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The World We Think In and the Drama of Existence | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 29, 2008

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"This is why we are engaged in a drama of which we are not the source, and we sense the importance of responding rightly to the pull of Being. What is at stake far transcends any immanent good. It is nothing less than the loss of our participation in Being. The soul of man is, as Dostoevsky noted, a battlefield in which God and the devil are contending. Our decisions are of surpassing significance because they carry a dimension that endures beyond the universe itself. This is the drama of existence that is glimpsed by the Greek discovery of Being, but that reaches its full transparence only in Christ." -- David Walsh, The Third Millennium [1]

"Indeed, there is hardly a 'world' or an 'age' at all when we see that each individual exists within an eternal scale of measurement that utterly outweighs any finite calculation." -- David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution [2]


David Walsh's brilliant new book, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, is the third part of a trilogy of deeply reflective books on the very nature of philosophy and its too often unrecognized and delicate relation to revelation. The first two books were After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations [3] and The Growth of the Liberal Soul. [4]

The first book was basically a reflection on Solzhenitsyn and what was thought to be the post Marxist world. It may not be as "post" as at first we thought it was. The book's thesis was simply that the modern intellectual fascination with ideology could only be seen for the aberration it was when someone actually suffered its lies. It was Solzhenitsyn's imprisonment under its total power than made him realize the emptiness of the ideology and its animosity to human life itself.

The second volume on liberalism sought to determine whether there was left any of the initial liberal concern with human dignity that was found in early modernism, itself reminiscent of the great medieval understanding of the scope of human nature. Though modern liberalism has fallen far away from its original concern with what is right everywhere, Walsh found that some glimmer of the tradition was left of a notion of right or rightness. This sense of what is right went back to a standard and not just to a will that could be otherwise. Even though modern liberalism has in most ways become a voluntarism without norms, still its rhetoric reflects a tradition of abiding standards of human good.

Walsh has long been a student of the German philosopher Eric Voegelin. In one sense, though he does not directly address himself to Voegelin in this book, Walsh's trilogy is a completion of and—in some ways—a corrective of Voegelin's project of "order and history." Voegelin's project itself often seemed to drift off into an anti-dogmatic universalism, even though Christian revelation had a key place in Voegelin's thought. With Leo Strauss, Voegelin was largely responsible for re-introducing genuine political philosophy back into academic discourse. Voegelin did think that Christians confused "doctrine" about God with the reality of God. The effort to make true statements of God, however, was never intended to identify God with the statements. But the human being does seek to state what he does know of God without identifying God with the statement.

Walsh's trilogy, I think, is much more obviously sympathetic to the orthodox position. At the same time, Walsh reminds us that we are ourselves within Being. None of us stands outside it in some ideological thought-world. The thinking being already participates in what is. Walsh reminds the reader constantly that he, the reader, is within being as it goes on. He is himself not outside of being, nor is his thought apart from the reality about which it thinks or knows. Knowing is itself a form of being. Walsh does not allow the thinker to assume that he is somehow superior to the being he finds himself already involved in because he already exists. The search for the "ground" of being is in every soul. It arises from within its own experience. It is not apart from what keeps being in being in the first place. If we already are, we do not need to look further for what is.


Walsh is a professor in the Department of Politics at the Catholic University of America. He is an Irishman by birth. Walsh has been a good friend over the years. He is a man whose work I have admired, but it is only with this last work on the "luminosity of existence" that I have fully realized what he has been up to. It proves that we do not always know our friends even when we know them. His project, if I dare use that word, is nothing short of reconfiguring the modern mind towards the existence from which it has, on first glance, so much departed. The mind itself exists in the being that exists. Its activity itself is an activity of being. To know is to be. Indeed in the case of human beings, it is to be more than the bare existence it begins with.

We have long been accustomed to divide intellectual history into classical, medieval, and modern periods, each with its own intelligibility. Modernity was conceived to be a cutting off of all Christian roots within philosophy. And modern philosophy separated itself from existing things. Being was replaced by a consciousness that had, so it thought, no external object. Man replaced God as the object and source of human happiness. This was the "modern project." Man was also the provider of intelligibility to himself and to the cosmos, now conceived to be empty of any internal or transcendent meaning.

