By DONALD DeMARCO
Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP, begins his edifying little book, The Catholic Church and Philosophy, with an unusual, though perfectly valid, definition of philosophy. He refers to it as “orchestrated, supreme common sense.” Philosophy, far from being an esoteric enterprise, is well within the reach of the untutored person. “Its first duty,” therefore, according to Fr. McNabb, “is to justify mankind’s intuitions.”
It is essential that philosophy orchestrate its knowledge not in an accidental way, such as the way a person might organize the stamps in his stamp collection, but according to realistic principles. Because philosophy is tethered to reality, it respects the very principles that hold reality together and give it an objective order. Its common sense is “supreme” because it deals with notions of highest importance.
It may be said that the loss of philosophy in our present society as a vital force is associated with the disappearance of common sense. Three examples should suffice to buttress this contention and help to explain the elusiveness of justice, equality, and peace. Each of these great ideas is part of an objective order that requires the recognition and acceptance of foundational ideas upon which they rest. The whole world is in love with this trinity of ideas, but few are willing to affirm the three equally great ideas on which they are dependent for their operation.
Consider the following image as an illustration of the loss of common sense. A client approaches an architect and tells him to build a house that has a second floor but not a ground floor. The client emphasizes his affection for second floors and his disdain for first floors. The architect is puzzled, but informs his client that a first story is needed to hold up the second, that it is impossible to construct a second floor that stands in midair without any underlying support.
Try as he may, the architect is unable to convince his client that there is a certain rigor to reality that makes no concessions to one’s peculiar preferences. As G.K. Chesterton has reminded the world, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” The rigor of reality is happily accepted by commonsense philosophy.
“Justice” has won the approbation of the vast majority of people, as a personal as well as a social value. At the same time, and in violation of common sense, the value on which justice resides — truth — is dismissed as subjective, unreliable, or presumptuous. Pontius Pilate’s immortal phrase, “What is truth?” still reigns. It is instructive to recall that the word “verdict” is derived from two Latin words (verum and dicere) meaning “to tell the truth.” A judge, for example, does not recklessly convict just anyone, but the one who, in accordance with the evidence, truly committed the crime. There can be no justice without truth. In fact, justice is the virtue that honors truth.
Our thirst for justice can be quenched only by imbibing truth. That is simply the order of things.
Another popular notion that remains elusive is equality. But the equality of all human beings rests on the notion of a common nature. Existentialists in the camp of Jean-Paul Sartre insist there is no such thing as nature. Feminists deny that men or women have a “nature.” In the attempt to avoid “stereotypes,” it is commonplace to avoid any kind of grouping. Yet, if nature is disregarded, what is left is nothing but individuals who have lost their unifying nature.
Also victims of this rejection of nature are marriage and the family. Equality has no basis where all the elements are distinct and unmixable individuals. But people are not equal with respect to how they are different but in accord with a common, human nature. There can be no equality without a common nature.
Finally, the love for peace is perpetually thwarted by a refusal to accept the order of reality. St. Augustine’s maxim that “peace is the tranquility of order” makes no sense to people who, out of a misguided affection for freedom, do not want to submit to any pre-established order. Disorder naturally breeds chaos. Common sense attests that chaos does not produce peace. If one desires peace, he must accept the natural order of things. The order of marriage, sex, and children, when spurned, has brought a great deal of disquietude to so many. It belongs to the wise man, for St. Thomas Aquinas, to respect the proper ordering of things (Sapientia est ordinare). The same wise man is the beneficiary of peace.
The penthouse where justice, equality, and peace reside is supported by truth, nature, and order. This is a verity that can be affirmed by “orchestrated, supreme common sense.”
Ideals are fine as long as they remain realistic. “If you build castles in the air,” Henry David Thoreau once advised, “your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)