Part 1 - Introduction

INTRODUCTION: WHY PHILOSOPHY?

Children of famous persons have often mixed feelings when they meet other people. They are usually very proud of their well known parents, but they may also feel inadequate and incapable of living up to the expectations that others have, some may even feel resentful.

We children of Rosmini may find it hard to live up to the expectations that people generally have of us. Among other things, they may expect us to be very knowledgeable in all philosophical matters, they may expect us to be fully conversant with Rosmini’s philosophy and to be able to carry forward in the church and the modern world his great philosophical inheritance.

Somehow, the words of Pope Pius VIII to the young Rosmini seem to be applied by others to each Rosminian: “It is the will of God that you occupy yourself in writings books; such is your vocation… There is no way more useful to influence people than to start from reason and by this means to lead to religion”. The recent mission statement of John Paul II to Rosminians seems to have the same implication: “As the Church prepares to enter the third Christian Millennium, she regards the evangelisation of culture a vital part. You Rosminians have the specific mission to indicate the path of freedom, of wisdom, and of truth, which is always the path of charity and of the Cross. This is your religious and cultural vocation, no less than it was the vocation of your far-seeing Founder”.

Some in the Institute resent this heavy cloak and argue that Rosmini’s philosophical discoveries should be the preserve of a selected few. They say that Rosmini’s philosophy is difficult, and is presented in a language that requires specialised knowledge of profound philosophical issues; some even argue that Rosmini’s philosophy has had its time and is of little relevance for a modern world that embraces so many different cultures and forms of life rather than the exclusively western European traditions of Rosmini’s times. What relevance can a Venezuelan, or an Indian, or an African student find in Rosmini’s philosophy?

In a recent conversation, a non-European member of the Institute was raising the above  objections to the study of Rosmini’s philosophy. He also thought that Rosmini’s philosophy had been “frozen” and put on a pedestal as though containing perfect answers to all problems for all times. He then moved on by saying that a modern approach necessarily requires modern parameters, which Rosmini cannot provide. He was intrigued, he said as an example, by the mystery of the human mind and wanted to make his own research on this “fascinating” topic. His clear assumption was that the philosophy of mind had moved a very long way from the time of Rosmini and that Rosmini has very little of relevance to say about such a fundamental issue.

It is often true that Rosmini’s philosophy has suffered from poor presentation. His own words that one cannot make “popular” what is “sublime” (he was defending Leibniz) has been seen as prescribing a language that is highly specialised and abstract in writing or talking about him. So the Centre at Stresa has been seen as the domain of established philosophers or of people of high cultural preparation, a place not suited to ordinary rosminians. Moreover, Rosmini has often been studied for his own sake, with little reference to the great philosophical debates raging in the modern world. His philosophy has often been exalted without actually giving the reasons for its superiority; it has seemed a times that defence of his views rather than the reasons for his extraordinary relevance today has taken up the resources of the best among rosminian philosophers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one will never find the name Rosmini on the index of authors in any book on philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly in Great Britain. Read any philosophical book on mind, on human person, on ethics, on relation between faith and reason, on theories of knowledge, on theodicy, on human rights, on proofs for the existence of God, etc. and you will never find Rosmini’s name! You will find instead Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, etc. And yet, Rosmini has very substantial and powerful theories on all the above mentioned topics. Why is he not known? If his philosophical teaching is a gift from God to the enquiring mind, why have we rosminians failed so openly in offering this gift to the people of our modern times?

So why should a rosminian student be asked to undertake a serious study of the founder’s philosophy? There are many stringent reasons.

1- Rosmini searched for unity in the plurality of thoughts. Ideas in his mind were intimately and logically connected; there is no part of his work which stands alone, that cannot be understood better by looking at other aspects of his vast production. His work on Ethics, for example, is connected to his epistemology, to his anthropology, to his theology. The same can be said of his spirituality (see the logic behind the order of the intentions of the nine Pater, for a minor example), and of the principles governing the Constitutions of the Institute. Rosmini’s search for a system of truth, unifying all particular truths, and his holistic view of knowledge should persuade us that we cannot understand adequately his mind and his charisma if we do not try to be conversant with the vast production of his philosophical endeavours. Our rosminian students will be called soon enough to take decisions over constitutional matters at General and Provincial Chapters, they will have to interpret rosminian spirituality, theology, and philosophy to the next generation of rosminians and to the people they will serve in their apostolate. It has been reported, for example, that many members of the early General Chapters after the Council felt completely unprepared for the task of contributing to the renewal of the Constitutions, Rules, and other matters since they did not have a sufficient knowledge of Rosmini’s mind and of his immense work. In such condition, is it not the case of “the blind leading the blind”, especially if the decisions taken are not based on knowledge of Rosmini but on a majority vote?

