Yves Simon: Thomist for the Modern World

An Yves R. Simon Reader prompts a thousand thoughts. Many of them one could anticipate, if one knows something about the man and philosopher before opening the book. Born in Cherbourg, France in 1903 and educated at the Institut Catholique de Paris, where he received his licentiate in philosophy in 1929, Simon taught for a number of years at the Catholic University of Lille before arriving in the United States in 1938 as a visiting professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame. When France collapsed in 1940, he became a regular member of the faculty. He taught at Notre Dame until 1948, then relocated to the University of Chicago and taught in its famous Committee on Social Thought until cancer forced his retirement in 1959. He died in 1961. Life is a gift on loan.

In the mid-twentieth century, he was a significant figure in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Works on “a general theory of authority,” on the “philosophy of democratic government,” and on “the tradition of natural law” earned him prominence during a time when Catholic and secular thought were more in dialogue than they are now. In the face of the twin totalitarianisms, Catholicism was reconsidering liberal democracy, while secular thinkers evinced an interest in this new Catholic open-mindedness. To employ Bertrand de Jouvenel’s fine phrase, Simon worked at bringing old gods into the new democratic city. But his choice for democracy was more sober and calibrated than his teacher and inspiration Jacques Maritain, the most famous neo-Thomist of the twentieth century.

All this (and more) is conjured up by the name “Yves R. Simon” in the title. But some of the thoughts that come to mind are a function of the Reader itself. As this is a book review, I will attend to them. At the outset, I should say that I highly recommend this book, especially to those who like to see high-quality thinking in action, who like to have their own thinking about fundamental topics—human nature, the pursuit of knowledge, the exercise of freedom, the moral virtues, the proper constitution of society and of government—stretched, enriched, and perhaps challenged. As a bonus, in our day of ideologies of wokeness and humanitarianism, Simon confronted the ideologies of his day—fascism, communism, and inadequate internationalism—in a way that continues to be instructive.

I should give a forewarning, however. In the main, the reader will encounter page upon page of finely etched crystalline thought, often expressed in the technical language of a specific philosophical tradition, namely the Thomistic variant of Christian Aristotelianism. While Simon had the talent and will to write in accessible English, and he had a knack for telling illustrations,  he believed that the demands of thought were best met in the categories and idiom of this tradition. The reader should be prepared to seek natures and essences,  to follow the process of defining things, and should be on the lookout for strategic distinctions, distinctions that dispel confusions and put things in their proper relations. Like a long-matured bourbon, Simon’s thought needs to be approached with respect and savored. I read the book slowly, in increments, with a good deal of reflection. It was worth it. It prompted a thousand thoughts. Here are a few.

Filial Piety, Literal and Extended

As advertised, the book is a “reader,” an anthology. As such, it has a number of distinctive features. The first is the original guiding hand of Yves Simon’s son, Anthony O. Simon, in the conception and execution of the project. Filial piety initiated and informs the book. This raises the question of the relationship between filial piety and the philosophical life. This book is based on the belief that in certain rare cases there is little-to-no gap or tension between the two, that the devotion to one’s own and to the truth can go together.

In this case, one can say the belief is justified. This belief points further, however, since in good Aristotelian fashion “filial piety” can be taken in an extended sense. In Yves Simon’s case, it was not his fleshly father to whom he owed his birth and formation in philosophy, but a tradition of thought conveyed, as his biography indicates, by the Catholic Church. Deeply rooted in it, deeply grateful to it, Simon took up a free stance toward it, in order to be true to it.

He thus developed it in striking ways, perhaps most strikingly in his defense of democracy. No monarchism or integralism for him, not to mention any flirtation with fascism or communism in his youth. He thought his way through the political offerings of the twentieth century, chose en connaissance de cause, and philosophically defended the one most consonant with human nature and freedom. He did all this before Vatican II (1962-1965) announced that the Church was dropping its aversion to liberal democracy. In general, his was a filial piety toward a tradition of thought that developed that tradition in ways that challenged many of its more conservative adherents. Gabriel Marcel’s fine phrase, “creative fidelity,” comes to mind.

The philosopher’s thought toggles between the articulation of the truth, engagement with error, and the recognition that the status of truth in the human world is always parlous.

The Editor’s Taskand the Reader’s

Another thought raised by the anthology is the challenge of selecting excerpts from an extensive and philosophically wide-ranging corpus. Here, the initial editors (Simon-fils and his chosen successor, John W. Carlson) trusted in their intimate knowledge of the corpus. One can credit their knowledge, while still regretting any number of their choices, and that they didn’t leave any statement of their criteria of selection. Some excerpts just dangle from nowhere. In this way, the original editors did not always meet the reader halfway.

Nor is this just my plaint, the final editor of the volume, Michael D. Torre, acknowledges the issue:  “Thus, even though my own preference as editor was for longer and continuous texts, I tended to observe the range and selection of texts if previously given, even when these were shorter and discontinuous.” Here, one sees a downside to filial piety, even the most informed. It sees with its mind’s eye what others need help seeing on the page.

