Chesterton on Aquinas vs. Luther

In G.K. Chesterton’s book Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox”  there is a section at the end where Chesterton describes Luther’s rejection of Thomism. There is not a little of Chesterton’s own Personality here (ironic because of what he says about Luther), and much rhetorical exaggeration, but I found the account of Luther’s bonfire rather interesting. I have no idea if it is accurate (does anyone know if Luther really burned Aquinas’ works?) but it makes a fun read:

…there was one particular monk, in that Augustinian monastery in the German forests, who may be said to have had a single and special talent for emphasis; for emphasis and nothing except emphasis; for emphasis with the quality of earthquake. He was the son of a slatecutter; a man with a great voice and a certain volume of personality; brooding, sincere, decidedly morbid; and his name was Martin Luther. Neither Augustine nor the Augustinians would have desired to see the day of that vindication of the Augustinian tradition; but it one sense, perhaps, the Augustinian tradition was avenged after all.

It came out of its cell again, in the day of storm and ruin, and cried out with a new and mighty voice for an elemental and emotional religion, and for the destruction of all philosophies. It had a peculiar horror and loathing of the great Greek philosophies, and of the Scholasticism that had been founded on those philosophies. It had one theory that was the destruction of all theories; in fact it had its own theology which was itself the death of theology. Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an almost inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of Christ, in a world where all nature things were useless. Reason was useless. Will was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip. Nothing remained in earth or heaven, but the name of Christ lifte in that lonely imprecation; awful as the cry of a beast in pain.

We must be just to those huge human figures, who are in fact the hinges of history. However strong, and rightly strong, be our own controversial conviction, it must never mislead us into thinking that something trivial has transformed the world. So it is with the great Augustinian monk, who avenged all the ascetic Augustinians of the Middle Ages; and whose broad and burly figure has been big enough to block out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas. It is not, as the moderns delight to say, a question of theology. The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with; or if the phrase be too flippant, would be specially anxious to touch with a bargepole. That Protestantism was pessimism; it was nothing but bare insistence on the hopelessness of all human virtue, as an attempt to escape hell. That Lutheranism is now quite unreal; more modern phases of Lutheranism are rather more unreal; but Luther was not unreal. He was one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world. To compare those two figures bulking so big in history, to any philosophical sense, would of course be futile and even unfair. On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible. But it is not altogether untrue to say, as so many journalists have said without caring whether it was true or untrue, that Luther opened an epoch; and began the modern world.
He was the first man who ever consciously used his consciousness; or what was later called his Personality. He had as a fact a rather strong personality. Aquinas had an even stronger personality; he had a massive and magnetic presence; he had an intellect that could act like a huge system of artillery spread over the whole world; he had that instantaneous presence of mind in debate, which alone really deserves the name of wit. But it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defense of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon. There is not a trace of his ever using his personal advantages, of birth or body or brain or breeding, in debate with anybody. In short, he belonged to an age of intellectual unconsciousness, to an age of intellectual innocence, which was very intellectual. Now Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual. It is not a question of praise or blame.; iot matters little whether we say that he was a strong personality, or that he was a bit of a big bully. When he quoted a Scripture text, inserting a word that is not in Scripture, he was content to shout back to all hecklers: “Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” That is what we now call Personality. A little later it was called Psychology. After that iwas called Advertizement or Salesmanship. But we are not arguing about advantages or disadvantages. It is due to this great Augustinian pessimist to say, not only that he did triumph at last over the Angel of the Schools, but that he did in a very real sense make the modern world. He destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.

It is said that the great Reformer publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas; and with the bonfire of such books this book may well come to an end. They say it is very difficult to burn a book; and it must have been exceedingly difficult to burn such a mountain of books as the Dominican had contributed to the controversies of Christendom. Anyhow, there is something lurid and apocalyptic about the idea of such destruction, when we consider the compact complexity of all that encyclopaedic survey of social and moral and theoretical things. All the close-packed definitions that excluded so many errors and extremes; all the broad and balanced judgments upon the clash of loyalities or the choice of evils; all the liberal speculations upon the limits of government or the proper conditions of justice; all the distinctions between the use and abuse of private property; all the rules and exceptions about the great evil of war; all the allowances for human weakness and all the provisions for human health; all this mass of medieval humanism shriveled and curled up in smoke before the eyes of its enemy; and that great passionate peasant rejoiced darkly, because the day of the Intellect was over. Sentence by sentence it burned, and syllogism by syllogism; and the golden maxims turned to golden flames in that last and dying glory of all that had once been the great wisdom of the Greeks. The great central Synthesis of history, that was to have linked the ancient with the modern world, went up in smoke and, for half the world, was forgotten like a vapour.

‘The Shadow of Ezekiel Bulver’

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

C.S. Lewis’s book God in the Dock contains a delightful little essay titled “‘Bulverism’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought.” In this essay Lewis identified a practice that was becoming widespread in his day – the practice of psychoanalyzing those we disagree with instead of showing how their arguments are actually false.

“Nowadays,” wrote Lewis, “the Freudian will tell you to go and analyse [those who] all think Elizabeth a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source.” While it may be true that those who think Elizabeth a great queen do so because they have a mother-complex, “Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?” asks Lewis.

