Why Are Things the Way They Are?

May 2018By James V. Schall

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, The Universe We Think In (The Catholic University of America Press, 2018). Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube.

“Science is chiefly an act generated by the human intellect, not by the human will or emotions.” — Peter Redpath, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics

“Specifically criticizing Protagoras, for saying nothing while pretending to say something remarkable in his dictum, ‘man is the measure of all things,’ Aristotle maintained that, strictly speaking, human knowledge and perception ‘are measured,’ they do not ‘measure other things.’” — Peter Redpath, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics

In 1963 Fr. Joseph Owens, a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, wrote a book entitled An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. More than 50 years later, Peter Redpath clearly had this book in mind when he wrote his two-volume study, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics. No doubt we can find some amusement in these titles. Redpath also once wrote a book entitled How to Read a Difficult Book, which likewise recalls How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. In my younger years, I read Adler’s book and found it extremely difficult, though I recognized that it was important.

In his Confessions, Augustine, as a vain but bright young man, affirmed that he had read and understood Aristotle’s Categories without any trouble — better, in fact, than his mentor had. To my knowledge, however, no one has ever called the study of metaphysics easy, whether elementary or not. After reading Redpath’s new book, I would say that metaphysics is still a difficult and demanding undertaking. But that is no argument against reading Redpath’s book. Indeed, it is an argument in favor of reading it. We do not usually come by the most important things without some considerable effort on our part. The “wonder” or curiosity about why something exists, or why it is what it is, together with the difficulty in learning about it, is made lightsome when we finally see why it is so. We have within us a persistent, nagging desire to know the truth of things, which we cannot shake except by finding out what we can about the things that are.

A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics is a rich book, and Redpath has a clear style. He breaks complicated issues into short, intelligible units. He repeats difficult points, and then he repeats them again, rephrasing them to make them understandable. This is a book I wish I’d had in my earlier years of studies. In reading it, I found that many notions and points I had often wondered about, or about which I needed more explanation, were much clearer after Redpath dealt with them. For us metaphysicians, this is a book of refreshment and a review of what we thought we knew.

Metaphysics is not a specifically Christian topic. This book is only Christian in the sense that a well-grounded metaphysics already in place will present to revelation, when and if it occurs, an intelligible world that knows that it does not itself answer every metaphysical perplexity. Paradoxically, metaphysics is complete by being incomplete. Christian revelation, complete in its own inner rational order, relates directly to these unresolved perplexities found in genuine metaphysics. Rightly, Redpath’s book does not deal directly with the metaphysical implications of the Trinity or Incarnation. But it does provide the basis on which they can be understood to be conceivable in a non-contradictory manner. What metaphysics can do that no other discipline can, but which all disciplines presuppose, is show what it means for something to be a contradiction. This is a great intellectual tool. To use Plato’s words, metaphysics can say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not. From there it can proceed to distinguish from one another the things that do exist.

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