One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems. The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament)
The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.
In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows: Continue reading
Just in case there are any Sancrucensis readers who don’t now this already: the Charles De Koninck Project has launched a website, on which they are planning to make all the writings of that great 20th century Thomist available in English.
I began to be formed by De Koninck before having read any of his books, as I read Aristotle and St Thomas at a college founded by his students. When I finally read his book on the Common Good the effect was intoxicating. (When my father first read this book he was waiting for a plane in the airport. It absorbed him so completely that he missed his plane, not noticing that they called his name several times). And then I read Ego Sapientia, and was even more overwhelmed.
I am by no means an admire of leftist politics, but I must admit that the English Labour MP in the above clip is attacking a real evil. The so-called payday loan companies that give short-term loans at a very high rate of interest are a particularly clear and extreme example of the injustice of usury. They exploit the distress of the poor, enticing them into an unjust contract, obligating them to exchange (say) £182 for £100.
Payday loans are clearly absurd, but they are typical for an economic system in which usury is the default solution to bottle necks both in supply and in demand. Leftist analysis of economic injustice is often as insightful as Leftist solutions are disastrous. Take a look at David Harvey’s application of Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capital accumulation to the current situation:
That’s a remarkably pithy summary of the basic underlying dynamics of the system. The first point at which usury enters into the system is in supply. Supply is supposed to work by a capitalist taking money, buying means of production, hiring labour, and and using an industrial technology to produce enough of a commodity to pay for the means of production + labour + a profit. The first point at which usury enters into the system is simply to accumulate enough capital at the right place and time to get the system going. But this means that enough of the commodity has to be produced to pay for means of production + labour + interest on debt + a profit. Unless of course one delays re-paying the debt, for then one can reinvest part of the profit in an expansion, and pay from the expanded profit. This is the first point at which growth becomes vital: one needs to be able to expand. The imperative to expand is of course also strengthened by competition (not to mention greed).
Now an interesting problem arises: it’s simply what G.K. Chesterton identifies as the basic contradiction of capitalism: namely that it wants the mass of men to be both poor (since their wealth comes from wages) and rich (since they are the capitalist’s customers). Another way of stating the paradox is to say: where does the necessary surplus demand come from to keep the growth going? Marx explains the contradiction by means of a simplified model of the economy: if you had an economy entirely divided between capitalists and workers increase in demand can’t come from the workers, since they can’t possibly spend more money than is paid to them in wages. So the capitalists themselves have to supply the surplus effective demand. But how is that possible? Well, the answer is of course by usury. But now it’s lending money to the consumer. Credit cards are a great example here. This is money lent to increase demand in order to drive growth. So now you have a system in which both supply and demand are financed by usury which always depends on future expansion. Hence debt increases with the growth of the economy. The whole thing is an elaborate Ponzi scheme that only works as long as there is a very high rate of growth.
But of course one can answer to this that in fact it has worked pretty well. Every once in a while there’s a depression in which a lot of people go bust and the system starts over again as it where from scratch, but for the most part the economy keeps growing. And while perhaps we have more usurers making unjust gains than in earlier economies, we also have less people starving. Is constant growth such a bad thing? What about “be fruitful and multiply” and all that. This is the line of argument taken up by Edward Hadas in a book that I have just begun reading. In the introduction Hadas remarks that he began the book intending it to be simply a condemnation of the modern economic world. Synthesizing the thinking of the anti-capitalist Jewish left in which Hadas was raised, and the anti-modernist strand of Catholic Social Teaching to which he had been converted. But soon he came to think that a tout-court condemnation was an inadequate response to what he calls the “pro-life” features of modern industrial capitalist economy. This economy, he contends, allows the world to support many more people, and allowed them to live longer, healthier lives, and expand their knowledge of creation. “A life-lover cannot simply dismiss these accomplishments as meaningless.” (p. xvi) So Hadas goes about trying to formulate a constructive critique of the system. Hadas’s point made me think of a chilling scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where the misanthropic Walter attacks economic growth:
Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible. […] “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” (pp. 121-122)
An anti-life vision if ever there was one. In a brilliant undergraduate essay Caleb Cohoe once made a “pro-life” argument for capitalist economy similar to Hadas’s, in which he points out that Aristotle thought that one had to prevent poverty by limiting population including by infanticide and abortion.
But then again, if one looks at the actual effect of the globalization of the capitalist system in our times one sees that it has spread abortion and contraception to the four corners of the globe. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Hadas’s unfolds his project of a pro-life re-thinking of our economic life.
If Virgil is in some ways a follower of Plato, Plato would certainly not have agreed with him on the need for world empire. Like most of the Greeks Plato thought that a limited population was necessary for a good political community. The Greek view seems to have been formed by the experience of the war with Persia. In book VII of Herodotus’ Histories Demaratus famously tells Xerxes that the Greeks will win for, Continue reading
Father Benedict Ashley, O.P. notes in an autobiographical sketch that his vision of the relation between his Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and the sort of “natural science” that originated with Descartes et. al. changed over time. At first he took “modern natural science” to have basically zero philosophical significance; the task of the Aristotelian was simply to take the empirical discoveries of “modern science” and integrate them into the framework of Aristotelian cosmology: “In my first phase I saw the task mainly as one of filling in the details in a general plan already laid out. This may appear preposterous, but it really is not so difficult.” But then he slowly begins to think that “modern science” supports an insight of “modern philosophy” into the nature of reality itself — namely that reality is “historical.” This change came for him at the time of Vatican II, and it had the same effect on him that the Council had on many others: “This insight was a liberation, because it made it possible for me to see modern thought and modern culture much more sympathetically than before.” I wonder whether Ashley’s sense of liberation did not incline him to assent to what he saw as an insight more readily. Would he have been more hesitant to assent to his new ideas if they had been less in tune with his age? Continue reading