St. Justin Martyr

Incoming Light

Friends and students had asked me to indicate the authors who have had the greatest influence on my life and thinking. If ever my words have communicated light or touched lives, the credit is largely due to the wonderful teachers I have had and the books of a number of authors I have read. Since the teachers have all gone on to their reward, I was only too happy to indicate the authors. I restricted the list to authors of recent times; Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas (among a select few others) are obviously on any intelligent person’s top list of philosophical influences. The rest of the so-called Great Books – in drama, history, novel, epic and poetry – will also be presupposed, and not included in the following list. 

In the last few years (since I penned the above paragraph), a few new authors have entered into the exchange. Five of them, in particular, have realized the intellectual ideal of Confucius and begotten newness through the preservation of the ancient. This has caused multiple points in my own education to be connected in new ways and by more embracing perspectives. In what follows, I will try to escort their lights into a larger and more luminous view.

I bought the course of philosophy of John of St. Thomas in Rome in the late 1970s, in a lovely Latin edition. I studied his logic and theory of signs with great attention back then. I continued to ponder the issue of “signs” until finally publishing my own modest synthesis on the matter at the turn of the new century (available in the “Writings” menu as The Seven Signa, although I have just thoroughly revised and expanded the text in its Portuguese translation). My concern, at the time, was more with the notion of “symbol,” since I’d been struggling to make sense of the promising but problematic work of the Perennialists. As I was to see, there was far more in the mix than this.

When in the mid-teens of the new century I happened upon the work of Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and the recently deceased semiotician, Thomas Sebeok, I saw that this whole matter had moved in new, and yet traditionally interconnected ways in very recent times. Finding the works of my fellow countryman, John Deely, became the final puzzle piece.

Something analogous happened at the same time, though on the less theoretical, and more practical (moral, appetitive, etc.) side of things. I finally gave in to rumors that had assailed me for years and started reading the works of René Girard. His books are likewise deeply rooted in tradition, but also extremely aware of what is going on in contemporary culture. His ideas are catalytic in producing surprising, even shocking, new insights. However, Girard requires a lot of reflection, and his return to the Church of his childhood predictably made him less palatable for fashionable social science. But wiser folks than I have spotted the fundamental importance of this expat Frenchman.

One of the blessings of our digital age is that you can watch Girard on Youtube videos and get a glimpse of the man in action. Still, Girard is wildly mis-understandable, and although – maybe because he is possessed by a handful of profound insights, he does not always succeed in giving them coherent articulation. Only if you have been likewise possessed by one or the other of those insights – as I have – will you have the patience to engage with his work. That means clarifying the ongoing project of understanding the mimetic dimension of the most bewildering faculties of our human being – our emotions and our will.

I add another Frenchmen to my list, which in itself is a proof that I am going on content, and not on tribal affections – I am anything but a Francophile. First, the trilogy of Louis Dupré (one book on the beginning of modernity, a second on the Enlightenment, and a third on Romanticism) has not received the attention it deserves. As happens when I read Deely or Girard, something similar occurs when it is a text of Dupré on the page. I have the selfsame experience: multiple points of light from my past 50 years or so of study and reflection are suddenly connected and invested with new luminosity.

Yet a further Frenchman was brought to my attention by a good friend and, like Dupré, has proven a sure guide to understanding what has happened to the modern world that led to the calamities of the 20th century. He is Rémi Brague, and although he also retrospectively speaks of trilogies in his own work, his Eccentric Culture is, by his own reckoning, the foundation.

The fifth writer was a complete surprise. I was preparing a course on Aristotle and looking for a good English index to the Stagirite’s opus (the Greek index I had would not serve for my young students), and came upon just what the doctor ordered: An Index to Aristotle in English Translation, originally published in the late 40s. I was so impressed that I sought out the other works of the author, Troy Wilson Organ, from the University of Iowa. Expecting to find multiple monographs on Aristotle and Greek philosophy, I was greeted instead by numerous books and studies on Indian, Hindu thought. That kind of range of interest and expertise instantly attracts me, especially as it us normally Plato enthusiasts that turn to the East. As I began to read in Organ’s considerable works, I found in him another scholar of Indian thought who also, like Richard de Smet, was able to bring the best of Western pre-modern thought into dialogue with the best from India.

