Aquinas on Arguments

As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

ST 1.1.9

Two Cognitive Dissonances

Some narrative of events, in order that those who would like to may in some way appreciate what it is like.


This is my teacher, by the way. No, she does not like Augustine. No, she is not a historian. She’s nevertheless really good. I admire her. She likes Aquinas, and so do I.

Today she was explaining in her rather thorough, Aristotelian and somewhat manic way, Boethius’s definition of person. It led her to say, because a person is a supposit further distinguished by knowledge and will, that there were three knowledges and wills in God.

Wait, says I, three wills?

She fist-bumped me for catching it, and then sat down calling herself a flaming heretic. She should have said three supposits with knowledge and will in God, I supose.

So I told her about Eternal Functional Subordination. All I told her was the name of it: the eternal functional subordination of the Son, setting it up as a complementarian ruse some evangelicals were adopting. She immediately said, That’s Arianism. That’s flaming heresy. They’re not thinking about what they’re doing.

She’s a theologian, you see.

I know, I replies, AND they’re teaching theology in seminaries.

I thought that would be the cap on the whole exchange, the jaw-dropper, but that’s the funny part. It’s where it fizzled.

Oh, she said, theologians are teaching heresy, or rather heretics are teaching in seminaries all the time.

No big deal. That is the world we live in. You go to seminary, you may or may not get heresy: that’s just how it is.

That gave me some cognitive dissonance, though perhaps it should not have.


There’s a guy in the class who never says anything, never takes notes, sometimes seems to be reading the assigned stuff during the lectures and discussion. Before class, there he was, taking his seat. Meanwhile, I asked the other chaps if they had resolved to skip another class in order to hear Roger Scruton next week.

Roger Scruton! says Mr. Silent. I love Roger Scruton. I’ve read everything he’s written. He’s going to be here?

That gave me some cognitive dissonance too. He doesn’t hide behind a laptop the way some do. He sits there looking at the book or the printout and, as I said, never interacting or taking notes. You should have seen him smiling at the thought of being in the presence of Roger Scruton, though. For me, it doesn’t add up.

Two Different Aims

I’m in situations these days in which Aristotle is beloved and Plato rather more puzzled at than studied or beloved. Robert George in a talk in the fall suggested, most misleadingly, the stark alternatives of Gnosticism or Aristotelianism. He had a purpose to achieve, but it was a limiting approach. I asked a teacher whether in her mind the more Aristotelian the theologian the clearer the theology, and she assented. It came about when I asked about something imprecise in Anselm’s writing. Her explanation was that it was imprecise because of his Platonism, dismissively. Another teacher, explaining Boethius, ran into an obscurity of thought in him, and this was dismissed as probably due to his Platonism. The idea I get from all this is that Platonism is not well understood but sensed to be an inferior precursor to the superior Aristotelianism, a purveyor of anomalies. All these people I think would identify as Thomists.

There are several reasons for the confusion.

One could be chronological snobbery. Seems odd to call an Aristotelian such, but I think there is some of that when Plato remains unexamined. Aristotle improved on what Plato began, and no doubt there is some truth in that. For me, obviously, not enough.

A more charitable reason one could posit is that like Thomas, these offenders may not have read very much in Plato. The modern academy is so specialized that I think well-trained people can speak unintelligently about a great many things unnoticed, and I’m convinced they (we) routinely do. If in scholarly circles the general, unexamined sense about Plato is that he is not important, then that is how most scholars will proceed. Specialization is a kind of incubator for prejudice, though it is conceived with opposite aims. If you are not an expert on the subject, you assume other experts on the subject are accurate experts, accepting without examination what in fact may not be accurate, even eccentric.

Another reason is that reading Plato is less congenial to busy scholars. Scholarship can be successfully and productively accomplished by tediously organized, meticulously obvious, and aesthetically disastrous writing. I would not be surprised if, by and large, books that are read from cover to cover tend to be those that are being read for review. There is nothing wrong with consultation, with being deft at exploiting tables of contents and indices. There is also a feeling that knowing the conversation of the secondary literature is enough, and in fact there is often an eclipse of the primary in the secondary. What happens sometimes is that the importance of a figure is exaggerated, perspective is lost, ephemera and minutiae are over-examined. What is the result of concentrating on ephemera? You become ephemeral, like a wraith. If you narrow down to minutiae that is reality insignificant, you will be trivial. I believe this describes some of what goes on in higher education. I have been in classes where the secondary questions eclipse the primary concerns and have felt that if the bright, shining author of the ancient text in question were to walk in, he would only baffle us all with a hearty laugh.

Yet another reason is that Platonism really is counterintuitive. There is a confidence in reasoning in Plato that moderns do not share, and a devout willingness to proceed on conclusions that common sense does not readily endorse. We live in an age where the nominalist prejudice known as Ockham’s razor reigns.