Modern man was freed from the legacy of Greek metaphysics and Christian revelation, neither of which had placed man in the position of the cause of things. Walsh has taken another look at modern thought. He has concluded, after much careful and detailed study of the authors, that, in spite of its apparent breaking away from its intellectual past, what modern thought, at its best, was really about is a continued search for the meaning of our existence. This search appeared within the presence of, as he calls it in a happy phrase, the "luminosity of being." This light has its source as a reflection of the divine Being.

Modern thought, both in its socialist and liberal varieties, when translated into the political arena, logically lead to tyranny and totalitarianism. Shrewd modern political ideologues, politicians, and tyrants, most of whom were trained in this very philosophy, thought they were curing the well-known ills of mankind. The first step in this "curing" was to reject virtue and grace and replace them by the universal ideology either forced or elected into political existence. The arena of modern politics has been at bottom eschatological, not political. It was not concerned with man's temporal life but with the ultimate status of his being, a new way to achieve happiness.

Essentially, Walsh argues that this totalitarian turn, whether Marxist or liberal, was an enormous misreading of modern thought, though an understandable one. In one sense, as he traces the lines of argument from Kant on, Walsh considers that these thinkers themselves did not know where their thought led. But they all in the core of their arguments were searching for being, its meaning and reality. Walsh does not much deal with the pre-Kantians in this volume. By beginning with Kant, however, he starts with a philosopher/theologian who recognizes the seriousness of the loss of being and seeks a way to return to it. Kant's noumenon and phenomenon could not be kept separated. Reality had at least to be postulated if it could not be met in any other way.

As I have pointed out before on Ignatius Insight, one of the most important philosophy books of our time was also recently published by Cambridge University Press by a professor at the Catholic University of America. This book was Msgr. Robert Sokolowski's The Phenomenology of the Human Person. Sokolowski's book is simply the best book on what it is to philosophize about reality and its meaning.

Walsh's book is a remarkable revision of what modern philosophy is really about. Revision is perhaps not the right word. Walsh's own word in the title, "revolution," is better. Walsh has done nothing less than rethink the meaning of German idealism and French existentialism in terms of Plato, Aristotle, and the essentials of Christian revelation, which latter subject, in one form or another, has never been far from the consciousness of these modern thinkers. Walsh's book asks: "What did philosophers think?" Sokolowski's book asks: "What does one do when he thinks?" The one thinker the two books touch on in common is Husserl, a man who wanted to know exactly what is it we know when we know anything?

Walsh devotes successive chapters to Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and finally and most centrally Kierkegaard. By showing what they have in common and their individual differences, Walsh is able to follow the thread of existence as the real "revolution" of modern philosophy. This revolution has really never been about either idealism, skepticism, or pragmatism except as dead end solutions to a live problem that is best explained by being in the light, in the luminosity of the Being. This book is exciting to read as it puts so many things together.

What is perhaps unique to Walsh's consideration of these particular authors is his constant attention to the impact of revelation on their souls. In effect, the apparent philosophical rejection of Christianity ends up by deepening philosophy itself, something we already learned from Aquinas. In so doing, now corrected, philosophy becomes open precisely to those things in which logos, wherever found, especially in each of us, is directed to and rooted in Logos. As Walsh says again and again in different ways, the thinker—the person who thinks, "the agent of truth," as Sokolowski calls him—already finds himself within being that includes his thinking, his affirmation. He cannot find a place outside of it.

One thing that has always struck me about Walsh is his remarkable independence of the academic orthodoxies that are too often found in philosophical departments of various hues. This independence of mind is also true of the CUA School of Philosophy in general. In both places, logos seems to have been more important than credentials or outside "evaluations," which often turn out to be but reaffirmations of modernity in its worst sense, the sense that Walsh is attacking. These CUA places, I think, is where to go to study "real" philosophy. The reform of the Catholic mind can begin here. Benedict's observation that theology addresses itself to logos in its own terms is here adhered to.

