Marshall McLuhan on Thomas Aquinas

Marshall McLuhan 1911-1980

This year marks a 100 years since the birth of Marshall McLuhan. See the article recently published in the Walrus, here. There is also a website devoted to a commemoration of his life and work, here.

At a used bookstore in Detroit (the amazing John King Books) I found a journal with a talk he gave at St. Louis University in 1943 on the liberal arts. (He was on the faculty at Saint Louis from 1937 – 1944; he then went to the Basilian, Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, prior to going to the University of Toronto in 1946 where he was on the faculty until 1979)

In this talk, celebrating the liberal arts during a time of war, he said:

When a triumphant technology croons the sickly boasts of the advertising men, when the great vaults and vistas of the human soul are obscured by images of silken glamor, and when it is plain that men live not by bread alone but by toothpaste also, then we need the answer of St. Thomas. It is the answer of moral and intellectual discipline and ardor.

McLuhan then argues for liberal arts education as based in the trivium, in the acquisition of the habit of mind to read, think and speak well. The barbarians were at the gate, but he feared that we would succumb to the barbarian within — “the barbarism of comfort and ease and slackness.”  And it is St Thomas, he notes, who “defines in himself the answer to the barbarian without and the barbarian within each one of us.”

We must cherish eloquence as “the finest expression of man’s existence.” We need wisdom, prudence and mechanics. In this cry of the heart, McLuhan charges that “technology cannot bring in the century of common man. It can merely reduce man to his lowest common denominator as a consuming animal. If technology is to minister to free men, men must struggle to acquire the practical disciplines related to speech as they have never struggled before. For in acquiring speech men acquire the heritage of our entire civilization.” And yet “demagogues rise up to speak the sickly and confused notions of their stunted spirits, and there are few to detect the fraud which they peddle.” And of course, they now inhabit and manage the halls of academia, “and there are few to detect the fraud which they peddle.”

In the darkness of those war-time years McLuhan arrives at a wise and happy conclusion: “The positive fact of St Thomas makes it possible for us to feel light-hearted about the errors of smaller men. As our age enters its dark night let us take hope from the fact that the luminous wisdom and clarity of St Thomas will shine more brightly for us. The confusion and negation around us may encourage us to a more intimate and lively knowledge of his thought than we could ever have attained in easier circumstances. And for the ultimate cause of civilization we need never despair so long as men anywhere can contemplate the order and clarity of his wisdom.” We heartily concur. The Center for Thomistic Studies and the Pope John Paul II Forum aim at acquiring that “intimate and lively knowledge” of Thomas Aquinas.

Find the full text here (the journal was not in the best condition, with the war time paper etc.) An early fascinating talk by a great mind and writer of the century. The author of the Walrus article quotes from a letter in which McLuhan said:  “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” This is true in great measure because of the influence of the Angelic Doctor on Catholic intellectual culture..

2 Comments
  1. John, this is wonderful. I had no idea that McLuhan was Catholic. I mainly know him from the 1974 Genesis album, LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY. Gabriel must've have liked him. Anyway, great post. Thanks for this.

  2. Woohoo!! This made my day…toothpaste, Aquinas, and McLuhan. Bravo for sharing. You may be interested in my blog post from today:

    http://inspiredangela.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/the-greatest-communications-theorist-evers-catholic-faith-marshall-mcluhan-monday/

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