Archives for posts with tag: Jacques Maritain

Civilization Is A Conversation

The popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux (https://freedomainradio.com) often reminds his audience that “civilization is a conversation. ” I read about the same idea before in a blog article by John C. Wright (www.scifiwright.com) about the Great Books. A philosopher himself, as well as a novelist, Mr Wright is an alumnus of St. John’s College of liberal arts. I gather the school’s Great Books program was inspired from the writings of philosopher Mortimer Adler on “The Great Conversation” and his editing work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica Great Books series.

According to classical philosophers and other classical writers who had to know philosophy as a general foundation for their field, philosophy and science, literature and arts, civilization in a word, is a great conversation, and philosophy is its common language. It began to spread from Greece some six centuries before Christ.

Metaphysics, or philosophy properly so called, is the conversation about the fundamentals of everything that is or may be, especially the “why”, the causes. The “how” is more particularly the domain of empirical sciences and mathematics.

Ethics is the part of philosophy that examines the use of practical reason, or moral conscience. Why is there a sense of right and wrong? Why is conscience attracted to the good and repulsed by evil? Why is happiness connected to the good? These are some of the main questions of moral philosophy.

The moral questions are of course paramount also to religion and theology. Philosophy is the greatest achievement of the human mind unaided by faith, since it derives its information from the senses, external and internal. But the self-revelation of God being at the same time the revelation of man to himself (e. g. John 2:25), the Judaeo-Christian revelation is a very reliable source of information for philosophy, particularly for natural theology (or theodicy) and ethics.

Christian theologians, philosophers, and authors of literary or scientific writings were the ones who kept the conversation ongoing and timeless. It is timeless because philosophia perennis, the common philosophy of humanity (as philosopher Jacques Maritain would say), known also as Aristotelian-Thomism, or classical theist philosophy, is true in all essentials and those essentials are not subject to time. True philosophy is therefore capable of organic, continuous development upon this perennial basis.

Up to the 1960s, every generation educated by learned masters had access to the great works of the past and to a common philosophical framework. Scholars and writers could thus contribute to build on and transmit the intellectual and moral treasure of civilization, the treasure of human wisdom.

 

Conversation Slows Down

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The following is a slightly expanded version of my comments under the thread “The Empire of Lies”, an essay from John C. Wright (February 13, 2016).

“Either there is truth or there is not.”

After this opening line, Mr. Wright proceeds to demonstrate that the statement “there is no truth” is impossible and self-destroying, an absurdity even if only for the sake of argument. Such an argument is sustained solely for expediency, for moral reasons, in order to pass vice for virtue, virtue for vice, and evildoing for good works. In short, nihilism.

The origin of such extreme moral outlook is sin unacknowledged, unrepented, and conscience stifled accordingly. As Jacques Maritain explained, when we sin, the will (or the “reason of the heart” as Blaise Pascal would put it) listens to emotions and sentiments and averts its inner eye from the sound principles of the practical intellect, that is, the truth as seen by the conscience. By blurring objective truth about the objective good, the will is generally able to trick a poorly formed conscience into taking an evil for a good, or a lesser good for a greater good, or evil means as expedient to attain some good.

But the guilt remains. To evade the guilt efficiently, there is no other way than to attack the principles, the axioms themselves (identity, reason for being, finality, causality, etc.), and ultimately the transcendentals above the principles: no objective beauty, goodness or truth, thus no moral obligation.

Now, what is truth? The shortest and simplest definition is: Truth is the conformity of the mind to things. An honest search for truth makes licit almost any question. For example, the question “Either there is a God (or gods), or there is not” implies that the human mind might be able to discover the truth, or accept the revelation of truth.

If there are things, there is a God, because nothing contingent can exist if there is no necessary being which is the first cause and reason for being of everything else. Hence the same reasoning applies to truth: if there is something, there is truth in the same measure that things do exist and are good and beautiful, and at least partly knowable.

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Three Reformers, Three Rebuilders

In his essay on Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, Jacques Maritain pointed out the fateful ideas that were ferments in transforming Christendom into the modern secularist world. Reviewing the book once again, I came to the conclusion that the 20th century, though it featured the most horrendous consequences of de-Christianization, also saw refreshing beams of light. Three great writers, in particular, responded and gave an accurate assessment of the damage, and paths of healing.

Against the individualistic view of religion brought forth by Martin Luther, another German-speaking theologian stands for a comprehensive view of Redemption and reconciliation founded on the transcendentals –the Beautiful, the Good and the True– thus on classical philosophy and theology. Amongst a phenomenal production, Father Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) gave the Church his monumental trilogy: Herrlichkeit (Glory, or “Theo-aesthetics”), Theodramatik and Theologik. He also tellingly chose Communio as the name of the quarterly theological journal he founded.

