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The Greatest Marvel of Nature
The Greatest Marvel of Nature
An Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person
Designed for use in introductory courses to theology, this short volume is an accessible presentation of the fundamentals of classical philosophy and the light it sheds on our understanding of the human person.
Reviews and endorsements
These three short books, by a Dominican priest who is Professor of Philosophy at the Seminaire International d'Ars in France, are a marvel of initiation to philosophical thinking for those who have no formal philosophical training, and a delight for those have. He stimulates the reader to basic philosophical insights principally by appealing to the imagination, using especially poetry and painting as his media, and basing himself on the challenging, but I think quite sound, thesis of Bergson: "There is no philosophy so sound and so subtle that it cannot be, and ought not to be, expressed in everyday language.” The author himself suggests that there is a kinship between the painter and the philosopher: both need to transcend mere appearances (29).
The first book, The Dearest Freshness Deep down Things, deals with the basic themes of metaphysics: being, essence/existence, form/matter, activity, unity, truth, goodness, beauty, efficient and final causality, act and potency, Pure Act, the ultimate Cause, etc. Each chapter begins with a stimulating quotation from a poet or some other thinker, and often ends with a brief summary of some appropriate technical philosophical term. What is so astonishing and captivating is the author's skill at stimulating a fresh new perspective on these age-old problems and terms, so that the basic intellectual insight behind them suddenly shines forth. The quotations both at the head of each chapter as well as throughout it are themselves worth the price of the book. Let me cite a few examples to catch the flavor of the work: "God has not made the world; he has made it make itself; he has provoked it." "God has seeded the world to his likeness" (Claudel). "Cezanne seeks to paint matter in the process of giving itself form" (Merleau-Ponty). "In the flower there is a within, that opens its eyes, and unveils, ever more profoundly, a form that ravishes by its proportions and its hues" (Balthasar). "All things hasten toward being more, in the light of the morning" (Olivier). "I bring to everything its deliverance. Through me nothing is any longer alone. In my heart I associate it with something else" (Claudel).
The author wisely follows the example of Aristotle in drawing all his examples of what is meant by being as active presence from living beings, such as plants and animals, as they strive actively to bring to actuality the ideal form (final cause) that is at work within them. It would have been helpful, however, to extend his examples to the inorganic but still highly active world of atoms and molecules to complete the analogy. And the brief argument for ascending to God as Pure Act or Prime Mover suffers too much from its Aristotelian limitations to be persuasive.
In sum, if anyone were to ask me for a good, non-technical book as an introduction to metaphysics, this is without hesitation the one I would recommend. The author is obviously a fine philosopher himself, who has learned to live his own philosophy and extend it from mind to imagination and heart as well.
Correction: On page 14 the text of Aristotle is incorrectly referenced and two key explanatory phrases are omitted, thus rendering the text meaningless. The quotation should read: Physics, 2.8.199a13: "Now intelligent action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is so. Thus if a house, e.g., had been a thing made by nature, it would have been made in the same way as it is now by art; and if things made by nature were made also by art, they would come to be in the same way as by nature."
Much the same can be said of the second volume, The Greatest Marvel of Nature, on the philosophy of the human person. It is as good as the first, if not even possibly better. Most of the quotations heading each chapter are like wake-up calls to the mind and the imagination. A few examples again: "The body is the work of the soul. It is its expression, and its promulgation in the domain of matter" (Claudel). "The human soul breathes above time" (Maritain). "By space, the universe embraces me all around, and overwhelms like a point. By thought, I comprehend the universe" (Pascal). "Water apprehends water; mind inhales essence" (Claudel).
The chapter headings themselves are especially eloquent. Some samples: "10. The Intellect, Essential Gentleness"; "13. "Like a Hand, Intellect Gathers Being at the Heart of Things"; "21. Freedom at the Heart of the Will"; "21. Life of the Soul as Spirit." The whole book is strongly recommended.
The third volume, God Seen in the Mirror of the Universe, the briefest in the series, is not, I regret, to be recommended as much. Parts 2 and 3, on the nature and attributes of God, and the relation of the world to God, are as fine, rich, and insightful as the other volumes, though not quite up to their level. But the trouble occurs in part 1, on the ascent to the existence of God by reason. It seems that in the philosophy of being and of the human person the solutions to the basic problems are based on one or a few commanding insights. Not so in the philosophy of God. There the ascent of reason to God seems to require a whole series of insights linked carefully together. Either one does this very carefully and precisely or the argument fails to achieve its objective. This is not supposed to be a technical study; still, the brief sketches of arguments given here remain so closely tied to limited Aristotelian perspectives that they do not bring us with clear evidence to the desired goal of a single infinitely perfect Source of all Being.
The author claims to be using the famous Five Ways of St. Thomas, but in fact some of his interpretations are somewhat eccentric and miss the real point and power of some of the proofs, precisely because they are tied too closely to an Aristotelian interpretation. For example, the Second Way, from the causal dependency of one being on another for its very being, is watered down, quite contrary to Aquinas's intention, to just the causality of any agent over its own action. Thomas clearly indicates he is talking about a deeper dependency of the whole being of one being on another being as its efficient cause, when he says, "If a being were the cause of its own self, then it would have to preexist itself in order to cause itself, which is impossible" (STh I, q. 2, a. 3). This would not make sense if he were merely talking about an already existing being causing its own action.
The author's Third Way, from contingency, can be a good one in itself, as found elsewhere in St. Thomas, but as put here it is not really the path of St. Thomas himself. The latter depends on the famously controverted premise that at some point of past history there would have been a time when all contingent beings would have passed out of existence together, leaving nothing, and from nothing, nothing can ever henceforth appear. The Fourth Way of Aquinas is also a difficult one in its present curiously inverted order of causality and supreme excellence, and the author straddles the difficulty.
In sum, if one is to use these Five Ways of St. Thomas in their exact present form, many precisions and adaptations need to be made before a clear, cogent conclusion can be reached. There are in fact broader, simpler, and more cogent ways of arguing to God in the general spirit of the Five Ways, but without the unsolved textual difficulties we find here. It is clear that the author knows well and highly esteems Aristotle, and justly so, but the one place one cannot stick too closely to him is on the question of God as unique, infinitely perfect Source of all being-which the author tends to do, showing little appreciation of the other Neoplatonic dimension of Thomas's thought as evidenced by his rich and profound doctrine of participation. However, as I have said above, the rest of the book (about two-thirds of it), on the nature and attributes of God and his relation to the world, get back on the track again with the author's customary fresh insights, mediated by stimulating creative images drawn from both art and life.
In sum, these three slim volumes, aside from the first part of the last one, are a remarkable and highly recommended achievement, unique of its kind as far as I am aware, by a talented philosopher with the rare gift of making clear the meaning and relevance of philosophy to life to the ordinary intelligent reader. They are also a delight, for the most part, for the professional philosopher himself.
—W. Norris Clarke, S.J. Fordham University New York, New York, Book Review
With the elegance that only poetry can inspire, Fr. Emonet takes us from the roots of the principle metaphysical notions as they arise in our ordinary experience and its language through the human soul, spirit and person, through the poverty of creatures to the richness of God their source. Remarkably, he makes these reflections accessible to attentive readers without diminishing either their depth or their glory.
—Kenneth L. Schmitz, University of Toronto
This series of books by Pierre-Marie Emonet is an excellent resource, for it provides the essentials of the philosophical background necessary for the study of theology.
—Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna