17 Aug., 2000
Author: George Irbe
Back to George's Views
Of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Adler
Ancient philosophers, including Aristotle, recognized that there are certain indefinable concepts and propositions which are, nevertheless, real and self-evident truths. The understanding of them is based on our innate consciousness of our existence and on the powers of our common-sense reason. These terms and propositions rest on "truth of understanding." Even so, as Adler relates in The Time of Our Lives and several other works, modern philosophers have questioned the validity of certain of the indefinable predicates, e.g. "good" and "bad," and of certain assertive propositions containing such predicates, when they are used in the absolute and normative sense.
Mortimer J. Adler has very ably and elegantly proven, in his many books on the subject, the unassailability of the eternal, self-evident truths of understanding which have been recognized as such by common-sense thinkers for millennia; at the same time he has pointed out the errors and deficiencies in the thinking process of the modern doubters of these truths. Adler shows, in The Time of Our Lives, p. 134, that we must distinguish between two kinds of both a priori and a posteriori truths. We have a priori truth which is either a) verbal or tautological truth, or b) truth of understanding; and we have a posteriori truth which is either a) descriptive truth, or b) normative truth. The point of contention with modern thinkers has been, of course, the validity of the concepts of "truth of understanding" and "normative truth."
If the likes of David Hume, A.J. Ayer, and many others who belong to their school of thought have seen fit to disparage and deny the very concepts of "truth of understanding" and "normative truth," (concepts that are arrived at by common-sense reasoning, if one only takes the trouble), then, surely, there are even better grounds to question the veracity of terms that theologians are wont to toss about with great abandon; terms like "revealed truth," "divine revelation," "grace of God," "article of faith," "it is written in Sacred Scripture," etc. There is no cause or reason to question these terms when theologians use them in their religious homilies and writings. However, it is a different matter when theologians employ their "revealed truths" while engaging philosophers in discussions which are purportedly held on the philosophers' home field of rationality. Then the theologian uses these terms as irrational cudgels -- which they are in the intellectual sense -- to silence the rationality and common sense of the philosopher whenever the philosopher appears to be gaining the upper hand in the debate; then the theologian is bound to play his trump card of "revealed truth," which will win the trick for him most of the time, due to the meek deference shown toward the theologian by most philosophers who do not want to be labeled as boorish atheists who attack another man's "faith".
In my view, the prime example of the paradox of a philosopher of great intellect bowing in obeisance to a dogmatic theologian is that of Mortimer J. Adler. He is arguably the greatest expounder and proselytizer of the common-sense Aristotelian moral philosophy of all time, but he, nevertheless, pays homage to Thomas Aquinas who adulterated Aristotle's moral philosophy to suit Christian dogmas, and who, from what is known, held pure, non-religious philosophy and its advocates in low esteem.
Adler writes, in A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror, p. 264, that already at the age of twenty, when he encountered Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, its " ... intellectual austerity, integrity, precision, and brilliance ... put the study of theology highest among all of my philosophical interests." Later, on p. 265, Adler says that for nearly all theologians of the Middle Ages, including Aquinas, "... religious faith, or the dogmas of their religions, provided them with the unquestionable principles of their theology. I learned from Aquinas that their faith was a gift from God. They had faith by the grace of God, not by a voluntary act on their part, ...".
Adler says that encountering Aquinas put the study of theology highest among his philosophical interests. However, I would guess that he is known by most people from his most popular books as the great expounder of the purely secular Aristotelian moral philosophy, and by no means as a philosophizing theologian.
Adler holds Aquinas in high esteem, despite the mutilation of Aristotle's concepts by the biased theologian. It is difficult to fathom Adler's motivation. Even though he claims that he was interested only in the philosophical implications of Aquinas' Christian faith and that what "... for Aquinas was philosophy serving as the handmaiden of theology ..." was for Adler "... just a philosophical exercise ...", this claim does not sound completely truthful in light of Adler's subsequent decision to be baptized a Christian. And only if Adler had this yearning to become a Christian can his admiration for the "unquestionable principles of their theology" be explained; is the unquestionability of these principles, in Adler's view, equivalent to the unquestionability of Aristotle's self-evident truths of understanding? And is one to conclude that Adler, too, believes with Aquinas that God selects only the elite of Christendom, never someone who has no knowledge of, or belief in, Christianity, in order to extend to the Christian elite, and them only, the gift of faith? Is faith an exclusively Christian property?
Apparently, Adler did not think so when he wrote How to Think About God. At the beginning of that book, Adler declares: "The dictionary meaning of the word 'pagan' identifies a large section of the population - all those who do not worship the God of the Christians, the Jews, or the Muslims. However, when the dictionary goes on to equate one who does not worship the God of the Christians, Jews, or Muslims with an irreligious person, it is speaking in parochial Western terms. Among the earth's population are many who do not worship the God of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but who are not irreligious persons." Shortly thereafter, on p. 16, he states: "In the three monotheistic religions of the West - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - the proposition that God exists is not an article of faith or religious belief. The first article of faith in all three religions is that God has revealed himself to us in Holy Writ or Sacred Scripture. This, of course, entails the affirmation that the God who has revealed himself exists. But it goes far beyond that proposition to something that can never be proved, or even argued about, something that is always and only an article of faith or religious belief: namely, the fact of Divine revelation."
In my opinion, How to Think About God is Mortimer Adler's finest creative work. Its beauty lies in its affirmation of God without contradicting one iota of Aristotle's common-sense moral philosophy. Adler deserves credit for recognizing that one need not be of 'the people of the Book' to have religious faith. The dogmatism of the three monotheistic religions, and, by implication, their incompatibility with rational thought and philosophy, is also made very clear. Holy Writ or Sacred Scripture and Divine revelation are not to be disputed. Discussion can only proceed with these articles of faith accepted as a given. But then, can the discussion be rational? Can the unchallengeable articles of faith be equivalent to that great self-evident normative principle defined by Adler in The Time of Our Lives? I think not.
Even though Adler concedes that people who are other than Christian, Jewish, or Muslim have, nonetheless, the capacity to hold religious beliefs (a concession welcomed by all who have a sincere and other than biblical belief in God), he then declares in A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror that only the three biblical religions are true religions because they claim to be "supernatural knowledge, based on divine revelation" (p. 272). I would like to posit, to the contrary, that a truly enlightening and genuine religious belief is one that does not rely on a record -- written or oral -- of apparitions and unnatural phenomena or events, ancient or modern, to justify its existence; and one which does not create schisms and hostility in society by claiming the spiritual and moral high ground for its followers and designating all unbelievers as belonging to a spiritually and morally lower caste. One needs but to reflect on the incalculable damage done to the progress of Western civilization by the unending trilateral strife waged by our three monotheistic religions. No matter how loving these religions are professed to be in their respective "Holy Writs," to this day the practitioners of these religions have been, in their practice of it, anything but loving toward others who are not of their faith. Think of Ireland, Indonesia, the Balkans, Palestine, and many other places where terrorism and warfare are waged in the name of one or another of the three monotheistic religions at this very time.
I want to make another important point concerning the three religions which are based on Holy Writ or Sacred Scripture. Their character is decidedly totalitarian. There is an uncanny resemblance in the mode of thinking and acting by the believers of these religions and the believers in the secular totalitarian faiths which blossomed in the 20th century. We find the same claims to absolute, unquestionable truth by those who go by the Bible, or the Koran, or Das Kapital, or the Thoughts of Mao, or Mein Kampf. Every one of them claims exclusive rights to the future. There is the same appropriation and subornation of good and decent ideas to fit the dogmas of the believers. There are similar oppressive actions taken to try to eradicate from the consciousness of a servile population those historical and cultural memories which are inimical to the cause. Written records of the past are selectively destroyed, and unauthorized association in groups having non-compliant or adversary purposes is a punishable offense. The religious line, or party line, as the case may be, is inculcated in the minds of the populace, usually by reading and discussing passages from the Holy Writ in organized and controlled public assemblies, attendance at which might be compulsory. All the arts are made to serve the faith: paintings, statues, theatrical productions, and musical compositions -- in particular, songs to be sung by the population at large -- must carry a theme that is complimentary to the faith. One could think of many other similarities shared by the religious and totalitarian creeds, but these will suffice to make the point.
