Friday, March 1, 2013


My dogmatic slumber

  I really thought common sense was sufficient to explain why workers have a basic right to organize into unions. The papal encyclicals point to the “dignity of man” as the core reason.  During a discussion group I mentioned this and expected the usual silent glassy eyed response, but I was immediately and strongly challenged by a university professor of anthropology.   He shouted, “what about the squirrels – don’t they have dignity?”  He went on, “one of those encyclicals says that a living wage means that a worker should have money to get a beer after his shift.”  “Thank God we don’t get that crap at our Church.”  I was stunned; I couldn’t respond except to say, “Let’s get back to common sense.”   Was it simply an upper class academic dismissal of those beneath their status?  But then again, what about women, “dignity of man” is an evolving concept even in the social encyclicals.

   Class conflict is just there, but preaching without using common sense has a long varied history.  A serious challenge to common sense is highlighted by the troubles of Peterless Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) in the 12th century. 
   Abelard’s fame in history is mostly related to an illicit affair with his student Eloise.  Pete paid the price for the affair since in the middle ages a simple cover up was not sufficient.  However, Peterless Pete’s important question: was not, as the romantics think, “Eloise what are you doing tonight?” but, as logicians think, “How can we use universals?”  If universals are just of the mind and not reality, they can mean whatever we want them to mean.  Peterless Pete thought he solved the problem, but St. Bernard (1090 - 1153) thought Pete’s logic misinterpreted the Trinity, declared Pete a heretic, and refused to rescue him.   
   Common sense made a comeback in 13th century with Adequate Tom Aquino (St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 - 1274).   With help from Jewish and Muslim philosophers (Averoes, 1126 - 1198, Maimonedes, 1135 – 1204), Adequate Tom referred back to the ancient Greeks and restored confidence in human reason.  But in the 14th century, Wild Bill Ockham (William of Ockham, 1288 - 1347) took his razor to Aristotelian Adequate Tom and severed the “possible” and “agent” faculties from the intellect making it impossible to produce certain conclusions.   Again, is the razor a better answer than the cover up?  But obviously mistakes can be made.
   The “dignity of man,” does the concept have a basis in reality?  Does the concept imply that workers have the right to organize?  President Lincoln faced a similar problem.  The Declaration of Independence states that all are equal yet the institution of slavery was sanctioned by the Constitution.  In the next posting we will consider Lincoln’s reasoning.  Comments and suggestions are appreciated.  Email