruse philosophy. The common sort of men seldom speak insignificantly, and are, therefore, by those other egregious persons counted idiots. But to be assured their words are without anything correspondent to them in the mind, there would need some examples; which if any man require, let him take a School-man in his hands and see if he can translate any one chapter concerning any difficult point, as the Trinity; the Deity; the nature of Christ; transubstantiation; free-will, &c., into any of the modern tongues, so as to make the same intelligible; or into any tolerable Latin, such as they were acquainted withal, that lived when the Latin tongue was vulgar. What is the meaning of these words, The first cause does not necessarily inflow any thing into the second, by force of the essential subordination of the second causes, by which it may help it to work? They are the translation of the title of the sixth chapter of Suarez' first book, of the concourse, motion, and help, of God.{1} When men write whole volumes of such stuff are they not mad, or intend to make others so?'{2}

A German writer of great and deserved reputation shall take up the fugue. 'The soul of the Scholastic Philosophy,' writes Brucker, 'and the hinge on which it all turned, was not an attentive inquiry after Truth, undertaken without prejudice and made up of connected truths deduced from concordant Principles; but the empty and ambitious affectation of a sort of subtlety that made show of great intellectual acumen. Furnished with dialectic and metaphysical weapons, it was wont to dispute, with extremest stretching of the brain, about questions most difficult indeed and acute, but commendable neither by reason of their utility nor of their certitude; and would come down into the area for the purpose of carrying on its countless philosophical skirmishes, with the help of verbal disputes, of worthless mental abstractions, of axioms assumed at hap-hazard, of distinctions destitute of the smallest foundation, and of the horrors of a barbarous terminology.'{3} A little further on, the same author deplores its 'obscure ideas,' -- 'words without meaning,' -- 'barbarous terms which had a sort of frightful sound from their very clatter;' and describes its teaching as the 'hobgoblins of boys,' -- 'empty clouds,' -- 'an immense ocean of verbal disputes.'{4}

Mosheim follows in the same chorus. These are his words: 'Yet notwithstanding all the subtilty of these irrefragable, seraphic and angelic doctors, as they were commonly styled, they often appeared wiser in their own conceit, than they were in reality, and frequently did little more than involve in greater obscurity, the doctrines which they pretended to place in the clearest light. For, not to mention the ridiculous oddity of many of their expressions, the hideous barbarity of their style, and their extravagant and presumptuous desire of prying into matters that infinitely surpass the comprehension of short-sighted mortals, they were chargeable with defects in their manner of reasoning, which every true philosopher will, of all others, be most careful to avoid. For they neither defined their terms accurately, and hence arose innumerable disputes merely about words; nor did they divide their subject with perspicuity and precision, and hence they generally treated it in an obscure and unsatisfactory manner. The great Angelic Doctor himself, notwithstanding his boasted method, was defective in these respects; his definitions are often vague, or obscure, and his plans or divisions, though full of art, are frequently destitute of clearness and proportion.'{5} Lord Bacon,{6} as was oniy to be expected from so broad and high an intellect, is a little less unmeasured, perhaps, in his animadversions; but he contributes his quota to the general indictment, and introduces an unsavoury quotation from Virgil, in order to give point to his censure. He, too, accuses the Scholastic Doctors of hair-splitting, -- of the multiplication of useless discussions noisy and monstrous, to the neglect of those practical questions that are of advantage to human life. Nor must it be supposed, that these clamours against the Scholastic Philosophy and the Scholastic Method have diminished in number or intensity, since the time when it has found no home save in the Schools of the Catholic Church. It has long ago been exiled by the world; yet the directors of public opinion and the Professors of the multiform new philosophies have pursued it with their continued invective. Kant, for instance, designates it, as 'the antiquated and rotten constitution of dogmatism.'{7} A modern composer of a Vocabulary of Philosophy teaches us, (under the word, SCHOLASTIC), that 'If from scholasticism you eliminate theology, it will be found as a philosophy to be the quarrel between Nominalism and Realism.'{8} Another writer of our own time, while informing his readers that he could not pursue his reading of the Scholastics, continues in the same strain as the rest. 'The depressing weariness and impatience,' he writes, 'which causes us to push them' (the Scholastic folios) 'aside after each new effort at study, arise, I conceive, from our sense of the futility of the questions discussed, and the mode of discussing them, even more than from the arid and often frivolous poverty of the style. . . . The work of the Schools had to be done, but it is at an end. Their folios are fossils.' (May the museums be multiplied with at least equal avidity, through the length and breadth of this our favoured land!) 'Monstrous and lifeless shapes of a former world, having little community with the life of our own, they have for us an interest similar to that yielded by the megatherium, and the dinornis.'{9} It remained for two distinguished members of a time-honoured University, engaged as philosophers in editing the works of an English philosopher, to speak of the labours of a St. Thomas, a St. Bonaventure, a Dun Scotus, and the rest, as 'the mire of Scholasticism.'{10}

