“What separates Catholic thought from everything else?
“Perspective. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but it is nonetheless amongst the greatest gifts of the Church. Jacques Maritain (as I have mentioned in a previous article) refers to this perspective when he makes the distinction between individualism and personalism. That is, the difference between an understanding of man as a self-serving end, an end in and of himself, and understanding him as fitting into a framework of goods which terminates in God, respectively. Only the latter of these two can lead to any sort of good philosophy (again, because only this view gives philosophy proper perspective by showing that it serves Theology) because it recognizes man in his right perspective, as not being his own greatest good.
“Of course, the perspective given by making the distinction between individualism and personalism is only one particular example of the idea’s crucial importance, but, as mentioned above, it is founded on a principle which is at the very heart of Theology; that is, man was created for God.
“But, as theologically obvious as this fact may seem, it is surprisingly easy to violate it given that in order to do so one must only remove himself from his right perspective in a very small way. Selfishness, for instance, the hoarding of one’s own possessions or abilities is an act which is rooted in a skewed perspective. It causes one to see himself as a greater good than another, which is to fail to understand where he belongs in the grand scheme of things. Or, let’s take lust. Lust is to see another as an object rather than a human person, it is to remove them from their right place as an agent of truth, deserving of dignity, and to place them in a perspectively degraded place. Then, however, there is the other side of the coin. Just as it is easy to make small mistakes in perspective, it is likewise easy to make large mistakes which can have horrendous consequences.
“Rene Descartes is quite possibly the embodiment of large-scale loss of perspective. His ideas ushered in a philosophical tidal-wave of bad ideas that have, it could be argued, gotten ever-larger until quite recently when they crashed ashore and spilled through the cities and into the homes of the common man, causing damage the likes of which we have really never seen before.
“Above and beyond the individual elements of his philosophy, Descartes is noteworthy for the spirit of his philosophy, a spirit of individualism: an individualism which, as mentioned above, is amongst the most dangerous means of removing the human person from his right perspective and effectively places him high atop the totem pole of goods, in a school of thought called idealism. Etienne Gilson talks at length about this idea and shows it as a metaphysically corrupt extension of Descartes’ fundamentally self-centered philosophy.1 Idealism’s central idea is that the individual’s understanding is the throne of reality, rather than the world from which it was perceived. This, of course, is exemplified in the famous ‘cogito ergo sum’ in which Descartes presents the line of reasoning that his existence follows from his conception of it. And this then extends out into the rest of the world. The ontological reality of the chicken, he would say, does not inhere in the chicken itself, or in chicken-nature, but in his own mind. To say this, returning to the commentary of Gilson, is to effectively trap one’s self inside of his own mind, to wonder at how real the world outside of you actually is, and to really never be able to give an answer.
“But, Descartes certainly strove for an answer. His philosophy beyond the cogito is largely marked by his attempts to justify the reality of the world outside of himself and never really managing to do so. This, Gilson says, is not because Descartes did not try hard enough, or that he was not smart enough, it was instead because such a movement is impossible. As with many other things, it is philosophically very possible to doom one’s self to failure from the beginning simply by choosing the wrong starting point. Once you have chosen yourself and your own understanding as the cornerstone for all the rest of reality, you cannot actually understand the rest of reality because nothing about you as an individual can offer it. By beginning with yourself, you sacrifice that all-important perspective, you see the world as through a warped lens, and can do nothing to see it properly until you admit that your perspective, your starting point, is wrong.”
“Now, here I would like to make a suggestion. It is nothing that I can prove, but it is an observation that I can put forward which has, I believe, some degree of foundation. Many elements of the modern, post-Conciliar attitude towards spirituality in general, and the liturgy in particular, share certain elements in common with Cartesian idealism. This is not to say that any member of Life-Teen would suggest that his understanding contributes reality to the real presence in the Eucharist, instead it is merely to point out that they seem to share too much of the same foundation. They both remove themselves from that great gift of the Church, perspective, and chose themselves as their starting point. What defines the progressive movement in the Church more than the idea that we need to begin with the individual rather than with the traditions and truth as they truly are?
“And not only are these two groups alike in their principles, but they are also alike in their symptoms. Like Descartes, they become trapped within themselves. In choosing an ultimately improper starting point, Life-Teen and other such groups have doomed themselves to be anything but a movement. What do we see that has become of them other than a suspiciously Cartesian stagnation?”
1 See: Gilson, Etienne. Methodical Realism. Christendom Press, 1990.