A Rational Approach to an Irrational, Primitive Philosophy
It is impossible to fix a point beyond which impiety will not go. It is a school of negation. "To deny is easy; nothing is sooner learned or more generally practiced. As matters go, we need no man of polish to teach it, but, rather, a hundred men of wisdom to show us its limits and teach us its reverse." This is true today, as true as it was in the days of Carlyle. It is a ruinous vice. It seeks to pull down; it never builds up. It has attacked all the cherished ideals of humanity, and has never substituted anything for them. It has contradicted everything; it has neither proved nor disproved anything. What does it give us in place of God, in place of religion, in place of immortality, in place of eternity? It has strewn the shores of the ages with wrecks of all splendid things. It has made of the minds and hearts of men blackened ruins. It has driven the soul of man into exile, forced to herd with lower natures in the now, and pictures its future as nothingness. Matter is the only thing which exists.
Materialism does not approve itself to any sound mind. Long ago this teaching was condemned by the voice of Wisdom: "All men are vain in whom there is not the knowledge of God; who have imagined either fire or the circle of the stars or the great water or the sun and moon to be the gods that rule the world; with whose beauty being delighted they took them to be gods" (Wisdom 13:1–3). It is our privilege to ask these philosophists for their proof. If they are not secure in their position, if they put forth only a baseless theory, how arrogant and reckless and audacious must they be to attack the truths that are nearest and dearest to the mind and heart of man! Triflers, they should be treated only with the silence of contempt. It is consoling to know that from the very beginning until the present time, all their so-called arguments are reducible to mere reiteration of their views. They have only changed their phraseology to suit the accidental modifications of language brought about by the advance of the positive sciences. We cannot oppose the progress of human investigation. We cannot, nor would we. We feel, however, that incredulity and impiety have impeded the advancement of genuine knowledge in the regions of, higher thought. "In the beginning," says St. Thomas, "the ancient philosophers, looking at the universe with gross and carnal eyes, saw nothing but what fell under the senses." It was only by slow stages that they reached any knowledge of the truth. The materialists of today have gone backward. They have returned to the infancy of thought. They teach substantially what was taught before Anaxagoras and Aristotle. They are as much in the dark concerning the origin and the essence of things as was Lucretius and his adherents. The world is as much a puzzle to them today as it was to the early thinkers who, like them, denied the existence of a living and personal Deity anterior and superior to the creation of things.
What is Materialism?Doctrinally, it holds that everything that exists in the universe, from the inanimate rock to man, originated from primordial, non-intelligent, lifeless matter. They predicate of this matter that it and it alone is eternal. There is no such thing as everlasting spirit, conscience, virtue, or God. Say what they will, protest as they may, this, no matter how the colors or the shadings of their view may change, is their fundamental axiom. As mentioned, this theory is not a production of modern times. It is as old as thought. We might excuse it when the world was young. What must we say of it after the lapse of so many centuries? We are inclined to ask, "Do they really assert this rank materialism?" Here are some of their own expressions: "Matter is the sole principle of all that exists" (Buchner). "The affinity of matter is the omnipotence which creates all things" (Moleschott). "Matter is absolute. It is without end and without beginning. It is unconditioned, independent, and absolute" (Loewenthal). What are we? Creatures of matter, products of fire, earth, air, and water. What are we? Bubbles on this great ocean of matter floating in sun or shadow, disappearing in the vast bosom of that lifeless sea to make way for other air bells. Away, therefore, with all conscience, with all virtue, with all noble living! Let us dance our short bubble life in the sunshine, let us color brief existence with all the rainbow hues. Let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die and are not known, nor know ourselves forever. Eat and drink we may, but with such a fate hanging over us, to be merry is simply to be intoxicated, is simply not to think, is simply to forget. This is all materialism holds out for us.
A Centuries-Old ErrorNot seldom the statement of a doctrine proves sufficient for either its victory or its overthrow. The more clearly materialism is presented, the more swiftly is it doomed to repudiation. As it stands today, it is abhorrent to every instinct and every yearning of human nature. It brings comfort to nobody. Even were it true, it would seem kindness to man to withhold it from his knowledge. It is untrue, and yet its propagation is so harmful that, wherever it is adopted, ruin of every description follows in its wake. It undermines personal integrity, loosens domesticities, and, as history attests, it threatens the downfall of authority in the state as well as rebellion, revolution, and anarchy. It is the parent of the crimes that are committed in the name of liberty, as it understands liberty, that is, in the name of unbridled license. When the system flourishes, it flourishes not because it appeals to man’s reason or to what is noble in him but because it flatters either ambition or sensuality.
Materialism, of course, by its very nature, eliminates God. Its first cry is atheistic. Its last clamor is blasphemous. Perhaps the best way to meet the materialist is by denial. We cannot but admit that all the forms of corporeal existence spring from a material source. Nor is it necessary to deny that this is true even of living things -- of the plant, of the mere animal. Thus much has generally been accepted by Catholic science just as it was positively declared by Plato and Aristotle. Here we might pause to interject the remark that Catholic doctors have not invented a logic or a metaphysics to suit the teachings of the Church. They have only applied the principles of right reasoning and abstraction, which were established by the light of pure intelligence, by the investigations of the nature and the essences of things as carried on by such minds as Aristotle and Plato. These principles were maintained three hundred years before Christ -- three hundred years before the redemption of mankind was achieved, and all the dogmas involved in that redemption were uttered by lips divine for the emancipation of humanity.
Limits of MaterialismWe have defined the lengths to which we must go with materialists. The position is that out of matter only matter can come, and that out of life alone can the living thing proceed. These two claims we are not unwilling to concede. The life, however, which we are free to grant, is the life we discover in plants and in animals -- plant life, animal life. The life we find in man, especially his rational life and his liberty of action, human life, transcends all the resources, all the potentiality of matter. Matter cannot produce a human thought, an act of human will, a human word, a spiritual soul. Matter may become the tenant of spirit, but spirit cannot owe its origin to matter. Develop matter and refine it to the utmost, reduce it to the atom, confine it to a line or a point, put it into whatever alembic filled with the most powerful agents and reagents, submit it to all the material forces of the universe, it will never emerge anything but a material entity, and the chasm between it and spirit no finite power can bridge. This is only a statement, but it implies an argument which has never been answered by the materialist, and which is always a voice saying to him, Thus far, and no farther. This thesis of ours is provable.
Moreover, it does not bristle, like its contradictory, with difficulties insuperable. Materialists deify matter, but their god from first to last has only material characteristics. They style him infinite; he is limited; he is a congeries of limits; he is a mass of atoms. They call matter indestructible. The most they can prove, perhaps, is that up to the present the mass of matter has undiminished since it came into existence. If by indestructibility they mean that it will not be destroyed, I neither affirm nor deny. But we must deny their allegation if they hold that it cannot be destroyed. A superior power can destroy it. If they say He will not, our position is neutral. If they say it is beyond His power, then we part company, for there is One who said of the human body, to dust it shall return, who can lay waste the mountains and the hills and the cities and all the pride thereof, who can put out the sun and the stars and reduce all His creation to the nothingness whence it sprang.
By Fr. P. A. Halpin
REMIGIUS LAFORT, S.T.L.
†JOANNES M. FARLEY, D.D.