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Ultra-Realism FAQ

1. What is Ultra-Realism?

Ultra-Realism is also known as Neo-Platonism. So let's start with the first part --- neo-Platonist. A "Platonist" is a follower of the Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.). A disciple of Socrates (indeed, Plato's written accounts of his teacher's thoughts are the only record we have of them), Plato was also the mentor of Aristotle, with whom, however, he disagreed in several ways. Plato's writings on various topics are voluminous. In a nutshell, he taught that spirit is superior to matter, and that this physical world at once symbolises and conceals a greater, spiritual one.

Various of his later followers over many centuries amplified or elaborated one or another of his teachings. These are called Neo-Platonists. There were and are many different schools of them, often differing wildly. The Church Fathers, the Catholic writers of the first six centuries, were all Neo-Platonists. Their teachings on the supremacy of the spiritual, etc., were filtered through and corrected by Christian Revelation. For example, they did not regard the flesh as evil, in the way that some Neo-Pagans did; rather, although they found it inferior and often trying to the spirit, they knew that the Body is destined to rise in glorified form on the Last Day, and spend eternity with the Soul in heaven (or in hell, if that's how the individual goes!).

As to Ultra-Realism, this refers to a specific Platonic teaching. Plato held that both abstract ideas like "love" and "truth" and concrete things like "horse" or "table" were earthly manifestations of certain "archetypes" or "universals." Thus, we are men because we partake of the Universal "Man."

For Plato, these Universals subsist in a supernal realm of their own, of which this one is a mere reflexion --- even as the things in it are reflexions of the Universals. Christian Neo-Platonists, however, taught that, while real, the Universals exist in the mind of God. They are, so to speak, the patterns through which He continues to will the existence of Creation minute-by-minute. This is called, in terms of classical philosophy, "Realism."

Plato's student Aristotle, however, was a materialist --- he believed that matter was self-existent, with neither beginning nor end, and that there is no personal God. For him, although the Universals are real in a sense, they derive their reality from the sum total of their physical manifestations. In other words, where Plato would teach that horses are horses because they reflect "Horse," Aristotle held that "Horse" is "Horse" because it reflects horses. The distinction (and the very ideas discussed!) may seem terribly abstract, but as we shall see, they have had frightfully concrete results.

At any rate, when Aristotle was re-discovered in the 13th century, and popularised by St. Thomas Aquinas, his view of the Universals came to be called "Moderate Realism," as opposed to the older view, which received in its turn the title of "Ultra-Realism." After a while, the two titles came to be used interchangeably with Neo-Platonist on the one hand, and Aristotelian and Thomist on the other. But of course, the two "Realist" titles refer to only one aspect of either body of teaching, and in fact there have been Moderate Realists who were Neo-Platonists in most other areas.

One key area where the question of the Universals affects Catholic dogma is in understanding the Fall of Man. For the Ultra-Realist, it was a simple question. Typical of their views was that of Odo of Tournai (d. 1113), summarised by Paul Glenn thusly:

The human race is of one specific substance. At first, this substance was found in only two persons. They sinned, and being the whole human substance, this entire substance was vitiated by their sin. Hence Original Sin is transmitted by natural necessity to all human individuals. New births are not productions of new substances, but are merely new properties of the already existing human substance. Individual men differ only accidentally.

By the same token, Baptism has the effect of removing the individual from the substance or Universal of Fallen Humanity, and inserting him into that of Redeemed Humanity. In a nutshell, it makes of him a new creature. This is all rather reminiscent of genetics, actually --- not surprising in the light of the 1311 definition of the Council of Vienne, that the soul is the form of the body. In this last we see again Plato's assertion that the material symbolises the spiritual.

But for the Moderate Realists, the whole question of the Fall is problematic. If the Universal "Man" derives its reality from the sum total of men who have ever been or ever will be, how could the Sin of Adam taint them all? As Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J., a leading Thomist and historian of philosophy put it, "How Theologians understand Original Sin to-day is not clear to me." Nor could it be.

Another key teaching of most Ultra-Realists is that --- in contradiction to Aristotle --- the Will precedes the Intellect. That is, that the Will is the basic motive force of the personality which dominates and controls the Intellect, the faculty which receives and processes information. Central to understanding the significance of this teaching is the notion of Good Will versus Bad Will. Good Will is love of Truth; Bad Will is love of self. Obviously, all human beings have both sorts, in quantities which vary from time. But to the degree that an individual is Good-willed, his intellect will discern the Truth. To the degree that he is Bad-willed, his intellect will accept or interpret perceived reality according to what fulfils his selfish motives. Thus, someone who knows better can apostatise, while someone with a minimum exposure to the Faith can convert. Of course, there are all sorts of other repercussions.

For the Moderate Realist, however, the Intellect precedes the Will: one can only know Good if one is exposed to it or taught it. In a word, the individual is at the mercy of his upbringing and education. Of course, were this true, all those educated alike, with similar early-life experiences, would turn out the same way. There could be neither apostasies nor conversions. We know that this is not the case however. There are a number of other differences, but these are perhaps the most germane.