The sensible thing for a common-sense philosopher to do, then, is to keep one's distance from the "faithful" in matters philosophical. As Adler says, their articles of faith are not to be argued about. If one is naive or foolish enough to engage in philosophical debate with the "faithful," one will encounter intellectual abuse. So, why bother. And if some may think that the words "intellectual abuse" is too crass a term to use, consider the attitude, as reported by Adler, of his life-long friend, the faithful Catholic Jacques Maritain who rejects the premises of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics because "... Aristotle proceeds on a hypothesis about human nature that is contrary to fact -- the fact in this case being revealed truth about man" (The Time of Our Lives, p. 264). Some fact, that, some truth.
All in all, Adler has always been very deferential and muted in his criticism of the Christian theologians (past and present) with whom he has consorted philosophically and, one assumes, also theologically from early on in his life as a philosopher. (This is another paradox concerning Adler, at least it is to me. Near the end of his long life, Adler has finally gone hard-core religious by embracing the Catholic faith. To a pagan this all has the undertones of a "fatal attraction.")
Having as much adulation for Aquinas as he does, Adler offers rather mild criticism of him for suborning and appropriating Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics for Christian ends. Adler says, "Looked at one way, this represents a transformation of Aristotle's doctrine, assimilating what truth there is in it to the dogmas of Christian moral theology; but looked at another way, it represents a rejection of Aristotle's position as false in its own terms ...". Adler concludes with a more accusatory statement, but it is directed not at Aquinas but at Christian dogma in general, which "... makes a sound and adequate moral philosophy inherently impossible." (The Time of Our Lives, p. 263). Adler became a Christian in 1984, at the age of 82. He certainly had ample time before that to develop his moral philosophy of common sense which was based on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. We can, therefore, count ourselves fortunate that Adler did not become a Christian already when only in his twenties, when he became a great admirer of Aquinas. If that had happened, it would have been impossible for Adler to develop his moral philosophy.
Realizing how much attraction -- self-declared -- Adler has to Thomas Aquinas, it was appropriate to make a quick consultation of the opinions on Aquinas by other competent scholars. The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (1993) of the well-known Cambridge Companions series serves that purpose. Books in this series are intended as overviews and as guides to further reading for students of philosophy. One can therefore expect that the several authors contributing to the Companion to Aquinas have kept their personal biases about the subject to a minimum. As the following excerpts from the Companion show below, Thomas Aquinas was first of all a doctrinaire and dogmatic theologian, and only incidentally a philosopher. Aquinas was born and died literally in the shadow of Rome. Christianity reigned supreme with all of its dogmatic oppressiveness in his part of the world during his lifetime (1224-1274). One did not become a scholar or survive as a scholar, unless one extolled the "party line" of the Church. It was the era of totalitarian rule by Christianity in Europe.
Aquinas is quoted as saying,
It is impossible that a theological truth contradict a philosophical truth. ... If, however, in the writings of the philosophers one finds anything contrary to faith, it is not philosophy, but rather an abuse of philosophy stemming from a defect of reason. (p. 34)
This is eerily evocative of the kind of logic and line of argument one finds in What is to be done? written by another man, in the service of another faith, at a later time, namely V.I. Lenin.
In another parallel with modern totalitarianism, Aquinas considered theology to be a science superior to the natural sciences and philosophy:
Faith is the perfection of natural knowledge. Aquinas advances this principle in order to explain why theology, the science that is based on the articles of faith, makes use of "human reason and the authority of philosophers." In his theological works he assigns philosophy an important place in the rational account of the truth of the faith. Aquinas is a theologian by profession. (p. 35)
And perhaps Aquinas has been over-rated as a philosopher by some, because
... whatever philosophy there is in Aquinas can be approached only through his theology if it is to be approached as he intended it. His writings are overwhelmingly on the topics and in the genres of the medieval faculties of theology. He wrote almost always in what is self-evidently the voice of a theologian. (p. 232)
[According to Aquinas] The philosophers seek authority by dispute, while the Lord teaches believers to come peacefully under a divinely constituted authority. ... one can turn to Aquinas' very explicit judgments on the doctrines and the promises of the philosophers. ... In academic writings, whenever Aquinas argues for the appropriateness of God's revealing what might have been demonstrated, he insists on the weakness and fallibility of unaided human reason. (p. 234)
The following excerpts all reinforce the image of Aquinas as the defender of the "faith" with logic very much like that of a totalitarian of our own times. Particularly telling is the technique of inverting the facts to support a lie, as in the case of calling the philosophers the usurpers of the truth, and claims to "several rights exercised by theologians over philosophy: a right to own philosophical truths, a right to correct philosophical errors, and a right to re-direct philosophical motivation."
