Don’t Let Rhetoric Overwhelm Reason: A Response to David Bentley Hart

Don’t Let Rhetoric Overwhelm Reason: A Response to David Bentley Hart

If David Bentley Hart wants his arguments to be persuasive, he should offer a reasoned critique of the actual arguments of his opponents rather than continue to indulge what he admits is an “emotional” aversion to Thomism.

Plato gave Western thought its fundamental orientation when he distinguished the man of reason from the sophist, who relies on rhetorical rather than logical force to persuade his audience. Ever since, every serious intellectual discipline has aimed to be a science, in the traditional sense: a systematic body of knowledge whose claims are set out with conceptual precision and backed by rational argumentation.

Now, rational discourse doesn’t entirely exclude recourse to rhetorical techniques, as Plato’s own writings show. But reason must always be in the driver’s seat, and there is a constant danger that the rhetoric necessary to make a science interesting and accessible can threaten to overwhelm the rationality that ought to define it.

Take theologian David Bentley Hart, for instance. Hart is justly known for the rhetorical elegance of his prose. He is not known for rigor of argumentation. When criticized for a conceptual mistake or logical error, Hart has a tendency to double down on his preference for rhetoric over reason. A couple of years ago, for example, he wrote a critique of natural law theory entirely predicated on a failure to distinguish between the “new natural law theory” of John Finnis and Robert P. George and the “old natural law theory” of Russell Hittinger and Ralph McInerny. Hart’s critics naturally complained of this rather basic error.

Two years on, despite having revisited the dispute several times, Hart has yet even to acknowledge that this objection has been leveled against him, much less attempted to answer it. In his column in the June/July issue of First Things, he accuses me of “furiously thrashing away at what he imagined I was saying” at the time. Yet he still does not address the charge that he conflated new and old natural law theory. He also refrains from explaining what exactly he was saying if it wasn’t that. The focus of his piece is not the dispute over natural law, however, but my Public Discourse article of several weeks ago criticizing his view that there will be non-human animals in Heaven.

Hart vs. “The System”?

The first half of the column is an odd rant about “manualist Thomism,” “two-tier Thomism,” “baroque neoscholasticism,” “the infamous Thomist ‘manuals,’” Domingo Báñez and Reginald ­Garrigou-Lagrange. Hart refers to this combination darkly as “The System,” warns us of the “Psychotic God” of “The System,” and cautions that “The System” must be distinguished from what Thomas Aquinas actually thought.

According to Hart, my true motive for disagreeing with him about the immortality of animals is that I am “an adherent of The System.” Indeed, I am apparently one of the “guardians of The System” devoted to “attacking any deviation from the vision of reality [The System] promotes”—and, in Hart’s view that there will be animals in Heaven, I allegedly “perceive[ed] an offense against The System” and “assumed that nothing but The System was at stake.”

Yet my Public Discourse piece made no appeal to Garrigou-Lagrange, manualism, a “two-tier” conception of nature and grace, or any other purportedly defining feature of “The System,” nor does anything I said imply a commitment to any such feature. I merely defended the view that Aquinas himself undeniably took. Nor did I appeal to the authority of Aquinas, but put forward arguments. Nor did I say that Aquinas’s position on this issue (or any other) is infallible or binding on pain of heresy or in any other way obligatory. Aquinas could, of course, be wrong. But to show that he is wrong one has actually to engage the arguments—to evaluate the logical cogency of the inferences, make careful distinctions, etc. Hart does not do that.

Hart’s strange attack on what he calls “The System” would thus be completely irrelevant even if it addressed anything other than a caricature of my actual views. But though irrelevant to the substance of our dispute, it has a rhetorical appeal that evidently makes it irresistible to Hart, who frankly admits that he “delight[s] in casual abuse of Thomists” and that in part his opposition is “as much emotional as rational.”

