December 17, 2018
I had to pick up copies of my first MRI report at an imaging facility—hard to keep track of all this paper. It was raining hard and I didn’t have to do it today, but I just wanted to get it done. My chore became Sandy’s chore, as they all do these days, since I can’t drive for three more weeks. But I suggested getting lunch afterward at Joe’s American Diner, and she was good for that.
Joe’s is the kind of place you think “Joe’s Diner” would be, one of thousands across America. We ate at lots of them on our road trip, in Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and so on. But something was off today. We stood for about 20 minutes before getting seated. We waited some more and finally ordered some lunch. Then we waited. So did everyone else. Time drifted by, half an hour, then an hour. This was for a tuna salad sandwich and a chicken club. But we weren’t pressed for time and it was still pouring outside. So we sat.
I finally asked about our order and learned the cook didn’t show up, so one of the wait staff was thrown in to cook. It’s no profound insight, but the real situation we were trapped in (we could have stomped out) collided with our idea of lunch at Joe’s, which was way different. Strangely, it made me think about truth, and Etienne Gilson.
Gilson is the French philosopher who explained the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian. Aquinas’ monumental work, Summa Theologica, which he never completed, is the lodestar of Catholic-Christian theology. But beyond that he created a revolution in philosophy by using the teaching of the Greek pagan Aristotle to explain the world we live in, to explain truth. And this Christmas, truth would be a nice gift to find under the tree.
To get to truth, we start by wrestling with the meaning of existence. The way isn’t to quote philosophers or televangelists. It is to use our senses—sight, touch, hearing—to perceive the physical world. We watched the servers frantically carrying trays to the tables at Joe’s. No need to argue that they exist, that they are elements of truth. We know they are real because we see them running around serving people.
Gilson, who died in 1978 at 95, explains that in Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s thinking, anything capable of being defined consists of the physical, which they call matter, and the definition itself, which they call form. You know your friend Tom not by his height, weight, and coloring (matter), but by his personality and character (form). He needs both matter and form to exist. But it’s the form that defines Tom, that tells us who he is—what Aquinas called “essence.” Physical things (matter) we know through sense experience go out of existence. Form always exists.
So the baseline for understanding existence, truth, reality, is what we perceive. We can’t see “justice” or “courage,” but we know they exist because we see people acting justly and courageously. Every idea, every concept, every noble thought, e.g., “truth,” must begin with the objective things or acts that we perceive.
Gilson points out that Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s teaching transformed the way philosophers thought about reality, or truth—but not for long. Within a few years after St. Thomas died in 1274, a so-called “Back to the Gospel” movement started, led by religious leaders who opposed what they considered an excessive preoccupation with philosophy. They attacked Aquinas’ focus on physical existence. They argued instead that truth is based solely on belief, as with the philosopher William of Ockham’s declaration, “I believe in God Almighty.” As an article of faith, the statement cannot be proved. Yet it leaked over into philosophy, evolving into the presumption that reality is defined by abstract ideas instead of things that actually exist.
That presumption, Gilson explains, reached its tragic culmination in the work of the French mathematician Rene Descartes, who in 1619 resolved to create a universal mathematics that defined existence in terms of mathematical concepts. For Descartes, the definition of the circle and the triangle become the circle and the triangle, rather than any physical representation of them. In Descartes’ mathematical universe, reality, existence, truth, are represented not by the physical world but by a system of abstract formulas. The consequences of Descartes’ attack on truth derived from sense perception is expressed by his devastating announcement, Cogito Ergo Sum—“I think, therefore I am,” declaring that my thinking, my ideas, define reality.
What Descartes did, Gilson says, is to “thingify concepts,” that is, to look at concepts—ideas—in the same way Aquinas and Aristotle looked on physical objects as the foundation of truth. And so it went on down to the 20th century, as philosophers and political leaders relied on rigid, complex systems of ideas to define truth, instead of evidence anchored in the physical world. In time, those systems calcified into fanatical political ideologies. In 1941, Gilson wrote that “millions of men are starving and bleeding because two or three of these pseudoscientific or pseudo-social deified abstractions are now are war.”
How does all this hot air circle around to the present moment, at Christmas? This way: the country today is running on a strain of pure ideology empty of philosophical content, an ideology that feeds political opportunism by trafficking in empty promises, bluster, and lies that no one—no one—takes seriously or bothers to defend. In our nation’s public life, truth—that is, the perception of the world as it exists, as Aristotle and Aquinas explained it, has shriveled into an artifact of old textbooks that hardly anyone reads.
Back to Joe’s. How did our plan for lunch go so wrong? We had an idea, an assumption based on no facts, that lunch at Joe’s would go smoothly—the cook would be working and we’d be served promptly and efficiently. We didn’t know about the reality, and when we learned of it, we ignored it.
Like 300 million other Americans, we’ll look under the tree anyway. But we probably won’t go back to Joe’s for a while.