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Summer Books

An elegant thinker who prefers candor to cant

Edited by Anthony O. Simon
Rowman & Littlefield, 218 pages, $22.95

Edited by Anthony O. Simon
Fordam University Press, 325 pages, $18


In our era of media moralizers and pontificating pun-dittos, it is refreshing and edifying to read and reread these elegant essays by the French thinker Yves R. Simon (1903-1961), whose prose never shouts to make a point, never indulges in rationalizations to avoid the difficult questions and never obscures the light of reason with shadowy jargon.

“In the fulfillment of the philosopher’s duty,” Simon remarked when awarded the 1958 Aquinas Medal from the American Catholic Philosophical Association, “there is no substitute for the fearless love of truth, for selflessness, fortitude and humility.” He perceived his duty as a calling that demanded all these virtues because such solitary activity must persevere outside the support of academic communities and without the embrace of public consensus.

Although never as famous as this century’s other interpreters of St. Thomas Aquinas -- such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson -- Simon’s voice gave a uniquely modern tone to Thomism that still clarifies the understanding of fellow intellectuals and challenges a wide range of philosophers, political theorists and social scientists. As a dynamic and persuasive teacher and a gifted literary stylist, Simon’s goal was not to philosophize but to communicate the great ideas of Western thought in a passionate and lucid way that continues to stimulate a critical discourse that is intelligible, relevant and real.

Philosopher at Work collects for the first time eight essays that were published in journals and anthologies during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This is a diverse work, but more than a mere miscellany. The editor’s subtle sequencing and detailed cross-referencing emphasize the thematic interconnections within the text and to Simon’s other writings.

In “The Philosopher’s Calling,” Simon charms with witty remarks about the strange vocation that argues with geniuses of the past and “bears all the appearances of the worst kind of conceit.” Nonetheless, he knew and loved the spiritual satisfaction of the philosopher in “communicating his inspiration together with his demonstration,” and “the joy of friendship born of such communication.”

“The Concept of Work” outlines a cultural typology of labor -- from the utility, motion and causality of manual work to the necessity of ethical wisdom to freely choose against the myth of social engineering and to the rigors of intellectual discourse whose search becomes absurd if it does not ascend to the pure contemplation of truth. This summit “is better than useful,” he writes, because “it is finally good -- good in itself.” Its terminus is, paradoxically, its beginning, for “it is a very faithful image of eternal life.”

“Maritain’s Philosophy of the Sciences” reviews Jacques Maritain’s 1932 masterwork on Thomistic thought, while evoking the essence of Thomism and its adversaries from medieval to modern times. If, like this reviewer, you have felt out of your depth in such discourse, Simon’s succinct essay will be a useful guide, as will the following piece, “The Rationality of the Christian Faith,” which focuses on the relation of faith to theology. He demonstrates that “faith is the principal cause of theological knowledge,” and with a precise analogy, clarifies these degrees of knowledge: “Faith is to theology what natural understanding is to rational science.”

The final four chapters establish the ground of Simon’s genius in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, which stands in opposition to the line of Plato-Descartes-Kant. These detailed demonstrations, which strike the balance between clear specificity and literary epiphany, are titled: “An Essay on Sensation”; “Nature and the Process of Mathematical Abstraction”; “On the Order in Analogical Sets”; and “To Be and To Know.”

Written during the last few years of Simon’s relatively brief life (he died at 58), these original compositions read like a fresh illumination of Western philosophy for the nonspecialist -- as if this generous teacher and lucid thinker had contemplated the eternal truths once again in order to communicate his spiritual vision for our future awakening.

Anthony O. Simon, the philosopher’s son, has edited the ideal companion volume to Philosopher at Work -- a gathering of essays on the philosophy of Yves R. Simon, titled Acquaintance with the Absolute. This anthology includes a wide range of views by such contemporary thinkers as Vukan Kuic, Robert J. Mulvaney, Ralph Nelson, Raymond L. Dennehy, Russell Hittinger, John F.X. Knasas and Jesuit Fr. James V. Schall, who wrote the introduction. The collection also includes a complete 120-page bibliography of Simon’s works compiled by the editor, along with a chronology, photographs and an index.

Robert Bonazzi writes from Fort Worth, Texas.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999