Yves Simon’s Correspondence with Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain on the Common Good

My last post reminded me of a correspondence between Yves Simon and both de Koninck and Maritain on the common good that my father translated some years ago. So I got permission from my father to post it at The Charles De Koninck Project. It’s a fascinating correspondence, and gives a lot of details about the controversy over de Koninck’s book. Consider, for example, this description of a party at Simon’s house in South Bend:

After the lecture there was a party at my house. I had told W[aldemar Gurian] to open fire. He didn’t delay. Hardly had De Koninck sat down when he got the fatal question right in the solar plexus: Who are these personalists? De K[oninck] hesitated visibly and showed a little less Belgian good nature and a little more reserve. He mentioned a Californian review (do you remember, The Personalist, which Mounier discovered four or five years after launching Esprit); Adler and Farrel; Garrigou-Lagrange (with insistence), Fr. Schwalm, the author of lessons in social philosophy. As for Esprit—he did not know it; Maritain—he did not know him. When we insisted that the whole world believed Primacy of the Common Good was directed against you, he asked if the ideas of Maritain are such that one could recognize them in the personalism he described: the common good as mere instrument, etc. We insisted that many readers have the impression that you shared these idiocies. In private conversation I told De K[oninck] twice that, whatever his intentions may have been his book was being exploited “as an instrument of defamation,” that I would not want to have this on my conscience, and that he should publish an article or a note to put an end to this. His objection: “But then I would have to read Maritain! I don’t have the time.” Gurian could not believe that he has not read you. As for me, I believe it readily.


“The Integrists in Quebec”

In the midst of the controversy over Charles de Koninck’s book, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Jacques Maritain dismissed de Koninck and those who followed him as reactionary intégristes, unable to meet the true challenges of the age:

I was deeply touched by the article of Fr. Eschman in The Modern Schoolman. He has masterfully exploded Koninck, and we can now enjoy entering a fine period of scholastic controversy worthy of the Baroque age. While the world is in its agony, and Monsieur Sartre offers to the intellectuals an existentialism of nothingness, the integrists of Quebec will doubtless raise the cry of alarm in the presbyteries of the New World against the Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and, as our good friends at the Tablet call it, Neo-Pelagianism menacing the Holy Church.

J ’ai été profondément touché par l’article du Pére Eschmann dans The Modern Schoolman. Il a mouché Koninck de main de maître et nous aurons la joie d’entrer ainsi dans une belle période de controverses scolastiques dignes de l’age baroque. Pendant que le monde agonise et que M. Sartre propose aux intellectuels l’existentialisme du néant, les intégristes de Québec vont sans doute jeter dans les presbytères du nouveau continent le cri d’alarme contre le néolibéralisme, le néo-individualisme et, comme disent nos bons amis du Tablet, le néopélagianisme qui menacent la sainte Église. (Jacques Maritain to Etienne Gilson, November 15, 1945; via Francesca Aran Murphy, to whom I owe part of the translation)

And yet, seven decades later, de Koninck’s book, and those who used it to combat certain forms of “personalism” seem remarkably prescient. There was indeed in the thought of certain Catholic intellectuals eager to speak to the concerns of the age a danger of neo-liberalism, neo-individualism, and, neo-Pelagianism. The effects of it are ever more apparent.

Christian Roy has argued that de Koninck’s book was,

in some ways… a prophetic warning of a notable drift towards hedonistic secular individualism, which progressive Christian personalism unwittingly helped usher in Catholic societies such as Quebec.

That is, it was a warning that the attempt of a certain kind of attempt by Catholic intellectuals to, as it were, co-opt or subvert the spirit of the age was counter productive, and led to the opposite result of that hoped. Instead of a reversal of secularization there was a huge acceleration. But it was also a warning that even among those who remained in the Church a new liberalism and a new Pelagianism would take hold. A candid examination of debates within the Church in the past few decades— especially in Western Europe— show just how prophetic such warnings were. This is one reason, why, to the great annoyance of a certain relation of mine, I have tried to reclaim the (to his mind sinister) term integrist/integralist to name my own approach to thinking about the common good as a Catholic in the modern world.

Subjectification and Objectification

As I have mentioned, an essay of mine has appeared in a remarkably interesting volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul. The best essay in the collection is, however, probably not mine, but rather William Desmond’s “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving.” Not that I agree with everything that Desmond says, but his piece is strange, subtle, wonderful, and productive of thought somewhat in the manner of a Platonic dialogue.