Against the rationalistic destruction of philosophy effected by a great scientist but terrible philosopher, René Descartes, Maritain himself (1882-1973) opposed his life’s work to spark a renewal of Thomism, or philosophia perennis. The common philosophy of humanity, enveloped and exemplified everywhere in the works of saint Thomas Aquinas, can be developed and applied to every new problem of any human culture.

Against the false, unreal worldviews and the false moral superiority à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau pervading the post-modern thought, the English-speaking world was graced with a literary genius who is a miracle of sanity. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), also a Thomist, is known to his admirers as the “apostle of common sense”.

 

The chronological order and the overlap of these three writers and their fields recall the logical order of operation of the transcendentals in human life.

In high quality literature and poetry, beauty leads to the True and the Good. Chesterton was also a great poet and a fine artist; Maritain wrote beautifully and was a connoisseur of fine art; von Balthasar was an incredibly well-read man, a translator, a literary critic of French and German literature and an excellent pianist.

Metaphysics is the highest and deepest inquiry into truth that the human intellect unaided by faith can achieve. The common and precise language and categories of classical theist philosophy are the frame for the basic principles in every science, especially theology.

Theology, supporting itself on the gifts of faith and Divine Revelation proceeding from the Goodness of God, explains spiritual reality and its embodiment in worship and Christian life, where man responds to the call to holiness, or the invitation to the perfection of goodness.

 

(Linked document updated Feb. 28, 2016)

Beauty is in the Form

Professor Edward Feser quotes a sarcastic passage by Isaac Asimov and asks why plastic objects cannot eventually be admired as antiques.  (“The metaphysics and aesthetics of plastic”  Feb. 14, 2014)

Elsewhere, a commenter quoting from a David Gerrold novel compares moral integrity to that of a plastic balloon, lost when the balloon is destroyed by a pinhole. Philosopher and novelist John C. Wright answers that forgiveness is better than asking for perfect integrity. (“Why the Rats Conquer Empires”, Feb. 27, 2014 )

I looked into the matter in Plato and Maritain.

Perception of form

Beauty, Plato said, is in the form. It is not in the philosophical prima materia, that cannot exist without an essential form. Contrary to Plato’s theory, though, separate forms of material beings do not exist either, except as concepts. For example, human form, or nature, does not exist apart from actual human beings.

Form differentiates individuals only in beings who are pure forms (God and angels). There are as many angelic natures as there are angels. But physical beings are differentiated by matter, and all individuals in a species share a common form.

By the fact it has a form actualized in matter, every physical being, particle, element, compound has the same degree of intrinsic beauty that the form lends to matter. Although an unlearned observer may not perceive anything interesting and pleasing about, say, subatomic particles, an observer possessing even a small knowledge of the thing certainly does.

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Degrees of Abstraction – Degrees of Knowledge

(Updated November 2015)

As Chesterton said in Philosophy for the Schoolroom, any argument should begin with the parties stating their “infallible dogmas” (=axioms, first principles, undisputable first facts), so that the discussion could proceed to the real basis of the point in dispute.

This is to say most arguments would come to a full stop there, as the disagreement is most often in the very first steps of grasping reality and reasoning about it.

Chesterton was alluding to real philosophical dispute, where the different parties speak the same language, but in the case where one or more of the parties ignore philosophy, the problem lies at a more profound level. There is another step before axioms, which is largely forgotten now that philosophy is unknown or deformed by most people. This step is the hierarchy of sciences based on the different degrees of abstraction.

__________
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Abstraction and Judgment

In a blogpost titled “The Other Side of the Picture” about the failings of Leftist and politically correct college education, John C. Wright wrote:

”This is a mental disorder inflicted by modern education. It is a narrowing of the mind in the name of broadmindedness, and the closing of the mind in the name of openmindedness.
“It is the folly of those who are taught only enough of a subject to be told the objections and questions undermining its foundations, but not enough to do the disciplined and rigorous intellectual work, yes, the hard work, of answering those objections or sitting as a judge and making a determination of their admissibility, as debating as a juror and weighing their probity and pertinence.
” [my emphasis]

I was at the same time reflecting on an idea I noticed in Dr. Bruce G. Charlton’s Thought Prison where he qualifies Leftist and PC worldview as “abstract.” I was a bit taken aback by the term, as I find nothing wrong with abstraction in itself, but then I recalled, from Maritain’s works, that abstraction is only the first of the two necessary operations of the intellect.