2- There is a serious danger of diluting significantly the original charisma of the Founder if we fail to study with diligence his philosophical and theological work. It is a fact that many religious Congregations are now looking more and more alike, having adopted similar approaches after the Vatican Council. In our efforts at renewal it is tempting to look at other Congregations, see the way they are changing, and adopt that way for ourselves. This levelling down of our specific charisma will not happen if we take seriously the task of studying and researching tirelessly Rosmini’s work.

3- Rosmini’s philosophy is an immense treasure for modern man. It provides a clarity of thought on most major modern philosophical problems, not simply “academic” problems but problems which every individual has to tackle in his life. Rosmini’s philosophy deals with life, deals with vital questions; it is not a boring, academic speculation reserved for scholars who enjoy dealing with abstract matters. What do you mean when you talk about your “mind”, or your “soul”, or your “I”? These words are part of your everyday vocabulary, what do you mean when you use them? Some modern  philosophers take the “mind” to be identical to the “brain”, and so your mind is simply the neurophysiological connections that make up your brain, “you” are 100% physical stuff; so “there is no ghost in the machine”, no soul in your body, no mind, no I, if by these terms you imply a spiritual substance. This is quite a prevalent view today in university circles and more and more literature is coming out supporting this view. If you agree with this view, then you will have to face the problem of determinism and freedom, the possibility of life after death, the illusion of having a “private” mind (soul or I) given that “you” are entirely public and entirely open to science. Can computers think? This is a question that is taken seriously today, debated everywhere in the media and in philosophical circles. Rosmini’s philosophy presents formidable arguments against the possibility of a reduction of the mind (soul or I) to the brain; his arguments are not based on religion or on Scriptures, but entirely on reason and experience, two dimensions which are common to every individual human being, of whatever nationality or culture.

Modern philosophical debate has come up with appalling definitions of the “I” or of “Person”. Peter Singer, in his “Practical Ethics”,  a very influential book studied by millions of students in all major universities of the world, argues that we “humans” are guilty of “speciesism”, of discriminating against other species of the animal kingdom, and insists on the all important concept of “person”, which in his view embraces most higher animals. He defines “person” as a “rational, self-conscious being, aware of himself as a distinct entity with a past and a future”: he claims that a horse, or a dog, or any other higher animal, fulfil these conditions and are, therefore, “persons”. On the other hand, foetuses, new born babies, people in a coma, or who have lost the use of their mind, are not persons. The consequences drawn from this argument are the permissibility of abortion, of the killing of small babies if mentally handicapped, of euthanasia, of all techniques used on fertilised human embryos, etc. It goes without saying that P.Singer is also a vegetarian and an active campaigner on animal rights. His books are very influential, very popular, and very dangerous, yet, very few Christian philosophers are taken into account to present alternative views.  Rosmini’s definitions of the “I”, of “person”, his clear description of what a human being is, his distinction between humans and animals, are extremely convincing and powerful, and we may be neglecting to answer the modern challenges on these vital topics using the formidable arguments presented by the Rosmini. 

What are the modern conclusions about the traditional arguments for the existence of God? Can “reason” prove the existence of God? Ancient philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas, had produced a variety of arguments which were considered indubitable and rationally strong: the Five Ways, the Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological, Moral Arguments, and the argument from Religious Experience. What does modern philosophy say about the strength of these arguments? Are our young people convinced by such arguments? Can we use them in our debates with modern agnostics or atheists? Rosmini produced additional arguments for the existence of God and claimed with the constant tradition of Catholic philosophy and theology that human reason can indeed arrive with certainty at proving God’s existence. The general consensus, however, among modern philosophers is that no argument for God is really rationally compelling; Peter Vardy, the deputy Principal of Heythrop College, a Catholic College in London linked with the Jesuits, having examined all the proofs for the existence of God, concludes: ”None of the traditional arguments are convincing in establishing the existence of God as traditionally defined. The most that they may achieve is to point to some very vague transcendence lying beyond all the main religious systems. This would be so vague, however, that it could not serve as a basis to underwrite any one religion” (What is Truth?, 1999).