Politics, at its best, allows this same logos to flourish midst things which are not themselves political. Much modern politics, however, conceives itself as not ethics or politics of finite mortals, but as a "pseudo-metaphysics," to use the words of Father Charles N. R. McCoy, who once held the position in the Politics Department at CUA that Walsh does today.

It is also typical that Sokolowski, a philosopher, should be actively interested in political philosophy. Walsh, a political philosopher, on the other hand, writes not just a history of modern philosophy. He writes what Daniel Mahoney called a "deeply meditative" penetration of what was really going on in what we have come to call modernity or post-modernity, often unbeknownst to or unarticulated by itself. The real alternative to philosophy and revelation in the modern world has been a political philosophy that, as Aristotle already suspected, considers itself as the highest of the sciences and not just the highest of the practical sciences. Philosophy turns to politics when the transcendent order is conceived as a political, not theological or metaphysical, project. This is what Voegelin meant when he said that modern politics is the "immanentization of the eschaton." And it was precisely to this corruptive influence that Benedict XVI directed Spe Salvi.

Actually, Sokolowski' little book, The God of Faith and Reason, is a very fitting context for the Walsh trilogy. Obviously, Walsh has been working for decades on this rethinking of modern thought. Indeed, he purposes to do nothing less than explain what it was really about all the time. He proposes this view not in terms of philosophy's history but in terms of philosophizing itself. As with Plato, the separation of philosophy and political philosophy rejoins itself in order to free politics from an alien philosophy. It has long been clear that no understanding of philosophy is possible outside of politics. Nor can we understand politics outside of both philosophy and revelation.

Obviously, much of the thought of Benedict XVI is related to Walsh's trilogy—the question of hope, the relation of truth to Logos, and the relation of both to the inner-worldly eschatology that the pope has seen to be the driving force of modern thought that takes it away from actual being and its transcendent ends. Walsh's book, I think, is best seen as a rediscovery of the meaning of existence and of our role within it, a role that includes our pursuing the "restless heart" we find within us to its very existential end. This end can only be the personal and resurrected destiny of each of the human beings who exist. I have remarked that Benedict XVI observed that the best proof of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is through the idea of justice, a position that was suggested by the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno. Similar rediscoveries are found on almost every page of Walsh, and of Benedict, for that matter.


It will take a long time before Walsh's trilogy will be properly appreciated and evaluated. My remarks are preliminary and appreciative. Walsh's work is part of that necessary project in which the European mind must first straighten itself out. Being and mind belong together, but not in just any way. Walsh has given us a guide about how this reflection can be carried out; that is, philosophy needs to understand itself and its Christian and Greek roots. Modern philosophy is no exception. Moreover, it is part of the Christian faith itself that what it addresses to reason is that it be more reasonable, more in contact with what is, by the encounter of revelation with reason. Revelation and philosophy live in the same world; their supposed separation has itself been un-philosophical and politically destructive to actual people as ideas come into existence.

From the very moment I began to read this book, I kept saying to myself and anyone who would listen that this is an "amazing" book. If it reminds me of any book, it is Gilson's The Unity of Philosophic Experience. Like Gilson, who began with the classics, and worked his way through the medievals to the moderns, all in the light of the philosophia perennis, Walsh is concerned with the connection of thinkers to one another in their thought, which mysteriously has its own dynamism. What modern philosophers were looking for was, in another way, there all along. If faith is addressed to reason, as it is, reason must itself be prepared to hear it and to receive it in order that nothing that claims to be true be left out.

Walsh is quite aware of the sometimes obscure Christian overtones in German philosophy. I have always thought that something profoundly right circled about Nietzsche, who so many would consider the end of the road. Walsh spells out what is right about him. Nietzsche's disappointment with Christianity—"the last Christian died on the Cross"--is itself Christian in origin, however much Nietzsche underestimated the divinity's awareness that all were sinners and in need of redemption, hence the Cross. The "will to power," which, at first sight, is proposed as the replacement for reason, is not simply a voluntarism. It is an affirmation of being that is not confined by all that passed as unlived Christianity by the Christians themselves. Nietzsche was scandalized not by the Cross but by Christians who lived as if they did not believe it. Evidently, he would not have been scandalized by the One who died on the Cross, as we suspect most moderns would if it implied that they need to live differently.

