Philosophia Perennis Vol. I: An Introduction to Philosophy as Wisdom

Holy Scripture tells us that charity rejoiceth in the truth. This is one of those very short statements which, despite its brevity, is pregnant with wisdom. Not too many people rejoice in the truth. If we look into our own natures, we will find that there is a certain resistance to truth which is due to our fallen nature. Yet, when we cooperate with the grace of God, we can overcome that resistance. Then we will rejoice in the truth. Besides indicating intellectual advancement, rejoicing in the truth is also a very good sign of spiritual progress. Among the most brilliant minds that have been fascinated by this great value — truth — are the philosophers. It is the superficial person who says, “Well, how many people read them anyway?” then dismisses all that the philosophers had to say, and disregards how influential they are. But they are influential, sometimes for good, oftentimes for evil. That could be a whole study in itself — how influential the philosophers are in all the things we enjoy or suffer. When a man has a great mind and a kind of a preoccupation with the higher truths, his errors are disastrous. Put another way, when a genius goes wrong the results are catastrophic. Most of the problems in the world today are due to bad thinkers. Similarly, much of what is good we owe to the good and wise philosophers.

In the previous chapter, we presented the philosophy of the Greeks. In the present chapter, we will briefly present philosophy as it is in the Christian centuries. Obviously, such a short chapter could in no way be comprehensive. We are attempting to take a bird’s eye view, looking at the panorama of this period of philosophy without entering into too much detail. We divide the history of philosophy in the Christian centuries into two phases: the Middle Ages (the ages of Faith) and modern times. What we will attempt to do is present some impressions that apply in general to the whole of each phase.

Before we proceed with the historical study, we will expound upon a little truism in order to encourage the reader. Every one of us is a philosopher. We all have had philosophic experiences even when we did not know it. When we were very young, we started asking questions like, “What is space? How far does it go? Does it have limits or is it unlimited? What is time? When did it start? Will it end? What is life? How is it that I know things?” Little children are haunted by these questions. In fact, a child is a little more philosophic than an adult. When we become engrossed in the practical problems of adult life, we tend to stop raising these fascinating questions. If we stop raising them, we are shunning a native talent and an attraction to truth.

What one studies or reads is only of value when it is encouraging a little flame right in his own soul. We have achieved something spiritually if we have sought the truth with good will (and good will is another name for Charity). If we can recognize a falsehood when we see one coming, and when we feel the impulse to fight against it, then we are growing in wisdom. Then we are ready to expose ourselves to different schools of thought, some of which may have particles of truth in them, but which contain much that is wrong. The right attitude in philosophy for every one of us is to be personal, real, and genuine in our minds. There is nothing more phony than people whose problems are vicarious. They have the doubts that somebody else had because they read about them in books. Only when one has raised the question himself, sensing its mystery and beginning to see some light in it, is he capable of defending the truth. Then he can confidently see what other people are doing.

If we ignore their errors and focus on their triumphs, we can say that the Greek philosophers were, in a general way, like precursors of Divine Revelation. Divine Revelation in its fullness came to us when the Word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us — when Jesus Christ, the only One Who could have told us the mysteries of eternity, dwelt in our midst. When He preached the Sermon on the Mount and gave His discourse at the Last Supper, every single thing He said was full of light, wisdom, and truth. When His Apostles went into the whole world to give the message of the Gospel, for some reason their message took root where the soil had already been prepared by philosophy. It was only in the world that was civilized by the Greek and Roman thought that the Gospel produced the most permanent fruits. All of the thirty-two doctors of the Church came from that Greco-Roman world, what we call the Western World. When the Faith is given to the areas beyond that, sometimes we get tremendous responses, but it is also when they have the benefit of the kind of thinking that was started in Greece. This is all a matter of history. Its illustration is as simple as looking at a map to see where the Doctors of the Church lived and where Christianity has had a lasting influence. We must conclude that the preparation for the Gospel in these places was the Greek genius for philosophic thought. Almost like Saint John the Baptist (though in a natural way, not a supernatural way) Greek philosophy precursed the coming of Divine Wisdom.