2. Why do you think everyone should be an ultra-realist? Shouldn't it just suffice that one adheres to Church doctrine?

These are questions you might well ask a Thomist! But let's tackle them in reverse. Firstly, for one's salvation, per se, all you require adherence to the Church's doctrine. But we do not live in a vacuum. One has to live one's Faith, and deal with the world around him while he does so. Philosophy in general is one's way of looking at reality. The minute you begin to apply the Faith to living --- presto! You are a philosopher! Then it becomes a question of what philosophy you will use. The criteria are simple: does the given philosophy a) gibe with the Faith?; and b) does it correspond to objective reality? (there are of course schools of thought which maintain either that there is no objective reality or that we cannot know what it is if it exists --- we need not worry about those).

By this yardstick alone, Aristotelianism and its derivatives are found wanting, because of their materialism: they are philosophies ill-fitted for Catholics, because they deny the basis of Catholicism (even though some of them affirm the Faith consciously), and because they are simply untrue, as we shall see.

3. Do you think moderate realism contributed to the decline of the Church?

Indeed I do. In fact, it rocked the very foundations of both the Medieval Church and State. Medievalist Norman F. Cantor of New York University says:

We do not, however, need the romantic projection of the Middle Ages. Directly accessible to us is the medieval intelligentsia's perception of its own culture and society. In assessing their own world, medieval intellectuals were heavily conditioned by a persistent idealism that saw in society around them signs of the earthly incarnation of the Heavenly City. The perception of the early-twelfth-century poet Bernard of Morval was the base line in Medieval assessment: "God's own nation, God's own congregation. Magnificent towers, fair homeland of flowers, thou country of life [Trans. E.J. Martin].

The central dogma of the Incarnation likewise governed the social perceptions of medieval people. They were preconditioned by the dogma of the Incarnation, and the philosophy of "realism" which underlies it, to find the ideal within the material, the beautiful within the ugly, the moral and peaceful in the midst of violence and disorder. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," full of grace and truth." Since everything was of divine creation, medieval intellectuals had no doubt that all the pieces would ultimately fit together in an idealistic, morally committed structure. Whatever they saw or experienced was part of a divine manifestation.

The Catholic or universal Church does not merely aim to be an aggregation of particular Christian communities and of the believers composing them; she regards herself as a superior power, as a reality distinct from and independent of the individuals belonging to the fold. If the Idea, that is, the general or universal, were not a reality, "the Church" would be a mere collective term, and the particular churches, or rather the individuals composing them, would be the only realities. Hence, the Church must be [Ultra-] realistic, and declare with the Academy [Plato's School]: Universals are real. Catholicism is synonymous with [Ultra-] realism.

These notions had political repercussions as well. If a given Pope or Emperor were evil, this was not held to diminish the essential goodness of the Institutions which they headed. Moreover, resistance to evils committed by Pope or Emperor did not necessarily imply disloyalty to Church or Empire.

Similarly, the doctrine grew up on the national level of the "King's Two Bodies." The Body Political was simply the King as embodiment of the Crown. He never died, nor could do any wrong. He was Crowned and anointed by God through the medium of the country's leading prelate, and in some places was held to have miraculous powers. Loyalty to the King was indeed a holy obligation.

But there also subsisted in the person of the King the Body natural. This was the human being who wore the Crown at the moment. He could sin, he could err, he would die. If he stepped out of bounds, if he broke the law, then loyalty demanded he be compelled to step back within its bounds. Hence Magna Carta is couched as a gracious confirmation of the rights of his Bishops and Barons by a loving King. We moderns might consider it an exercise in hypocrisy, since we know that King John was forced to sign it by the great men of his realm. But it would not have been seen that way by either the King or the Magnates.

This is because, for the Medievals, Law was also seen as something self-existent; it bound King and Subjects alike. It could not be created, and legislation in our sense did not exist. Rather, it was something to be discovered and concretely applied to any given situation. It was thus considered natural that different provinces should have wildly differing systems of law, and that the King should reign in each province in accord with its particular legal code.

But that reign was, in itself, a very intangible thing. The medieval world distinguished between authority and power. Authority, which came from God, was the right to say what ought to be done; power was the ability to make it happen. In a word, it was the difference between a doctor's authority to prescribe, and his patient's power not to fulfil that prescription. Without the Secret Police and Internal Revenue of the Modern State, the King's power outside his capital, palaces, and estates was limited. Power was widely diffused among the Church, nobility, and guilds. But the King's authority, subject to the law, was unlimited. Hence, although there were no FBI nor RCMP to enforce it, the King's Peace was observed on the King's Highways. When private citizens or groups suppressed banditry, they did not (although unsubsidised by and often unknown to the King) enforce peace on their own account, but in the name of the King. If His Majesty wanted to bring a restive city or great lord to heel, he must declare them outside his protection --- "outlawed." In a word, the Medieval state, to a degree unbelievable to us to-day, rested upon an act of collective Faith, a product of Neo-Platonism.

