Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 2000

June 2000

Philosopher at Work: Essays by Yves R. Simon

By Anthony O. Simon

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Pages: 219

Price: $22.95

Review Author: James G. Hanink

Let us tell the truth and thereby shame the devil: Even among NOR readers, there are those who clamor for clarity and yet shy away from works of philosophy. How could this be? Is it that some philosophers are obscure? Prolix? Wrongheaded? Well, yes — and may their tedious tomes continue to gather dust!

Other philosophers, however, are neither obscure nor prolix nor wrongheaded. Rather, if John Paul II teaches rightly, they are servants of reason — that same reason which, with faith as its partner, can lead us to God. So if we’re serious about clear thinking, we’d do well to study — or at least sample — their work.

The name Yves R. Simon (1903-1961) stands high on the honor role of such philosophers. Born in France, educated at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique de Paris, Simon was lecturing at Notre Dame when World War II cast him in to exile. In the U.S. Simon exemplified the ideal of “public philosophy.” From 1947 until his death, he taught at the University of Chicago, a member of its Committee on Social Thought.

Simon was, above all, a philosopher of democracy. Today, in a democracy that betrays the foundational principle that it exists to secure the right to life, we have much to learn from him. Politics, he insisted, cannot divorce itself from ethics: “The proper duty of governments…is precisely of a moral character.” Does government seek the common good? Then it must see that the hearts of its citizens are well disposed.

But how, one wonders, will government as we know it minister to the hearts of its citizens? A disturbing question. Simon, at any rate, knew that we must identify the heart of darkness in order to heal the hearts of men. In 1947 he wrote of a culture already given over to narcissism and offered a grim diagnosis: “If we cherish the element of refinement, of flexibility, of charm, and let everything that is sound…die out, we are confronted by the nihilistic monster that plagues…the oldest civilizations of the West and threatens to deliver them to barbarism.”

Yves Simon, though he called evil things by name, was not one to be dispirited. His own intellectual work extended to economics, logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. This year the University of Chicago recognizes his contributions with a series of lectures entitled “The Yves R. Simon Memorial Lectures of Catholic Christianity and Western Civilization.”

Were he with us now, one suspects that Simon would proffer an apologia for philosophy only if it were conjoined with a monitum. He’d warn us that philosophers have much to be modest about. “Generally speaking,” he commented, “the human mind is not at its best in philosophy.” If philosophers are to do better, they must learn to care more for the real and less for their own concoctions; they must prefer the truth over their own cerebral satisfaction. In doing so, their own hearts might become better disposed to seek the common good.

Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin

By Os Guinness

Publisher: Baker Books

Pages: 125

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Patrick Rooney

Os Guinness is an Evangelical scholar with an interesting background. Born in China (his parents were medical missionaries), he remained there until 1951 when the Communists forced most foreigners to leave. Since then he has lived mostly in England, Switzerland, and the U.S. Guinness is a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a seminar-style forum for senior executives and political leaders which engages the prevalent attitudes of our day in the context of religious faith.

Time for Truth opens by describing the role of truth in defeating Communism in Czechoslovakia during the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” led by Vaclav Havel. “Night after night,” Guinness tells us, “crowds of more than a quarter million packed Wenceslas Square, mesmerized by the stirring addresses of the slim, boyish, mustachioed figure….” Havel, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, knew there were only two ways to defeat the Communists. One was by sheer physical force, which was impossible given the dissidents’ lack of resources. The second was by “countering physical force with moral, staking their stand on the conviction that truth would outweigh lies and the whole machinery of propaganda, deception, and terror. [Havel and his fellow dissidents] chose the latter, and the unthinkable happened. They won.” Despite their success in smashing Communism, the Czechs found themselves allied with a West whose culture no longer upholds truth.

Guinness’s real fight is with postmodernism, a philosophy in which truth is not discovered but created according to one’s experience and convenience. The postmodern world does not ask “Is it true?,” but rather “Whose truth is it?” and “Who gets power from it?” This philosophy has poisoned our world, as preoccupation with and the thirst for power far outweigh the love of truth. The consequences have been ugly, indeed, and only promise to worsen.

