Page 6, 7th July 1950

7th July 1950
Page 6
Page 6, 7th July 1950 — OUlt NEED FOR PHILOSOPHY

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The ruble of Aquinas


Cl G. MORTIMER THE first volume of Fr. Conic ston's great work"embraced the philosophies of Greece and Rome. This second volume begins with the early Christian period and closes with some account of Duns Scotus (about 1265-1308).

Oekham has been reserved for volume three, that is yet to come; it will also embrace the philosophies of the Renaissance and of the "Silver Age" of Scholastic thought (Suarez).

Thus in the fourth volume the history will be taken from Francis Bacon in England. anti Descartee in France up to and including Kant.

Descartes. it is true, may be looked upon as the last of the Scholastics but he is more truly the turningpoint in the history of Philosophy and so will stand rightly at the head of volume 4.

If Plato and Aristotle. not to mention Plotinus, were the high lights of ancient Philosophy. so in the volume under review St. Thomas Aquinas is given the greatest prominence. But no part of this second volume can be neglected.

It will be news to many how much philosophical thought (apart from theology) was definitely accomplished not only by such famous names as St. Augustine and St. Anselm. but also by the Pseudo-Dionysius, by John Scotus Friugena and at a later period by Giles of Rome and Henry of Ghent.

The three leading Philosophers. St. Bonaventurc, St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, arc given ample treatment and the concluding review (p. 552 foll.), should be studied with the greatest care.

I AM particularly anxious to stress the importance of this second volume because, despite the Thomistic revival of our days, dating from the famous encyclical of Leo X111, this medieval period has been grievously neglected in England.

Nor is the reason far to seek: it has been held—but falsely that this period was so steeped in theological concepts that its so-called " philosophy " was only an apology for the true revival of modern times when the inquiring mind had been delivered from its leading-strings.

Every thinker neglects the Middle Ages at his peril—and especially the 13th century. That it is so neglected can be seen for instance in so Popular and competent a work as Dr. Joad's Guide to Philosophy, where precisely two pages arc devoted t what the author calls " the views of St. -I hornas Aquinas."

Moreover. at Oxford :'self. though as an Oxford man myself it pains me to say so, the student for "Greats" 50 years ago las also today) was given indeed a careful training in ancient philosophy; and then there is complete silence. and after skipping about 18 centuries, he takes up the clue again with the writings of Descartes in the 17th century.

ONE of the greatest accomplish ments of the 13th and preceding centuries, apart from the methods of discussion they perfected—later it is true, to fall into decadence—was a careful definition of terms.

Now today we use. and are bound to use these same terms in any formal discussion, but for centuries they have been used with imprecision and from this cause has sprouted many a fallacious system.

refer to such abstract words as nature. idea, essence, existence. intelligence and reason. Take the word " nature." for an example.

St. Thomas in his Treatise on Law explains that " natural law " can be taken in two different senses, " Nature can be taken in the metaphysical sense of " essence." involving a certain finality. In that case what is natural answers the requirements of " essence." that to which things are ordered, by reason of their specific type. by the Author of Being.

But you can take it also in the material sense of an actual primitive state. In this way Rousseau. powerless to realise the notion intellectually and to restore it to its metaphysical value and range, insinuates " nature** into the picture of a certain primitive and ante-cultural state. Thus it is he who muddles up these two different senses, the "nature " of

the metaphysicians, and the "nature" of the empiricist; and on this foundation rests his myth of Nature. From this will spring his dogma of " Natural Goodness "—and so on : only give this as an illustration of a procedure (with disastrous. practical results) that would not have been tolerated in the 13th century.

Or again, I read in a modern book that matter and mind are composite (indistinguishable) and are the "stuff" from which the Cosmos has been made.

It is all so simple: but the philosopher of the 13th century would have asked for a definition of " stuff," and if no rational answer had been forthcoming, the whole system would have been condemned as "stuff and nonsense."

ANOTHER debt we owe to the period under review is the discussion of the relations of Theology and Philosophy.

With St. Thomas for the first time Philosophy received its charter. and this, as Fr. Copleston points out, became possible when the complete Aristotle had been discovered and adopted by St. Thomas.

To St. Bonaventure, for instance, Philosophy was not only incomplete but actually erroneous without the light of the revealed truths of the Christian religion.

St. Thomas has. of course. no intention of separating the two; to him. also, theology is the ultimate measur ing-rod. But Thomism can enter into competition with other philosophies because it can prescind entirely from dogmatic theology, whereas this could not be said of the Christian Philosophy of the Bonaven turian type. St. Thomas therefore points on to a future in which inevitably philosophy would grow up and. for better or worse, claim its total freedom.

But there is a further subject that the study of this book brings to mind: what is the relation of Philosophy. that is, first Philosophy or Metaphysics, to the subordinate sciences, the empiric sciences. as we call them. that work by observation and experiment?

If Philosophy itself has managed to free itself from the control of Theology, are the empiric sciences of today free also from the control of a scientia rectrix ?

Or further: with new discoveries, for instance. in the realm of natural physics, is the metaphysic of St. Thomas overthrown? And is that the reason why Oxford will have none of it? Or indeed is anything left of metaphysics at all?

THE reason for this mental revol

ution is that in the meantime the Science of Physics (and kindred sciences) have now grown to such dimensions that they have tended to obscure First Philosophy. It is true that the philosophers of the 13th century or earlier had no conception of the size or complexity of the modern task, left to our modern " men of science" to unravel. But because the " physics" of St. Thomas was inadequate or faulty, it does not follow that his metaphysics is disproved; or that the whole realm of metaphysics is a figment and a fantasy.

St. Thomas when he refers to purely physical matters uses them as illustrations of his argument and is wise enough to say that sonic other explanation may in the future fit the facts.

Moreover. the medieval period was alive to purely scientific inquiry — we see it in the genius of St. Albert the Great, St, Thomas himself, and in the great Franciscan Roger Bacon. It is still the business of First Philosophy to judge, govern and defend the other sciences.

A sound philosophy can dispense with the state of science at any par ticular epoch, though science as it develops will contribute to the store of materials used by philosophy. For.

as Maritain points out—and here is the final apologia for the period that Fr. Copleston is treating in this

volume-The datum of experience on which philosophy is primarily

based suffices for the requirements of a supreme and universal science. This datum is provided by an instrument —the evidence of the senses—earlier than scientific observation, infinitely more certain than the inductions of the sciences and placed by nature at the disposal of every man and consists of truths so simple that they are universally and absolutely valid, so immediate and evident that their certainty exceeds that of the best established scientific conclusions."

The fruits of this medieval period are not dead. We need not abandon our belief in a philosophia perennis --a philosophy that must of course develop slowly and is the work of many minds in different ages.

1 his book should open our eyes to this compelling idea. It should make us more reluctant to abandon the wisdom or even the standpoint of the past; we must awake to the long lineage of the truth; we must see. in the words of the poet, " through what centuries Roves back the rose."

A History of Philosophy*. Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, by Frederick Copleston, S.J. (Burns Oates & Washboume, 25s.).

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