When we say that Greek thought served as precursor to Divine Wisdom, we mean that, in the first phase of the period we are studying, the work of philosophy was, as the scholastic philosophers called it, the Ancilla Theologiae — the handmaid of theology. In other words, in the writings of our great Christian philosophers and theologians, the work of philosophy was to be at the service of the Faith. And indeed, it is a service that is completely indispensable. Without sound principles of thought, we cannot even attempt to express the mysteries of our Faith. That is why tampering with concepts like nature and substance (and even something more basic, like truth) can undermine our whole Faith.

If Greek philosophy was a precursor of the revealed wisdom and a preparation for it and Medieval philosophy was its servant, then modern philosophy is a rebellious competitor. Every modern philosophy is trying to replace the wisdom of the Faith; trying to become some kind of fake religion and fake morality. This is true of modern philosophy in general.

Now, when we talk about modern philosophy, we must subdivide it into continental (the philosophy of France, Germany, Italy, etc.) and British or Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Most specifically, English philosophy is a rebellious philosophy. Here is the testimony of an English philosopher, writing in the English language: “We may even claim in general, that England, though rich in thinkers of the highest order, has never had but a single school of philosophy, or rather it has never had any, for its philosophy is a perpetual protest against scholasticism.” There is an English-speaking atmosphere for thought. A typical English-speaking philosopher is a rebel of the highest degree.

Continental intellectualism is a rebellion against the supernatural. Sometimes it even rebels against the natural. English philosophy despises the intellectual. Every term presupposing intellectualism has a negative sense in the English-speaking world. The word “abstract” is a good example. The first time most of us will hear “abstract” used in a positive sense will be when we study good philosophy. Usually people say, “It’s abstract,” meaning no good or useless. We do it even with the word “intellect.” “Faith is in the intellect” is, to many, some kind of elitist view of religion. They would say something like, “No, Faith is in the heart.” Even when we say someone is an intellectual, it is usually done tongue in cheek.

Now, let us begin our study of this period with the notion of “abstract.” Without abstract ideas there is no such thing as thinking or reasoning. In logic, we learn that there can be no inference without universal propositions. Usually, we state it this way: “From two particular propositions, nothing follows.” We cannot expound upon this in detail in this chapter, but if we make two propositions and neither of them is universal, we cannot yet reason, we can only talk about individuals. It is impossible to form a universal proposition without universal ideas. And without abstractions, it is impossible to have universal ideas. No abstraction, no universals; no universals, no universal propositions; no universal propositions, no inference; no inference, no philosophy.

One of the great problems of philosophy, and the first one the scholastic philosophers had to grapple with, was the reality of the universals. What do we mean by universals? In the phrase, “the dog, Fido,” Fido is an individual and dog is a universal. “This watch” is an individual, but “watch” is a universal. The word “courage” is a universal. The word “sand” is a universal. Let us pause for a moment now, at this first dawn of spiritual activity in man; because, when we speak of the soul of man being spiritual, (thus immortal) this is precisely what we mean. The first indication of the spiritual in us is the fact that we can abstract ideas. This faculty, abstraction, can be easily illustrated in the following way:

How many grains of sand exist on this earth? Nobody knows the number, but there is a number. Every grain of sand is numbered. God numbers everything. While it is not the most interesting occupation of the Divine Mind, there is a definite number of all existing realities, and He knows it. There are certainly billions upon billions of grains of sand on all of the beaches all over the world. Now let us suppose that we could not abstract, because there were no universals. If sand were the only thing we had to know, we would have quite a job. Every individual particle of sand would have to be somehow in our mind. We could not apply what we know about one grain to another. We could not begin to speculate about a grain of sand that “might be.” We would be strictly limited to empirical evidence. If someone asked us, “What happens when you drop sand from the top of a roof?” we would have to test every grain of sand in existence to answer the question.

As it is, though, all these billions of little entities are in our minds by way of one concept. For his spiritual integrity, man can talk about sand recalling only an idea in his mind — something only a rational creature can do. From the moment we give it a name we are referring to a nature, and we can speak of it with other people. The book of Genesis, the most ancient book there is, furnishes us with a good example. In it we read about Abraham walking by the seashore and God saying to him, “I will multiply thy seed as the sand by the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). Right away, there is a community of mind between each one of us and Abraham. We know very well that what sand meant to him is exactly what it means to us. By use of this faculty, we can cross over all the centuries that separate us. It could be that every grain of sand that existed in the time of Abraham has since dissolved and turned into something else, but with the reality of universals and the human capacity to abstract, that does not matter. Nobody ever reads that story and finds it unfamiliar. Immediately there is a rapport.