Another reason I suggested to the one teacher, and I think it is the chief reason. She is married to a Platonist and so has some considerations for the view she does not prefer. I asked if she thought some of it was temperamental, and she agreed. Raphael’s school of Athens pictures the situation. Plato points up and Aristotle points down. I think he should have Aristotle crouching down, looking at a crack in the floor in an effort to discern bugs. But Raphael nevertheless managed to capture the point. The point is that there are two different aims, and therefore two different approaches. Aristotelians are looking for precision, and therefore to limit things for the sake of clarity. I believe Platonists are looking for more, for maximizing meaning, which requires gesture, suggestion, more free and less precisely reduced expression. That, I believe, is principally what is going on.

I think each has its place. I wonder if my teacher is not right, and that there comes a point where in the interests of precise expression Aristotelian aims yield a superior approach. What ought to be corrected, however, is the reflexive dismissal that Plato receives, as if his aims were at all times unnecessary. I am convinced his are, on the whole, the more important concerns.

The Point

The Point

I have three classes, three months, three papers this semester. I’ve decided to do them sequentially, writing one a month. It has to be possible to do it that way rather than spread them out. After all, concentrated effort is required.

There are people who are big on starting with primary sources. I’m big on starting with secondary sources. So you get an idea of your person, his where and when, and then you read him to see if the secondary literature knows what it is saying. I find that if I start with the primary literature I don’t have a sufficient idea of what they’re talking about (I’ve done Origen, Plotinus, Eriugena, George MacDonald, Benjamin Whichcote and Ralph Cudworth—which are not always accessible personages; you cannot, for example, begin with the primary sources on Plotinus or Eriugena, unless you are better educated than I). Once I have digested some approaches to them, I’m ready to understand them.

And it is as this point that I figure out what I’m going after and I can zoom in. What happens to me now is that I reach a point where reading becomes useless, I know what I want to do, my attention is fixed and I’m like a dog hunting—no more reading whole books, my interests have narrowed too much for any reading outside of the scope, and I know where all the big pieces are.

That is the point: when you reach the moment when you know what needs to be done and that is all you can do. I’m doing Athanasius: Reason, Philosophy and the Doctrine of the Trinity for February. The point has been reached.

Renewed Reason?

In Reformed Catholicity the authors speak of reason as if it were fallen and also redeemed. In the same paragraph they say reason is also a grace. I cannot describe how irritating that is to me, but I do want to sort out why I do not think that way.

In the first place, what has fallen has to be an agent: a being with a will. To hypostatize reason in this way is to speak absurdly of it. If there is a hypostasis of Reason, it is the Logos, and no proper theologian would say he has fallen. Angels can fall, and many have chosen to do so. Humanity can fall, and indeed we have. Animals are not fallen however, and neither are trees or mathematics. Nor did that which we call reason, which is simply sound thinking. Sound thinking has not fallen because it cannot have chosen what is wrong and somehow become unsound reason, the only reason to which the unregenerate have access. I do sometimes wonder, observing Christians who think only they can think correctly as they are trying to think, whether the reverse is not true: that there is somehow an unreason to which the regenerate have a special, privileged access.

There is not, of course, but it does show the false premise on which they reason: that one has somehow to be regenerate to think properly. This is contrary to experience: sinful human being can reason properly. Sin has not destroyed the activity of thinking as such. There is no trick to it, there is no special grace by which people get things right. There is sound reasoning, there are valid premises, and that is all. To introduce more categories than sound and unsound reasoning, valid and invalid premises, is to confuse the issue, to render it mysterious when indeed there is no mystery. And that is half of the whole problem.

The other half is that reasoning agents have agency, and because they have agency, they do not approach the activity of reasoning without some kind of desire regarding the outcome. There are things they want and things they do not want, there are things they prefer and things to which they are averse, there are things they like and love, and things they dislike and hate. It is here that the problem arises. When thinking clearly about something does not yield the desired result, we start distorting the activity. It is not that we can’t think clearly, it is not that we cannot obtain clear results from a difficult series of thinking, it is not that we can’t figure out valid premises. No, it is that even when we get the premises right and follow the path of careful thinking scrupulously, we may not obtain the outcome which for reasons of the heart we desire. We find ways to get what we want, and these are not always reasonable.

Allow me an illustration from the late Justice Scalia. He said he loved working at the Supreme Court of the USA: best resources available, best help possible, best colleagues for a legal conversation, great thorny issues with amazing arguments. Most of the time, he said, it was exhilarating: the thinking was top-notch, the reasoning was meticulous, the decisions were made obvious. The problem would only arise when certain hot-button issues arose, and then it was as if it were another place altogether, as if minds were lost. Agendas crept or stormed in; the human agents doing the legal reasoning on the basis of evidence, precedent, argument and law had desired outcomes which interfered with the clarity, however difficult, of reason.

