The Year of the Philosopher?

Three notable Catholic thinkers drew considerable attention in the year of 2019: Saint John Henry Newman for his canonization, Bishop Fulton Sheen for the approval of his beatification, and G.K. Chesterton for his cause for sainthood being stalled. Although Newman is best identified as a theologian, Sheen as a preacher, and Chesterton as a journalist, they all had one important feature in common: they were all philosophers. And very good ones at that.

The concurrence of these three philosophers may be providential. Philosophy, in general, has fallen into desuetude. It is routinely dismissed as abstract, irrelevant, and medieval. Science has dominated the world stage and in so doing, has overshadowed the philosophical enterprise. Chesterton, himself, in his book Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, remarked that since the modern scientific era began in the sixteenth century, “nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that philosophy (which is love of wisdom), despite its lack of contemporary popularity, is down to earth, eminently practical, and available to everyone. It is grounded in nothing more esoteric than, as Chesterton testified, common sense. It is also perennial. In his classic, The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman states the following, lest his readers think that he is out of date: “Do not suppose in this appealing to the ancients, I am throwing back the world two thousand years, and fettering philosophy with the reasonings of paganism. While the world lasts, will Aristotle’s doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth.”

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Fulton J. Sheen published his doctoral dissertation from Louvain under the title, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. The London Universe hailed its author as “The new Catholic philosopher of the age”. Sheen would not have enjoyed this lavish complement since his philosophy, anchored in Thomism, was hardly new, but built on nothing more novel than common sense.

Chesterton wrote the Introduction to Sheen’s book. It was most appropriate for the Apostle of Common Sense to assist in bringing Sheen’s common sense to the world’s attention. The two were kindred spirits. Sheen attended Chesterton’s funeral and became known as “The American Chesterton”. The judgments we make in philosophy, for Sheen, just as the judgments we make on a daily basis, “are the judgments of common sense”. We can trust the authority of the senses that there is a reality, one that our intellect can know and understand. We are intelligent beings. The judgments of the senses, the mind, and reason are natural. “Inasmuch as they spring from the nature of man,” Sheen states, “they should be found among all men—that is, they are common to all men. This is why it is said that they arise out of common appreciation, or consent, or instinct or the common sense of humanity”.

Common sense is our most reliable avenue to the intelligible world. We do not need to be skeptical or cynical, relativistic or idealist. We do not need to deconstruct what we encounter or even doubt that we exist. Chesterton stated that matter as clearly as one possibly can: “All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect; strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood; it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

For Cardinal Newman, the verdict of common sense assures us that “there are many truths in concrete matters, which no one can demonstrate, yet everyone unconditionally accepts. We are sure beyond all hazard of mistake, that our own self is not the only being existing; that there is an external world; that it is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws; and that the future is affected by the past… that the earth, considered as a phenomenon, is a globe… that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence, and Madrid.”

In the contemporary world, the notion of Intelligent Design is hotly debated. Neither Chesterton nor Sheen nor Newman had much trouble acknowledging that this universe and all its highly organized content was created by a Supreme Being, that the design we find in the world is the handiwork of an intelligent designer. Newman states the following: “Science gives us the grounds of premises from which religious truths are to be inferred; but it does not set about inferring them, much less does it reach the inferences; that is not its province. It brings before us phenomena, and it leaves us, if we will, to call them works of design, wisdom, or benevolence; and further still, if we will, to proceed to confess an Intelligent Creator.”

Science itself, given its limited methodology, does not offer a scientific proof for the existence of God, but it does lead us to the doorstep. The philosophies of Newman, Sheen, and Chesterton make that transition from the natural to the supernatural world. They follow and develop the line of thought provided by Aristotle and Aquinas. It is in accord with common sense that the multifarious splendors of creation could not have created themselves. The cause must be greater than the effect. There must be a God.

May the year 2020 see an extended interest in the thought of Newman, Sheen, and Chesterton. Common sense has a way of reclaiming its prominence. May the year of 2020 also be a year of 20-20 philosophical vision.

Photo credit: Catholic News Agency


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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