Frequently [Aquinas] draws a line between what the philosophers think or say and what "we" believers say. He makes the contrast clear when he constructs a trichotomy of philosophy, the Law of the Old Testament, and the Gospel of the New. The light of philosophy was false; the light of Law was symbolic; the light of the Gospels is true. Again, philosophy is "earthly" and "carnal" wisdom, "according to the natures of things and the desires of the flesh"; "we" Christians live rather by grace. "... those who use philosophical texts in sacred teaching, by subjugating them to faith, do not mix water with wine, but turn water into wine." "Subjugating" philosophy to theology seems to mean several things. First, it means that the theologian takes truth from the philosophers as from usurpers. The ground of philosophic truth is thus asserted to be revealing God who is more fully and accurately described in theology. This suggests, second, that theology serves as a corrective to philosophy. As Aquinas puts it in one of his sermons, "Faith can do more than philosophy in much; so that if philosophy is contrary to faith, it is not to be accepted." ... "Are the reasoning and the traditions of men always to be rejected?" He answers, "No, but rather when matter-bound reasoning proceeds according to them and not according to Christ." ... Philosophical inquiries ought always to serve a theological end. (p. 235)
Aquinas likens the theologian's use of philosophy to the miraculous transformation of water into wine. ... Aquinas intends the image of substantial change with some seriousness. Just as the water became wine, so the philosophical materials become something else when taken up by Christian theology. This ... image is ... the image of "subjugating" philosophy to Christ. ... "subjugation" could be understood as several rights exercised by theologians over philosophy: a right to own philosophical truths, a right to correct philosophical errors, and a right to re-direct philosophical motivation. (p. 247)
We are left, then, with two responses from Aquinas to the modern reader's question about the relation of philosophy to theology. The first response is that the question must be reformulated so that it asks about theology's transforming incorporation of philosophy. Theology is related to philosophy as whole to part. The second response is that a Christian theology done well ought to speak more and better things about matters of concern to philosophy than the philosophers themselves can say. If a Christian theology cannot do this, Aquinas would not count it theology done well. (p. 248)
Adler admits to having struggled with the intellectual difficulties in transiting from being a philosopher to a philosophizing Christian. He writes in A Second Look that "... it is much easier to be a philosopher without religion than to be a philosopher after acquiring religious faith. It is much easier to have blind faith, but that is not an option open to a philosopher. If he has religious faith, he then has the obligation to think about the dogmas of his religion". (p. 267)
Adler then remarks on a key aspect of totalitarian faith: one must believe its dogma categorically; it can be detrimental to one's well-being to analyze it; it is easier and safer to not even think about thinking about it. In Adler's words: "I suspect that most of the individuals who have religious faith are content with blind faith. They feel no obligation to understand what they believe. They may even wish not to have their beliefs disturbed by thought. But if God in whom they believe created them with intellectual and rational powers, that imposes upon them the duty to try to understand the creed of their religion. Not to do so is to verge on superstition". (p. 267) The slippery dilemma that Adler faces is this: how is one to separate or sort out religious faith, which is not to be questioned, from superstition which can and should be questioned? Only by questioning the make-up of something can we learn what it is and what purpose, if any, it serves.
I have found Adler to be incredibly naive about the way some things are in the real world. In A Second Look, p. 273, he cites a passage from his book Truth in Religion: "As a philosopher concerned with truth in religion, I would like to hear leading twentieth-century theologians speaking as apologists for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam engage in a disputation. The question at issue would be which of these three religions had a greater claim to truth. It being conceded that each has a claim to some measure of truth, which of these three can rightly claim more truth than the other two?" Can one realistically expect that any theologian (no matter how avant-garde progressive) from any of the three religions would ever back down from the position that his faith, without question, has the greatest claim to truth? The answer is, with absolute certainty, No. If such a disputation, as proposed by Adler, were to be conducted in a meeting convened for that purpose, there is a high likelihood of physical violence between the disputants.
