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In Praise of Distinctions

On the difficulty of the Medievals

Some who encounter medieval philosophy complain of too much minutiae, too many abstruse questions. Proofs. Counter-proofs. Articles. Objections. It’s foreign stuff, no doubt. At the same time, we might challenge the reigning prejudice against this kind of rigorous questioning. Men like Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus retained the child’s love of asking questions. How embarrassing it is then that the medievals are younger than we are.

Now some of us want our scholastic verve back since, as Dorothy Sayers so aptly put our case (almost 70 years ago!), “when we look at the shameless abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored by his education as to be able to cry: ‘Distinguo.’” The view is not any better from where we’re standing, Dorothy. More than ever we need an education in this art.

At first blush, our STEM-age seems like it should be the supreme era of distinction. We tread water in an ocean of taxonomies. But scientific division is not the same thing as philosophical distinction (to make a philosophical distinction). Both kinds of thinking are speculative, but one belongs to particular phenomena and the other to ageless wisdom. One pertains to proximate realities while the other to ultimate ends. In shorthand, the art of philosophical distinction is the skill we need to live life well, and our age tries desperately to live without it.

The reason for this flight from distinction? Fine questions bear on human conduct and culpability. How does the Church differ from other organizations and institutions? How does creation dominion differ from creation domination? What is marriage? These knotty problems put us in the dock and on the chopping block. The whole mass of humanity is laid bare to the Word, the blade “sharper than the sharpest two-edge sword.” We find ourselves at the mercy of the Christ who divides.

So how did Saint Thomas do it, then?

How did the man manage to launch into theological hairsplitting rather than run away from it in fear? How did he go gleefully whacking away in the Summa at the most damning distinctions, like a child swinging his slugger at a party piñata?

The only answer must be the Gospel: This Christian philosopher hits hard on the ultimate questions because he expects the motherlode of forgiveness. He is free to read the law of the cosmos, even if that sentence condemns him. He can trace the way of the world, even if that way finds him wayward.

It seems then that Thomas becomes the posterchild of Christian intellectual freedom. Only in the Gospel can the soul be both joyous and ingenuous. Only with the good news can parsing be play. When the mind is forgiven, it regains its childlike vigor, seeking out mysteries which no longer threaten to condemn, but now invite. It bores of Paganism’s gray and turns instead to Christianity’s chiaroscuro.

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