This being true of national entities, it was truer still of the Holy Roman Empire. In theory, the Empire had never died. Rather, it encompassed all of Christendom, and its frontiers ran wherever a baptised Christian lived. Founded by Constantine and renewed (in the West) by Charlemagne, it formed the psychological and spiritual bedrock of all European governance. As Viscount Bryce puts it:

The realistic philosophy, and the needs of a time when the only notion of civil or religious order was submission to authority, required the World State to be a monarchy: tradition, as well as the continued existence of a part of the ancient institutions, gave the monarch the name of Roman Emperor. A king could not be universal sovereign, for there were many kings: the Emperor must be universal, for there had never been but one Emperor; he had in older and brighter days been the actual lord of the civilised world; the seat of his power was placed beside that of the spiritual autocrat of Christendom. His functions will be seen most clearly if we deduce them from the leading principle of medieval mythology, the exact correspondence of earth and heaven [Neo-Platonism again! CAC]. As God, in the midst of the celestial hierarchy, rules blessed spirits in Paradise, so the Pope, His vicar, raised above priests, bishops, metropolitans, reigns over the souls of mortal men below. But as God is Lord of earth as well as of heaven. So must he (the Imperator coelestis ) be represented by a second earthly viceroy, the Emperor ( Imperator terrenus), whose authority shall be of and for this present life. And as in this present world the soul cannot act save through the body, while yet the body is no more than an instrument and means for the soul's manifestation, so there must be a rule and care of men’s bodies as well as their souls, yet subordinated always to the well-being of that element which is the purer and more enduring. It is under the emblem of soul and body that the relation of the papal and imperial power is presented to us throughout the Middle Ages. The Pope, as God’s Vicar in matters spiritual, is to lead men to eternal life; the Emperor, as vicar in matters temporal, must so control them in their dealings with one another that they are able to pursue undisturbed the spiritual life, and thereby attain the same supreme and common end of everlasting happiness. In view of this object his chief duty is to maintain peace in the world, while towards the Church his position is that of Advocate or Patron, a title borrowed from the practise adopted by churches and monasteries of choosing some powerful baron to protect their lands and lead their tenants in war. The functions of Advocacy are twofold: at home to make the Christian people obedient to the priesthood, and to execute priestly decrees upon heretics and sinners; abroad to propagate the Faith among the heathen, sparing not to use carnal weapons. Thus does the Emperor answer in every point to his antitype the Pope, his power being yet of a lower rank, created on the analogy of the papal "Thus the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing, seen from different sides; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism. "

Nor was this view confined to the West. Between 1394 and 1397, Anthony IV, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote a letter to Prince Basil I of Moscow, reprimanding the Muscovite Prince for having had the Byzantine Emperor ’ s name removed from the liturgy. The Patriarch took a particularly grave view of Basil's statement: "We have the church, but not the emperor." To acknowledge the authority over Russia of the Patriarch but not of the Emperor is, Anthony points out, a contradiction in terms: for "it is not possible for Christians to have the Church and not to have the Empire. For Church and Empire have a great unity and community; nor is it possible for them to be separated from one another." And, in an attempt to make the Russian sovereign see the grievous error of his ways, and in pursuance of his own duty as "universal teacher of all Christians," the Patriarch solemnly reiterated the basic principle of Byzantine political philosophy. "The holy Emperor," he writes, "is not as other rulers and other governors of other regions are." He is anointed with the great myrrh, and is consecrated basileus and autocrator of the Romans --- to wit, of all Christians." These other rulers, "who are called Kings promiscuously among the nations," exercise a purely local authority; the basileus alone is "lord and master of the oikoumene," the "universal Emperor," "the natural King" whose laws and ordinances are accepted in the whole world. His oecumenical sovereignty is made manifest by the liturgical commemoration of his name in the churches of Christendom; and, as the patriarch’s letter pointedly implies, the prince of Moscow by discontinuing this practise within his realm had deliberately rejected the very foundations of Byzantine law and government.

There are few documents which express with such force and clarity the basic theory of the Medieval Byzantine Commonwealth. The Patriarch Anthony’s letter is a classic exposition of the doctrine of the universal East Roman Empire, ruled by the basileus , successor of Constantine and vicegerent of God, supreme law-giver of Christendom, whose authority was held to extend, at least in a spiritual and "metapolitical" sense, over all Christian rulers and peoples. The fact that this solemn and defiant political profession of faith was made from the capital of a state that was facing political and military collapse, only emphasises the astonishing strength and continuity of this political vision which pervades the entire history of Byzantium and had hitherto been accepted implicitly by the nations of Eastern Europe.

This Imperial ideology, on the surface so foreign to our own time, is nevertheless a key concept to grasp. Accepted from Ireland (whose High King was held to "take stock" from the Holy Roman Emperors by the Brehon Laws) to Russia, it has had numerous repercussions in subsequent history.

Kings and Emperors alike owed their allegiance and their authority to the Church; indeed, it may be said that the Catholic religion expressed via Neo-Platonism was quite simply the animating spirit of all sectors of society, high and low. Because we tend to-day to focus our attention (favourable or otherwise) on the externals of the Church --- her clergy, laws, and property, we tend to forget that these were not the major concerns of Medieval Christians. For them, the Church was a living thing, a Universal bound about and nourished by the Seven Sacraments, through which she rescued those who entered her through Baptism from the fallen world. Outside her portals lay only death and the dominion of the devil; inside her bosom alone could humanity find personal salvation. The figure of Noah’s Ark was used to illustrate this point. Church membership was necessary to avoid hell not because of mere technicality, but because only her Sacraments applied the merits of Christ directly to the believer. Without this application, the ruin wreaked by Adam’s Fall on Creation could not be expunged from the individual’s soul, nor could he be incorporated into the Body of Christ, without whom, as the Gospels told our ancestors, no one could come to the Father.