In presence of such general and unmeasured invective against the philosophy of the School, it will excite little or no surprise to find, that similar hostile prepossessions not uncommonly exist against the metaphysical Science, as such. When, then, an eminent English statesman is reported, at a public distribution of prizes, while addressing his youthful auditors, to have 'cautioned them against Metaphysics of any kind whatever,' adding that, 'it was absolutely a waste of time; far better read one of Dickens' novels; because Metaphysics began by assuming something that was not true, and ended in something absolutely absurd;' -- it must be acknowledged that he was merely expressing, however unwisely, a more or less general conviction. Whether the ignorance even of those who profess themselves students of Philosophy, touching the writings of St. Thomas and of the other Doctors of the School, has diminished in these later years, I cannot tell. Certainly there are no palpable proofs of any such change. But, thirty or forty years ago, it was, I know, a common impression, even in our Universities, that the Angelic Doctor is exclusively occupied with the discussion of such questions as, How many Angels could dance on the point of a needle. I myself entertained the same idea; till subsequent study of his works opened my mind to the absurdity of the fable.{11}

Now, it is not my purpose in this Preface to enter upon any examination into the causes of this vulgar prejudice. But I want, first of all, to set before the reader the formidable difficulties which, as I foresaw, would beset me; when I consented, at the request and advice of others, to undertake the task, of which the present Volume is a first instalment. I felt that it would be a mere waste of time to compose a work like the present, unless there were a well-grounded hope that I should be able to secure a certain number of readers, belonging to that class of educated and thoughtful students in whose interest I wish to labour. But how, I said to myself, is one to get a hearing for the School? At the outset, there confronts us that prejudice against Metaphysics in general, which for a long time has been only too general in this country and is still nurtured by personages who, in virtue of their position, influence, and abilities, contribute in no small measure to the formation of public opinion. This, however, did not present itself to my mind as an obstacle too formidable to be overcome. For in the literature of the day is to be found evidence abundantly sufficient to show, that English thought has awakened to a growing interest in, and to a sense of the paramount importance of, metaphysical investigation. But the main difficulty recurred: Can our English students and men of letters be induced to concern themselves with Scholastic teaching? Here is a Philosophy which has been all but universally condemned by theological and ecclesiastical writers of every shade of opinion outside the Catholic Church, -- scorned and vilipended by most of the modern philosophical writers of greatest repute in this country, -- used as a proverb of contempt by our men of literature, -- erected by many professors of physical science as a target for the shafts of their wit, -- despised by men of culture generally, who have been taught, almost from their cradle, to regard it as the amalgam of an obsolete Theology and of dialectical hair-splitting, -- painted in perhaps more repulsive colours in standard as well as popular Encyclopedias, in Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Catechisms and compendious histories of Philosophy, -- hated and abused by the illuminati, those prophets of a future gospel of truth, -- pronounced by most to be already dead and buried out of sight, -- what hope can there be of making way against such a torrent of opposing forces? Nevertheless, in face of this to me most formidable difficulty, I took courage; and, gentle reader, I will tell you why. There are already trustworthy signs of a turn in the tide. I have good reason for saying, that there are not a few men of information and study in English-speaking countries, even among such as have devoted themselves to physical pursuits, who, tired with the ever-rising Babel of new philosophies and with the universal disintegration of scientific thought that has resulted from what has been called the critical method, are looking back with a wistful glance towards the old Philosophy, but are puzzled where to look for