Published in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CII (October, 2001), 15-23.  Originally presented as a lecture at Thomas More College, Merrimak, New Hampshire, Winter, 2001.

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

   February 21, 2001

 

 

MODERNITY: WHAT IS IT?  MUST WE ADOPT IT?

 

AModern thought reaches its culmination ... in the most radical historicism, i.e., in explicitly condemning to oblivion the notion of eternity.  For oblivion of eternity, or, in other words, estrangement from man=s deepest desire and therewith from the primary issues, is the price which modern man had to pay, from the very beginning, for attempting to be absolutely sovereign, to become the master and owner of nature, to conquer chance.@

B Leo Strauss, AWhat Is Political Philosophy.@[1]

 

A>Christian philosophy= is a label that may be given to what philosophers do when they deliberately relate their professional work to their religious or ecclesiastical commitments.@

B Jude Dougherty, AChristian Philosophy.@[2]

 

I.


We are wont to classify the history of philosophy in the following manner:  First, while not entirely forgetting the ancient empires such as Persia, Babylon, Egypt, and distant China and India, we have Homer and the pre-Socratics.  These ancients were followed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, not forgetting Thucydides, Sophocles, the historians and the dramatists, even the artists.  Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics in both Greek and Roman varieties succeeded the immediately post-Greek classical world.  We do not overlook Polybius and Plutarch, nor the Jews, Josephus and Philo.  The Romans imitated the Greeks but they had their own priorities.  Cicero, in his De Officiis, tells us that Amoral philosophy@ is the most important branch of philosophy, something quite different from the contemplative priorities of Plato and Aristotle.  Tacitus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius tell us much the same thing; we cannot forget Virgil or Horace.  They all remain quite worth reading. 

The corpus of Greek and Roman thought is what we know as Aclassical philosophy.@  Though ancient traditions of the gods and their dealings with men exist, something we find taken quite seriously in Plato, this classical philosophy is held to be the primary manifestation of what man, especially brilliant man, can know by his Aunaided@ reason.  Classical philosophy characteristically retained a certain openness to a reality that it knew it did not fully comprehend.  Socrates knew that he did not know, but he also knew that it was never right to do wrong.  Plato made it possible for everyone to re-live the trial and death of the philosopher, Socrates, at the hands of the best existing city, Athens.  Aristotle, meanwhile, calmly examined all that was to be known.  Philosophy began not with ourselves, but with wonder, with our curiosity about why things are, why things are as they are.


Into these natural or philosophic traditions came the revelational corpus that we know from the Bible.  The Bible presents us with a history, an account of a people who are said to be directly presented with an understanding of the divine order, of what God, man, and the world were conceived to be in that continuous narrative account of Israel, of Jesus, and of the Church.  Both philosophy and revelation, in their own ways, addressed themselves to the whole, to all of what is.  Incorporated into cultural life itself, revelation reflected the ways of life of the Jews and Christians and later, with the Koran, of Islam.  At first, the early religious communities tried to live solely within the parameters of their respective revelation, though eventually they found that, if they were going to deal with them, they had to explain themselves to each other as well as to the philosophers and to other citizens around them.  Augustine and Aquinas, among many others, are significant for the Christians as thinkers who forged a coherent reconciliation between reason and revelation.  Neither denied the validity of one or the other. 

The Jews and Islam evidently had more of a difficulty with philosophy than did Christianity, even though Maimonides, Averroes, and Avicenna faced these issues in their own ways.  This intellectual obstacle of how revelation was to deal with reason was in part due to the fact that the way of life of the Jew and the Muslim had to do with conformity to a revealed Law. Living well meant living according to the Law, indeed according to the letter of the Law, hence the need for lawyers, not philosophers.  The  peculiarity of the New Law was that it did not prescribe in detail every action or thought, except to say that believers ought to be good and follow the general admonitions of Christ, who, unlike Socrates, was not usually conceived to be a philosopher.  Christ, moreover, as Aquinas points out, recognized that external and political disorders arise originally from disorders of soul, from thought, something that Plato and Aristotle also understood


Moreover, Christ was considered to be true man and true God, one Person, two natures, divine and human, both distinct, both real.  That is to say, the very understanding of who and what Christ was found expression not merely in scriptural but also in philosophic terms.  In its own way, this effort of clarification was revolutionary because it took seriously the truth of the mind about the gods.  The early Councils of the Church and the Patristic Fathers had no scruple, when necessary and made for clarity, in finding philosophic terms for Christian doctrines.  The classic example is the use of the word ATrinity@ to express the inner life of God, a term not found in Scripture.  Implicitly, Christian thinkers recognized that revelation was directed to reason, perhaps to challenge it, perhaps to make it more itself.  Conversely, they understood that error had consequences in the real world; it was not merely an amusing foible.  This attitude again was a sign that thought, especially thought about God, was a claim on truth and a claim that truth was grounded in what is. 