One question that Desmond raises has to do with Cartesian dualism: What comes first in the Cartesian rejection of a hylomorphic understanding of the soul: subjectification or objectification? He takes the one of the driving forces behind modern philosophy to be a certain impatience with indeterminacy and equivocity:

[I]f the soul has lost its meaning for many (Cavell speaks of “soul-blindness”), there are diverse factors involved in this. I think that certainly attention must be paid to the ambition to univocally determine all being that has expanded in modernity into a project claiming to be on a par with the whole. I want to suggest that there is more to soul than can be made the object of such univocal determination. […] Moreover, the project of determination passes seamlessly with a project of self-determination, and hence the huge presence of the language of self coexists with a view where there is nothing so absent as self. (pp. 354-355)

This would seem to put objectification first, but then Desmond swings back the other way:

Relative to the project of determination and determinability: I am thinking of the objectification of being, wherein all that is is determined to be an object of scientific investigation and possible technological exploitation. The qualitative textures of things do not count in this project of universal quantification, this mathesis universalis. Of course, if things are massively objectified, this goes with the huge subjectification of the human being, the self as it will come to be known. Which comes first: the subjectification or the objectification? Since objectification is a project of the subject, there is a sense in which the subjectification is prior, even though this may not appear so at the outset. We make things objective, but changes in ourselves then set in motion other changes, not only to things other to us, but also in how we relate to ourselves, how we understand ourselves. One of these changes has to do with the de-souling of nature as other to us (following the objectification), and with this the creeping soul-lessness of the ensuing self (following the subjectification). (p.355)

Certainly, it “does not appear so” the great success and prestige of the modern intellectual project certainly has to do with the power that comes from the objectification of nature in the “new science” that Bacon wanted, but that Descartes was actually able to begin. Nevertheless, in Descartes himself it is not so easy to see what comes first. Desmond goes on to speak more particularly of Descartes:

res cogitans is then identified with spiritual substance, set off by an ontological gulf from the res extensa, the neutral wax-like stuff of the world around us. The term “res” carries the objectification: “thing,” but with the implication of a determinability that fixes itself and nothing but itself. I mean this not only as an objectification and determination but also as a certain univocalization. It is as a consequence of univocal determin- ability that we find ourselves fixed in dualism; for to be the one thing it is, the res must incontrovertibly be not the other things, and between the one and the other there opens a gulf of difference, in the end not intermediated or open to intermediation. The res extensa seems to open up the vista of objectified neutralized thereness; and it seems also to define by necessary complement the res cogitans, the subjectivity for whom or for which this neutralized other is there at all. But this subjectivity itself undergoes a reification in being determined as thinking thing. It is in this determination, identified with the soul, that the soul begins to be lost.

Desmond’s account reminds me of the illuminating comparison that Maritain makes between the way Descartes thinks that human thought works and the way angelic thought actually works in Three Reformers:

It remains— and this is what concerns us— that the Cartesian ideas come from God, like angelic ideas, not from objects. Thus the human soul is not only subsistent as the ancients taught, causing the body to exist with its own existence; it has, without the body, received direct from God all the operative perfection which can befit it. There is the destruction of the very reason of its union with the body, or rather, there is its inversion. For if the body and the senses are not the necessary means of the acquisition of its ideas for that soul, and consequently the instrument by which it rises to its own perfection, which is the life of the intelligence and the contemplation of truth, then, as the body must be for the soul and not the soul for the body, the body and senses can be there for nothing but to provide the soul— which needs only itself and God in order to think,— with means for the practical subjugation of the earth and all material nature, and this reduces the soul’s good to the domination of the physical universe. This universe, the whole of which has not the value of one spirit, will make it pay dear for this deordination. This angel is iron-gloved, and extends its sovereign action over the corporeal world by the innumerable arms of Machinery! Poor angel turning the grindstone, enslaved to the law of matter, and soon fainting under the terrible wheels of the elemental machine which has got out of order. (pp. 63-63)

In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

Alan Jacobs recently posted an outline of an argument against a certain sort of story about the origins of modernity told by many Thomists—the sort of account given by Gilson in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and by Maritain in Three Reformers; the Ockham→ Luther→ Calvin→ Bacon→ Descartes→ modernity tale of decline. Jacob’s makes six complaints about this sort of account. No two versions of the account are the same, and so Jacobs focuses on the versions of it presented by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation  and Thomas Pfau in Minding the Modern. I haven’t read Pfau, but I have read Gregory, and while I would quibble with some of his points, I agree with the basic outline of his argument. So I disagree with Jacobs, and in what follows I give a brief response to all six of his complaints. Continue reading