it. As yet, it has never been presented in an English dress; and it would be too much to expect, that these inquirers, however earnest, should collect it for themselves out of the many folios of the Scholastic Doctors. The obstacles to such eclectic research would he too vast to be easily surmounted. For the most part, philosophical solutions are introduced, as it were, parenthetically into the standard works of the School. They only appear, when necessary to the defence or elucidation of some dogma of Theology natural or revealed. Consequently, they are not presented to the reader in scientific form, or as a complete, proportioned, whole. They must be sought out, collected, arranged. These remarks apply with peculiar force to the voluminous writings of the Angelic Doctor. It is true, indeed, that St. Thomas has sometimes expressly and exclusively discussed various questions of philosophy in one or other of his Opuscula, or smaller works; but these discussions were plainly enough professorial notes, intended for the class or for the benefit of some puzzled student, and treat of this or that isolated point independently of the rest. These little dissertations are eminently serviceable to such as have already mastered the Peripatetic system; but would only add to the perplexity of those who are novices. There is one exception to the remarks just made touching the treatment of philosophical truths in the writings of the School. Suarez has left us a complete Course of Scholastic Philosophy; and I have carefully consulted and received valuable assistance from it, in most of the Books into which the present Work is divided. Neither would it do, however, for the general reader, as an introduction to the said Philosophy. The circumstance that it is written in Scholastic Latin would prove a stumbling-block to many; to others the logical precision and attendant dryness would be repulsive; and others, again, would find questions of comparatively little interest to them discussed at great length, while other points, about which they are desirous of receiving the fullest explanation, are perhaps summarily dismissed. In a word, Suarez wrote for a past century and for students of Theology: that which we now want is a course of Scholastic Philosophy, suited to the needs of this nineteenth century and to the apprehension of men of culture. It is this want that I have attempted to meet; with what success, it must be for my readers to judge. One thing I may here be allowed to observe. I lay no claim to originality. Every man should get to know his own deficiencies; and originality is not my forte. Besides, such an effort would have been out of place in a work which professes to give, only in a popular and elementary form, a system of Philosophy that has been historically defined. I lay claim to the office of an interpreter rather than to that of a teacher. But this I can conscientiously say, that I have tried my best to do justice to the original; and that I present before my readers the fruits, (such as they are), of the labours of many years.

But, before I enter upon an explanation of the way in which I have endeavoured to carry out this idea, I deem it expedient to answer the charges which have been made against the philosophical teaching of the School, as they are embodied in the quotations that stand at the head of this Preface. There is one which I shall consider first of all; not so much by reason of any weight that may possibly be imagined to attach to it, as because it has taken such general possession of men's minds, and is repeated by several of the writers whom I have quoted. Hobbes accuses the Schoolmen of an 'abuse of words,' which he denounces as absurd; and asks, if those who have written 'whole volumes of such stuff, are not mad?' Brucker speaks with emphasis 'of the horrors of a barbarous terminology,' which he attributes to them. Mosheim calls attention to 'the ridiculous oddity of many of their expressions,' and to 'the hideous barbarity of their style.' Mr. Lewes complains of 'the arid and often frivolous poverty of their style.'

I gather, from these, and similar passages, three distinct accusations, generally brought against the form of writing common to the School. The first is, that the scholastics adopted a barbarous terminology; the second, that they offended against classic purity of style; the third, that their diction is dry and poor. It is my purpose to examine into the truth of each article in this indictment.