To be fair, the original editors were likely aware of this sort of problem. In order to compensate for the excerpted character of the selections, each section of the anthology was assigned to a well-known (usually Catholic) scholar—David Burrell, John Hittinger, Steven A. Long, Ralph McInerny, Robert Royal, James V. Schall, etc. —who wrote a synthetic overview, which sometimes went beyond the excerpts themselves. In total there were twenty-one contributors.

In some cases, one can speak of Simon’s intellectual sons and daughters repaying their debts. However, some of the synopses are significant philosophical contributions in their own right, while others are rather more cursory. But all of them indicate what the reader must do with the excerpts in a section: try to make a conceptual and intellectual whole. This Reader requires active reading in more than one register.

The Reader’s Tour D’horizon

The resulting book is divided into four main parts: an Introduction, then three parts treating, respectively, Knowledge, Freedom, and Community. Already something of the focal topic of the collection comes into sight: the human person in community. In other words, man as knower, as free agent, as member of community (that is, of things held in common). In turn, the entitled subsections give more specificity to these general designations and suggest something of Simon’s approach.

Knowledge, for example, contains six subsections:  Knowledge as Immanent Action; The Distinction of Thing and Object; Analogy and Metaphysical Knowledge; Sensation and Physical Knowledge; Knowledge of Persons and Society; and Moral Knowledge. The sweep of Simon’s philosophical consideration of human knowledge is remarkable. It ranged from sensation and physical knowledge to metaphysical knowledge (with the latter apparently requiring a distinct intellectual operation, “analogy”). And between physical being and being itself is human being, considered as a person,  the subject and object of moral knowledge, and builder and inhabitant of a unique reality, human society. There is an obviousness, but also an elegance and precision, to these distinctions.

As for how he considered these forms of human knowing, the Aristotelian-scholastic category of “immanent action” gestures toward the intellectual resources from which he drew. One finds oneself in the world of act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, and the hierarchy of being. In other words, old Aristotelian-scholastic gods reenter the modern philosophical city that originally had banished them. The offer to help the new authority is an instance of magnanimity on the banished’s part as well as based on the recognition of great need on the victor’s part. Some moderns unduly limited reason, others gave it undue Promethean extent. A juste milieu remains to be sought and achieved. The full truth of human knowing is at stake. Part One shows Simon at work articulating that full truth of reason within its limits.

The second part (Freedom) likewise contains six sections. These are entitled Human Freedom; Human Reason and Will; Good Use and Habitus; The Definition of Moral Virtue; Freedom of Intellect; and Society and the Formation of Free Persons. Simon’s Aristotelian-Thomism comes more explicitly to the fore. Human freedom specifies a kind of cause, precisely human agency; in turn, it presupposes two human powers or faculties, reason and will. These can be exercised and developed well or badly, leading to the perfection that is moral virtue. All this is sought and captured in thought by means of the distinctive intellectual operation of definition. And all this takes place in the reality of society and its explicit and implicit formation of free persons. Community, the perfection of persons and society, thus beckons.

Its six sections range from Political Society to Community; Truth, and Culture; with The Definition of Law, The Common Good and Authority, Work and Society, and Economic Justice between them. “Community” is a complex notion and reality. In considering its genus, its species, and its facets, the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher is once again at work bringing old gods (“the definition of law,” “the common good”) to the new democratic city, while also developing the tradition he inherited (“work,” “economic justice”). The general title provides the key to the section, as Simon throughout considers what and how human persons can hold things in common, while also pursuing private goods and fostering personal freedom. At its apex, he introduces a new term, “communion,” made famous by the French Catholic poet and philosopher, Charles Péguy (1876-1914). It has the treble merit of indicating some of the French sources of his thought,  enriching the Aristotelian-Scholastic notion of “the common good,” and occasioning some of Simon’s most profound and indeed beautiful formulations.

The Epilogue’s Shadow and Lesson

An “Epilogue” completes the third part and the anthology as a whole by treating the “Problems in International Order.” The selections here are particularly well-chosen and Robert Royal’s overview is a model of exposition, engagement, and discreet updating. In a few deft lines, he sketches how Simon went about analyzing domestic and international political situations. He traces Simon’s determined opposition to the spirit of the appeasement in the 1930s and his dissection of the “road to Vichy,” an authoritarian negation of democracy that had too much allure for many French Catholics. He also brings to the fore a sobering Simonian thought:  that sometimes practical wisdom cannot stem the tides of disaster unleashed by ideology, human folly, and the limited hand of cards dealt by the past. Simon’s philosophical Catholicism judged human matters in human terms and made no cheap appeals to providence or happy endings.

This section casts its long shadow over the previous sections which more positively articulated the true, the good, and the right. The philosopher’s thought toggles between the articulation of the truth, engagement with error, and the recognition that the status of truth in the human world is always parlous. The “philosopher’s calling” of the title is in truth a “vocation” that combines eros, courage, and hope, exercised in the context of an uplifting tradition. For those who live and think within that tradition, he continues to be a model; for those who do not inhabit it, he can serve as a beacon to reconsider its merits.