The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: What Philosophers Play With
James V. Schall, S.J. - 06/25/08

Last Things is the regular column of Fr. James V. Schall.

In the Notebooks (Carnet de Notes), of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, I came across this amusing entry from April 10, 1906: “Philosophers play with fire (poets also). Nothing is as comical as a course at the Sorbonne, in which an enervated professor expounds his historical views to some dunces, and discusses David Hume as peacefully as Plato. Does this seem dead to you? Fortunately, not the slightest spark flies!” The reader can relax. Schall, enervated or otherwise, is not about to expound on David Hume, except for one shinning moment.

That moment came years ago while reading Charles N. R. McCoy’s much neglected book, The Structure of Political Thought. In discussing what he called “The Outcome of Autonomous Natural Law,” McCoy came to Hume. “Since the intention of this teaching was to show the absence of any necessity in nature, it followed also that—as Hume expressly stated it—‘the contrary of every matter of fact is… possible, because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness as if ever so conformable to reality’” (226). This passage provided for me a most luminous moment of understanding.

For the logic of Hume explained how a philosophy could make the very world in front of him disappear. If the principle of contradiction did not hold, if anything that stood before me could be the opposite of what it was, we have already here the intelligibility of all forms of voluntarism be it in theology, in science, or in politics. The principle had antecedents found in the Euthyphro, in Duns Scotus, in Islam. The will of God, the Prince, or the Philosopher could make everything disappear.

Modern philosophy was left with the task of having to explain how the world could exist when it had just proved that what was before its very face could, while still there, be its opposite. What was left was only its own imaginings fortified by science and technology. The real task in the modern world, however, as I later learned from Chesterton, is to restore reason to be reason, something that only faith seemed interested in doing. The tepid “spark” of Hume’s principle, as it were, was that of a dying actual world. I found it, I must confess, eye-opening.

Plato, however, is another matter. It is, I have found, difficult to read Plato without sparks or fire. Of course, anyone who knows Plato, especially the Laws, is familiar with the special use that the verb “to play” has in his philosophy. We would likely read Maritain’s good phrase—“Philosophers play with fire”—to mean that its subject matter is a dangerous, burning thing, to be approached with the greatest caution, like firemen going to confront a furious blaze. But then firemen are not described as “playing” in a frolicking water fight before the flames.

The notion that philosophy could be thought to be dull or useless also goes back to Plato. So does the notion that it is not, that it is fire. Socrates spent his time roaming Athens, as he tells us, as a “gadfly,” as someone who wanted to wake the citizens up to examine their lives about the important things. This awakening was something they were very reluctant to do. They figured it was easier to get rid of Socrates rather than follow his proddings. So they eliminated him in an act, perhaps more than any other, that has kept philosophy alive among us. Philosophy has a bad name whenever and wherever it has ceased to be what it is, a pursuit of the truth.

When Socrates turned his attention to our lives, he said that they were not important. He was not being funny, but he was being paradoxical. He did not mean that we did not need food, clothing, shelter, even perhaps some luxuries, as Glaucon rather contemptuously described the situation in the Republic. It is not that there was nothing serious in the universe. The trick was to find what it was. This “finding” was what philosophy was about. We are thus called the “playthings” of the gods. Socrates tells us that this status is the best thing about us. We cannot help but be astonished at this news about which probably no one has ever told us.

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