{1} The above momentous question discussed by Suarez, which Hobbes thus holds up to the ridicule of his hearers, will find a place for itself in the last Book on Natural Theology. It will not, therefore, be treated here, even by way of explanation. But it is expedient to notice at once, that no little part of the obscurity, attaching to the title, is due to the translation of the caricaturist. It might, perhaps, be more intelligible, if translated by some one who knows the subject. The first Book of the Opusculum is On the concurrence and efficacious assistance of God, necessary to acts of free-will. The title of the sixth Chapter might be better rendered thus: The First Cause exercises no necessary influx into the secondary cause (in order to help it on towards its action), by virtue of the essential subordination of the second cause to the First; (De concursu et efficaci auxilio Dei ad actus liberi arbitrii necessario. Causam primam nihil necessario influere in secundam, ex vi subordinationis causae secundae ad primam, quo illam ad agendum juvet). The title of a Chapter, contained in a sort of parenthetical Treatise that is illustrative of a problem discussed at length elsewhere, is scarcely a fair example in proof of the assertion made by Hobbes. It receives its explanation from the previous Disputation of which it is a sort of Appendix. Moreover, it includes certain Terms, a definite acquaintance with which is presupposed. Still, it sufficed to engender, and then to propagate, a prejudice.

{2} Part I, Chap. 8, v. fi.

{3} 'Philosophiae Scholasticae animam, et in quo omnia vertebantur, cardinem non fuisse, inquisitionem veritatis attentam at sine praejudiciis institutam, nexuque veritatum ex principiis convenientibus deductarum constantem, sed subtilitatis cujusdam, magnum ingenii acumen demonstrantis affectationem vanam et ambitiosam, quae dialecticis et metaphysicis armis instructa, de quaestionibus difficilibus quidem et acutissimis, sed nec usu nec certitudine commendandis, summa animi contentione disputaret, et ad innumeras velitationes philosophicas, logomachiis, mentis praecisionibus vanis, axiomatibus precario assumptis, distinctionibus fundamento carentibus, terminorumque barbarorum spectris adjuta, in arenam descenderet.' Historia Critica Philosophiae, Period. II, Lib. II, Pars. II, cap. 3, sect. III, § 2.

{4} 'Ideae obscurae, voces nihili, termini barbari ipsoque strepitu suo horrendum quid sonantes . . . puerorum terriculamenta, -- inanes nubes, -- immensum logomachiarum pelagus.' Ibid. § 4.

{5} Ecclesiastical History, Cent. xiii, Part II, ch. 3, n. 6.

{6} 'Atqui non absimilis est eorum ratio, qui non tam veritatem perspicuis argumentis, auctoritatibus, comparationibus, exemplis illustrare nituntur; quam in hoc solum incumbunt, ut minutos quosque scrupulos eximant, et captiunculas expediant, et dubitationes solvant; hoc pacto quaestionem ex quaestione gignentes. . . . Adeo ut Scyllae fabula ad vivum exprimat hoc genus philosophiae, cujus os et pectus virginem formosam praeferebant, intus vero fuisse aiunt,

"Candida succinctam latrantibus inguina monstris." Virg. Ecl. vi. 75.

Sic generalia quaedam apud scholasticos invenias, quae pulchra sunt dictu, et non perperam inventa; ubi autem ventum fuerit ad distinctiones decisionesque, pro foecundo utero, ad vitae humanae commoda, in portentosas et latrantes quaestiones desinunt. Itaque minima mirum si hoc genus doctrinae, etiam apud vulgus hominum, contemptui obnoxium fuerit.' De Augmentis Scientiarum, Lib. 1, v. m.

{7} Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the first Edition.

{8} The Vocabulary of Philosophy, by William Fleming, D.D.

{9} Lewes' History of Philosophy, The Transition Period, Chap. i. p. 3.

{10} Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, edited by Green and Grose; Introduction, p.7.

{11} I find that this respectable tradition still survives. The reader will find it handed on in Professor Tait's Lectures on Some Recent Advances in Physical Science, Lecture III, p. 54.

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