by Marion Montgomery

St. Augustine's Press, 2002

138 pages, $30

To order: (800) 621-2736 or (773) 568-1550

Pope John Paul II understands that the crisis of the modern world is first and foremost a manifestation of confusion about the nature of the human person. Modern American Catholic writers have also recognized this connection. Southern writers Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, for example, dramatized it. Here Marion Montgomery examines it in an extended essay.

Much of the confusion of our time can be traced to the thought of French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650). He elevated the human mind to the level of the angels and ignored the human body. He was under the illusion that human reason creates reality. This intellectual pride then led to the modern philosophical error of man seeing himself as intellectually autonomous and not a being created by God or subject to the limitations of creation. Kant, Hegel and others forged this thinking into the dogma of our time.

These notions are the slogans of our pop culture. How many advertisements tell us we are in charge? That we are little gods who can recreate ourselves to suit our own fancy? That we are the final tribunals of right and wrong?

Artists have instinctively rebelled against the closed world of Descartes' modern rational materialism. But, in rebellion, many of them threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, substituting intuition and feeling for faith and reason. Montgomery writes, “this proved but a further exacerbation ... They, too, at last rest faith in autonomous intellect.”

Montgomery's book would restore us to the real world where mind and body, thought and feeling are connected. He returns to the commonsense philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas where men acquire knowledge through objects around them and have no direct angelic apprehension. Aquinas believed that the human mind and body working through the senses and guided by natural law accommodates itself to the limits of existence. “Thus intellectual autonomy is a most destructive violation of the given nature of a person,” writes Montgomery.

Romancing Reality examines the reactions against modern rational materialism by the poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) and novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Schiller is best known for William Tell, but his Letters on Aesthetic Education is Montgomery's focus.

Schiller's Letters urges that we leave “the living presence of things” and promises that this will lead us to transcendent truth. But this is not at all transcendent! Rather, it is an intellectual act of self-centered idealism. Man cannot achieve transcendence by an act of the mind. Montgomery points out that this so-called transcendence is bogus because it never moves beyond the empty cavern of one's own skull. As created beings we are dependent on God's will and cannot opt out of the reality of creation. (Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalism committed the same error in 19th-century New England). We are on the way to truth. This is what the Latin term homo viator from the book's TITLE means (a person on the way). We must encounter the world. We cannot leapfrog to eternity.

Tolstoy's reaction against modernism, after completing his great novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, became more severe and led him to a spiritual crisis. He came to reject the Russian Church with all of its sacraments and mysteries. Montgomery shows how Tolstoy ended up preaching “a church of Christ without Christ ... Tolstoy's scornful rejection is of both the transcendent and the immanent, in an elevation of himself as the singular spiritual entity.” Rejecting the world, he flees his family and ends up dying in a remote railway station.

Montgomery's book sometimes repeats itself, but its message is one worth reading if we are to restore the dignity of man and community — and come to experience beauty as a gift from God, whose creation is good.

Patrick J. Walsh writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.