The Medieval synthesis in Church and State began to unravel early in the 13th century. This was due in large part to the growth of Aristotelian philosophy. As we have seen, the basically materialist, Aristotle did not believe in a transcendent world of spirit superior to this one, by which actions in this world must be gauged; he held that the Universals derived their reality from the sum total of their parts --- their physical manifestations. Although initially condemned by Church authorities (and regarded with suspicion by the Franciscans, Augustinians and other theological schools for a considerable time afterward), the attempted synthesis of Aristotlianism with Catholicism had far reaching effects upon a society based in large degree upon the unseen.

It took time for the Aristotelian worldview to pass down through society (indeed, amongst much of the European peasantry it would be 1914 or later). But its results were close at hand. The notion of Christendom as an invisible yet tangible organisation began to break down almost immediately. The trans-national effort needed to establish and maintain the Crusader States in Palestine and Syria began very quickly to wither as national rulers looked more to their own affairs. By 1291, the last posts in the East had fallen. From that time until 1571, when another international force defeated the Turks at the battle of Lepanto, Islam would sweep through Asia Minor and the Balkans. Even Lepanto did not halt their advance on land, and so late as 1683 the Turks would come close to taking Vienna. The Muslims would roll over Greek and Bulgar, Serb and Romanian, Croat and Magyar, with very little help from the distracted West. Nor would the Russians receive much either, when the Tartars overwhelmed them. These lessons would not be lost on the Christian East.

Kings ever more considered themselves independent of the Empire, while the Guelph and Ghibelline struggles between supporters of the Pope and the Emperor, the two pillars of Christendom, reduced Germany and Italy to anarchy. Nor was the intangible King’s peace spared, as the Thirty Years War (as much a French civil conflict as a struggle between France and England) enveloped France, after which the Wars of the Roses shattered England. Castile and various other Spanish states likewise suffered civil war, even while struggling to eject the Moors from their remaining possessions. The Black Death slaughtered thousands, while the rise of a money economy altered the nature of European commerce profoundly. Some men prospered, others went broke, and a bourgeoisie began to rise alongside banking. The Church itself suffered the Great Schism; if ever there were a signal that the old Christendom was vanishing, surely the spectacle of three warring Popes was it.

As the 15th century progressed, however, in France, England, and elsewhere, Kings and Princes attempted to tame the chaos with a new order, based not upon theory, but fact: the nobles must be tamed, the Church controlled, the provinces unified. The Tudors in England and the Valois in France set themselves just that task. Nor were they the only ones.

All of this was merely external, however. The internal effects upon Church belief were if anything, more devastating. The earlier mentioned problem with Original Sin boiled and bubbled along. Then too, the obvious contradictions between Catholic teaching and Aristotelian philosophy led some philosophers to the "Double Truth," the notion that something can be true in philosophy and false in theology, or vice versa. Thus, as in Orwell’s 1984, a Churchman could hold two mutually contradictory positions with equal fervour.

In time (about 1492, to be precise), a New World was discovered, which appeared to be completely un-evangelised. In it were multitudes who had never heard --- as it was thought --- of Christ and His Church. To the still basically Neo-Platonic rank-and-file of Church members, this was a grand opportunity. The spread of the Gospel to Men of Good Will had always been a major priority. But for Aristotelians it posed a major problem.

Since, for them, the Intellect preceded the Will, they were at a loss to understand why God would have created so many who had no opportunity to receive the Faith. Not for them the knowledge of St. Francis Xavier that he had been sent to the East Indies by God at the time he was due to the Good Will and receptivity of his hearers; not for them the miraculous bilocations of Ven. Maria de Agreda to similarly Good-Willed Indians; no, they must decide for themselves that God had created folk who were incapable of receiving the Faith.

This settled, they then attempted to maintain the justice of God by inventing the notion of Invincible Ignorance, a term borrowed from Moral Theology. In that area, it simply meant that if a person did not know a sin was wrong, he was not responsible. The Aristotelians then taught that if a person did know the Faith, he did not need to know it, he did not have to belong to it. He would be saved on his own merits, so to speak, without membership in the Church, the definition of which they could not arrive at anyway. In time, this became the idea of the "Anonymous Christian" --- universal Salvation. In a word, the adoption of Moderate Realism led, over many centuries, to the eventual political extinction of Christendom, and essential dismissal of the Church as irrelevant by its most influential theologians.

4. Who were some famous ultra-realists and/or Christian Neoplatonists?

There is a long list, to be sure. In truth, I should probably start with St. John the Evangelist. The prologue of his Gospel (to say nothing of its body, his Epistles and the Apocalypse) sum up the whole of Christian Neo-Platonism/Ultra-realism. One could add St. Dionysius the Areopagite, convert of St. Paul, first Bishop of Athens, first Bishop of Paris, and author of The Divine Hierarchies and other works. (Yes, I am aware that people since Luther have declared that these four qualities belong to four separate Dionysii, and insist on calling the author the "Pseudo-Dionysius;" I consider their pretensions exploded by the writings of such as Dom Gueranger and the martyred Archbishop Darboy).

I will give a chronological listing with names and dates, and suggest that you run to the encyclopaedia to look them up!

