I am not Catholic. I cannot assent to the view of the Reformation presented in the blog post I’m about to direct you to.
I am not Catholic. I see the Pope as a spiritual leader of a Church to which I do not belong and with which I have significant differences, but whose interests and fate are inextricably wrapped up in the fate of the entire world, in many ways even gloriously so. It is a Church within which I have many close friends; a Church whose best thinkers today are indeed some of the best thinkers today.
With that in mind, you must read William Briggs’s Fourth Crisis of the Church & Pope Francis. It is one of the pithiest analyses of our times I have seen. The problem, he points out, is that our culture is running away from essence.
What is “essence,” you ask?
I am not Catholic, but I was not named Thomas Gilson for nothing.
Okay, cut the action. That went just over the top. Shark. Waterskis. You know. (At least if you know American pop culture you know, except you might have to read on, to really know.)
Holopupenko, if you were drinking your Chardonnay when you read that, I apologize for the dry cleaning bill. You know me well enough to laugh for the right reasons, at least.
Many of the rest of you are scratching your heads, wondering, “What in the world is he talking about? What is this about essence? What is this supposed to be about that name of his?” Never fear, I will help you. I was not named Thomas Gilson for nothing.
Meanwhile, some of you are more worried than wondering. You’re the ones who know about essence, and the significance of the name. You’re very concerned. Very. “Has this guy gone totally off his rocker? Could someone tie him down and force-feed him some anti-grandiose pills?”
Actually, I think I’m okay on that count. It’s just that I’ve been wanting to do that for years now, and finally—finally!—it seemed like the moment. Now that I’ve done it I’ll get over it very quickly, I promise.
(But did I mention my middle initial was A? See how it all fits together?)
(You can get up from the floor laughing now. The rest of this is actually pretty serious. If you’re watching the Super Bowl, set this aside for tomorrow. Don’t multi-task this.)
Thomas — Gilson
Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century genius who synthesized important aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics with Christian revelation. Did he get it all right? No, I’m sorry, but I will not dwell on all that; I prefer to focus on the topic at hand. I am not (despite my bold proclamation above) an expert on Thomas, indeed I am a dabbler at best, but of this much I am convinced: he got it right on essence. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
First, though, for those who don’t know, I need to explain that there was a French medievalist/philosopher named Étienne Gilson (pronounced as the French would say it, zhil-sone’) who is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest modern-era experts on Thomas who is properly referred to by either name on its own (Thomas or Aquinas) or the two together. Thus the names Thomas and Gilson have a unique connection.
My parents knew nothing of this.
Back to essence. In this context, essence is what a thing is. It’s that thing’s unique identity, what’s essential to it in a very realistic sense, what makes it what it is instead of something else, what’s expressed and worked out in its nature. It is what makes an elephant an elephant, a human being a human being, a man a man, a woman a woman, a marriage a marriage, and not something else.
Essence: A Thing Is What It Is and Not Something Else
When I say that I think I’m probably speaking Greek to many of you. It’s a language you need to learn. It is the language that defines what has happened to marriage and sexuality in our generation, not to mention the family, the unborn child, the elderly and the weak, even the law and the state that administers it.
In a word, each of these things is what it is, and not something else. It is not a snapshot in a moment of evolution. It is not what we decide it can be next year regardless of what it was last year. I do not mean that we cannot change laws (or other particulars), but we do not do so by watching them evolve, but by introducing, replacing, and eliminating laws.
Family is what family is. I do not Amean that there is only one legally, properly definable form of family, but I do mean that the variations we see in today’s culture are more nearly true families as they more nearly approach the model of loving father and mother with their own children. I have great regard and respect for those who have grown up in other circumstances, or who are struggling as adults to manage a household of other shapes or forms. I suspect most of you who know that as your family would prefer it if you could have known the kind where mom and dad really love each other, and their children, for keeps.
Marriage is what marriage is. It is the union of a man and a woman.
A human is what a human is, from the moment of his or her conception.
Male is what male is, and female is what female is.
These things are what they are and not something else; and if they are thought to be “evolving,” then no, they’re actually being eliminated or replaced or supplanted or re-defined to mean something other than what they are, and then one is no longer talking about the same thing at all, but something else.
Let’s Learn This Together
I have a lot to explain on this. I’ve studied Thomas enough to be sure he is right on this, but not enough to teach it. I strongly suggest you join me in learning more, starting with Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition. I’ve picked up some more material on Thomas that I’ll be working through this year.
You need to understand what William Briggs was saying about essence in that blog post I linked to. I don’t care if you accept the specifically Roman Catholic material (and I know that some Catholics would accuse the Reformation of leading us off the right metaphysical track, but that’s for another day).
Finally, I know I threw about a dozen grenades in on this post. I do not intend to start a conversation about each of them. I did not offer any argument for my positions here, so I do not want to be placed in the position of having to try to defend any of it. I’m not opening up comments for that reason.
I will be studying Thomas and Gilson this year, learning how to teach what I think really matters for today from the Thomistic material. Give me a few months, please. Or dive into some of it yourself. You need to learn this language. It is the language that defines the issues of the day.
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