Christian revelation was not merely concerned with external obedience or public order, though it did not neglect these areas  B things were to be Arendered@ to Caesar; the Emperor was to be Aobeyed@ B   but also it was concerned with the ordering of the soul and heart, with the correct definition of the truth about God, man, and the world.  Christian revelation in particular seemed to maintain that right thinking, Aorthodoxy,@ was not only possible when it came to the divinity but that it was a proper perfection of the human knowing power as such to seek to know what it could of the Divinity.  Moreover, right action, Aortho-praxis,@ was itself usually dependent on orthodoxy.  In short, Christian revelation took reason seriously even while it recognized that human reason was not itself God, though it was proper to call it, by comparison, as Aristotle did, Adivine.@


We are accustomed, then, to depict classical philosophy as that knowledge that we can learn by the powers of reason operating solely by themselves.  By the reflective openness of our intellect looking back on our own interior operations, themselves incited into act by reality, we can, with some effort, distinguish what belongs to our own powers and what arrives from outside of them, though not necessarily alien to them.  The work of the philosopher, however lonely it may be, is to know what the human mind with its own resources can know, having first been stimulated by reality, by what is.  In the beginning, the mind is only mind, a tabula rasa, as they say.  But it always remains a mind open to all that is, so that its true functioning is to know what is not itself and to know itself only indirectly through knowing what is not itself.  This power of knowing is what makes it all right to be a human being, to be oneself not a god but a finite being still open to all the things that return to us in knowledge.  Plato says, in the Fifth Book of The Republic, that truth is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.  No one has said it better, though Aquinas= formulation, that truth is the conformity of mind and reality, is about as good and says essentially the same thing.  And Aristotle held that the mind is capax omnium, capable of knowing all things.  Such a mind potentially exists in each of us and constitutes the ground of our dignity.

The advantage of studying Plato and Aristotle, in this sense, why no real education is possible without them, is said to consist in demonstrating what the Aunaided@ human mind can learn by itself.  AAided@ human reason comes with the stimulus of revelation, which revelation, nevertheless, is said to be addressed to rational man insofar as he is rational, that is, insofar as he has actively asked questions of himself and of the reality that stands before him, the reality, no less than himself, that he did not himself constitute.  Thus, revelation, with its grounding in its own sources, is none the less interested in what man does know by his own powers and encourages him to know it.  Revelation does not stand against reason, but rather it is in the line of the unity of the truth of all things, including divine things.  Christianity explicitly rejects any Atwo truth@ theory that would allow the truths of reason and the truths of revelation to stand in a contradictory relation to each other.  It does not Asave@ revelation by denying reason.  In fact, it is deeply suspicious of any Arevelation@ that contradicts reason, due consideration to the issue involved.  When revelation is said to Acontradict@ reason, it usually turns out, on closer examination, that something of a more profound reasoning is involved than reason at first sight suspected.


Christianity is, to be sure, concerned with the man who has no professional or articulated philosophy, as it were, with the common man, with his salvation.  But it is consciously and explicitly also concerned with man the philosopher.  Christianity knows that there are many souls and not so many articulate philosophers.  But it also knows that in things of the spirit, numbers are of less importance than quality of ideas or genuineness of insight.  Christianity, in a sense, addresses the question of whether philosophy, even if it be a good thing, is enough, whether it is possible to Asave@ both the philosopher and the non-philosopher without denying the significance of the difference between them.  Not everyone needs be a philosopher, even if we need philosophers for the good of our being what we are.  It is not wrong to observe that some are more gifted than others; it is wrong to conclude that the less gifted cannot also think and are not destined to the Beatific Vision which is presented to us in initially intellectual terms.  It is also wrong not to be aware that there are philosophers who are not worthy of the name of philosophy.  Philosophical errors are possible and are dangerous.

This particular interest in philosophy seems to be what John Paul II was getting at in Fides et Ratio, in which he chided the Christian theologians and thinkers of recent decades for neglecting philosophy.  He likewise questioned contemporary philosophers about the poor quality of their thinking, about their inability to get out of their own minds, as it were.  Christianity in general was not hostile to what the philosophers could know, even though Tertullian asked, in a famous question, one echoed by Leo Strauss, AWhat does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?@  Tertullian implied in fact that Athens was dangerous to Jerusalem, a position that turned out, in retrospect, to be something more characteristic of Jerusalem and Mecca than of Rome, though there were Jewish and Islamic philosophers who struggled with the challenge of the classic philosophers to their own revelation. 


