Lesson 1: The Modern Project: Significance


A. Basic Themes:

First we must review the basic notion of philosophy, as developed by the ancient Greek thinkers and developed by the medieval philosophers, especially taking note of Thomas Aquinas. At its peak pre-modern philosophy (i.e. ancient and medieval philosophy) is a theoretical attempt to understand the first principles of things; it raises ultimate questions with the hope of catching a glimpse of the eternal visage of Truth. In short, pre-modern philosophy aimed at a contemplation of the divine. One should review or consult Aristotle's Metaphysics Book I chaps 1-2, and Aquinas' commentary as well.

Modern philosophy defines itself as a new thing in opposition to the ancient and medieval philosophy. Modern philosophy reorients the quest to find those principles of things that allow human beings to achieve mastery over nature. It emphasizes self-awareness and is fascinated with human subjectivity and its mark upon all human knowing and striving. It joins together a new science of nature with a new science of ethics and politics, as we shall see in Session 2. But the modern project shows signs of a great crisis. The promise of technology has proven to be ambivalent. As C. S. Lewis has so well explained in Abolition of Man, mastery of nature means mastery of some men over men. Technology has brought us to brink of destruction through war; it has unleashed great new possibilities for the degradation of human beings; it has despoiled the environment. It has allowed the tyrant's fist to hammer harder on the vulnerabilities of human beings through the media, mass brainwashing, and means of espionage and terror. We have abandoned ancient principles of moral education and now wonder where to turn to find the moral wisdom to guide and live the great power, which we have unleashed. Lewis is not unique in wondering whether some kind of repentance, or re-turn, to ancient philosophy may be in order.

So too many philosophers wonder if we may now be in a post-modern age insofar as the basic principles of modern philosophy, solidified by Kant, have become tenuous and questionable. Thinkers like Nietzsche and his contemporary imitators radically questioned the modern claim to truth and progress.

The Catholic Church has been an antagonist of the modern project from the outset, at least in its pretension to make men gods of the earth and to erect a new secular paradise. She has objected to the lowering of moral standards. She has objected to the disregard for religion and neglect of metaphysics and religious truth. Vatican Council II is very significant because we find some new approaches to the way in which Catholics should respond to and understand the modern world. The Church in the Modern World urges Catholics to enter into the hopes and aspirations of modern men and women and to make new efforts to purify from within the quest for freedom, science, and political harmony. John Paul II helped to write this document and the theological philosophical output of his papacy is a grand and profound elaboration of this great document. Catholics are called upon to "redeem the times" to face the challenges to join in partnership with the initiatives of the day and help to ground them in God and return all things to God. In order to do this Catholics must understand the philosophical basis of the modern age. What are its principal goals and aspirations; with what ways do the great modern philosophers struggle with the questions of being, truth, and ethics? We must be thoughtful critics of the modern age in order to fulfill this task of Vatican II. By understanding the origins and methods of modern philosophy we can be ready to offer constructive solutions and deepen the human understanding of the great questions; for it is still the cross that offers the deepest grasp of the human condition. And the wisdom of the pre-moderns, especially concerning the good, and of being, will assist us to provide a great context and wider comprehension of for what modern men and women think and seek.

B. Outlines and Study Guides:

Introduction To Philosophy

Philosophy comes from Greek terms meaning "Love [philos] of wisdom [sophia]"

Wisdom is knowledge of what is most important or a knowledge of first things, or a knowledge of ultimate causes and principles. Such first causes or principles are those, which influence, form and control other causes and principles, which are called "proximate" or "secondary" causes. Philosophy is called a "love" of wisdom because it is first of all a quest or a search for the first things; those who were named "sophists" or wise men, were considered arrogant and boasters. Socrates said that philosophy begins in wonder. It requires an admission of ignorance or a feeling of perplexity about existence. Everyday things, which seem so familiar and about which we have such certain opinions, may sometimes take on a dimension of mystery and depth. Perhaps it takes the shock of death, or love - then we realize that the world provokes our wonder and we begin to ask questions and seek to understand it better. Hence, we may conclude with Jacques Maritain, in his book An Introduction to Philosophy:

CONCLUSION I. -- Philosophy is the science which by the natural light of reason studies the first causes or highest principles of all things -- is in other words, the science of things in their first causes, in so far as these belong to the natural order.

Philosophy is the quest for fundamental causes and principles.
Philosophy is the examination of opinion, with the aim of acquiring greater clarity, consistency and insight.