St. Justin Martyr (d. 166)

St. Irenaeus (140-202)

St. Hippolytus (d. 235)

St. Clement of Alexandria (150-214)

Origen (185-254) Arnobius (d. 325)

Lactantius (d. 330)

St. Athanasius (295-373)

St. Basil the Great (331-379)

St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-391)

St. Gregory of Nyssa (332-395)

Synesius (370-413)

Nemesius of Phoenicia (5th century) St. Hilary of Poitiers (320-368)

St. Ambrose (340-397)

St. Jerome (331-420)

St. Augustine (354-430)

St. Leo the Great (400-461)

St. Prosper of Aquitaine (d. 463)

Claudius Mamertus (d. 473)

Boethius (480-522)

St. Gregory the Great (540-604)

St. Gregory of Tours (539-594)

St. Leander (534-601)

St. Isidore (570-636)

St. Idlephonse (d. 667)

St. Bede the Venerable (674-735)

As you can see, the list encompasses virtually all of the Church Fathers. And, of course, while this is not a matter of Faith, on matters of Faith the unanimous opinion of the Fathers approaches Infallibility! Anyway, let’s continue into the Middle Ages.

Alcuin (735-804)

Fredegis (early 9th century)

John Scotus Erigena (810-878)

Gerbert [Pope Sylvester II] (945-1003)

St. Anselm (1033-1109)

Odo of Tournai (d. 1113)

Bernard of Chartres (d. 1130)

Thierry of Chartres (d. 1155)

William of Conches (1080-1154)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153)

Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141)

Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253)

Richard of St. Victor (d. 1175)

Walter of St. Victor (mid-12th century)

Bernard of Tours (mid-12th century)

William of Auvergne (d. 1249)

Alexander of Hales (d. 1245)

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)

Roger Bacon (1214-1294)

St. Albert the Great [to a degree] (1193-1280)

Alexander of Hales (1170-1245)

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini [Pius II] (1405-1464)

Peter of Tarentaise [later Bl. Innocent V] (1224-1276)

St. Thomas Aquinas [surprise!] (1225-1274)

The inclusion of these last two will surprise many, no doubt. But it is warranted because both were far more beholden to their predecessors than to Aristotle. Nevertheless, St. Thomas Aquinas is regarded as the great Catholiciser of Aristotle, and so, from now on, opposition to one is to some degree, opposition to the other. Of course, it should be bourne in mind that St. Thomas was canonised for his heroic virtue, not his philosophy.

Richard Fishacre (d. 1243)

John of La Rochelle (1190-1245)

Hugh of St. Cher (1200-1263)

Thomas of York (d. 1260)

Etienne Tempier (d. 1279)

Robert Kilwardby (1215-1279)

William de la Mare (d. 1290)

Gerard of Abbeville (1220-1272)

John Peckham (1220-1292)

Henry of Ghent (d. 1293)

Richard of Middleton (d. 1300)

Roger Marston (d. 1303)

Bl. Raymund Lully (1235-1315)

Matthew of Aquasparta (1240-1302)

Giles of Rome (1247-1316)

Peter Olivi (1248-1298)

William of Ware (1255-?)

Bl. John Duns Scotus (1266-1280)

Antonius Andre (d. 1320)

Francis of Mayron (d. 1325)

Meister Eckhart (1260-1327)

John of Bassoles (d. 1347)

Peter of Aquila (d. 1361)

John Tauler (1290-1361)

Bl. Henry Suso (d. 1366)

Bl. John Ruysbroek (1293-1381)

Gerard Groote (1340-1384)

Florentius Radewijns (1350-1400)

Peter d’Ailly (1350-1420)

Henrik Mande (1360-1431)

John Gerson (1363-1429)

Raymund of Sabunde (d. 1432)

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)

Denis the Carthusian (1402-1471)

Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472)

Johannes Rechlin (1455-1522)

Joannes Mauburnus (1460-1501)

Trithemius of Sponheim (1462-1516)

Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

John Colet (1467-1519)

Girolamo Seripando (1492-1563)

Paracelsus (1493-1541)

Geronimo Cardano (1501-1576)

Johann Gropper (1501-1559)

Maurice O’Fihely

Antonio Trombetta

Francesco Licheto

Bernadino Telesio (1508-1588)

Francesco Patrizzi (1529-1597)

Johann Arndt (1555-1621)

Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)

Godfrey Goodman (1583-1656)

Luke Wadding (1588-1657)

Henry More (1614-1687)

Claude Frassen (1620-1711)

Lodovico Sinistrari (1622-1701)

Bl. Junipero Serra (1713-1784)

Ignaz Frank (d. 1794)

Franz Wallraf (1748-1824)

Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803)

Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821)

Louis de Bonald (1754-1840)

Franz von Baader (1765-1841)

Joachim Ventura de Raulica (1792-1861)

Louis Bautain (1796-1867)

Augustine Bonnetty (1798-1879)

Casimir Ubaghs (1800-1875)

Alphonse Gratry (1805-1872)

Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875)

Charles Lindley Wood, Lord Halifax (1839-1934)

Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900)

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (1871-1946)

Emile Grillot de Givry (1874-1929)

Montague Summers (1880-1947)

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Leonard Feeney (1897-1978)

Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973)

5. Who were some famous moderate realists/Thomists?

The first was, to a degree, St. Albertus Magnus, followed of course by St. Thomas himself. Of course, the argument may be made that St. Thomas himself was not a Thomist, as that word is generally received. He did, after all, quote St. Dionysius the Areopagite more than he did Aristotle. At any rate, here are some of the more prominent Thomists down to our own day.