Menacing references to the threat of “manualism” and “baroque neoscholasticism” have long been a favored tactic in theologically liberal Catholic circles. Given Aquinas’s enormous prestige and influence within the Catholic Church, attacking some position he took has always been a tricky business. The solution was to invent a bogeyman variously called “manualism,” “sawdust Thomism,” etc. This allows the critic to identify the hated position with that and proceed as if it has nothing to do with Thomas himself. Such epithets generate something like a Pavlovian response in many readers, subverting rational thought and poisoning the reader’s mind against anything a Thomist opponent might have to say. Though neither a theological liberal nor a Catholic, Hart knows what buttons to push in order to win over the less-discriminating members of his audience.

Scripture and the Redemption of Creation

When it comes to the substance of our disagreement, Hart makes two main points. First, he defends the thesis that there will be animals in Heaven on the biblical grounds that “salvation is cosmic in scope and includes all creation.” He adds, incorrectly, a dismissive disclaimer: “not that Feser shows any interest in the scriptural issues.”

I agree with the premise that all of creation will be redeemed. But it simply doesn’t follow that there will be animals in Heaven. To make such an inference would be, among other things, a fallacy of division. (If your stylist assures you that you are not losing your hair, it doesn’t follow that you won’t lose a single strand.) For all Hart has shown, that all of creation will be redeemed entails only that something of the corporeal and animal worlds will exist in Heaven. That our bodies will be restored to us in the resurrection suffices to guarantee that much.

For another thing, it simply isn’t true that I paid no attention to the scriptural considerations. In my Public Discourse piece, I appealed to Christ’s teaching that marriage will not exist in Heaven as biblical evidence that even some of the noblest of the goods of this life will not exist in Heaven. And if even marriage won’t exist in Heaven—despite being part of the creation that is to be redeemed—it is hardly implausible to suggest that non-human animals, which are lesser goods, won’t be there either.

In a follow-up to my Public Discourse piece, I also addressed claims to the effect that biblical passages such as Isaiah 11 (which refers to wolves lying down with lambs, etc.) show that there will be animals in Heaven. There is no use appealing to purported proof texts from biblical passages that are highly poetical in style, as that passage from Isaiah certainly is. Otherwise we’d have to say, absurdly, that God literally has eyes and eyelids (Psalm 11:4), nostrils and lungs with which he breathes (Job 4:9), and so on. The same passage from Isaiah also speaks of babies and children frolicking with the animals. So are we to suppose that there will be babies born, and children raised, in Heaven? Yet if those in Heaven “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30), where are all these babies and children supposed to come from?

A natural conclusion to draw is that the biblical references to animals, no less than to babies, children, and divine eyelids and nostrils, are intended as merely poetical descriptions. They give us no reason to think that there literally will be animals in Heaven.

The Rationality of Animals

Hart’s other main claim is that my thesis that non-human animals lack rationality is “just doctrinaire Aristotelian boilerplate, uninformed by thousands of fascinating and sobering cognitive studies of animals.”

There are several problems with Hart’s remark. First, I made it clear that I had something very specific in mind by “rationality,” namely the capacity to grasp abstract or universal concepts, to combine them into propositions, and to reason from one proposition to another in accordance with the laws of logic. I did not deny (and would not deny) that animals are capable of thought in the looser sense that involves forming mental imagery, problem-solving, tool-making, and so forth. Now, I would be curious to see just one study that shows that non-human animals are capable of rationality in the precise sense that I explicitly specified, let alone the “thousands” of studies that Hart references.

Second, my claim is by no means mere “Aristotelian boilerplate.” I cited philosophers Karl Popper and Donald Davidson as taking similar positions, and in another follow-up post expounding Davidson’s arguments in more detail, I also noted that linguist Noam Chomsky takes such a view. Popper, Davidson, and Chomsky are hardly Aristotelians or Thomists.

Third, my position vis-à-vis animals and rationality is in no way “doctrinaire.” I gave arguments for it, arguments that the purportedly non-doctrinaire Hart does not even attempt to answer but simply ignores in favor of engaging in personal abuse and changing the subject.

Hart is within his intellectual and theological rights to argue that there will be non-rational animals in Heaven. But if he wants his arguments to be persuasive, he should offer a reasoned critique of the actual arguments of his opponents rather than continue to indulge what he admits is an “emotional” aversion to Thomism.

Edward Feser’s most recent book is Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. His webpage can be found here, and his blog here.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.