I recommend Ralph McInerny’s very short Rhyme and Reason: St. Thomas and Modes of Discourse. It’s the Marquette University Aquinas Lecture for 1981.

I’m thinking about it today in relation to literary criticism (a field in which I am less than a novice). But a sub-point of McInerny’s, and one that I’d like to raise in discussion with contemporary theorists and their disciples, is that distinctions of literary genre are difficult to make. Consider the following spectrum: Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Dickens’ Hard Times. Which are philosophy and which are literature? In my opinion, the line is hard to draw. Aristotle and Dickens probably have the largest disparity here, but my selections are fairly graded examples of more and less philosophy mixed with more and less poetry/fiction.

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, if we can’t clearly make these distinctions, then our literary theory ought to be applied perhaps to more explicitly philosophical works. And if interpretation is merely a matter of the values of a community or an individual, then the discipline of philosophy is caput. Even philosophical relativists or non-realists depend for the propagation of their ideas on the ability to analyze arguments and make their own. Indeed, if genres are undefined, than the writing of critical theory itself (and this is where McInerny is helpful) should be subject to its own standards. But this is an example of what Chesterton calls a “suicide of thought” and what Thomas Reid calls a philosophical “coalpit.”

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