St. Robert Bellarmine

John Quidort

Thomas Jorz

Thomas Sutton

Herve of Nedellec

Peter of Auvergne

Godfrey of Fontaines

Humbert of Preuilly Paul Socinas (d. 1494)

John A Lapide (d. 1494)

Dominic of Flanders (d. 1500)

Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469-1534)

Francis de Sylvestris de Ferrara (1474-1528)

Francis de Vittoria (1480-1546)

Dominic de Soto (1494-1560)

Melchior Canus (1509-1560)

Bartholomew de Medina (1527-1581)

Peter Fonseca (1528-1599)

Domingo Banez (1528-1604)

Francis Toletus (1532-1596)

Louis Molina (1535-1600)

John de Mariana (1537-1624)

Francis Suarez (1548-1617)

Gabriel Vasquez (1551-1604)

Richard Hooker (1553-1600)

Marsilio Vasquez (d. 1611)

John of St. Thomas (1589-1644)

Jean Baptiste Gonet (d. 1681)

Antoine Goudin (1639-1695)

Blaise of the Holy Conception

Joseph Saenz de Aguirre (d. 1699)

Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892)

Joseph Kleutgen (1811-1883)

Desire Mercier (1852-1926)

Joseph Marechal (1878-1944)

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)

Etienne Gilson (1884-1978)

Mortimer Adler (1902-)

Karl Rahner (1904-1984)

Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984)

Emeric Coreth (1919-)

Some might object to the inclusion of Rahner, Lonergan, Marechal and Coreth on this list; nevertheless, on all issues where more mainstream Thomists disagreed with the Neo-Platonists, Augustinians, and Scotist, the "Transcendental Thomists" (as Rahner, etc. labelled themselves) line up with the Thomists.

6. Why did ultra-realism go out of style?

Why indeed? How to explain fads in philosophy, or anywhere else? As we mentioned, Aristotelianism is materialistic. Did society become more materialistic as Aristotelianism grew in influence, or vice versa? It is a sort of chicken and egg question. But certainly, as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment succeeded each other, physical world loomed ever larger into view, and the spiritual ever farther. Moreover, St. Thomas’ canonisation, and the employment of his philosophy (or, to be more accurate, more or less distorted versions of it) in the Counter-Reformation, seemed to grant it official status, as though it were THE Catholic philosophy. Why did moderate realism go out of style? Like any revolutionary idea, it was left behind by more radical developments. Conceptualism arose, which held that the Universals are mere concepts; then came Nominalism, which held that they were mere names. Luther, interestingly enough, was a Nominalist. In any case, over a long period of time, Moderate realism was simply not spiritual enough to satisfy believers, nor materialistic enough to satisfy non-believers. It is revealing that (although there are exceptions either way), strict Thomists have tended to be academics and scholars, whereas Catholic missionaries, lay writers, orthodox liturgists, politicians, and so on have tended toward one or another variety of Neo-Platonism --- even if they have not recognised it as such.

7. But isn't Thomism the official philosophy of the Catholic Church?

Er, no. It does have a special status of sorts, thanks to Leo XIII's endorsement of it in his encyclical Aeterni Patris. But that same encyclical gave equal status (though it did not treat it in any detail) to the work of St. Bonaventure.

It is important to remember that, prior to St. Thomas, there were twelve centuries of Church life without Thomism. The Church’s doctrinal definitions, her liturgies, all her official acts up to that point were originated without Thomist or Aristotelian influence. When such influence arose in the 13th century, its adherents were called "Moderns," as opposed to the Ultra-realist "Ancients." Several of St. Thomas’ philosophical teachings were condemned in the 1270s by the Archbishops of Paris and Canterbury, and by the Universities of Paris and Oxford. Although the condemnations were lifted after St. Thomas’ canonisation in 1313, the Franciscans and Augustinians did not accept Thomism, preferring in the case of the former St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus, and in that of the latter amplifications of St. Augustine. In any case, the definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary --- rejected by St. Thomas --- shows that Thomism cannot be considered the sole authentic Catholic philosophy.

Of course, a lot of snide commentary by Thomist writer in the philosophical textbooks of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s led to the use of such phrases as "Exaggerated Realism" for Ultra-Realism. A friend of mine, Stephen Frankini, was so annoyed by this that he took to calling Moderate Realism "Inadequate Realism." In any case, the very existence of such books gave Thomism an "official" feel to it not at all justified in reality.

8. Wasn't the height of Thomism the high point of the Church?

Not at all. No sooner did Thomism gain wide acceptance in the 14th century, than Nominalism came in and nearly superseded it. After that, Thomism’s finest hour was the period between 1918-1965. This produced the Transcendental Thomism mentioned earlier, and the more mainstream "Neo-Thomism" of men like Jacques Maritain.

In the period since the Council, the corrosive effect of Transcendental Thomism has been made manifest. Less obvious has been that of Neo-Thomism. The materialism implicit in it grew greater and greater; human reason became --- practically speaking --- more important than revelation. In the 13th century, the difference between Ultra- and Moderate Realism seemed to be more one of emphasis, the more so since the proponents on both sides were pious Catholics. Thus, as Angelus Gambatese tells us in his biography of St. Bonaventure (p. 20):

The Platonist sees things in God; the Aristotelian sees God at the summit of things. If both philosophies lead to religion, it is undeniable that the religious element is more spontaneous in a philosophy of the Platonic type for it penetrates its very structure.

