Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Personal Aside: Fr. Ernie Announces that Two Pagans and a Catholic Discovered How We Can Know.

“Having discovered the culprit who led us to skepticism…William of Ockham and the man who tried to dig us out but failed…Rene Descartes,” Fr. Ernie began as snow lashed the central Minnesota university window on Nov. 2, 1948, “we—Mr. Becker, we have a refectory where we eat; we do not eat in class. I would suggest you walk up to the wastebasket up here and stow that…whatever it is, a sickeningly sweet sugar roll, there, thank you…we come now to the ones who set us straight. Originally two pagans devised the concept of natural law—Aristotle and Cicero. Their thought devolved down to a Catholic--unfortunately not a Benedictine but a Dominican-- who took their concepts from and adopted them to the Catholic philosophy. And now Mr. Becker that you have disposed of your meal, perhaps you can give us intellectual sustenance. Let me ask you this: Are we capable of knowing what makes a horse a horse? Further, can we know there is a difference between a horse and say a pig?

“Or is the word ‘pig’ an arbitrary term we use to describe this particular animal—an animal which, for all we know, may some day evolve into a horse? Aha, Mr. Becker has drunk wisely from the font of Aristotle and Cicero and Aquinas. He has answered well but what he means to say…if I may translate into philosophical terms…that ‘horse’ is an abstract idea that expresses the concept describing all members of that species. By which he means ‘horse’ is an abstract idea. Now let me toss out another abstract idea, as abstract as the concept of ‘horse.’ The idea is: Justice. Your assignment for next time is to write a paper—200 words will do—using what you know to devise whether or not there can be an objective concept of justice. Two hundred words.

“I will not tip you on your assignment—just ask: Can we know what is just and what is unjust? Specifically, are some actions always just and some always unjust? Mr. Arth, am I correct in deducing that just as there is an abstract idea of `horse,’ is there an abstract idea of ‘justice?’ You say what? You say `no’ because…let me quote you correctly from what you have just said…you say ‘no’ because for some people—what did you say?—yes, for some people a jury decision in capital punishment is just and for some others it is unjust. Ah, Mr. Arth, do you know what you are? You are a member of a very popular majority in contemporary secular society. Do you know what you are? Take your pencil, Mr. Arth, and write it down. In fact let this entire class write it down. Mr. Arth is a `positivist.’ Positivism…quite popular in secular academia, in contemporary studies of law and certainly politics…positivism denies the power of the individual to know truth. Because, says the positivist, no one can know what is right or wrong.
“And because, says the positivist, no one can know right or wrong, it leaves it to the state. Positivism is the religion of secularism. Secularism denies God. It sees no life beyond the grave, regarding man as a material animal to be manipulated and controlled. Positivism and secularism are dominant in American law. But the counterforce to positivism is the realistic philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas [1225-74] who has set forth a central fact. And what is that central fact, let me see, Mr. Charles Baron? You say what? Yes. Superb. Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas have a common-sense view of reality, human nature and the law. A great answer, Mr. Baron. All three found that man understands by means of his senses and intellect. There is nothing in the intellect that has not first been in the senses. A thing is not known through the senses alone—but through the intellect with the aid of the senses.

“Now let us examine how we do this. Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas say the intellect abstracts…oh, that’s a terrible word but will have to do…abstracts, meaning takes into itself a thing in its essence—meaning that which it is. Thomas added to Aristotle by adding that in forming a judgment, the intellect performs a `spiritual function’—his words--asserting `this is a book’ rather than ‘this is a pig.’ Why did he call it a `spiritual function’? May I see hands? I see no hands. Very well, he called it a `spiritual function’…and this is always hard for beginning Thomists to understand…he called it a `spiritual function’ because the abstract idea of `bookishness’ doesn’t exist in itself as a material thing. Do you understand? Of course you do! And what do we call this abstract idea that Thomas called `spiritual’ Mr. Cascalinda?

“Before you answer, as we all know Mr. Cascalinda is a quarterback for our St. John’s team. He is a very good quarterback but not the best quarterback—at least not yet—who was ever born. That person is, in my humble opinion, Mr. Sid Luckman, of the Chicago Bears. Sid Luckman is not just a good quarterback, he is a great quarterback. Moreover he is the greatest quarterback of our time…and possibly is the greatest quarterback of ALL time. Sid Luckman can be said, in my humble opinion, to capture the Aristotle-like abstract idea of quarterback…meaning that his quarterback-ness (if I may coin this word) may well become what Aristotle called a—what, Mr. Roeser who is also from Chicago.

“What? No. Mr. Cascalinda now thinks he knows. What is it Mr. Cascalinda? Yes, exactly! A `universal.’ The concept of bookishness, Aristotle called a `universal’ as does Thomas. A universal exists whether we think of it or not—as `bookishness,’ as `dog’ or `dog-ness,’ as `Luckman’ which may one day become synonymous with `quarterback.’ Of course I exaggerate about Mr. Luckman. But let it be said I exaggerate only slightly.
“That is the nature of Aristotle’s, Cicero’s and Thomas’ view of reality, gentlemen—an eminently commonsense view. If I say a book is an elephant…well I can say it over and over until the cows come home can I not but my statement is untrue—even if I believe a book is an elephant. Now Aristotle and Thomas distinguish three acts of the intellect. The first is simple apprehension, expressing itself in one idea--`book.’ The second act of the intellect is judgment: `Rover is a dog.’ Now Rover could also be someone’s last name but whether `Rover is a dog’ or not depends on whether it conforms to reality. Aha, I see Rover has a tail and four legs. My judgment is that `Rover is a dog.’ The third act is discursive reasoning. For this I use a syllogism: `All men are mortal. John is a man. Therefore John is mortal.’
“That is the notion of natural law, gentlemen—knowable to the intellect, higher than the state, higher than a people. You think that is a Catholic doctrine originally postulated by the Catholic Dominican monk Aquinas? No sir. No sir. No sir. It is a pagan doctrine postulated by the Greek Aristotle and the pagan Roman Cicero. They believed the same and said the same. Cicero the pagan Roman became the channel which, beginning with Aristotle, churned the flow of natural law from Greeks to early Christians and on from there to Augustine and Aquinas.

“I leave you trembling at the brink of anticipation. What, then, did Augustine and Aquinas do to adapt the pagan view of natural law to the point where it became a bulwark of our western culture. Ah, I am sorry to tell you time has run out. We shall discuss this Wednesday. On the way out, leave your papers on William of Ockham on my desk and remember Justice, gentlemen, and whether there is an objective norm of the same. By all means research it but the words must be yours. I can tell if they are Aristotle’s, Cicero’s, Augustine’s or Aquinas’. I insist they be yours. Good day, gentlemen.”

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