From the Publisher: The Two Languages We Speak

Ever since Vatican II, various theologians have declared that Thomism, natural law theory, and indeed philosophy itself are dead. Was that announcement premature? Too many Catholic thinkers have tried living by a kind of philosophical fideism collapsing all rational analysis into opinions derived, they say, from “the gospel.” Perhaps surprisingly, this tendency has been observed even on the Catholic Right. The results are universally fatal.

The recent form of this old temptation is to debunk “nature” and to exalt “grace.” It is voiced so seductively that one scarcely knows whether its animating spirit is philosophical fideism or theological imperialism. Those, it begins ominously, who (like John Courtney Murray, S.J.) suggest that the most useful language for public theology in a pluralist society is a philosophy of natural law are actually furthering secularism. For in the new order instituted by grace, there is no longer any such thing as pure nature. To rely on “nature” is the very essence of secularism. And, so this heavy charge runs, most so-called Catholic universities are guilty of this secularism every day.

Well now. Before we throw out the classical wisdom of Thomism, perhaps we ought at least to rescue a few pieces of its charred mosaic from the flames. It was not the view of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Gabriel Marcel, for example, that Christian philosophers, precisely as philosophers, mean by nature, natural law, or the opposite of grace some “pure nature,” unaffected by the new questions and fresh lights that Christian revelation has raised for philosophers.

In fact, Maritain flatly denies the existence of nature, in some pure and unhistorical state unaffected by the history of Christianity. He taught further (following St. Thomas, Cajetan, and John of St. Thomas, and with the full support of Gilson and Marcel) that moral philosophy cannot describe the actual existence of human beings in the world without borrowing certain data from theology, as it also does from sociology, anthropology, psychology, and other disciplines bearing upon human action.

Maritain’s views are set forth with formidable clarity in On Christian Philosophy, Existence and the Existent, the second half of Science and Wisdom, and other places. The clear, dry distinctions he makes are surely welcome breezes through today’s humid intellectual climate.

Maritain distinguishes between the nature of philosophy and the concrete situation of actual philosophers. By its nature, which no non-Christian or Christian can ever give up without forfeiting the title of philosopher, philosophy is the habit of pushing the human intellect’s resources to their utmost, not least in the field of human action. In action, Maritain notes, ends become first principles (as they do not in speculative sciences). And here existing philosophers face several conundrums not entirely soluble in the light of human intellect itself. Aristotle’s treatise on ethics stands as historical evidence of how far unaided human reason can go—he details the workings of human habits of action in their ample variety, and pushes intellect onward to magnificent reflections on friendship (as the bonding agent even within politics) and on contemplation. Nonetheless, insoluble ethical conundrums remained, and must always remain, within the bounds of unaided human reason.

For example, experience shows that, though well-informed reason—and, therefore, education—ought to lead to true, good, just, and humane actions, often it does not. (In our time, arguably the most highly educated of Western nations, Germany, all too easily succumbed to Hitler’s destructive passions.) Experience shows that when a person deliberately and reflectively wills to do something, nonetheless, that person sometimes fails actually to do what he wills, and actually does things he willed not to do. Humans are with surprising frequency pulled away from their own best resolutions. What explains this pull? How can it be countered?

Again, Aristotle saw that acts of contemplation (of complete absorption in scientific work, in sports, or in intensely enjoying a painting or statue or poem, or in reflecting upon God’s action in the world) seem to be more divine than human. Aristotle could even sense that the perfection of human activity is union with the divine. But if God does not reveal Himself (as He did, say, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in Jesus), how can any philosopher know what such union could be like and how it could be achieved? Yet if ends are first principles of action, surely the moral philosopher has an inner need to know such things.

Maritain, Gilson, Marcel, and others were exceedingly clear about this double imperative. On the one hand, moral philosophy must remain philosophy. It is not, and dare not pretend to be, theology—let alone an act of faith. Philosophers, even Christian philosophers, must be quite clear about what they can say within the light of reason alone. Only that is properly philosophy.

On the other hand, it is the actual, existing blessing of Jews and Christians that their “God is reasonable,” as Maritain put it. What He reveals to faith neither contradicts nor suppresses anything that they learn through the strenuous work of intellect. In fact, the domain of human action has light shed upon it from two sources, unaided intellect and the vision revealed through Moses and the prophets and Jesus. And what is revealed by these two sources is not in contradiction but, on the contrary, mutually supportive. In this way, the concrete, existing philosopher who is Jewish or Christian often finds that his faith sets new possibilities, new ways of looking at things, and new data before his questioning intellect. He need not cease questioning; on the contrary, he is encouraged to ask further questions that never did occur to Aristotle (or to anyone else so situated). The Jewish or Christian philosopher can do this in full confidence that truth is one, even if ways of proceeding toward it are many. Each gain in one area raises questions in the other.

No theologian has ever found it possible to work in the field of human action without first borrowing, consciously or unconsciously, from philosophy (not to mention other disciplines). Similarly, in areas of human action such as the reality of human moral weakness and the nature of God’s relations with humans, moral philosophers have the same domain of human action to study as do moral theologians. Jewish or Christian philosophers study this domain with the same tools as “secular” philosophers. But they also have certain questions to confront in the light of how existing Jews and Christians actually perceive and act in the world. In this way, moral philosophers also borrow from the findings of moral theologians, just as moral theologians borrow from theirs. Compared to moral theologians, however, they work by more limited rules of evidence and methods of proceeding.

Thus, both the Christian Right and the Christian Left of our day, each in its own way abandoning gains for intellect already won by the giants of the post -war generation, continue to misstate the contemporary intellectual situation. It is not secularism to maintain that Christian philosophy is philosophy, and is legitimate (no, is necessary) precisely as such, and dares not pretend to be theology. Nor is it correct to assert that for Christian philosophers, as in their personal studies they go about their concrete work, are talking about some “pure nature” that does not exist.

On the contrary, moral philosophers are talking about the same actual, existential world of experience and action that moral theologians are addressing—an historical realm in which humans often fall, yet nonetheless hear, too, the teachings of Moses and Jesus.

Chastely limiting themselves to what can be said according to their own canons of evidence and methods of discourse, moral philosophers do deprive themselves of the riches of language open to moral theologians. Yet from this chastity, too, there is a gain. Ever since the bloodshed occasioned by religious conflict, theological language indelicately voiced raises in the air the acrid odor of gunpowder. By sharing with moral theologians the same domain of human action, but less able than the former to say all that needs to be said, moral philosophers may go a very long way toward securing clear, mutual understandings about important public matters under “articles of peace.”

Just such clarifications about various modalities of intellect have enabled Jewish and Christian civilization to escape from fideism and fundamentalism. Without merging philosophy and theology, our tradition enables us to distinguish them, to join them in mutual enlightenment, and to keep each of them honest.

Most of us do the same thing in our daily lives. We keep our eyes and ears open, learning both from ordinary observation and reflection and from the light of faith. When we speak with those who do not share our faith, sometimes we speak in the mutually acceptable language of ordinary experience and understanding. Sometimes we say things about human weakness and sin, or even about Providence or God’s will (or other matters), that we derive from faith but find confirmed in experience. We recognize the difference in these two languages. Yet both languages are as familiar to us as our own biographies, which are existentially one. It is quite all right to use either language, since each sheds important light on the other. It is all right to be both Catholic and American, each concrete aspect of our reality illuminating the other in a fresh and important way.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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