Fr. Founder wrote a substantial volume entitled “Theodicy” in which he dealt at length and with original views with the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Today the problem of evil is still considered the strongest argument for the non-existence of God, especially after the immense catastrophy of the holocaust and the severe famine in many parts of the world. The traditional Catholic answer to the problem of evil as argued by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas is heavily criticised today; the view that man and woman were perfect beings in an earthly paradise seems to go against modern acceptance of evolution, and the concept that “perfect” Angels and “perfect” human beings could “sin” by choosing the wrong thing is found difficult to justify rationally. It is true that there seem to be a greater interest in the theodicy of St. Irenaeus, found, surprisingly, to be more in tune with the theory of evolution, considering Adam and Eve as primitive, immature beings, little more than babies in their attitudes, destined to develop through time and achieve through suffering and hardship a higher moral awareness. For St. Irenaeus this world was always meant to be a “vale of tears”, to allow human beings to develop themselves, reaching perfection only at the end of history. John Hick, a modern philosopher who has adopted and perfectioned Irenaeus’ views,  claims that Irenaeus’ views are more successful in solving the problem of evil. Critics, however, are not convinced and argue that a God who is all loving and almighty would have created a perfect world with no suffering (of humans and of animals): they cannot see any justification for suffering and evil. As Ivan Karamazov says, “A God who allows the senseless and immense suffering of an innocent child is not worth worshipping”. Even John Hick has to admit that the suffering of human beings in an everlasting hell cannot be justified rationally in any way. This position is prevalent today in university circles. Do we have answers to this argument against God? Rosmini, as said above, tackles this problem and his views are immensely persuasive and logical.

But the fundamental crisis today is about truth. Can we humans achieve any truth? Is there an objective truth for us to discover? Are we condemned to radical scepticism? Can we “prove” with certainty that whatever proposition we think is true is objectively true? If not, then all our talk about any topic, philosophical, theological, social, ethical, religious, etc. is a waste of time. How does one establish whether we can arrive at the truth of any proposition? Modern thinkers seem to have reached the conclusion that our minds are simply precluded from any objective truth. All truth is “subjective”, bound up with our language, our culture, our society, our traditions. African societies will have their own “truth”, Indian cultures will have a different truth, Europeans will have a logic and a system of truth which is rooted entirely on language, customs, traditions. No one society or culture can claim to possess the “objective” truth. Wittgenstein is very much of this opinion, and his views are highly regarded in modern philosophy. What we call “post-modernism” takes as its starting point the impossibility of arriving at one objective true view of the world and of human condition.
The geniality of Rosmini shines with vigour precisely on his ground-breaking discovery of the possibility of truth, on the fact that we are actually guided in all our correct reasoning by truth, on the fact that objective truth is always there before our minds. His philosophy has the most powerful criticism of all forms of scepticism. His philosophy is the most important philosophy for modern man who is dealing with the problem of truth, which is at the basis of any other philosophical development.

These are only a few of the more simple themes you will find in the philosophy of Rosmini. Such themes, however, show how vital it is to be able to present solid and clear arguments on what is of great relevance today. Other topics of great importance today comprise human rights, in all their various dimensions, the foundation of ethics, the relation between faith and reason, the place of science, the definition of freedom, etc. Should you not feel compelled to study Rosmini to hear his answers to such existential problems? Far from being a boring, abstract philosophy, Fr. Founder’s philosophy is an essential tool for personal understanding and for engaging in a world where such problems are fiercely debated because they are felt to be fundamental for the progress of humanity. In the quest for truth, differences among traditions and cultures cannot be substantial. All races are ready to see the truth of mathematics or geometry or of the principles of logic: it would be foolish to say that Europeans, Indians, Venezuelans, Africans think differently concerning the result of two plus two, or of the principle that A=A. Human intelligence is very much universal, embracing all nations and all cultures: the same “idea of being” shines before every intelligent being, and it is such idea that constitutes the “truth” that our minds contemplate.

Having established, therefore, the importance of philosophy for every intelligent being, and of rosminians in particular, we need now to embark on a brief history of the main philosophical theories. The authors selected have left a considerable legacy, and they are all relevant for a better understanding of Rosmini’s own philosophy. The hope is that this brief course will serve the purpose of stimulating an intense personal research on the various authors, so that they may give that background knowledge that will allow us to recognise the immense significance and relevance of Rosmini’s philosophy.

We shall study the following
Plato, The Republic, Book V, 474c to Book VII, 521b
Descartes, Meditations
Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections II-XII
Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism
Logical Positivism (A.J.Ayer – Wittgenstein)

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