According to Guinness, the most powerful source of the crisis of truth is the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s. Nietzsche “mounted a furious assault on the traditional view of truth and ethics.” He “poured out a series of books so revolutionary that the twentieth century has been described as a footnote on his thought.” In Nietzsche’s final writings, power was central to everything.

The 20th century has correspondingly witnessed the loss of moral character, yielding a postmodern man who is “all surface, skills, and resumé…the empty suit.” This phenomenon can be readily seen in the presidency of Bill Clinton, the perfect symbol of postmodernism. Guinness properly skewers Clinton, who is just a slippery opportunist ruling a complacent populace.

Though Guinness talks a lot about truth, he does recognize that talk is cheap: Western society is now at a precipice, and if truth is to triumph, we must do more than talk about truth; we must live it. We must become people of truth. Guinness hits on all the right remedies: We must reject the lies of the elite minority, “repent” of our own wrongs, know ourselves, confess our sins when necessary, and be “born again” (i.e., spiritually transformed).

My only complaint is that Guinness does not go into enough depth on just how a person can be spiritually transformed. Perhaps it’s because he is working with the built-in disadvantage of a scholar whose communication tools are of the intellectual sort. But ultimately the battle of truth vs. lies is spiritual, not intellectual. I don’t know that Guinness fully understands this.

Still, Time for Truth is a triumph of Christian scholarship — a clear, concise primer on the philosophical foundations that support the edifice of current opinion, and a guide for smashing those underpinnings.

Reason for the Hope Within

By Michael Murray

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 429

Price: $28

Review Author: Lisa Klein

St. Peter urges Christians to “always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within you” — both to bolster our faith and to defend it before unbelievers. Reason for the Hope Within, a collection of essays, aims to do just that by introducing Christians to philosophic principles which will help them understand and defend the Faith. The editor, a Protestant, explains that on entering graduate school to study Christian philosophy, he was surprised to learn that Evangelical seminaries were not using the knowledge found in Christian philosophy. Lamenting with fellow graduate students the average layman’s lack of access to Christian philosophy, they resolved to produce this book.

The first essay examines and responds to philosophical attitudes hostile to the enterprise of Christian thought. Subsequent essays explore major Christian themes, including fundamental arguments for the existence of God and the problem of suffering. Later essays explore the relationship of faith and reason, grace and free will, and the problems of religious pluralism. The central mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity are examined, as well as the Resurrection of the Body, the necessity of Heaven and Hell, and belief in miracles. The final essays deal with questions of ethics and the authority of Scripture.

All the writers are Protestant, yet their outlook is traditional and in keeping with much of Catholic tradition. They are perhaps not fully aware that they are borrowing from the traditional teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church. How much richer and more complete their thinking would be were they to examine more deeply the Catholic origins of their philosophic thinking.

Many Religions — One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 113

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Bryant Burroughs

The long reign of Pope John Paul II has brought a renascence of the Catholic Faith. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has walked step by step alongside John Paul, and from Ratzinger’s incisive mind has leapt this slim volume — and another path through recalcitrant confusions.

Cardinal Ratzinger grapples with the question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Should we follow the Gnostic Marcion and separate Christianity from the Old Testament? Should we follow modern Fundamentalism in its view that Judaism has value only in the eschatological end, when it is predicted that the nation of Israel will turn to the Messiah?

In contradistinction to these views, Ratzinger presents the richness of the Catholic vision. Tracing the panorama of God’s redemptive story from Abraham to St. Paul, Ratzinger reminds us that it is God’s desire to redeem the entire world through His Son. Even the Old Testament contains hints of this message: Micah saw the nations streaming into the house of the Lord; Ezekiel saw a great river that could not be forded; Daniel saw a stone cut without hands that grew into a mountain and filled the entire earth; and Isaiah heard God tell His Servant that it is too small a thing to redeem just Israel — God would make His Servant a light to the nations. Thus Ratzinger asserts that “through Jesus, the God of Israel has become the God of all the nations of the world,” and that because Judaism was the necessary precursor to the full communication of God’s revelation in Christ, it deserves our respect.

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