Likewise, we could find Christian thinkers who embraced philosophic systems, both ancient and modern, that, by their internal principles, could not manage to reconcile the given truths found in revelation  B the Trinity, the Incarnation B  with their own peculiar philosophic suppositions about reality.  Cartesian and Kantian systems in general make the connection of reason and revelation mediated through the events of actual history to be most doubtful.  This latter inability to connect mind and reality has ever been in Christian philosophic tradition a sign that something was aberrant with the philosophic system, not with philosophy as such, but with a peculiar system.  Not all philosophic systems are equally true even if they claim to be genuinely philosophical.  In this sense, revelation in its proper articulation is considered to serve as a guide for genuine philosophy even in the classical or natural order.  This is why St. Thomas found Aristotle so compatible, not because he was Aristotle, but because of the truth of what he said.  That the world is coherent is not only a doctrine presupposed by faith, but it is also the assumption of any philosophical quest.

II.

What is called Amedieval philosophy@ is a philosophy that is open to more than bare philosophy, if I can put it that way, to more than can be known to reason by itself.  This position does not imply that there is anything wrong with philosophy provided it remains what it is, an openness to everything that is.  Philosophy does not get itself into trouble if it admits that it does not know something.  But it gets into enormous difficulty when it claims that the wholeness of reality is itself co-terminus with what it actually knows by its own methods.  In other words, if it Areduces@ the content of reality from what is to what it can know only by means of human reasoning, then reason itself is limited to certain humanly organized methods.  No freshness of being can intrude on a mind unable to get outside of itself.


In a famous quip, Chesterton once remarked that, in some strange way, men who set out to be natural or purely philosophic somehow invariably end up being unnatural and un-philosophic.  They come to deny that there is anything unnatural or un-philosophic.  It is almost as if, from the beginning, men were not simply in a natural order, which is indeed the case.  As St. Thomas says, in a memorable phrase, homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est (De Virtutibus Cardinalibus, 1).  If this orientation to an end higher than is open to human nature by itself be so, as revelation indicates it is so, it would mean that every effort to limit oneself to what is merely human or natural would leave an emptiness in our restless souls.  Indeed, more ominously, it would lead us to intellectual error and moral disorder, something that, in the Tenth Book of his Ethics, Aristotle himself seems at least to have suspected.  The very metaphysical structure of our souls implies that we have an openness to all things.  The intellect is open to what is.  That is to say, the very direction of the intellect is somehow transcendent to any limited thing that the same intellect can present to itself as an object of its mind for its own satisfaction or curiosity. 

Medieval philosophy, then, is that body of reflection that is aware that something from outside reason=s own limited confines is challengingly addressed to reason itself.  But it does not know this quality of itself being-addressed in some Pelagian manner that would propose that we are the architects of our own destiny both as to its content and as to its acquisition.  We do not only know what we make.  Reason does not construct what is addressed to itself.  Rather genuine philosophy knows that something is addressed to it by its own insufficiencies, insufficiencies that are themselves the products or results of the mind=s own legitimate searchings to explain what is.  The very questions that any intellect must address to itself  -- AWhy is there something rather than nothing?@  AWhy is this thing not that thing?@  -- cannot fail to indicate to our intellects that we do not cause in being either ourselves or what is not ourselves.


What-it-is-to-be-man, just as little as the product of two times two, is not then something we ourselves make or create, but something, after the manner of intellect, we discover as already in being.  That is, self-reflective intellect knows certain questions that it has itself formulated that it cannot answer by itself, even when it has tried diligently to answer them, as it should.  But it can understand that reason does pose questions to the human intellect that this same intellect does not answer with any adequacy even when it does come up with some sort of answer.  What surprises human intellect is not so much that there is a claim in revelation to truth, but that the very questions that reason cannot seem to answer adequately do appear to have from revelation strangely plausible even if not absolutely certain answers.  Faith, itself possessing its own philosophic articulation, remains necessary in the essential answers of revelation, answers that of their nature are grounded in the divine, not human, intellect.   This unexpected congruity with reasons=s questions, however, is what makes revelation ever provoking to intellect, to philosophy.  This curious relationship is what in fact causes philosophy to be more itself, more philosophy. 