We run into this sort of thing all the time. Belief in heaven is dismissed because those who believe in it are unconsciously satisfying a wish-fulfilment mechanism. Belief in the importance of modesty is routinely dismissed on the grounds that it is symptomatic of an unconscious shame of one’s body. Belief in God is dismissed because those who believe in Him do so only because they need to have a strong father figure.

But all this misses the point according to Lewis, and he illustrates this with the example of a man reviewing his bank account:

“Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds…. In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.

Lewis even invented a name for this tendency to show why someone is wrong as a substitute for showing that he is wrong. He called it ‘Bulverism’ after an imaginary man named Ezekiel Bulver. Lewis tells us that Bulver’s destiny was “determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’”

Also known as the “genetic fallacy”, this error is manifested whenever an argument is silenced through diagnosis rather than discussion.

Diagnosing Political Conservatism

Lewis called Bulverism ‘the Foundation of 20th Century Thought.’ Had he lived to see the 21st century, I think his assessment of the new century would have been much the same.

Hardly did the 21st century get underway when the Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, ran a paper entitled, ‘Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.’ According to the article’s abstract, the research found that political conservatism could be predicted by certain “psychological variables” which included “death anxiety” and “intolerance of ambiguity.”

UC Berkeley News reported on the research that went into the article – research which involved culling through 50 years of literature about the psychology of conservatism. The Berkeley report noted that “the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include

  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure
  • Terror management”

If you cut through all the psycho-jargon, what are these people actually saying? It’s not quite that political conservatives are psychologically neurotic. But it’s almost that.

If the Psychological Bulletin’s report shows anything, it is that the shadow cast by Ezekiel Bulver still looms large over the West, manifesting itself in the tendency to psychologize one’s political and philosophical opponents.

In Anthony Browne’s 2006 book The Retreat of Reason, he charted the phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ within this same trajectory. One of the achievements of political correctness, Browne noted, is that

Instead of addressing the explicit content of an argument, the politically correct attack what they see as the hidden psychology behind the argument: their opponents are not just wrong but bad. Accusing someone of hidden and malign motives avoids the often intellectually and emotionally difficult task of engaging with their actual arguments, and allows the politically correct to remain protected in their castle on the moral high ground.

The “F-Scale”

The tendency to use diagnosis as a substitute for debate did not actually originate with Ezekiel Bulver. If it started anywhere it was with a movement known as “the Frankfurt School.” Originally called the Institute for the Study of Marxism in Frankfurt Germany, this school was essentially a think-tank characterized by a number of key features. Such features included a commitment to dismantling the Christian foundations of the West and replacing them what is known as ‘social Marxism.’

The details of social Marxism and the Frankfurt plan to undermine the West have been dealt with in my article, “Liquidating Western Civilization: The Legacy of the Frankfurt School.” What is of interest here is their tendency to psychoanalyse their conservative opponents. This tendency reached its apex in the writings of Theodor Adorno after the school had migrated to America.

In Adorno’s 1950 publication, The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno evaluated a study of American society in which various individuals were polled using a questionnaire. Their answers indicated how well they scored on “the F-Scale.” F stood for fascism.

The purpose of the study was to identify and analyze the profile of the “Potential fascist character.” However, as Daniel Flynn pointed out in his discussion of the work in Intellectual Morons, “what the authors took to be signs of fascism were merely indications of conservatism.” Sometimes the participants were simply asked whether they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. One statement was, “Now that a new world organization is set up, America must be sure that she loses none of her independence and complete power as a separate nation.” Those who answered that they agreed with this scored a point on the F-scale.

The study purportedly identified fascism as a specific psychological personality type, one that was deeply embedded in the authority structures of the patriarchal family and sustained by the conditions of the free market.

What Adorno “discovered” was that America was virtually on the brink of lapsing into Fascism. Strong Christian families were among the telltale signs of a society on the verge of succumbing to the fascist impulse.

Bypassing Critical Engagement

Adorno and the Frankfurt movement established that those who held conservative views were not just wrong, but neurotic; and not just neurotic, but neurotic in a fascist sort of way. By converting ideas into pathologies, the Frankfurt school set in motion the trend of psychologizing political opponents as a substitute for critical engagement.

The American Psychological Association’s 2003 report constantly cites The Authoritarian Personality, which it calls a “landmark study of authoritarianism and the fascist potential in personality.” Adorno’s study was nothing of the sort since he failed to study any actual fascist characters. However, Adorno’s work was a landmark work of ‘Bulverism’ and the trail of slime that it left can be seen all over our public discourse.

Consider. Following in the footsteps of Adorno and the Frankfurters, one does not need to show how a truth claim is false provided that it can be identified as being “sexist,” “homophobic,” “patriarchal,” “logo-centric” or even “Islamophobic.” Terms such as these can be bandied about to short-circuit rational debate, even as Ezekiel Bulver’s mother closed down her husband’s discussion with the unanswerable exclamation, “Oh you say that because you are a man.’”

The power of these psychologically-loaded labels, even when they may be legitimately descriptive, is that they normally bypass critical engagement, creating prejudice and harnessing new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the media and educational establishments. Because our public discourse implicitly attaches a greater premium on diagnosis than argumentation, whole swathes of public assumptions become immune to critique. The result is frequently to induce a state of affairs described by George Orwell when he remarked that “at any given moment, there is a sort of all-pervading orthodoxy – a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact.”

The shadow of Ezekiel Bulver continues to loom large.

Further Reading