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Albertus Magnus and the legacy of Universalism

In the Catholic, or Universal, Church, November 15th is the memorial of St. Albert the Great, known in Latin as Albertus Magnus, the 13th century theologian, philosopher and scientist. His title was based on the fact that he stunned his generation with the universality and depth of his genius. He was, in fact, another Aristotle. His studies encompassed nearly everything Aristotle studied, including physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, theology, philosophy, morality and politics. Unlike Aristotle, he did not write notably on drama or poetics. Nevertheless, only the great Roger Bacon, who was his contemporary, could hold a candle to him in the sciences, and only his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, exceeded him in the study of philosophy and theology.

It was not St. Albert who revived the knowledge of Aristotle. It was an Arab philosopher, Averroes, from Moorish Spain, who translated Aristotle into Arabic in the 12th century, and who ultimately caused Aristotle to be rediscovered in Europe. Averroes attempted to reconcile Aristotle's philosophy with Islam, just as St. Thomas attempted to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity a century later. Averroes, however, made a very crucial mistake. He theorized that there was only one soul shared by every person, rather than each person being endowed with their own soul. This strange philosophy became known as monopsychism. It was, in Christian terms, a heresy. Both St. Thomas and St. Albert defended the whole-person theology of their day against this heresy.

I find this history to be highly ironic, in view of a similar, rather prevalent, heresy today, which we might term nihilpsychism, or the doctrine that there are no souls (or, that the soul is nothing). Or, in the words of Professor Stephen Hawking (himself a great genius of our time) free will (and thus, the soul) is an illusion.

These terms, monopsychism and nihilpsychism, derive from the classical meaning of the word psyche, which in both Latin and Greek meant "the soul". Today, the word psyche refers to the mind, but the mind bereft of a spiritual essence, a mind, in short, reduced (ad absurdum) to an electrified pile of meat. It is, indeed, this type of mind that is fully amenable to scientific study. Science, of course, is the study of phenomena that can be repeated under controlled conditions. The human soul, exhibiting free will, is not subject to such control, and the phenomenon of free will is not repeatable in this limited sense.

There is, however, an even deeper conflict today that has its roots in St. Albert's time. It was in his time that theologians and philosophers developed the theory of universals, or ideas in the mind of God. Borrowing heavily from Plato's idealism (also called realism, in this limited philosophical discourse), the theory of universals is a fundamental postulate of natural law theory. The most fundamental opposing view is referred to as nominalism. The theory of nominalism holds that nothing in reality is ideal, and any terminology that human beings come up with to describe anything is essentially arbitrary, based upon limited inductive generalizations. In this theory, not only the science of natural law is impossible, any deductive science is impossible. Yet it is ultimately this theory of nominalism that underlies the near-universal belief in relativism today.

Relativism, as a system of thought in general practice today, goes beyond mere moral relativism. It holds that there are no ideal persons. There are no ideal gender distinctions. There are no ideal social institutions. In this view, gender is in the mind of the beholder, and can be virtually anything. Marriage can be anything we want. Parenting can be anything we want. There are no rules if we don't make them up. In this view, human rights are a matter of consensus, not fundamental and universal law.

Needless to say, people with a scientific background, like Stephen Hawking, are not nominalists. Hawking's poverty of imagination is much more limited. He simply doesn't believe anything exists apart from what philosophers call the material. Even so, and in spite of the fact that the philosophy of universals historically depends upon the existence of God, scientists today believe in universals as a necessary hypothesis of its own. All of science requires universals so that deduction is possible. Without deduction there is no science. For that matter, without universals and deduction there is no morality.

The fundamental problem with relativism today is that it is such a fundamental heresy it even contradicts science. It is so deeply flawed as a way of thinking that it ultimately deconstructs even itself. It is a great pity, for civilization as we know it, that this way of thinking -- this anti-universalism -- is becoming so universal. One could say that post-modernism is probably better termed ante-classicism. As nominalism continues to supplant universalism, as paganism continues to supplant Christianity in Europe and the U.S., we will find civilization itself fragmenting into strange pockets of idol worshipers, ultimately culminating in self-worship.

It was Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher, who said, "Man is the measure of all things." This is almost a philosophical underpinning of relativism, except that relativism goes a bit further. Relativism says, "Each person is the measure of all things." By contrast, classical universalism puts things in the right order. It says, "God is the measure of all things." Hawking would only say, "The scientific method (as practiced by the scientific community) is the measure of all things (worth considering)."

It was George Santayana who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Today we seem to be turning back the clock in a way that would shock even old George.