Knowledge – and determination of an act as good or not when speaking of the practical intellect – is achieved only when ideas formed through abstraction of universal essences are processed in the second operation of the mind, namely judgment, where they are checked against reality. To be proven true, an idea must terminate at the thing itself, actual or possible; judgment must assert what the thing is in extramental reality.

It is then no wonder that Leftists and nihilists are always accusing others of being “judgmental.”
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MYSTERY OF BEING
Summary of Preface to Metaphysics

The following summary of Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics – Seven Lectures on Being, with some quotes from a couple other books, is not a scholarly work, so there will be no quotation marks or italics apart from those already in the text. Passages between brackets are my comments or paraphrases.


Being As Such
The object of metaphysics is the knowledge of being as such. Being is the first object attained by every man the instant he begins to think as a rational creature, but at this stage it is a more or less confused perception of the concrete being, enveloped or embodied in sensible things. The metaphysician will consider the essence, or nature, of sensible things by abstracting, or disengaging their intelligible values from particularized objects.

Essence/Existence
The first operation of the mind is thus to apprehend essences (what is universal, what is the nature of the thing), but the term of knowledge is the actual, existing being, the esse in the strict sense. Thomist philosophy does not stop short at essences. It is to existence itself that the intellect proceeds when it formulates within itself a judgment by composition and division (second operation of the mind) corresponding to what a thing is or is not outside the mind.
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Emotion over Truth

John C. Wright wrote the following in his essay Parable of the arbiters (July 13, 2012 scifiwright.com):
“The claim of the Protestant type would take us to the arbitration of the intellect. Oddly enough, Reformers are sometimes criticized (at least in Catholic circles) for their emphasis (we call it overemphasis) on the spontaneous and emotional and passionate nature of their communion with God.
I reject these criticisms as being a misunderstanding of the Protestant mind.”
[…]
“All Protestants, even those who reject Puritanism, have a strong inclination toward the ideal of pure worship, a simplicity and purity of rite.”
[…]
“It is not emotionalism. It is intellectualism.”

(Science-fiction writer, philosopher, lawyer and technical writer, John C. Wright was raised Lutheran but he was an atheist most of his life; he converted to Catholicism a few years ago.)

My comments (inspired mainly by Maritain’s essay on Luther in Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau and Blessed John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio):

These criticisms are perfectly valid, but I grant you emotionalism is an important consequence of the real cause.

“Strong inclination”, “ideal”, “simplicity”, “purity”: if all those words are not moral or aesthetic emotion, I don’t know what they are. Not that they are unjustified, far from it, because love for beautiful ideals, simplicity and purity and all good things is our motivation to be and do good.

“It is not emotionalism. It is intellectualism.”
Our two superior faculties are not intellect and sensibility, they are intellect and will, the coupling of which in the liberty of TRUTH being the image of God in us. Thus the opposite of intellectualism is not emotionalism, it is voluntarism. Of course, decisions of the will are often expressed emotionally, this is why we tend to conflate the consequences and the cause.

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André Frossard asked one day to John Paul II what was the single most important saying he would leave to humanity if he was permitted to leave only one. Frossard expected the Pope would take a moment to think, but the answer came immediately: Truth will set you free.

All the Bible and all Christianity are contained in this short sentence expressing God’s plan for us: to set us free from evil so that we can welcome the Kingdom of God – that is, God himself – in our lives.

Nothing less than the one and whole Truth, who is a Person, can set us free. Nothing else than the love of truth can guide us on the way and ultimately bring us to the love of the One who said: I am the truth.

But there are obstacles:

It will happen with every sort of wicked deception of those who are heading toward destruction because they have refused to love the truth that would allow them to be saved. (2 Thess. 2:10)
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Food of the Intellect

Certain foods are natural for the body, but it takes a fair amount of training and reasoning to choose the right aliments, prepare them properly, and eat quantities suitable for our real needs.

Truth is the natural food of the intellect. We are capable of arriving at truth by correct reasoning, that is, the right use of a trained intellect previously nurtured in truth or, at least, not impeded in its appetite for truth.

In theory, feeding body or mind seems straightforward and easy, but experience tells both are often not done as they should.

French Catholic philosopher Marcel Clément wrote that, in his youth in the 1930s, he was looking forward to studying philosophy. But instead of the traditional introduction to history of Greek philosophy and systematic presentation of basic concepts, he was given the views of various philosophers and schools of thought. Seeing how those philosophers were contradicting each other, he naively remarked: “Which one is right? Which system can we hold true? They cannot be all true, or else philosophy does not exist.” He was answered that he had a dogmatic mindset and that philosophy could do perfectly well without absolute truth.