Here are some of the basic questions of philosophy:


Philosophy has traditionally been divided into three principle parts: (i) Logic, which is the introduction to philosophy; it studies the conceptual apparatus which directs the mind to TRUTH (includes study of method and epistemology, what is knowing); (ii) theoretical or speculative philosophy, which studies the BEING of things (includes nature, psychology, and metaphysics, and philosophy of religion); (iii) practical philosophy which studies the GOOD of human acts (includes ethics and politics and aesthetics, the study of beauty and art).


We cannot always be thinking about these things; we would go crazy, be too intense, too impractical; we need to eat, work, have fun etc. Further we must engage in our special disciplines, like physics, aeronautics, computer science and so forth. But every discipline contains a philosophy and a set of first principles and causes. The great thinkers in every discipline have been "philosophic" insofar as they pushed their thoughts to the ultimate foundations of the discipline. Further, the first principles of any discipline may claim to be ultimate or comprehensive, but that is a dubious claim. Are the laws of physics the comprehensive principles to explain all reality? So no God, no soul, no good, no justice? This is a philosophical question. Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, Darwin et al all engaged in philosophic questioning about the foundations or postulates of their science and questions about the "whole" of which it was part. Philosophy is an attempt to see things "whole," to go beyond one narrow discipline, to see things in the broadest possible context. Hence, again from Maritain --

CONCLUSION II. -- Philosophy is the highest of all branches of human knowledge and is in the true sense wisdom. The other (human) sciences are subject to philosophy, in the sense that it judges and governs them and defends their postulates. Philosophy on the other hand is free in relation to the sciences, and only depends upon them as the instruments which it employs.

Now usually we have some notions about ultimate things; and they derive from religion. Philosophy and religion do venture for similar goals; but philosophy is the use of reason in the pursuit, whereas religion is based in faith. Reason seeks to give a logical account and provide proof. Religion derives from God's revelation of the truth about himself which man could not know if unaided by grace. Because reason cannot finally grasp all of the answers it raises, it is fitting for an inquiring mind to return to faith. But religion itself calls for philosophic inquiry; Augustine said, "Faith seeks understanding." So for the defense of faith, explanation of faith one can use philosophy. Reason may also help in moderating the extremism or fanaticism of faith. Finally we cannot ignore the fact of a pluralism of faiths. Philosophy may help us sort out the contradictions, understand the differences. At the very least, philosophy can help us to make our case by appealing to all men and women of reason and good will. So religion and philosophy may actually assist one another; philosophy is not an intrinsic threat to religious faith (although many use it that way!). At the end of the day, religion may actually turn out to be the superior source. Hence:

CONCLUSION III. -- Theology, or the science of God so far as He has been made known to us by revelation, is superior to philosophy. Philosophy is subject to it, neither in its premises nor in its method, but in its conclusions, over which theology exercises a control, thereby constituting itself a negative rule of philosophy.

Reference: Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1930). See also, Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: New American Library, 1962) J.M. Bochenski, Philosophy (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1962)

C. Readings:

1. "The Apostle Of Our Time" from Thomas Aquinas by Jacques Maritain

The disease afflicting the modern world is in the first place a disease of the mind: it began in the mind, it has now attacked the roots of the mind. Is it surprising that the world should seem to us shrouded in darkness? Si oculus tuus fuerit nequam, totum corpus tuum tenebrosum erit. Just as at the moment when the original sin was committed all the harmony of the human being was shattered, because the order that insists that the reason shall be subject to God had first been violated, so at the root of all our disorders there is apparent, in the first place and above all, a rupture in the supreme ordinations of the mind. The responsibility of philosophers in this respect is enormous. In the sixteenth century, and more particularly in the age of Descartes, the interior hierarchies of the virtue of reason were shattered. Philosophy abandoned theology to assert its own claim to be considered the supreme science, and, the mathematical science of the sensible world and its phenomena taking precedence at the same time over metaphysics, the human mind began to profess independence of God and being. Independence of God: that is to say, of the supreme Object of all intelligence, whom it accepted only half-heartedly until it finally rejected the intimate knowledge of Him supernaturally procured by grace and revelation. Independence of being: that is to say, of the connatural object of the mind as such, against which it ceased to measure itself humbly, until it finally undertook to deduce it entirely from the seeds of geometrical clarity which it conceived to be innate in itself.

