Aquinas · Aristotle · medieval history · metaphysics · philosophy · religion and science · scholasticism

A Return to Scholasticism?

There’s a great scene in Elaine May’s 1971 film, A New Leaf, where the main character, an aging WASP played by Walter Matthau, is being encouraged by his butler to marry rich in order to stave off bankruptcy.

He’s frittered away his inheritance on expensive cars, the country club, and fine art. And he still doesn’t seem to have a clue where he went wrong.

It’s a classic scene, especially when you see the look on Matthau’s face as he condescends to listen to his butler Harold’s advice.

“Do it, sir. Take the plunge. Find a suitable woman,” his butler tells him as he arranges his tie. “Don’t give up the fight sir, not just for your sake, and this is difficult for me to say, sir, but for my sake as well. How many men today require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form? You’ve managed in your own way to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born…”

I can’t help thinking of this scene as I re-read Ed Feser’s excellent talk, What We Owe the New Atheists, in which he argues that effective Christian apologetics requires a return to Scholasticism:

It requires that we recognize that where the apologetic task is concerned, metaphysics wears the trousers. Specifically, a defense of classical metaphysics — grounded in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions and brought to perfection by the great Scholastics — is an unavoidable prolegomenon to the defense of the classical arguments for the existence of God and the natural law conception of morality. In no other way, I maintain, can modern secularism of the sort represented by the New Atheism be decisively rebutted.

Much as I admire Ed’s point here, I think any attempt to return to Scholasticism is doomed. And Josef Pieper I think hits on one of the reasons in his own book, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, p. 38-39.

The extent to which rationality did indeed characterize the whole of scholasticism is plain to see throughout. What defined the great age of scholasticism? The fact that its leading minds, Thomas and Bonaventura, say, carried out that co-ordination between believing acceptance of revealed and traditional truth on the one hand and rational argumentation on the other hand with unfailing resoluteness-although they also knew just where to draw the line between the claims of reason and the claims of faith. Bonaventura, too, though by nature more inclined toward the affective and symbolic thinking of mysticism, speaks with great matter-of-factness (likewise in a tractate on the Mystery of the Trinity) of the necessity to grasp by reason, per rationem, what has been believed on authority, in so far as that is possible.

It is perfectly evident that such a task is one of  extraordinary difficulty, which from the start offers little hope of a permanent solutlon. Thomas and Bonaventura succeeded in containing the dangerous explosiveness of that conjunction of faith and reason in a contrapuntally structured unity. The very balance of tensions within that unity made for the “rich harvest” of that brief season which we call “high scholasticism.” But we may say that the task put a tremendous strain upon the intellects of even such great men as these. They could scarcely have sustained the effort of achieving such a fortunate concord had they not been specially favored by historical circumstances. A new reality, the influx of new experiences, soon dissolved this concord again. Certainly the “synthesis” developed according to the principle set forth by Boethius was not abandoned flightily; it broke down under the impact of these experiences. (And, for good reasons, it has not been possible to reconstruct it down to the present day.) It is, moreover, understandable that for a moment the validity of the principle itself was thrown into question-and this doubt marked the end of the scholastic era and of the Middle Ages altogether. The reversal began when the premise that the “first scholastic” had set up for his program was challenged-both for purposes of argument and out of resignation. The man who might be called the “last scholastic” were he not rather to be counted as one of the first men of the coming era-William of Ockham-was destined to propose a different hypothesis: that belief is one thing and knowledge~ an altogether different matter; and that a marriage of the two is neither meaningfully possible nor even desirable.

My own sense is that Scholasticism can’t work now because it presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order. Which is not to say it is no longer valid, but rather that it is too limited. [No one says Newtonian physics is wrong, but it only addresses a limited aspect of a much wider, broader nature.]

Update: I should add, as I did in a comment on Facebook after excellent feedback from Scott Carson,  I think what fascinates me most is not the degree to which science has moved on–and that was a poor analogy on my part if that is how it came across. But rather, to the degree that Aristotle’s philosophy of nature was itself inspired to some degree by his science (in particular his observations as a biologist), in what ways could a modern philosophy of nature be inspired by science now? And could it be useful in apologetics? 

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