The problem of ideas — of universals — is the first scandal of the thinkers. Three schools of error arose around it. We can do little more than name them in this present chapter.1

All philosophy is always haunted by the personalities of Plato and Aristotle. It was Plato who discovered the importance of ideas. (When we say “ideas” we mean “universals”.) The fact that there are ideas in the mind presupposes that spiritual activity we call abstraction. Plato exaggerated the reality of ideas. He said, in essense, “the idea of sand is much more important than these little grains here and there, because these can be destroyed and will disappear, but that idea is always there.” He thought the same thing about man. Frank and Joe are just individuals, but man — the universal, man — is the most important thing. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas names one of his treatises De Homine — “About Man.” Who is that man? Is it Frank? Is it Joe? The answer is yes. Though Frank and Joe may not have even been alive when he was writing, St. Thomas included them. He was talking about a nature: anybody who ever had that nature, or will ever have it.

Any discussion of universals must include Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s point of disagreement with Plato is the dividing line for separating good philosophy from bad philosophy. To Plato, the only real things are the permanent, eternal ideas. Plato was like the Christopher Columbus of the realm of ideas. The whole world after him has a realization of the power of ideas it would never have had if that man had not lived.

Aristotle, his student, kept seeing the holes in his system and finally separated from Plato. He then set out to start right from the beginning and establish some foundations for truth. There is a pathetic passage from Aristotle’s writings in which he says, paraphrased: “It’s very painful for me to be contradicting a man whom I so much love and admire. But our dedication to the truth should transcend our loyalty to any human person.” He then proceeded to criticize his master. And the first thing he said was, “The things that really are, are the individual substances.” The important thing is not man in general, but this man and that man; not the idea of sparrows, but the sparrow that I see flying over there. Ideas are real, but their reality comes from the individual substances. After Aristotle affirmed that truth, no seeker of wisdom (no man who rejoices in the truth) will ever deny it. It was the first maxim, the first principle for the great thinkers of the ages of Faith. Every one of them accepted it. Aristotle comes much closer than any other pagan to our wisdom, which is incarnational, which looks to the concrete and does not fly too quickly to the ideas.

But what about the reality of ideas or universals? There was one school of thinkers which said that the universals are nothing but words. They exist only in language. These we call nominalists. The most distinguished person who expressed that type of thought was a person contemporary with St. Anselm (d. 1109). His name is Roscelin. He had a disciple a little later by the name of William of Ockham. These two scholastics taught an error, because to say there is no reality to the universal except in words is the most subversive thing you can say about the validity of thought. If one were a genuine nominalist, then no science and no philosophy could have any value. Nominalism is the end of philosophy, the end of science, and the end of morality. Our ethical principles have to be in terms of universals, or there is simply no ethics. If we reject universals, in the end we reject all principles of morality. We end up with the situation ethics that is very much with us today.

Then came another school which knew that nominalism could not be defended, so they held that universals are ideas, mere concepts in the mind. We call them the conceptualists. The most prominent name in this school is a man by the name of Abelard. Of course, conceptualism was also subversive. If all our science is about ideas, and if ideas are only in the mind, well, then they are not about reality. We can see an influence of conceptualism in a great deal of modern philosophy.

Then arose a school that we call exaggerated realism. Now, the word “realism,” when we use it in this context, is not the same as the word “realism” as we use it today. Whereas realism as used today, denotes, practicality, the Medieval realist was someone who accepted the reality of ideas over individual substances. Realism is a throwback to Plato at the expense of Aristotle. We do not say that there is no truth in realism as it existed in Plato or in the Middle Ages. There is truth there, but it needs to be extracted from error and put in a proper context. It took the genius of St. Thomas to do this. He gave us the distinctions we need to safely navigate ourselves between nominalism on one hand and idealism on the other, giving us what is called “moderate realism.” The very first step towards Philosophia Perennis is to discover the precise degree of truth that is found in the universal ideas. Ideas have a place, but their reality comes from their correspondence to real, individual, subsisting things. The correct solution of the problem of universals became a common foundation for the different branches of philosophy. There remained points of difference between different schools within the scholastic tradition, but these differences remained within the area of a common method and many accepted principles. Within this tradition, a harmony prevailed between the truths that could be known by reason and the truths that have come to us by revelation — between philosophy and theology. Natural truth and supernatural truths were distinguished but not separated, as we find in the Summa of St. Thomas. That synthesis could have become a common heritage for humanity, at least in the Christian world. It was cultivated and protected by the Church as part of its commission to bring to men that wisdom which leads them to salvation.