We have difficulty in realizing that the ordered relation of the mind to its object should be thus shattered; we have difficulty in realizing -- so material have we become -- the frightful significance, sodden with blood and tears, of those few abstract words; we have difficulty in realizing the tremendous upheaval, the tremendous invisible catastrophe, thereby indicated. The mind is that 'divine' activity, as Aristotle said, that prodigy of light and life, that supreme glory and perfection of created nature, through which we become immaterially all things, through which we shall one day posses our supernatural beatitude, the cause of all our actions on earth so far as they are human actions and of the rectitude of everything we do. Can we conceive what is the meaning for man of the disturbance of that life, which he carries in him and in which the divine light has its share? The revolution inaugurated by Descartes and continued by the philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which merely let loose the destructive forces for ever active in the minds of the children of Adam, is an infinitely greater historical cataclysm than the most formidable upheavals of the crust of the earth or the economy of the nations (page 56-57).

Three main symptoms of the disease afflicting the mind at the present day down to its very roots may be discerned at the point of evolution which speculation has reached since the great changes inaugurated by the Cartesian reform.

The mind imagines that it is giving proof of its own native strength by denying and rejecting as science first theology and then metaphysics; by abandoning any attempt to know the primary Cause and immaterial realities; by cultivating a more or less refined doubt which is an outrage both to the perception of the senses and the principles of reason, that is to say the very things on which all our knowledge depends. Such a presumptuous collapse of human knowledge may be described in one word: agnosticism.

The mind at the same time refuses to recognize the rights of primary Truth and repudiates the supernatural order, considering it impossible -- and such a denial is a blow at all the interior life of grace. That may be described in a word as naturalism.

Lastly, the mind allows itself to be deceived by the mirage of a mythical conception of human nature, which attributes to that nature conditions peculiar to pure spirit, assumes that nature to be in each of us as perfect and complete as the angelic nature in the angel and therefore claims for us, as being in justice our due, along with complete domination over nature, the superior autonomy, the full self sufficiency, the avtáoxela appropriate to pure forms. That may be described as individualism, giving the word its full metaphysical meaning, although angelism would be a more accurate description; such a term is justified by historical no less than by doctrinal considerations, because the ideal origin and metaphysical type of modern individualism are to be found in the Cartesian confusion between substance of whatever sort and the angelic monad.

I say that these three great errors are the symptoms of a really radical disease, for they attack the very root, the triple root rational, religious and moral, of our life Page (58-59).

2. Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads

In answer to our question then, "What is man?" we may give the Greek, Jewish, and Christian idea of man: man as an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity is in the intellect; and man as a free individual in personal relation with God, whose supreme righteousness consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as a sinful and wounded creature called to divine life and to the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists of love.

Human Personality

From the philosophical point of view alone the main concept to be stressed here is the concept of human personality. Man is a person, who holds himself in hand by his intelligence and his will. He does not merely exist as a physical being. There is in him a richer and nobler existence; he has spiritual superexistence through knowledge and love. He is thus, in some way, a whole, not merely a part; he is a universe unto himself, a microcosm in which the great universe in its entirety can be encompassed through knowledge. And through love he can give himself freely to beings who are to him, as it were, other selves; and for this relationship no equivalent can be found in the physical world.

If we seek the prime root of all this, we are led to the acknowledgment of the full philosophical reality of that concept of the soul, so variegated in its connotations, which also described as the first principle of life in any organism and viewed as endowed with supramaterial intellect in man, in which Christianity revealed as the dwelling place of God and as made for eternal life. In the flesh and bones of man there exists a soul which is a spirit and which has a greater value than the whole physical universe. Dependent though he may be upon the slightest accidents of matter, the human person exists by virtue of the existence of his soul, which dominates time and death. It is the spirit which is the root of personality.

The notion of personality thus involves that of wholeness and independence. To say that a man is a person is to say that in the depth of his being he is more a whole than a part and more independent than servile. It is this mystery of our nature which religious thought designates when it says that a person is the image of God. A person possesses absolute dignity because he is in direct relationship with the realm of being, truth, goodness, and beauty, and with God, and it is only with these that he can arrive at his complete fulfillment. His spiritual fatherland consists of the entire order of things which have absolute value, and which reflect, in some manner, a divine Absolute superior to the world and which have a power of attraction toward this Absolute.

3. Church In Modern World - Gaudium et spes

1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.

2. Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.

Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man's history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment.

