Pope John Paul II – now St. John Paul II, in the Roman Catholic Church – was a wise man in many regards. One of them was in his realization that part of the root of our present-day malaise is philosophical: putting “Descarte before the horse,” as it were, by adopting the Cartesian axiom that thought is prior to being (“I think, therefore I am”):
“Before Descartes, philosophy was concerned with being (esse), with what was real and with the reasoning necessary to bring the mind to an adequate knowledge of that reality. Since Descartes, the concern has been primarily (even exclusively) with questioning the instrument of reason — that is, with analyzing thought [cogito] …
“In the early twentieth century, the advocates of neo-Thomism (a renewal of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s method of philosophy and theology) chose this Cartesian ‘break’ as the obstacle to be overcome: we must get back to the reality of being and out of the cobwebbed darkness of thought, where philosophy had in a sense languished, turning and turning upon itself, unable to gain any traction. [In contrast to Descartes, traditional philosophical thought — not to mention a common-sense grasp of reality — has asserted that] extra-mental being [objective existence] was prior to thought and consciousness: real things stir the intellect into activity in the first place, and so there was no reason to begin philosophy in thought. Thought, in a sense, begins in being.”
Precisely so. With all due respect to Descartes, if “I think, therefore I am,” what is that “me” that has the faculty of thought? What of infants, who are hardly capable of abstract and reflective though? Do they not in fact exist? And what of the rest of the world, on which our thought rests, that which we observe, concerning which we reflect, and on and within which we act? Is that purely a mental construct? A literal reading of cogito ergo sum would suggest that, at least; thus unlocking a Pandora’s Box of existential – literally! – issues.
And because we have, since Descartes, prioritized our own thoughts, our own ideas, over the given-ness of objective reality, we find ourselves in our current bizarre situation, where we expect not only ourselves but others to accept how we “self-identify” over the reality of our given nature; we expect our ideas of the way things should be to overcome the reality of the way things are. We see the fruits of this line of thought in so many areas of contemporary life that it is hardly necessary to cite examples, but the burgeoning plethora of supposed “genders” and transgenders, not to mention those who “self-identify” more as animals than as human, are particularly notable examples of the trend.
John Paul II, however – while open to more contemporary currents in philosophical and theological thought – was careful not to build castles in the air:
“If theology lost its grounding in sound realist metaphysics, its truths would inevitably be lost-by-metamorphosis in the processes of inculturation and ecumenical rearticulation. If humanity in general lost confidence in being as the ground of reality and in reason as ordered to being, as the neo-Thomists claimed it was, then there would be no platform on which honest dialogue could occur among believers and nonbelievers.”
Everything would be reduced to competing ideas, subjective impressions and theoretical musings, with no objective sense of reality itself. As indicated above, we’re seeing a lot of this sort of thing today! John Paul II was more nuanced, however, and much wiser. He did not by any means discount personal, subjective experience, but rather asserted that
“it is in our particular, personal encounter with God’s revelation within the horizon of historical experience that all our reasoning takes place. In the personal interior experience of wonder and desire to know, and in the absolute universality and absolute historical particularity of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God, we wonder, we think, we desire to know the truth about ourselves and about reality. And, in that subjective experience, we become open to encountering in faith what God alone can reveal. In this account of human experience, the distinction between modern “subjective” philosophy and pre-modern “objective” metaphysics vanishes: what we, as subjects, want to know is the truth, that which is objective—unconditioned being, esse, what is real. All truth is universal, but our most profound natural questions call out for answers from a truth that is also absolute and so brings our inquiries—our infinite yearning—to rest.”
Nonetheless, the dangers posed by Cartesian philosophy, which pursued to its logical conclusions leads to not only questioning of reality but reductionism and ultimately nihilism, are real:
Post-Cartesian philosophy, with its impetus to doubt everything, to deny human experience and tradition, and to settle for nothing less than apodictic (self-grounded and self-demonstrating) “mathematical” certainty, ultimately led to a shrinking of mankind’s trust in reason and to a consequent shrinking of the horizon of human experience. If man is, as the pope claims, the creature who knows himself, then this emergence of a culture of doubt was itself dehumanizing. Persistent doubt, in turn, led not to the shelving of expired ideas but to a clearing of the field for evil ones.
I have experienced this myself: perhaps most vividly during my graduate studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, which was imbued with the postmodernist “hermeneutic of suspicion,” itself grounded in the Cartesian cogito. I quickly realized that this was a hermeneutic which demanded to be applied to itself: becoming rapidly and deeply suspicious of the hermeneutic of suspicion, I managed to ground myself and my reflections on the traditional Anglican “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
I saw other students, however – particularly those who had come from a relatively sheltered, traditional Christian upbringing and who were encountering this sort of thing for the first time, without the buffering I had received both from intelligent and reflective Christian parents and some truly gifted professors during my undergraduate studies at Western Maryland College (now “McDaniel College”) – sinking into depression, despair, and at times, self-destructive behaviors, having seen what they thought was solid ground beneath their feet apparently dissolve into suspicion and distrust.
Truly, we are living in “an age largely mired in nihilism (those who do think, believe nothing), pragmatism (the refusal to think in any terms outside those regarding what man can control or dominate), and historical relativism (the presumption that thought is always the useless expression of one’s historically contingent feelings; we thus assume anything is right to the extent it conforms to our pleasurable feelings, even as we recognize that the term ‘right’ is mostly empty of content)”!
One might think – and Descartes presumably thought – that his elevation of the cogito would glorify and inspire the Thought of Man. Led on and inspired by Mind, by Intellect, we would stride on from glory to glory, into a utopian future. What the preeminence of the cogito has done instead is to cut Man adrift in a world devoid of meaning.
In contrast, John Paul II called for nothing less than a recovery of our moorings in the world: “a philosophy attentive to metaphysics in order to reground modern theology in a concern with reality — with objective and absolute truth,” and for “the rediscovery of human life as an intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage whose terrain is always what is real (being) and whose horizons are the specific historical revelation of God’s Word and the ‘infinite mystery’ of God Himself.”
This is no small task, obviously! But it is, I think, an essential one. Otherwise, we will continue to see what we have seen in recent decades (and indeed, in the centuries since Descartes): the replacement of the classical “three Transcendentals” (cf. “The Liturgy as the Union of the Three Transcendentals“) – the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (*) – with an “unholy trinity” of pragmatism, relativism, and nihilism.
We have suffered under their despotic regime for quite long enough.
(* “To destructively compress Plato and the Neoplatonists, all truth points to the transcendent Truth; all good points to the transcendent Good; all beauty points to the transcendent Beauty; and in turn, the transcendent True, Good and Beautiful is the One, the source of all being, which classical theism identifies as God, and is in turn identified with the God of the Bible by orthodox Christianity.“)