But then there was the great rebellion against the Church and the apostasy from the Faith. The rebellion and the apostasy produced their predictable effect in the development of philosophic thought. As a result, there is a great variety of schools in modern philosophy, all sharing some basic errors. What could be said, in general, about modern philosophers is the following:

1. Almost all of them ignored the patient and humble work of the logicians ( as in their solving the technical problem of universals) and preferred to start philosophizing at the peaks.

2. They were not seekers after wisdom, and from all available evidence, their philosophic efforts did not lead them or their disciples to the way of salvation.

3. Wittingly or unwittingly, they returned to the different sophistries of pagan antiquity.

4. All community of effort disappeared. Philosophy became egocentric. Truth on the whole became subjective.

These things hold true for the majority of modern philosophers. This is not to say that there is no grain of truth in the modern systems of thought. Some of the insights of the different schools are valuable in themselves; but the good is far outweighed by the bad. In fact, these true elements in modern philosophy serve as bait for the seeker of wisdom, bait which can lure him into the trap of sophistry.

Superficial people despise the power of thought, therefore they minimize the influence of philosophy. We must never fall into this trap. Its influence is overwhelming: for good and for evil. The modern philosophers are the makers of the modern mind. How this influence is exercised is a worthy study, but for a later volume. In the present volume, we can merely mention six of the leading names.

We think of modern philosophy on the Continent as beginning with René Descartes (d. 1650). Those who followed him were Spinoza (d. 1677), Leibnitz (d. 1716), Locke (d. 1704), Voltaire (d. 1778), Berkeley (d. 1753), and David Hume (d. 1776).2 This is not to be taken as an invitation to start reading these people now. They should not be read until we know the true philosophy which they contradict. Otherwise, there is just sheer confusion. Before we start hearing ideas that could be in opposition to the truth of Philosophia Perennis, we should have a grasp on what we are to defend.

The most predominant of all of the attributes of modern philosophy is subjectivism. Modern philosophy on the whole becomes subjective. What does that mean? A toothache is by necessity something subjective. When one has a toothache, he can tell other people about it, but nobody else can share it. It is an individual, concrete privilege, something in one’s own subjective experience. But the sun or the moon are objects. Anyone who can see can experience them. When we know these objects, they become, through phantasms and ideas, part of our subjectivity.

It is a fact that we have powers to know the objective reality. This fact cannot be denied nor strictly proved. Modern philosophers either deny, ignore, or try to prove this fact, and so get themselves helplessly tangled with the subjective aspect. They lose the objective aspect in which knowledge consists. Then they try to reduce knowledge to other types of experience. Here they fall into another tremendous error, because knowledge is a unique kind of experience — it is an experience sui generis. There is no other way of saying what knowledge is. One either has it or he does not. A being capable of knowledge is a being that can comprehend an object without making it entirely subjective. We cannot prove that; we cannot reduce it to any other experience, but the moment we deny it we are in trouble. The very famous sentence of Descartes is a good example. The very first beginning of his philosophy is this: Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). He wanted to start by what he called methodical doubt. He started doubting this and that until he finally came to the depth of the well. He doubted the existence of all but one thing. The one thing he could not doubt was that he was thinking. He then inferred from the fact that he was thinking that he is (he exists).

He doubted everything that he knew from his senses. All he conceded to exist, at first, was his own thinking. Since he knew that he was thinking, he had to exist. If he were consistent, he would have said, “I think, therefore I think that I am,” because the act of thinking does not prove his existence any more than seeing a tree proves his existence. We may ask him, “If you don’t trust your eyes, why do you trust your mind?” And this question would not be overly simplistic, because that is exactly what he did. “That tree that I see, I don’t know that it exists. But my thinking about that tree, I know that that exists.” It all reduces into a word game in which the given premise is arbitrary. It does not take too long before I is a mere thought; and if I just think that I am, then we are back to skepticism. We are denying knowledge.