By the same token, Aristotelian philosophies, with their reliance on reason, become less and less religious; by so doing they become less authentic. Dogmas become mere formulas, divorced from reality. Jacques Maritain himself, at the end of his life, well described the process in his Peasant of the Garonne:

This "Thomist philosophy" was no theology, since they had withdrawn from it the light proper to theology to transfer it into the kingdom of reason using only its natural powers. Still less was it a philosophy, since it remained structured after the theological treatise from which it emerged, and possessed neither the gait and method, nor the light characteristic of philosophical research. Without the characteristic light of theology, and that proper to theological research, it had practically no light at all. (p. 136).

This was a recipe for disaster --- the very disaster which has overcome us.

9. What freedom does a Catholic have in choosing a philosophy?

An enormous amount --- so long as he always remembers that the revealed Truths of our religion take precedence over any philosophy; and that anything which conflicts with those Truths is simply false.

10. Did St. Thomas Aquinas reject ultra-realism?

Indeed he did. He followed Aristotle against Plato in asserting that the Universals derive their reality from the sum total of their physical examples. Moreover, he differed from then-accepted philosophy on a number of different issues:

a. Plurality of Forms

This is the teaching that every individual person or thing is made an individual by virtue of being a combination of various "substantial forms" or qualities, which are real in themselves. For example, a certain person is a Man, French, Baptised Catholic, Blue-Eyed, Breathing, Four-Limbed, and so on. Each of these is a concrete expression of a Universal; taken together, they form the individual we call Jean-Luc Sansargent. So it is for very individual person or thing. Aristotle and St. Thomas taught, however, that the individual is simply as he is, and all of his qualities accidental. Again, while seemingly arcane on the surface, this question is filled with all sorts of implications regarding sin and salvation; it was precisely on this point that St. Thomas’ teachings suffered the condemnations earlier mentioned.

b. "Rational Seeds" --- Seminal Reasons

This idea refers to the potentialities locked within each substance and individual, which can lead to change, given the right stimulus. For instance, the acorn has the oak-tree inside it; the wood has the potential to be ash; water can be stem etc. Obviously we can see here a foreshadowing of genetic theory. But this too Aristotle and St. Thomas denied.

c. Divine Illumination

Here we see the Christian acceptance that beyond a certain point, reason cannot go. Man can, by virtue of his reason, figure out that there is a Creator, that He ought to be worshipped, etc. But anything more complex requires direct illumination from God; indeed, without such illumination we can be sure of nothing of importance. Aristotle and St. Thomas denied this, holding that human reason unaided can go quite far, indeed.

d. Subtle Matter

This is the assertion that angels and spirits are made of a matter like but unlike that of the physical world; unlike it that it can be invisible, weighs little, moves quickly, etc; like in that beings composed of it can affect physical objects, and can be, as it were, measured or perceived to some degree. Holders of this belief would assert that only God can be immaterial, for He alone is unchangeable. (Angels, while of immovable Will, did change at least once, when they took up sides at Satan's revolt). Moreover, the Second Council of Nicaea ruled in favour of this belief, when it approved the following passage from a book by John of Thessalonica:

Respecting Angels, Archangels, and their powers, to which I also adjoin our own Souls, the Catholic Church is indeed of the opinion that they are intelligences, but not entirely bodiless and senseless, as you Gentiles aver; she on the contrary ascribes to them a subtile body, aerial or igneous, according to what is written: "He makes His angels spirits, and His ministers a burning fire."

Although not corporeal in the same way as ourselves, made of the four elements, yet it is impossible to say that Angels, Demons, and Souls are incorporeal; for they have been seen many a time, wearing their own body, by those whose eyes the Lord has opened.

In any case, this was also the teaching of Plato; following Aristotle, St. Thomas denied this. There were other issues involved, but these are the best known.

11. On what issues did St. Thomas Aquinas clash with St. Bonaventure?

All of the above, to be sure. Also, St. Thomas held that the Will precedes the Intellect; St. Bonaventure believed it was the other way around. But there was more that that at issue; it was a question of the whole tone of philosophy. How rigid is the proper boundary between theology and philosophy? For St. Thomas, the twain could never meet, although theology was superior; for St. Bonaventure, any philosophy which ignored theology simply could not be true. How could there be any real wisdom if one ignores the major facts of existence? And, of course, there was one other little problem. Neo-Platonism does indeed appeal to the poet in us, to the adventurer. It can be little surprise that both Dom Gueranger and Fray Junipero Serra were both Platonists. But Aristotle and his teachings were and are coldly intellectual. Thus we see that part of the problem is a matter of disposition. If one wishes to go out and do great deeds for Christ, St. Bonavenutre and his ilk will inspire him. If he wishes simply to stay in the lecture hall and calmly contemplate reality, he will find the Summa Theologica more to his taste. But as I have said, St. Thomas was not really a Thomist, and refused to finish the Summa. If you really want to understand St. Thomas, read his Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and his Catena Aurea. Then (if you can find one) attend Mass in the old Dominican Rite --- the same Rite he offered.

St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas were the dearest of friends at the University of Paris; as they were united in life, as they are in heaven, so ought they to be in our esteem.

12. Which were you first, an ultra-realist or a monarchist?

A Monarchist, to be sure. For a start, it was sentimental; being French-Canadian on my father’s side, I knew that Louis XIV had sent my ancestors to Canada, and that Louis XVI was unjustly murdered. My mother was a fierce Habsburg proponent, and my father had as well an attachment to the Jacobites. What was true of Louis XVI was also true of Charles I and Nicholas II. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the Loyalists, giving up everything for their Monarch and going off in exile to Canada and the Bahamas. And of course, I knew that Christ was King, not President. Certainly the rich symbolism of Royal ceremony had it effect as well.