The end of medieval philosophy occurs when the questions that revelation addresses to reason are no longer asked, answered, or even paid attention to.  Medieval philosophy in this sense becomes not merely a question of historic time but of perennial philosophy that will always be present whenever the human mind thinks of what is and its relation to the whole.  It is, of course, quite possible for the human intellect to stop seeking answers for valid questions.  It does not follow from this voluntary cessation that the questions do not remain central to an understanding of what-it-is-to-be-man.  It is quite possible, indeed, to choose not to consider this strange coherence that arises from the revelational answers to questions that reason can pose but which it cannot answer by itself.  Revelation does not necessitate reason, but it does challenge it to be itself.  Revelation likewise remains itself, free and beyond the powers of human intellect directly to fathom.  But revelation does agitate reason, does make it look outside of itself, which is indeed the purpose of reality before reason as well as the purpose of revelation before reason.  But the human being can and does at times will or will not to accept certain truths of what it is.  It makes this choice not because there is not some guidance from revelation but because there is.  That is to say, that most of our intellectual problems are moral problems.  We do not want to know the truth because we see where it might lead us and what it might entail in our way of living.  We Aprotect@ ourselves from truth by looking away first from revelation then from reason.  We find we must more and more choose a philosophic position that entails a world that presupposes no objective revelation or no coherent metaphysics.

III.

The two founders of modern philosophy are Machiavelli and Descartes.  Both explicitly reject what has gone before them.  Note that they do not so much Adisprove@ what went before but rather they Areject@ it.  They claim that they start anew.  The central problem of modernity is in the will, not in the reason, except insofar as reason itself is Awill@ based or will controlled.  As for newness, most of Machiavelli was already in Book I of The Republic of Plato, while the premises of scepticism, as it was already conceded in ancient philosophy, themselves demanded some non-skeptical truth.  That is, if it is true that all things must be doubted, then one thing must not be doubted.  It was Augustine, that most fascinating of men, who first said Afallor, ergo sum.@  Both Machiavelli and Descartes affirm what appears to them to be a Anew@ method of considering reality. 


Machiavelli rejects Aideal kingdoms@ to concentrate on a Awhat men >do= do.@  He prescinds from the distinction of good and evil that had been found both in the philosophers and in revelation.   He is interested in success not morality.   Descartes was so hesitant about ever getting outside of his own mind that he began all things in doubt, not in wonder, as did Aristotle.  As a result, he had to provide a philosophic argument of sorts, beginning with the famous Aontological@ proof for the existence of God, to establish that the world really existed and existed as it appeared to do so in his own mind.  He needed a proof for the existence of God to demonstrate how his own senses did not deceive him about the existence of the tree in front of his house.  No theology has ever demanded so much and, at the same time, so little of human reason. 

Modernity, as I call it, is the product of Machiavelli and Descartes, further spelled out in  philosophers from Hobbes, to Locke, to Rousseau, to Kant, to Hegel, to Marx, to Nietzsche, and to Heidegger.  The essence of modernity, and even of what is called Apost-modernity,@ lies in the claim that man is himself, both in morals and in metaphysics, Aautonomous.@  That is, all the rules of reality, including the rules or standards of his own being and acting, are to be found in his own reason, but in that reason insofar as it is not guided or ruled by anything from outside of itself.  Ever since Occam and Hobbes, the will is supreme over reason.   In nature, it came to be said in modernity, we cannot find any Aorder.@  Especially, we cannot find any order or standard in ourselves for our acting, for acting for a purpose that we do not give ourselves.  Therefore, we are Afree.@  Freedom is not the liberty to do what is right, since with no connection between nature and reason, there can be no criterion of right.  Rather we have the freedom to declare what is right, whatever that right might be.  Any order, whatever it be, will stem from us, not from nature or nature=s God. 


We are thus beings that do not even presuppose what we are, for that would imply that what we are has some structure or basis to its being what it is.  The result of this thesis again is that we are free, absolutely free.  All our world is to be the result of a freedom that signifies no being, no order, that presupposes nothing but freedom.  In the beginning was not the Word, nor even the Deed, but the Choice.  Needless to say, we are not surprised that the classic definition of democracy was precisely this sort of freedom that allowed us to do what we want, whatever it is that we wanted to do.  The social world was ruled by a maximization of groundless Afreedom@ that brooked no limits that came from nature.  The purpose of our social being was to maximize whatever it was we wanted to do.  There were to be, somehow, laws but no commandments.  There were to be Arights@ but no obligations.  Hobbes, in this sense, remains a principle architect of modernity.

