Philosophy professor and famed writer Ralph McInerny died four years ago on Jan. 29. His intellectual legacy, however, has not died; in fact, according to his brother Dennis, it has barely begun to be made manifest.
While Ralph McInerny was best known for his novels, his brother believes his true greatness can be found in his exposition of scholastic philosophy. Dennis “D.Q.” McInerny, himself a longtime adherent and expositor of scholasticism, has maintained his childlike enthusiasm for asking and answering the important questions about human life.
Dennis McInerny has been a professor for 43 years, the last 19 of which have been at the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s seminary in Denton, Neb. He recently spoke of his brother, entertainment vs. recreation and a balanced view of government with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
Your brother, Ralph McInerny, died four years ago on Jan. 29. What do you think his legacy is?
My opinion may be a little biased, but Ralph was a formidable philosopher and prolific novelist, overflowing with talent. He was Mr. Energy with a capital “E.” He needed that energy to do all his work, not to mention to maintain a marriage and raise seven children.
Most people know Ralph as a novelist, because that’s where they “met” him — in his novels. What is not widely known is that he was a dedicated Thomist — that is, he saw the value of the philosophy expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as scholastic philosophy. Even among professors, Ralph’s best works — which are those strictly on philosophy — are not very well known or appreciated.
It will take more time for things to settle in and for Ralph’s legacy to become crystalized. The way that usually happens is through doctoral dissertations. A graduate student uncovers works that are not widely distributed and then brings them to the light. Things progress from there, and, eventually, the person whose works are studied becomes better known.
I think this will happen for Ralph’s nonfiction works, especially those on moral philosophy, and I hope it will contribute to a revivification of Thomism in the Church.
How did you first become interested in philosophy?
That goes all the way back to my undergraduate years at St. Thomas College in Minnesota. I had some great professors while pursuing a double major in philosophy and English. I found that philosophy of the scholastic or Thomistic sort explained the important questions of life so well.
I had a yearning for the truth, and Thomistic philosophy showed itself to be the most consistent and productive way to get to the truth. It was not an escape from reality, like some other philosophical systems are, but a deeper engagement of that reality. The meaning and beauty of life became more manifest, the more I learned.
I knew as an undergrad that philosophy was something I wanted to dedicate my life to, and this has happened over the course of many years. Aside from a four-year stint in the Navy after one year of graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, I have been in academics all my adult life.
My first teaching job was at Bradley University in Illinois in 1970. Then I taught at my alma mater, St. Thomas College [which became St. Thomas University in 1990], and, in 1994, I joined the faculty of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska.
You mentioned the distinction between engaging reality and escaping it. Could you explain that further?
There has been a great divide in philosophy from at least the time of Rene Descartes, who died in 1650, between realism and idealism. Realism is the belief that one’s mind should conform itself to objective reality outside of it. Idealism, on other hand, is quite the opposite. In idealism, one’s own ideas about things are projected onto those things, even to the point that one starts to question whether those things actually exist. Idealism leads naturally to skepticism.
Skepticism has gained a hold in most major universities, so it is not uncommon for philosophy professors to disbelieve there is such a thing as truth. Imagine that. People who are supposed to have a love for the truth, which they are then to pass on to their students — these very people don’t believe there is such a thing. A philosophy professor who doesn’t believe in the truth is like a physiologist who doesn’t believe in the body.
Some professors, instead of seeing philosophy as a pursuit of truth, see it as simply keeping the conversation going. Instead of a aiming for a destination, the idea is that one should add more words to those already uttered. You’re not supposed to get anywhere, but just to make sure various ideas are continually tossed around. It basically amounts to a distraction from getting to the heart of things.
That sounds similar to what you’ve written about entertainment. Could you explain the different between entertainment and recreation?
There’s not always a sharp divide between the two, since the mindset you bring to an activity can sometimes determine whether it’s entertainment or recreation. However, entertainment is essentially a distraction from reality, while recreation is a deepening of an individual’s connection to reality.
Recreation replenishes our spirits and lifts us up. Whether it’s painting a picture, playing the violin, reading a good book or any number of other examples, one’s mind — and usually body — are truly engaged in the activity. The individual is a participant — at least on the imaginative or intellectual level — in what is going on and actually “making” something happen through his own effort. He’s “re-creating,” so to speak.
Entertainment, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It is essentially a sedentary thing. All kinds of flash and noise assault the senses in an effort to distract the individual from thinking clearly and objectively about his life. The very purpose of being entertained is to escape from life, and entertainment prevents us from praying, which is the most vital link we have to reality.
When I take a walk here in the Lincoln area, the air is clean, and the birds are singing and flitting about in the beautiful blue sky. Yet I walk past people who, instead of enjoying the splendor of nature or saying hello to a fellow human being, are looking down at handy-dandy gadgets cupped in their hands. Their eyes are glued to the gadgets, which can perform any number of tricks, while the beauty of life eludes them.
The rapidity with which technology has advanced has contributed to us being deceived into thinking that superfluous vanities are necessary, while the one thing that really is necessary (our connection with God) languishes or even dies. We are, in far too many cases, entertaining ourselves to death.
One of the most troublesome examples of being entertained to death is that of music. Not only have the lyrics become more vulgar and the sounds more abrasive, but to compound the trouble, the music is far more available than in the past.
It would be a tremendous help to start using technology to enjoy beautiful music. There are countless examples of great music that uplift our spirits, but I enjoy Gregorian chant in a particular way. It is so prayerful and soul-soothing. I know fellow FSSP seminary professor Nicholas Lemme finds this to be the case as well.
To jump from soul-soothing to soul-smothering, what do you think of the violations of subsidiarity that have become more common in the United States?
Subsidiarity is the teaching that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order. This is common sense in one respect, but because we are fallen and subject to error, the Church officially reminds us of it. We may need to be reminded of subsidiarity today more than ever.
We have drifted so far as a country from what our Founding Fathers intended us to be. The federal government has become overreaching and intrusive in matters that should be left to states, counties and municipalities. This makes civic life more difficult, which has a negative effect on families and individuals. In short, our freedom to do what we are called in the natural course of things to do has been eroded in many cases.
This erosion of liberty has brought about a general lassitude today. We’ve lost our gumption and have become mentally and morally flabby. We let others do for us what we should do for ourselves. This is not a call to individualism, but to a healthy individuality that makes us aware not only of our rights, but of our responsibilities. A good life must have a balance of the two.
Humility in government, although a contradiction to many, is the answer to the violations of subsidiarity. Humility helps us to see where we end and others begin, that our happiness is found in doing God’s will and not our own. We’re not the masters of the universe, but servants of the Master.
Once a greater number of individual souls have gotten things in order, there will be more order in society. It won’t happen before then, because all that happens in the world first happens in the soul. As goes the soul of man, so goes the world.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.