When I got older I began to study these things in and out of school. It seemed to me that the Reformation and the American, French, and Russian Revolutions were all symptoms of the same basic phenomenon. Moreover, I read various theorists of Monarchy, not least of all Belloc and Chesterton. By the time I left College, I was a confirmed Monarchist.

I then learned of the question of "No Salvation Outside the Church." It was apparent to me from my historical research that certainly the Church HAD taught this dogma, and just as certainly that her spokesmen now denied it. How was this possible for an infallible Church? And if it were possible with this dogma, why not all the others. Surely, if the Church is not necessary for the Salvation of every one, it is necessary for no one. Moreover, the Crusades and the Inquisition would have been the worst injustices, and missionary work of kind useless folly. My discovery of the work of Fr. Feeney supplied the answer: the dogma of Salvation was simply true, despite all the non-infallible claptrap to the contrary.

But this left another question. How did we get into the strange position of a majority of the clergy calling heresy the very dogma which alone justifies their existence (as an income-absorbing class, that is)? In other words, how did we get into this mess.

Again, history provided an answer. In great (though not sole) part, our troubles stem from the attempt to express the Faith through basically materialistic terms. Judged from the perspective of Aristotle, the Catholic Faith is folly. If one attempts to combine the two, he may succeed for his own time; but in the end the inborn tendencies of the philosophy must (and have work themselves out. Rather than seeing the Faith as an organic whole, which has repercussions in every corner of life, from government to art, it becomes a mere set of propositions to be memorised --- or altered, if they do not accord with what appears to be reason.

And so, I became an Ultra-Realist, convinced that the great ruin can only be reversed if the ideas which created the Catholic synthesis in the first place are allowed to act. To do that they must once again be promoted. Thus I stand.

13. Did you become one as the result of the other?

Certainly. As just intimated, my researches into the decline of Monarchy reinforced those into the decline of the Church. The republican Charles Fenyvesi writes:

An age of fable has ended. The world has gotten old; skepticism is our wisdom. We do not believe in the magic of pedigree, and we expect the son not to take up his father’s role. There are no more once-and-future Kings foretold and prayed for; no secret sons and false pretenders; no Royal pathos of trust and betrayal. We have cancelled faith, the gold standard of monarchy, as well as "the Pleasure of His Majesty," once the common currency.

Republican accountability requires a pursuit of the rational. Citizens bow to the technician whose presumption is efficiency and whose excuse is science. He knows all about systems, and "functional" is his highest praise.

With very little alteration, much can be said of the changes in the Church. So you might say that the analogy of the decline of Monarchy prepared me to accept Ultra-Realism, when, like almost all who consider themselves Traditional Catholics, I had always thought that Thomism was simply THE Catholic philosophy.

14. How is the Platonic worldview demonstrated from Scripture?

Constantly, particularly in the New Testament, although the Wisdom books, with their personification of Wisdom as a Holy Woman (and prefiguring of the Virgin) are certainly very much in that style. Throughout the New Testament we are told of the importance of "Good Will." St. John tells us that God "enlightens every man who comes into the world." There is peace "for men of Good Will." The Church is certainly treated like a Platonic Universal in the Epistles, rather than a mere sum of its members. All this stuff about becoming a new creature at baptism and so on. It is for this reason that Moderate Realists rarely look to the Bible as a source of philosophical knowledge, simply dismissing it as religious.

15. Specifically, why did the medieval theologians/philosophers reject the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? It can't be because of Aristotle because the Ultra realists, such as Bonaventure, denied the doctrine as well.

Yes and no. Our belief in the Immaculate Conception goes back to the Bible, when The Archangel Gabriel addressed Mary as "full of Grace," something manifestly impossible if the person so addressed was in Original Sin. The early fathers all believed the Mary was Immaculate from her conception; the Eastern Fathers being more explicit on this point, however, than the Western. The liturgical observance of the Feast started in the East, from whence it spread to England and then to the rest of Europe (ironic in the light of this doctrine’s later denial by the Anglicans and Orthodox. The first serious opposition came from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (an Ultra-Realist) who simply could not believe that the Holy Ghost could be involved in something so unclean (to his mind) as Conception). From his time on, two new issues arose: first, the Aristotelian notion that the soul does not enter the body until the "quickening" became almost universal long before Aristotle’s philosophy was re-discovered; second, it was feared that declaring Our Lady to be free from original sin would somehow diminish Our Lord’s uniqueness. These latter two views were summed up by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa; after the Summa became the official teaching manual of the Dominicans, that order made denial of the dogma part of its official stance. Even the feast of the Immaculate Conception would only be celebrated by them as the "Sanctification" for a long time.

However, among those untouched at all by Aristotle, the belief continued to spread. Bl. Raymund Lully was the first post-St. Bernard theologian to preach it openly. Then Bl. Duns Scotus described it in the terms we know to-day. But so late as the 17th century, Pope Gregory XV (1621-1623) forbade either proponents or opponents of the doctrine to label each other as heretics --- so there was quite a good deal of confusion until relatively recently."

Will Ultra-Realism become resurgent again?

Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is an American Catholic author, historian, and lecturer who is known for his advocacy of monarchism. Mr. Coulombe has a weekly podcast where people ask him all sorts of questions on religion, culture, politics and history.
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