Neo-Scholasticism was a movement within philosophy and theology which sought to revive, develop, and defend Scholastic thought in general and Thomism in particular as an alternative to the various schools of modern thought. It flourished from the years just prior to Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris to the close of Vatican II in 1965. As those temporal markers indicate, it was mostly a Catholic movement, but there were several prominent non-Catholic thinkers who sympathized with the Aristotelian themes emphasized by most Neo-Scholastics. Mortimer Adler, John Wild, and Henry Veatch would be three examples. (Adler did finally convert to Catholicism not long before his death.)
A great many silly things have been said about this tradition by its critics. For example, within Roman Catholic circles, Neo-Scholasticism is often disparaged as “manualist,” because of the way in which Neo-Scholastic thought was often transmitted through manuals or textbooks of philosophy, theology, and ethics, usually for use in seminary education. Yet why such “manualism” is objectionable is a question to which no one has ever given a satisfying answer. We are told, for instance, that the teaching of the manuals was too “constricting” and pre-packaged, that the systematic and rigorous character of Scholastic thought stifles “creativity.” But of course, you could say the same thing about textbooks of physics or chemistry, and no one would suggest that this shows that what is taught in such textbooks is wrong. Physics and chemistry are what they are, and if that makes it more difficult for would-be physicists or chemists to show their “creativity,” that’s just tough luck for them. Similarly, if the teaching of the Neo-Scholastic manuals is correct, then complaining that it cramps one’s style is simply juvenile and frivolous, and certainly beside the point.
To be sure, one might object that that teaching is not correct. But it is amazing how infrequently this charge is actually made. People do object, of course, to this or that specific doctrine, especially in moral theology, but by and large the critics do not allege that the central philosophical and theological claims of Neo-Scholasticism are false, much less bother to put forward arguments against them. Instead they say that the manualist tradition is “outdated” or “doesn’t speak to the concerns of modern man.” Given that no attempt is made to refute that tradition, such claims thus turn out to entail little more than that Neo-Scholasticism isn’t fashionable. Again, one wants to ask: So what?
One might object that the comparison to physics and chemistry is inapt, since philosophical and theological inquiry don’t give us anything close to the kind of settled results that those sciences do. But this would simply be to beg the question against the Neo-Scholastics, who took the view that the “classical realist” tradition of thought extending from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine to Aquinas and the other great Scholastics represents, in part, a body of known truths, whose precise significance and implications may be open to reasonable debate, but whose essential correctness is not (certainly not from a Catholic point of view). Hence, from the Neo-Scholastic perspective, philosophy and theology are capable of yielding settled results, at least concerning the “big picture” – realism about universals, rejection of any mechanistic conception of nature, affirmation that the existence of God can be demonstrated, defense of the distinction between sensation and intellect, and so forth – even if they also leave much room for debate. (And anyone who thinks the Neo-Scholastics just repeated each other without engaging in serious controversy – another standard charge – has obviously not bothered to read them.)
Thankfully, there have been signs recently of a renewed appreciation for the Neo-Scholastic tradition. Among theologians, R. R. Reno, writing in First Things, has noted how the successors of the Neo-Scholastics have failed to put anything in the place of the systematic body of thought represented by the manuals, leaving a gigantic gap in ordinary theological education. The new emphasis on novelty and “creativity” effectively destroyed any sense of a common theological tradition and replaced it with a bewildering variety of unsystematic and idiosyncratic theologies as numerous as the theologians themselves. The upshot has been a catastrophic failure of catechesis within the Catholic Church in the last four decades. As Reno notes, this is a failure not only of blatantly heterodox writers like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, but also of those partisans of the nouvelle theologie who saw themselves as loyal to the Church’s magisterium, such as Balthasar and de Lubac. Reno recommends a new look at the great Neo-Scholastics, hinting that their critics would have been better advised to build on what they accomplished, even if modifying it somewhat in the process, rather than throwing it aside altogether.
Others have begun to take that second look. The greatest of the 20th century Neo-Scholastics – some of us dinosaurs would say the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, period – was Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whose work went into near-oblivion in the post-Vatican II period. Recently, however, two sympathetic book-length studies of his thought have appeared. The first is Richard Peddicord’s The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., which was published in 2005. (The title is taken from an epithet once directed at Garrigou-Lagrange by one of his detractors.) And this year Aidan Nichols has published Reason with Piety: Garrigou-Lagrange in the Service of Catholic Thought, originally presented as a series of lectures at Oxford. (Incidentally, if you are interested in exploring Garrigou-Lagrange’s own work, you cannot do better than to begin with his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, and continue with his great two-volume work God: His Existence and His Nature, both of which have recently been reprinted. See here, here, and here.)
Among moral theologians of the manualist era, John C. Ford stands out as particularly significant. Among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in persuading Pope Paul VI that the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception could not be changed. (Ford’s book Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume 2: Marriage Questions, co-authored with Gerald Kelly, is the best book in English on sexual morality that I know of.) Though he has, like Garrigou-Lagrange, been neglected in the post-Vatican II period, he too has been made the subject of a recent book-length study, John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era, by Eric Marcelo O. Genilo. (Genilo is not entirely sympathetic to Ford’s traditional approach to moral theology, but tries to be fair-minded.)
Within philosophy, Ralph McInerny has for decades been carrying the Thomistic banner passed on by the Neo-Scholastics, and like them he interprets Aquinas in light of the Dominican tradition of commentary represented by Cajetan. His recent book Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers is a defense of that tradition against critics of Neo-Scholasticism like de Lubac and Gilson, who sought to disassociate Aquinas from the commentators and from Aristotelianism more generally. (See here for a review of McInerny’s book, from the same issue of First Things in which Reno’s article appeared.)
Some philosophers often identified as “analytical Thomists” have also shown an interest in the Neo-Scholastic tradition. John Haldane recently edited Modern Writings on Thomism, a series of volumes reprinting several important Neo-Scholastic philosophy manuals of the pre-Vatican II period. David Oderberg’s work also evinces sympathy with Neo-Scholasticism. His brilliant recent book Real Essentialism is must reading for anyone interested in a rigorous and detailed contemporary defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. And of course, other analytic philosophers with an interest in medieval philosophy have sought to show how the ideas of the medieval Scholastics, when properly understood, are as powerful and challenging today as they were in their own time. Gyula Klima’s work has been exemplary in this regard.
None of this quite adds up to a “Neo-Scholastic revival,” but it does provide evidence that such a revival is not out of the question. It is in any event sorely needed (or so I would argue) if the rational foundations of morality and religious belief are once again to be widely understood – indeed, if the rational foundations of anything are to be understood. For modern philosophy is an incoherent mess, and its false assumptions make problematic, not only natural theology and ethics, but empirical science and any other form of rational inquiry as well. The Last Superstition is devoted in part to making the case for this claim – and to doing my own small part to further the revival of the great Scholastic tradition.