Perhaps some of the flavor of this modernity can be found in the following passage from Flannery O=Connor, a writer ever suspicious of modern things: 

I don=t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.  It=s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now.  There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.[3]

That is to say, we already have a culture of secularized explanations or habits within our souls.  We find it difficult even to imagine what a world with faith, a world in which faith addressed itself to a reason that could know what is, might be like.  The best thing seems alien to us.  We not only do not recognize it if it exists, but we consider it to be an aberration

 

 

 

 


The Sixteenth Stanza of Robert Browning=s poem, AYouth and Art,@ reads as follows:

Each life unfulfilled, you see;                             

It hangs still; patchy and scrappy.                      

 

We have not sighed deep, laughed free,                            

Starved, feasted, despaired, B been happy.[4]

 

We have not, in other words, known what we are, only what we made ourselves to be over against what we are.  Modernity=s claim of mastery of nature eventually came to include its mastery over human nature through science=s ability to imagine and reconstruct the human corpus and psyche itself.  Man is what he Amight@ be, not what he is.  Freedom was no longer limited freedom but autonomous freedom that found in nature no footprints but its own.

Socrates, in AThe Apology,@ spoke of the Aunexamined life.@  He said it was not worth living.

That is to say, there were lives that were not worth living.  But why should we Aexamine@ our lives if there is no standard of what it is to be human?  If our culture defines what is human not from what we ought to do but from what we >do= do or what we might do with no limits on ourselves, from whence might we acquire standards with which we might criticize the way we live as inhuman?  And if we cannot know anything, even ourselves, if the failure of modernity leads us not back to the nature and revelation we rejected in forming modernity but to an isolated intellectual cage out of which we cannot escape, then the end of modernity has led us to something worse than we might have expected, though where we have been led has a certain Alogic@ to it..


The final question I want to consider here is whether the culture of modernity can really adapt itself or be adapted to permit a Christian life or presence in its world?  What modernity is, is a will centered autonomy that has no criterion but itself.  This same will-thesis finds itself incapable of justifying any relation to others through any reference to nature or revelation except through a self-interest theory that as Nietzsche maintained is a position of pitiable weakness.  Modernity and post-modernity really do not differ except, as Nietzsche also saw, for the reluctance to carry out of certain premises about what we can know to their logical conclusion.  We can only Abaptize@ what is capable of being baptized.  Certain ideas and certain habits must be understood as intellectual positions but they must firmly be rejected as ways of life. 

What I want to suggest here is that the direction of modernity and post-modernity, taken as a whole, follows a logical progression because they refuse to allow themselves to be addressed by revelation.  Or to put it more bluntly, such positions cannot be addressed by revelation because within their intellectual horizons, they allow no room for any intelligence from outside of themselves.  What we see being played out in genetic studies, in moral life, in international politics and economics, is the visible result of ideas that were articulated because revelation was rejected as itself directed to reason.  This rejection naturally forced reason to discover some alternative to truth.  What was ultimately put forth was a theory that evaporated any reason in things, human or divine.  What is being built is a counter-culture, as it were, a closed world in which the mind under the control of autonomous will systematically prevents any opening of evidence or reason that would allow the classic suspicion that revelation was in fact addressed to the reason found in things and especially in human things. 


In conclusion, let me recall an old Peanuts.  Charlie Brown is sitting slouched in his Bean Bag Chair watching TV.  Sally comes up behind him to tell him, AI have to do a book report on Treasure Island  B Do you know what it=s about?@  Charlie looks up a bit to inform her, AIt=s about pirates.@  Looking at her notebook, Sally looks pleased with this sparse information.  AThat=s all I need to know,@ she replies.  Then she turns away, to a totally confused Charlie, to add, AI can fake the rest of it... (United Features, 1988).  Perhaps it would not be too much of an exaggeration to think that modernity has Apirated@ reality away from us.  What we have left is a fake world, a world into which, every time we look, we see only ourselves, only our wills that could always be otherwise.  The Anewness@ that our culture finds within itself is a newness that is faked or concocted because we do not want to consider the possibility that our reason could be saved if we would consider that revelation was indeed directed at its own legitimate but unanswered questions.  The modern world is not the result of a truthful examination of the order of being but rather it is a continued effort to find alternatives that do not lead it to the truth of things, to the truth that is directed to and completed by revelation.



[1]Leo Strauss, AWhat Is Political Philosophy?@ What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 55.

[2]Jude Dougherty, AChristian Philosophy: A Sociological Category or an Oxymoron?@ Western Creed, Western Identity: Essays in Legal and Social Philosophy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 27.

[3]Flannery O=Connor, ALetter to John Hawkes,@ September 11, 1959, in Letters of Flannery O=Connor: The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage, 1979), 345-46.

[4]Robert Browning, AYouth and Art,@ Poems of Robert Browning, Edited by Donald Smalley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), 299.