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Getting Started in Scholastic Philosophy

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The Problem with “Modern” Catholicism

No, it’s not the Second Vatican Council.  No, it’s not the “Novus Ordo” Mass.  No, it’s not scandals in the clergy.  No, it’s not the use of the English language.  No, it’s not Pope Francis.

The common scapegoats attacked by Catholics are superficial reactions to imaginary controversies stirred up by social media personalities and authors for clicks and sales.   In fact, I would argue that the attempt by laymen to blame the clergy and hierarchy of the Church for the problems in the Church are one big, lazy excuse for the real problem in Catholicism today.   The real problem is that the Catholic laity is idle and silly, wrapped up in vain politics and news stories, reacting to the world rather than fulfilling the mission of the laity:

“It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated. (CCC 898)

Yet, we find laymen complaining about the Pope, the clergy, the liturgy, the seminaries, on and on–which are none of their business.  Meanwhile, as they complain about the clergy, the work the laity is supposed to be doing is left undone, almost beyond repair at this point in history.

When we think of the “laity”, we tend to think of secular careers and occupations, as if choosing to not become a priest, monk or nun at age 18 leaves a person free to eat, drink and be merry in the world.  Yet, before the Church was ever established, centuries before Christ was born of Mary, men in the world were living with far greater virtue than this.  The great philosophers–Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, etc.–were all laymen.  They understood that man was a spiritual being and that his soul was more important than his body.  They distinguised “servile” from “liberal” activities and devoted themselves to what pertained to the soul–the pursuit of wisdom and virtous living.

Laymen don’t need the clergy to study philosophy for them, give them a well-ordered society to live in, provide them with music or instruction, raise their children, order their homes and businesses, regulate their diets, select their clothing, produce their entertainment media, and so on.  The modern laymen are living as they do because they have willfully designated the contemplative life and study of the liberal arts and philosophy to be something that the clergy does for the laity, when the clergy has no business at all to do this.

This is the work of the laity, and the laity isn’t doing its job.

Catholicism Takes Classical Philosophy for Granted

In the opening pages of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas explained why divine revelation was necessary.  The first and most obvious reason was that there are many things for us to know about God and the world that are beyond the reach of human reason.  We could never learn them unless God revealed them to us.

The second reason is less known to most Catholics, and I believe is more important.

God created man with the faculty of Reason, which distinguishes him from all other creatures and makes man to be man.  It was necessary for us to have this power because “God made us to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life.”, and the knowledge of God is impossible without the use of Reason.  God is a spirit and cannot be known by the senses.  He can only be known by faith (believing what is revealed) and reason.

It is assumed that we are seeking the knowledge of God as the chief pursuit of our lives–and anyone who is not is failing to serve the purpose for which He was created.  St. Alphonus Liguori wrote:

“To praise God, to thank him for his benefits, to ask of him the graces necessary to eternal salvation–this is what should be here below the only occupation of all men.”

If we are not seeking to know, love and serve God, then we’re not fulfilling the purpose of our lives.  The profound ignorance and aimlessness of modern Catholics is owed to the reality that they have become so inordinately entangled in worldly affairs, by their own choosing, that they neglect this study almost entirely.  Many Catholics do not even study the content of divine revelation–the bare minimum–contained for us in one book.  One can imagine how profound the ignorance of philosophy is.

Regardless of modern society’s vices, a small number of men have and do seek God through the use of Reason, which is called “Philosophy”. For these men, divine revelation has been given by God as light and guide.  St. Thomas explained,

“As regards those truths about God which human Reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.”

So, since God knew that the majority of men did not, and would not seek Him, and that those who did would struggle to find the truth in every point, He revealed the answers, as it were, in Sacred Scripture.   The Bible was not intended to replace Philosophy, but to assist and enlighten it.  We find the perfection of this in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, who successfully married the two in what we call “Scholastic Philosophy”.

Of course, this system of philosophy has been rejected and abandoned by modern society and replaced with the “Scientific Method”.  This is responsible for the modern confusion and intellectual chaos among Catholics, but the philosophy of secular society is no excuse for Catholics.  The Church has called Catholic back to Scholastic Philosophy many times throughout history, but Catholic schools, universities and individuals do not listen.

Pope Pius X (who has since been canonized) warned the Church:

“If we pass from the moral to the intellectual causes of Modernism, the first which presents itself, and the chief one, is ignorance. Yes, these Modernists who pose as Doctors of the Church, who puff out their cheeks when they speak of modern philosophy, and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with all its false glamour because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of being able to recognise confusion of thought, and to refute sophistry. Their whole system, with all its errors, has been born of the alliance between faith and false philosophy…For Scholastic philosophy and theology they have only ridicule and contempt. Whether it is ignorance or fear, or both, that inspires this conduct in them, certain it is that the passion for novelty is always united in them with hatred of scholasticism, and there is no surer sign that a man is on the way to Modernism than when he begins to show his dislike for this system.”

That’s not my opinion.  That’s Pope St. Pius X writing in an encyclical published in 1910.

How the CLAA can help

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we teach Scholastic Philosophy.  I don’t teach about Scholastic philosophy, as if it’s a topic of history, but I provide students with everything they need to study the writings of the ancient philosophers in the light of divine revelation.

Many pretend to have an interest in Scholastic Philosophy and imagine that browsing the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas makes them Scholastic philosophers, but this is false.  To read and understand the writings of St. Thomas, one already need to know the writings of the ancient philosophers, as he did.  To avoid the real study of Philosophy and pretend to have an interest in St. Thomas is common today where the desire in education is “videri quam esse“.

If you’d like to start studying Philosophy, or have your children do so, I recommend you begin with the dialogues of Plato.  I provide a course on “Platonic Philosophy” and am reading the diaologues on Plato to help students get through them as easily as possible.  The readings are available on the lesson pages for enrolled students, but also on the CLAA YouTube channel for free access.  I’ve included a video at the top of this article.  I am also teaching through the works of Aristotle–reading every word with students–not talking about them as modern teachers do, in vain.

These studies are not difficult when pursued with the attention they deserve, but they will not be tacked on to a worldly study plan ordered around money-making.

“Wisdom preacheth abroad, she uttereth her voice in the streets:  At the head of multitudes she crieth out, in the entrance of the gates of the city she uttereth her words, saying: ‘O children, how long will you love childishness, and fools covet those things which are hurtful to themselves, and the unwise hate knowledge?  Turn ye at my reproof: behold I will utter my spirit to you, and will shew you my words….You have despised all my counsel, and have neglected my reprehensions.” (Proverbs 1)

God bless your studies,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy