W. Norris Clarke, S.J., witnessed many of the major developments in 20th-century philosophy. Father Clarke’s peers honored him on Jan. 19, at the Walsh Family Library, with a colloquium on Thomistic philosophy, a subject on which he’s focused his energies for the better part of seven decades as teacher and author. Named for Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomism essentially tries to merge Christian thought with elements of Aristotelean philosophy.
The founding editor of the International Philosophy Quarterly, Father Clarke earned his master’s degree in philosophy at Rose Hill and also taught on the Bronx campus for 30 years, during which time the Outstanding Teacher Award was one of his many awards. He’s also a holder of the American Catholic Philosophical Association’s Aquinas Medal for distinguished contribution to Christian philosophy. Thomas Aquinas was the subject of the hour as Father Clarke addressed his audience.
In his talk, “The Integration of Personalism and Thomistic Metaphysics in Twentieth Century Thomism” Father Clarke said that “to revitalize Thomism for our century we must complete and renew it with 20th-century phenomenology.”
Inspired by the writings of Pope John Paul II, Clarke stressed that “we cannot know a person just by metaphysics…which can describe [only]the general structures of being. The interior life of conscious reflection can only be described phenomenologically.”
There is an “implicit dimension of personalism” hidden in Thomism that Aquinas himself never developed, said Clarke, noting that the Saint died at age 49 and perhaps had not had time to explore the concept.
Father Clarke said that he tried to first explicate this idea in Person and Being (Marquette University Press, 1993), which encountered some resistance upon publication. “But it was not overthrowing the ideas of Thomism,” he said. He said the two concepts he wished to add to Thomistic thought are that receiving is equal to giving, and that the highest being in all of nature is the self-communicating person. “The interpersonal … was never developed by St. Thomas, but I think it’s waiting to be done. The highest level of being is not solitary, but persons in communion,” he said.
The Jesuit said that he tried to convey this ideal to his students, including a physician at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York who first inquires of new patients, “tell me your story.” That person, said Clarke, “learned very well from my metaphysics class.”
Father Clarke said the notions of receptivity, and equating receiving with giving, came from German theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, who stressed that receptivity is as essential to the fullness of love as giving. “I got my inspiration from that and tried to develop it in the Thomistic tradition,” said Father Clarke. “Christianity is not solitary, it’s a communion of persons, and all being flows down from that,” he said.
Father Clarke, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1933, began his decades-long adventure into Thomism in European academia, first at College St. Louis, Jersey, England in 1936, studying with professor Andre Marc, whom he called “brilliant,” and later with noted Thomists Van Steenberghen and De Raeymaeker at the University of Louvain, Paris, where he earned his Ph.D. He has served as president of both the American Catholic Philosophical Association and the Metaphysical Society of America, and as a member of the Executive Council of the American Philosophical Association. He has published more than sixty articles in philosophical and theological journals and has authored seven books, including Person and Being, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics(University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) and Explorations in Metaphysics: Being-God-Person(University of Notre Dame Press, 1995). The second and revised edition of Father Clarke’s The Philosophical Approach to God: A New Thomistic Perspective, is forthcoming from Fordham University Press this spring.
By Brian Kluepfel