What is also remarkable is the way that the two French philosophers, Levinas and Derrida, are understood to continue the pursuit of being. Again these two writers, especially Derrida, are usually seen as going in the other direction. He is the leader of the "de-constructors." They both become profoundly Christian in inspiration in Walsh's reading. John Paul II often cited Levinas' emphasis on the human face, which, when we think about it, is what the Incarnation is about, our faces and the divine Face.

But the hero of the book is the Dane, Kierkegaard. The sections that deal with love in this book, especially those of Levinas and Kierkegaard, but also Hegel, remind one of Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est. What will strike most readers as absolutely remarkable is that the true locus of love is, and can only be, marital love that commits itself to a lifetime of fidelity. This is the conclusion, Walsh thinks, of the modern philosophical search itself. This reveals existence. For it here that the realization that the love in which we are created most often realizes among us its transcendent purpose and place within the Godhead itself.

In conclusion, many readers of Walsh will find most striking the theme that "ethics comes before ontology" to be particularly provocative. On the surface, this formula is nothing less than an entire overturning of the classical priority of metaphysics to ethics. Yet, Walsh does not see this new priority, which overturning I have often thought was what happened in Roman philosophy in comparison to Greek, to be anything but the logical consequence of what it means to be and act in the world. Aristotle himself had assured us that someone who was not virtuous could see the truth of the contemplative order which itself indicated an "action." In this sense, modern philosophy is often the product of an intellectual effort to find a substitute for the living well that is found in the classics and Christianity, reason and grace. What Walsh suggests is that even in trying to escape being we find it, so it makes a difference how we live and what we conceive this living to mean

All through the Walsh book is found the theme that we must live in the mystery of the being in which we already find ourselves. In this living, we are constantly confronted with our obligation to others, which presses on us with a universal force of reason. We do not find our end in this world, but our beginning is there as is the choice of what we make of it. Yet we believe that the being that we are given as a gift displays that everlastingness we find in love; namely, we want the other to be forever. If metaphysics is seen to be dangerous, it is because it can be an excuse for us not to live the real life we are given.

We can seek to explain ourselves by defining a system that explains all, but we do not have to do anything. Yet, even in classical metaphysics, we are finally pointed to the vision, the Beatific Vision, as it came to be called. The "luminosity" of the being that we encounter needs to be grounded. But this grounding is always in that being carried forward that existence itself contains from its origins

David Walsh has produced a major work of enormous proportions. He mentions politics several times in his book. He suspects that the aberrations of the political order are ultimately rooted in the theoretical order. But the proper understanding of our being and the divine Being always takes us back to living rightly in an on-going world. In the second citation that I used to begin this reflection, Walsh suggests that it does not matter overly much what era or polity we live in. The ultimate things take place in every time and place, for they all are, at bottom, immersed in the ongoing flow of the reality that we did not cause but in which we live. "Each individual exists within an eternal scale of measurement that utterly outweighs any finite calculation."

Walsh said in his earlier book: "We are all engaged in a drama of which we are not the source, and we sense the importance of responding rightly to the pull of Being." As I said in the beginning, this is an astonishingly amazing book, truly revolutionary in modern philosophy about what it is really about, namely, in Walsh's words, "the luminosity of existence," a wonderfully philosophic expression. Gloria in excelsis Deo is, perhaps, another way of saying the same thing.


[1] David Walsh, The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason (Washington : Georgetown University Press, 2007), 46.

[2] David Walsh, The Modern Philosophic Revolution: The Luminosity of Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 450.

[3] Walsh, After Ideology (Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

[4] Walsh, The Growth of the Liberal Soul (University of Missouri Press, 1997).

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is due out later this year from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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