Gerontius, the third demon — agnosticism

As the third cluster of demons assault Gerontius, we find yet again an attempt to undermine faith and love of God and a disposition of mind that we find in culture. For the third demon it is not as clear what Newman had in mind, but a cynical relativism will do. I also turn to Jacques Maritain’s account of the errors of the age that are countered by Thomas Aquinas, making him the “Apostle for Our Time.” Maritain, in Saint Thomas Aquinas (pp. 58–59), offers this trilogy of philosophical disorders:

  1. Naturalism — “The mind at the same time refuses to recognize the rights of primary Truth and repudiates the supernatural order, considering it impossible—and such a denial is a blow at all the interior life of grace.” He and Newman both countered this trend, and it comes through the second group of demons.
  2. Individualism/angelism — “The mind allows itself to be deceived by the mirage of a mythical conception of human nature, which attributes to that nature conditions peculiar to pure spirit, assumes that nature to be in each of us as perfect and complete as the angelic nature in the angel and therefore claims for us, as being in justice our due, along with complete domination over nature, the superior autonomy, the full self sufficiency, appropriate to pure forms.” This corresponds to Newman’s label of rationalism, and it is found in the first group of demons who claim precisely their “superior autonomy” even with respect to God himself. In man the disorder is called “angelism” because it is an intellectual sin of pride.
  3. Agnosticism — “By cultivating a more or less refined doubt which is an outrage both to the perception of the senses and the principles of reason, that is to say the very things on which all our knowledge depends.” Maritain criticizes an agnosticism about the real world and God, but it could include a denial of moral principle. I see this reflected in the third group of demons, at least the opening scoffing lines about virtue and vice. But it is the cynicism that comes through most strongly,  as the demon questions again the very possibility of love and sacrifice, or purity of intention. I think of Blake’s lines in Auguries of Innocence: “If the sun and moon should doubt, They’d immediately go out.”

Here is Newman’s presentation of the third and final group of demons:

Virtue and vice, A knave’s pretence, 
‘Tis all the same; Ha! ha! 
Dread of hell-fire,
Of the venomous flame, A coward’s plea. 
Give him his price, Saint though he be, Ha! ha! 
From shrewd good sense He’ll slave for hire Ha! ha! 
And does but aspire To the heaven above With sordid aim, 
And not from love. Ha! ha! 

It is a sophisticated move to deny the very distinction of virtue and vice; it is a very deeply embedded form of judgment in human communities. We could not live together without a recognition of courage versus cowardice, or honesty and dishonesty, etc. To claim that we cannot know the difference is grand sophistry, but the relativist must consistently assert his agnosticism about the good life. The real intellectual disposition here is reductivism. There is a reduction of the human, the higher things, to the lower things. It is commonly found in psychology and sociology and what is called the hermeneutic of suspicion. Of course, it gets human beings off the hook to make judgments about what is good, better and best. A very suitable condition for constructing a hell on earth.

Maritain is right — we need Thomas Aquinas. And we need Newman and Pope John Paul II. He would no doubt have has return to Gaudium et spes 22:

Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . . Christ fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.


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