Let us look at the experience of a child. Does a child begin by saying, “Here I have a mind, and in this mind I have an idea of the moon. But how can I get out of that idea? Is there anything there other than my idea?” No child ever said that. No good philosopher ever started that way either. Nobody started in the mind. A child looks and says, “the moon. . . flowers. . . Oh, beautiful flowers. . . the sky. . . the grass!” The child begins with objects, and so must we. There simply is no other way to begin. Only on reflection or as second thought does some sophist say, “The moon is there, but how do I know it? I know. There must be an idea in my mind, but if there is an idea in my mind, then what is the relation between the mind and reality?” Nobody ever looked at reality this way except the skeptic. In Philosophia Perennis, we say that truth is the conformity of the mind to reality. This means that reality is something that exists independent of our minds, which we must conform ourselves to if we want to be truthful.

There can be no such thing as the very value we call truth if we in any way deny, confuse, or ignore the two acts which make truth possible: to be, and to know.3 These two acts are identified, in their fullest, with the Holy Trinity. The Father is He who says, “I am Who Am.” And the Son proceeds from the Father as the Father’s own Self knowledge. This is why Our Lord is called “Eternal Wisdom.” It is also why we attribute Truth to God the Son (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life), Who is in conformity to the Father. (The Father is Reality, the son is Truth. As Truth conforms to reality, the Son conforms to the Father.) To be (i.e. to exist), the thing can be on its own. Two are not necessary to be, but two are necessary to know. And it is only when we know, that there can be truth. The old maxim, “He knows an awful lot that ain’t,” presupposes a profound truth. If we know what is not, then it is not knowledge. The very notion of knowledge requires truth.

Let us go from Descartes to Leibnitz. He was a disciple of Descartes, having been completely fascinated by his thinking. He wrote a book called the Monadology. It is astounding to what depth the Monadology anticipated much of the scientific truths we now know which were not known in his time. Certainly, there is a very deep aspect of truth to it. Though the monad is not an atom, it approaches the same concept. The monad is indivisible, simple, and impermeable to outside influence. Atomism is one of the ways materialism expresses itself, reducing everything into atoms. But monadism crosses the barrier between the physical and the metaphysical. The monad is somehow a summary of the entire universe in one little focal point. The biggest monad would be a human soul. But this concept has it that even God is a monad — the super monad.

According to Leibnitz, the real world is wholly inaccessible to us. We human monads are pre-programmed to know what we know. Everything comes from inside us without any external influence. “I see a tree, not necessarily because the tree is there, but because I am a monad which was programmed to see that tree.” It is a new rendering of the sophistry of Gorgias. Leibniz does talk about “the real world,” so he did not fall into the first pit — the rejection of all reality. Instead, he waited for the second pit, saying that reality is not knowable. He is not saying there is nothing, because he still thinks there is something; but it does not take too long before some other German will come after him and be more “logical.” It was not such a large jump from Leibniz to saying, “Why do we need the real world?”

The monad is just a little thing, and it contains a little universe, a little dream-world that is unique to it. We ask, “Well, how is it that we do have something in common in our dreams. How can we exchange ideas? How do two of us, who are two independant monads, completely unaffected by the real world, see the same tree?” To this Leibniz answers that there is a pre-established harmony. (Incredible!) This is the genius of the Germans; nothing can stop their train of logic. They can be so consistent in their error. A pre-established harmony is like two people watching two independent movies that have nothing to do with each other, yet somehow are exactly the same movie. So when the Apostles saw Our Lord ascend into Heaven, it was just twelve monads having twelve different dreams, all of which coincided; but which have no necessary connection with reality. By this pre-established harmony, we live in the best of all possible worlds according to Leibnitz. This last position is a denial of the Fall. Now, it is amazing how all these errors parody something true. “We know that to them that love God,” says St. Paul, “all things work together unto good.” (Rom. 8:28) If we love God, then we do live in the best possible world. Nothing can defeat us. Even sufferings, adversities, death, all work for our good. But Leibnitz was not talking about that; he was talking about cosmology. One of his statements is, “The monad has no windows.” This means that each monad is a little divinity closed on itself and it has no way of knowing if there is anything outside of itself.