Obviously, Adler has (or had at the time of writing the above passage) no clue about what "real-religion" is like on the ground and in the streets. He seems to have been just as naive and ignorant about the nature of "real-socialism" when he wrote The Time of Our Lives in 1970. The Time of Our Lives is an excellent presentation of the entire breadth and scope of the common-sense moral philosophy based on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But the book would not suffer any loss in content at all, and would spare the reader a demonstration of Adler's incompetence in political matters, if Part Four of the book were omitted entirely. In Part Four of The Time of Our Lives Adler committed a truly obscene error when he ranked the "evil empire" -- the slave state of the Soviet Union and its vassal states -- as having a general quality of life of the individual equivalent to that of Great Britain and the states of Western Europe. Indeed, all the autocracies at the time -- like Spain, Portugal and the states in Central and South America (excluding Cuba), which Adler ranked below the states having real-socialist tyrannies, were in fact incomparably more free in the economic and social sense; in reality, the autocracies ranked above the real-socialist tyrannies. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the academe of higher learning in the United States was completely intimidated, terrorized, and held in thrall by the rampaging, Soviet-backed, organized Left. Perhaps the obscene error in Part Four of The Time of Our Lives was simply a sop to the Left, in order to avoid their enmity.
The above is, admittedly, a digression from the main topic. However, it serves to demonstrate that Adler can be wrong, even very wrong, when he has to deal with the realities of this world. Christianity, during most of its history, has been not only a faith but also -- and this perhaps of more importance in the real, practical sense -- a political institution with a definite penchant for totalitarian practices, which it still is in some of the backwaters of Christendom. It seems that Adler sees only the idealized side of it, and speaks only to the ideologues of the Church.
Already in 1940, in God and the Professors, Adler proclaimed an idealistic ultimatum, consisting of eight demands of belief that one has to meet in order to lay claim to being of genuine faith. "He who denies any of them denies religion, in any sense which makes it distinct in character from science and philosophy," Adler declared. Now that he has embraced fully the Catholic faith, he himself must assent to all these demands, of which #7 reads: "Sacred theology is superior to philosophy, both theoretically and practically: theoretically, because it is more perfect knowledge of God and His creatures; practically, because moral philosophy is insufficient to direct man to God as his last end."
I guess that statement #7 is what is called a Thomistic concept. It bears evidence of Aquinas' tampering with the Aristotelian idea of the ultimate end. Instead of being, as defined by Aristotle, the state of happiness at the end of a whole good life, the last (ultimate) end becomes, in Aquinas' interpretation, going to God in the afterlife. Does Mortimer Adler now also discard Aristotle's happiness as the ultimate end and strive, instead, to reach God as his last end? If that is the case, happiness by itself now has a far lesser importance for Adler; it is no longer his ultimate end.
However, Mortimer Adler has made a great contribution to the revival of the only common-sense and non-religious moral philosophy which was codified by Aristotle on the basis of the nature of man and the virtues he should cultivate. Adler has brought great joy, hope, and confidence to all mankind by reminding all of us that there is a religion-free, universal moral code which we all should live by for our own good here on earth. That is a most liberating and exhilarating gift Adler has given to us. There are individuals we remember historically for specific contributions of great value to the evolution of civilization, while we forget (except as a footnote) their other, perhaps contrary, but inconsequential, acts and in some cases even their foibles and insufferable personal conduct. Similarly, Mortimer Adler will be remembered by history for giving us the "Aquinas-free" rendition of Aristotelian moral philosophy, and not for his personal decision to become first a Christian and then a Catholic Christian. Adler's conversion to Christianity is as inconsequential to the unadulterated Aristotelian ethics he has taught so earnestly and for so many years as it is inconsequential to Christianity that emperor Constantine, who literally endowed the Church with the secular power necessary for its growth and success in the centuries to come, was a practicing pagan all his life who thought of himself as the Sun god, superior to the Christians' Jesus and who was baptized, like Pascal, only at the approach of death. In the intellectual sense Mortimer Adler has been the Constantine for Aristotle's secular moral philosophy.
The Time of Our Lives, by Mortimer J. Adler; Fordham U. Press, 1996.
How to Think About God, by Mortimer J. Adler; Macmillan, 1980.
A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror, by Mortimer J. Adler; Macmillan, 1992.
The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas; Cambridge U. Press, 1993.
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