Then, on the occasion of a dissertation on Greek ethics, he became acquainted with Aristotle and knew for sure that philosophy existed. He devoted the rest of his life to write about and teach philosophy and Catholic thought, particularly the social doctrine of the Church.
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The Meaning of Words

My first university studies were in translation. I never worked in the field because I am not perfectly bilingual, having never lived in English. I read and write often in English, but I speak it only occasionally and I still make mistakes that my readers are welcome to point out to me.

Translators have an unflattering Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore – “Translator, traitor”. In any translation, no matter how literal, there are things lost, added, interpreted. It is the essential part of the trade to choose the words, phrases or style conveying a meaning as close as possible to the original, but even a very good translation will have a different ring, as both the language and the translator have a different voice and style. A fair translation is usually not quite as good as an original text of high quality, but in some rare cases an original of relatively lesser quality might appear in translation as the work of a genius, like Belloc said about Kipling and Chesterton :
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In a conversation about moral philosophy on another blog, someone asked: “Isn’t Christianity all about eudaimonia?” In other words, is Christianity a transcendent eudemonism like, for example, Kant said it was? Jacques Maritain responded on that in his book Moral Philosophy.


Excerpts from Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy
(http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/jmoral.htm)

Chapter 3 – The Discovery of Ethics – Aristotle

Aristotelian eudemonism
1. […] Eudaimonia is the state of a man in whom human nature and its essential aspirations have attained their complete fulfillment, and attained it in conformity with the true hierarchy of ends proper to that nature. […] It is necessary to find out what the ends of our nature are […] and to discover what kind of good above all others man is made for, the good which is uniquely appropriate to a rational being and through which he achieves the fulfillment of his nature.
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Catholic theology and its handmaiden, Scholastic philosophy, are complex, very consistent and organic (capable of development) systems with precise and interrelated language and concepts that cannot be comprehended if one does not grasp their exact meaning.

Scholastic philosophy is not the system of a particular school of philosophy, let alone one philosopher. We call it Thomism because the term is useful in a historical perspective, but its proper name is Philosophia perennis, that is, the love of wisdom for all times. It is the common philosophy of man, the treasure of philosophy as Maritain put it, hence it is not limited to a time, or place, or religious or social organization. If the Catholic Church is its guardian, she is not its owner; Philosophia perennis is a servant to theology but not a slave. It has a separate and autonomous existence as a science in its own right, and accordingly, philosophy and theology were always taught separately (the basics of philosophy first). The treasure of Philosophia perennis is open to all men to study and use, and many schools of classical theist philosophy may exist, as long as the concepts are not deformed. Those who deform it are adhering to, or starting, another philosophy that will never account exactly for the truth nor lead them to any wisdom, insofar as philosophy can lead to wisdom.
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The following text is a reflection on several articles or books I read over the years by Catholic writers concerning the decay of Western civilization, particularly French author André Frossard, a convert from atheism. The three brands of atheism are taken from his writings, but the comments on atheists’ motivations are mine. Like Frossard, I brand myself in my agnostic period as a dumb atheist. Though I never actually doubted God’s existence, I was completely indifferent to spiritual reality for many years. The last paragraphs, on natural and eternal law and fundamental choices, are inspired from Jacques Maritain’s works on moral philosophy. The quote from Leon Bloy is from Maritain’s testimonial to that Christian writer who had a decisive influence on his own conversion to Catholicism.


 ATHEISM

Twenty years ago we had the historic chance to witness the bankruptcy of the first militant atheist government in the world. It crumbled to dust due to its own degradation. No war, no embargo, no pressure from the outside. It was living on philosophical errors, lies, disinformation and terror and it had silenced or lost to the West its best thinkers and artists. Perestroika and glasnost were intended to improve communism but, when the people caught a glimpse of truths forgotten for seventy years and of the political and social freedom still enjoyed in Western democracies, the grip of the system was gone and it soon died.
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I wrote the following page a few years ago to accompany GKC’s article “Philosophy for the Schoolroom” included after. It was an answer to a friend’s comment acknowledging doubt as a normal scientific attitude. As a cradle Catholic I never really saw a divide between faith and reason but it seems it has to be explained even to a pious Catholic convert. It was probably a remnant of former agnosticism or Protestant fundamentalism, or both. The philosophical comments inspired from Maritain were written more recently and reworked until now.


 Faith and reason

There is a widely spread state of mind pretending that faith and reason exclude each other and that being skeptical on everything is a fundamental scientific attitude. But, on the contrary, doubting everything is not at all scientific thinking. Science has to question everything. especially its postulates, but a true scientific mind does not doubt everything in the first place. I learned this from the works of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Then I read recently the following article by G. K. Chesterton.
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