3. Though mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, giving witness and voice to the faith of the whole people of God gathered together by Christ, this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from her Founder. For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed. Hence the focal point of our total presentation will be man himself, whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will. Therefore, this sacred synod, proclaiming the noble destiny of man and championing the godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this destiny of theirs. Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served [2].

4. Introductory Statement - The Situation Of Men In The Modern World

To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. Some of the main features of the modern world can be sketched as follows.

Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man's religious life as well. As happens in any crisis of growth, this transformation has brought serious difficulties in its wake. Thus while man extends his power in every direction, he does not always succeed in subjecting it to his own welfare. Striving to probe more profoundly into the deeper recesses of his own mind, he frequently appears more unsure of himself. Gradually and more precisely he lays bare the laws of society, only to be paralyzed by uncertainty about the direction to give it. Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world's citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time, new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. True, there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems. Finally, man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement.

Influenced by such a variety of complexities, many of our contemporaries are kept from accurately identifying permanent values and adjusting them properly to fresh discoveries. As a result, buffeted between hope and anxiety and pressing one another with questions about the present course of events, they are burdened down with uneasiness. This same course of events leads men to look for answers; indeed, it forces them to do so.

5. Remarks By Alexadr Solzhenitsyn On The Crisis In The West

"The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimensions, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity. The same kind of defect, the flaw of consciousness lacking all divine dimension, was manifested after World War II when the West yielded to the satanic temptation of a nuclear umbrella ... The pitifully helpless state to which the contemporary West has fallen is in large measure due to this fatal error: the belief that the defense of peace depends not on stout hearts and steadfast men, but solely on the nuclear bomb" Alexandr Solzenhitsyn, Templeton Address, 1983.

"And yet no weapons no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of will-power. In a state of Psychological weakness, weapons become a burden to the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal" Alexandr Solzenhitsyn, Harvard Address, 1978.

"The material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction. The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly day in and day out, participates in the life of each one of us, unfailing granting us the energy of existence. ... To the ill-considered hopes of the last two centuries, which have brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned" Alexandr Solzenhitsyn, Templeton Address, 1983.

"It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty, so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it" Alexandr Solzenhitsyn, Harvard Address, 1978.

"It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations" Solzenhitsyn, Harvard Address, 1978.

6. On Anthropocentric Humanism

"Anthropocentric humanism," or what we now call "secular humanism." This is a humanism which defines man by excluding all reference to the transcendent and divine. Human happiness is to be found in this world alone. Anthropocentric humanism grounds the modern project to master nature; its aim is "to be lord of exterior nature and to reign over it by means of technological procedures [and] . . . to create. . . a material world where man will find, following Descartes' promises, a perfect felicity." Bourgeois life is a "cult of earthly enrichment"; economic life absorbs every other field of activity. Thus it debases human nature. Maritain often cited Werner Sombart, who said that the bourgeois man is neither ontological nor erotic because he lives by external signs such as money and honor, and he loves things more than persons. False humanism is the source of the other characteristics of bourgeois liberalism. By excluding the eternal and spiritual values, the bourgeoisie have only material goods for private consumption and no basis for a common good. By excluding a transcendent measure for human action, libertarianism and mere mutually-agreed-to restrictions on liberty obtain. And the cult of earthly enrichment, the lust for profit, leads to exploitation of the worker.

He was very interested in incorporating a sound philosophy of human rights into Christian social doctrine. Maritain insisted that we must face the difference between two philosophies of rights which must be traced back to fundamental differences in philosophy of God. He distinguishes the underlying philosophies as theocentric humanism and anthropocentric humanism: "the first kind of humanism recognizes that God is the center of man; it implies the Christian conception of man, sinner and redeemed, and the Christian conception of grace and freedom. The second kind of humanism believes that man himself is the center of man and implies a naturalistic conception of man and of freedom" [30]. According to the philosophy of theocentric humanism, human rights rest upon a natural and divine order, according to which human beings possess a dignity in virtue of their nature and destiny as creatures before God. The rights are limited in scope and are designed to assist the person in attaining their full stature as human beings. According to anthropocentric humanism, rights are based upon "the claim that man is subject to no law other than that of his will and freedom" and as a result have become "infinite, escaping every objective measure, denying every limitation imposed upon the claims of the ego." In his philosophy, Maritain sought to rescue the notion of human rights from the philosophical errors in which it has been put forward.


36. Now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences.

If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God [6].

Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed [7].

But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible.


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