There is nothing as such wrong with human thinking, with reason or our ability to do so. It is like human vision. Of course there are those who have problems with their eyesight all the way to blindness. But on the whole, most of us can expect to see adequately, to use our eyesight to negotiate life, to read, etc. That there are problems is a result of sin, obviously, in general. There are other physical deformities, but we do not need to think that only regenerate people can see clearly, that being a Christian in any way affects your eyesight. It is the same with our apprehension of thought, our deductions and logical conclusions, except that the stakes, for the desiring heart, are higher.

We know, we can think, we can figure out how to have integrity of argument, how to discern valid premises on which to proceed, all that. The problem with us is not that our reason has to be renewed, the problem with us is that we know things that our hearts still unreasonably wish to reject. But we do not equally reject all reasonable things always with our hearts. That is why in our present condition neutrality, disinterest, these modest academic virtues are precious quantities. This would never be the case if we were not fallen, but it is because we are. The ultimate solution is that we need renewed hearts, in which we are speaking not just of regeneration, but the long transformation which is only complete at our glorification. We can expect to desire better in this life, but not to desire perfectly.

Glorification is something none of us presently enjoys. And it is the neglect of this last fact that so irritates me about Christians. The only advantage we have is a slight possibility for humility, and that tends to get swept away when we essentially assert that we are magically more qualified to think than other people are. There are some premises we have accepted, and these are valid, and that is an advantage. There is a new ordering of our desires, which allows us to accept a few extremely crucial outcomes. There are undeniable advantages, but these do not work out to a categorical difference when it comes to thinking which would sort the regenerate from the unregenerate. There is still, when it comes to reason, only sound and unsound reasoning. There are problems to which only certain premises apply, etc.

Think about it in these terms, with some emphasis added to further my point: Romans 1:18-21 Now the holy anger of God is disclosed from Heaven against the godlessness and evil of those men who render truth dumb and inoperative by their wickedness. It is not that they do not know the truth about God; indeed he has made it quite plain to them. For since the beginning of the world the invisible attributes of God, e.g. his eternal power and divinity, have been plainly discernible through things which he has made and which are commonly seen and known, thus leaving these men without a rag of excuse. They knew all the time that there is a God, yet they refused to acknowledge him as such, or to thank him for what he is or does. Thus they became fatuous in their argumentations, and plunged their silly minds still further into the dark.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield ParkThe English philosopher Jane Austen saw and did what others were unable to see and to do: she wrote six excellent novels in a tone of high seriousness. Because of this, she can be classified with Plotinus. I call a serious tone that which is most just, which has its object clearly in view and approaches it in such a way as to apprehend it best. This road leads to immediate contact with the object of understanding, rather than mediate understanding which is more diffuse and therefore not quite as serious. Seriousness of tone, therefore, is a matter of epistemology.

Mansfield Park is a novel about the discernment and apprehension of goodness of character—the epistemology thereof, if you will. It is a novel about the invisibility of character and about how, as a consequence, it must be perceived. One can say it is a novel about education, in the spoiled education of Maria Bertram, the inexact, but ultimately better education of Julia Bertram, and the providential education of Fanny Price, whose limitless humility without seeking to show displays in all of the adversities and disadvantages she undergoes a sweetness of temper, a purity of mind, and an excellence of principles beyond that of all the other women. But the point is to apprehend the outcome of each education, and in doing so to discern the causes.

We are led through the pages of this, Jane Austen’s longest novel, in order to discern what is truly valuable in the character of any human being in absolute terms. That is one reason I call Jane Austen a philosopher—in the more ancient sense of the term. Along the way we also learn what it is that blinds human beings to the apprehension of these valuable things. We learn as well how these rare, valuable qualities are not of the sort which consciously promote themselves. Hence one of the difficulties in discerning them: they are like jewels that need to be mined in acquaintance, friendship, and discerning thought. This novel’s vision is one of character and morality quite the opposite of our contemporary notions, and as such, very necessary. It is a vision opposed to all unexamined notions since it is one provided as a view through a window of examination. Nobody can deny that Jane Austen provides a sustained vision of civilization; and in our times, a rare glimpse it is.

Civilization does not reside externally, but it is best discerned in that which the novel does: in the inward part of the perceiving subject. The novel is a way of bringing us into the mind of a person, into the subjectivity, or better, immediacy of one perceiving the outward world in all the color of thought and feeling. Civilization obtains when persons share an ordered and harmonious music produced by thought and feeling about their surroundings which is in tune. When Fanny Price goes back to Portsmouth, the absence of civilized life and the impossibility of it in the city is keenly felt. This is a most philosophical observation on the part of Jane Austen.

No literate Anglophone should life without making and acquaintance with the mind of Jane Austen, that bright and observant person, a true genius. Her vision is sustaining, her intelligence refreshing, and her morality is unerring. What could be better? It is only the philistine who is cut off from the prolonged pleasure and deft instruction that this great English philosopher has left to us in her six incomparable works. It is hard to say, apart from Northanger Abbey, which is the greatest because they are all so good. Personally, I rate Mansfield Park as one of the best, as a bookend to Emma.