Thus, I will clumsily work these five newcomers into my list.

  1. G.K. Chesterton, in particular his non-fiction. Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man I have read multiple times, and each time I am freshly overwhelmed. Their effect on the mind is nothing less than tonic.
  2. St. John Henry Newman, whose Grammar of AssentEssay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and Idea of a University, with their novel but rooted takes on faith, history and education, respectively, bear all the permanent relevance of the writings of a modern, “après la lettre”, Father of the Church.
  3. Hans Urs von Balthasar – supplemented by Augustine and Aquinas – for my money, the greatest theologian of modern times (helpfully glossed and contextualized by Cyril O’Regan and Aidan Nichols, and, in certain matters, given a healthy shake by an eye-opening Orthodox corrective, courtesy of David Bentley Hart).
  4. C.S. Lewis, probably the most sophisticated Christian apologist of the 20th century, as well as a superb guide to pre-modern literature. For beginners, one might start with The Weight of GloryThe Abolition of ManThe Problem of Pain, and Discarded Image. Two worthy successors of Lewis are the American Peter Kreeft and the recently deceased Brit Stratford Caldecott.
  5. Max Picard: The World of SilenceMan and Language, and anything else you can find in translation (he wrote in German). An unsung contemplative genius, singularly fascinated by the endless universes of the human face. His detailed studies of the face are only in German. However, his Flight from God should be available in several languages.
  6. Cornelio Fabro, the only Thomist I’ve found who managed to get truly inside of Aquinas’ mind and then to think his way valiantly through to the 20th century. Not for the faint-hearted. (His main works are finally being translated into English.)
  7. Mid-century Blackfriars in England and comparable Thomists in the USA: Thomas Gilby, Victor White (U.K.), Vincent Smith, James Collins (USA); also contemporaries E.L. Mascall, E.I. Watkin, Henry Babcock Veatch. These guys never let you down.
  8. R.C. Zaehner, the best surveyor of world religions I know of, who – though a convinced Catholic convert – refuses to “bear false witness” regarding other approaches to transcendence. His deep faith generates robust and adventurous thought. I should also include Raimon Panikkar, Wilhelm Halbfass, Huston Smith, Richard de Smet (see also nr. 12) and Troy Wilson Organ.
  9. Historians: Friedrich Heer, Eric Voegelin, William McNeil, Christopher Dawson, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, all of whom realize that – like it or not – the pursuit or neglect of transcendence sets the stage for history-making human choice. All else is secondary and tertiary. Rosenstock-Huessy has probably the deepest insight into history of them all, insisting we understand the “grammatical” nature of our engagement with reality in both time and space. I will be reading and pondering Rosenstock for years to come.
  10. A.K. Coomaraswamy: in my view, the most consistently learned and insightful representative of the Asian Indian tradition in English, with encyclopedic scholarship and astute exposition regarding art, philosophy and religion in all their forms. Heavy on erudition and excessively foot-noted, but the insights are deep, bracing and unrelenting.
  11. Joseph Pieper: the best and most accessible popular interpreter of Western wisdom in the Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, especially in moral questions.
  12. Norris Clarke and Richard de Smet: only two of many who are now narrowing in on the Western, Semitic notion of person as the final linchpin in grasping not only Western, but also Eastern – and even non-literate – wisdom traditions in their most metaphysically, morally and musically mysterious dimensions.
  13. John Deely: he passed away in early 2017, but left us a large pile of texts. Start with his Basics of Semiotics, or even better: Semiotic Animal. Good Thomists should read first his Intentionality and Semiotics. (There is much, much more.) Of Girard, please begin with his later works, after 1977, beginning with Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Dupré’s most important works are probably the three books mentioned above.



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