Now we come to Spinoza, the father of modern pantheism.

Modern thought, as resolving itself into a theological position, has had two alternatives: Deism and Pantheism. How do we explain this duality very quickly? Believe it or not, these matters can be explained in very simple terms. Deism puts God very far away. Pantheism puts Him too close. The deist has a god, but he is only the first cause. He is the one who somehow starts things going in the whole world, but after that he will never interfere. He is the “great architect” who never enters into history by way of revelation or miracles. He could not care less about what we feel or do. The pantheist, instead of keeping God as far away as possible, identifies Him with nature. The pantheists say that we are all part of God — we are all divine. In the Faith, of course, God is very far, as far as His attributes are far from us. But he is also very near, since in Him we move and live and are. And in the supernatural order, there is that greater intimacy with God that comes from becoming the Mystical Body, from receiving Christ and being one with Him. But this is not Pantheism. A Catholic knows that while God is everywhere, God is not everything. All these things are very great Christian values, and good philosophy prepares at least the vocabulary for expressing them.

Among the philosophers or prophets of Masonry (and Masonry is the spirit of the world ever since the seventeenth century) are Voltaire, a deist, and Rousseau, a pantheist. Both equally deny and reject the supernatural order (revelation, miracles, the sacraments, etc.) And while they seem to be complete opposites, they somehow move easily from one to the other, and both agree in making God impersonal. Yet, despite their common opposition to the supernatural, they still present entirely different approaches. Those who have studied Masonry very thoroughly tell us that in the first grades it is deistic; but the deeper philosophy of Masonry is pantheistic. And, of course, the devil is not an atheist; he is a pantheist. He did not say there is no God. He said, “I am going to be like God.” The devil felt the divine spark in his very nature. Now, no creature by nature is divine. But the two, namely, the nature of God and the nature of a creature met as one Person in the unique case of the Hypostatic Union — the Incarnation. There are two ways of bypassing the Incarnation. One way is to deny that a Divine Person became man (the deistic denial). Another way is to say that every human being is somehow an incarnation (the pantheistic denial). One denies the very fact, the other universalizes it. In many of the false religions can be found the doctrine of multiple incarnations of god. The Catholic Faith says that there is only one Son of God by nature. The only way to become children of God is to be united to Him by grace. That is the Catholic Faith, and it is neither Pantheism nor Deism.

Spinoza was a Jew who was thrown out of his synagogue for being a pantheist. He said that god, nature, and substance are all the same thing, expressing it this way: Deus sive substantia sive natura: “god or substance or nature.” He followed much of the thinking of Descartes in the realm of ontology. Like Descartes, he was a mathematicist who worked out philosophical thought as if it were a series of math problems. But his main problem was his pantheism. We should recall the definition of substance as the compound of form and matter. Without this hylomorphism, there is no Philosophia Perennis. To illustrate Spinoza’s error, let us quote him: “By substance I understand that which exists in itself and is conceived through itself; that is, that thing the concept of which does not have need for the concept of any other thing, by which it must be formed.” Now, to summarize this briefly, we can say, “Substance is limited to that which is completely non-contingent.” As we learned in cosmology, the only thing that is non-contingent (the ” prime mover” behind the ens mobile) is God. Well, that is what Spinoza concluded using this incorrect definition of substance: Substance is god. So what are we? Modes. Human beings are just different modes of substance that are determined to do what we do. From this conclusion, Spinoza attempts to produce an ethics. We can just imagine what happens to ethics in a system where man is just a mode or an attribute of all of nature. Man is like some cog in a big machine. Spinoza said, “Man cannot be considered as an empire within another empire.” In other words, since man is just a part of god (or nature), he has no independent will. Good and evil become ridiculous concepts, and the only hope for attaining freedom is through knowledge of ones bondage to the universe.

Let us now very quickly continue to present some of the leading men we consider as the founders of what we call the “modern mind.” We have already discussed the continental philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz. The English philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and David Hume ought also to be considered. But since they are more familiar to us, and will be discussed at greater length when the seventh volume in our series is published, we shall only briefly mention here their influence on future thought. Berkeley had a great influence on idealism, both on the continent and in the English-speaking world. David Hume, the skeptic, had great influence on Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). And the importance of Kant, as far as the structure of the modern mind is concerned, is almost immeasurable. It has been said that Immanuel Kant is to the modern world what St. Thomas was to the ages of Faith.

Kant began with the problem of knowledge. He tried to examine how we can know anything. If we know, the knowledge, of course, is in us. How do we know there is anything outside? We cannot know anything except according to our perceptibility. So nothing can be known by us, except according to the universal laws of our receptivity for them. He ends up — and it will take much more than a few sentences to show how he gets to this conclusion — with space and time all in his mind. The whole world is right in his mind, and God alone knows if there is anything else. It is yet more subjectivism.

Now let us quickly review some of the attributes of the modern mind as we have observed them so far in this chapter. The modern mind is very individualistic. We speak today of Thomistic philosophy, but St. Thomas would be the first one to object to that term. To give his name to Philosophia Perennis would be too much for his humility. He would find that absolutely repulsive. But while St. Thomas would never have thought of attributing a philosophy to his own invention, every modern philosopher assumes that nobody has ever thought before he did. (If the author ever thought truth were something that never occurred in the world until he was born, he would despair and quit attempting to be a philosopher.) So a respect for tradition was part and parcel of the spirit of people like St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and all the great Scholastics. It is the very opposite today. Everyone has to begin as if he were the very first beginning — the first one to find the truth, and will therefore give his name to a whole school of thought. So one is a Leibnizian, a Kantian, a Hegelian, a Marxist, etc.

Another aspect of modern thought is the tendency towards monisms. (We have already discussed what a monism is.) Modern philosophers like to reduce things to some single principle, while the tradition of sound philosophy, beginning with Aristotle, has a place for every type of reality. One of the monisms that has had a particularly strong influence on modern philosophy is a kind of mathematical monism. Philosophers have always been fascinated with mathematics, beginning with Pythagoras, who thought the ultimate reality is mathematical. The fascination for the certitude we can get in mathematics and the clarity which can preside in it, has led many mathematicians to assume that the greatest wisdom is something mathematical. One of the people who committed this fault to the limit was Spinoza, who defined philosophy as the generalization of mathematics. Though among the Greeks it was Pythagoras who was particularly guilty of mathematicism (or mathematical empiricism), even Plato was tinged with this tendency. These thinkers exaggerated the ontological status of mathematics. It was Aristotle who characteristically and very clearly defined the ontological realm of mathematics as “the science of the accident of quantity.” As soon as we realize mathematics is concerned with accidents, we know that it can never touch the realm of substance. Its ontological status is very clearly determined. It can be exact and accurate in its realm, but it never penetrates substance, essence, or being.

Another error of modern philosophy, the last one we will discuss, is its preoccupation with theories of knowledge. In Greek philosophy, there was no such thing as epistemology. In modern philosophy it is almost all they talk about. And what is epistemology? The theory of knowledge. Their preoccupation with knowledge has led modern thinkers into so many of their errors. It is the kind of thing the Greeks took for granted: If we cannot know, why even raise the question? The Greeks and the Medievals just begin with the fact that we do know, and then they proceed to see how to clarify our knowledge. This is the subject for our next chapter and the seventh book in the series, epistemology.

1 Let us recall something we said in the previous chapter: the three negations of Gorgias, the Sophist, presented in three great volumes. The first volume was to prove that there is nothing. The second volume was to say, even if there were anything, we could not know it. And the third volume was to say, even if anybody knew it, he could never tell it to anybody else. These are three arch-negations. The genuine tradition of philosophy, Philosophia Perennis, is the affirmation of the complete contrary of each one of them. There is definite reality, it can be known, and once known it can be communicated. It is precisely this concept of the existence of universals and man’s ability to abstract that is in jeopardy in the erroneous schools of the Middle Ages and of the present.

2 Though this is in no way a complete list of modern philosophers, it is a selection of the most influential among them. All of the trends in modern thought are present in these men.

3 Of course, if we deny the fact that there is such a thing as truth, then we have destroyed one of the greatest values of all culture, and the hallmark of any real civilization.