Contempt, Inquiry, and Rational Disagreement: Learning from Aquinas in the Internet Age

Present-day Americans are a people consumed by anger—an anger that rests on deep pools of sadness, isolation, loss, and fear. In spite of his reputation for dry, unemotional logic, Thomas Aquinas has a great deal to say about the way in which disordered passions can undermine our capacity for getting at the truth. His work can teach us how to resist the vices encouraged by social media, pursue truth in concert with others, and achieve rational disagreement.

The seventeenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal once remarked, “The truth is so obscured these days that only those who love it will find it.”

Living at the advent of modernity, a time characterized by great ideological contests among and within philosophy, religion, science and politics, Pascal was quite aware of two facts about human beings. First, the need for truth is woven into the deepest impulses of our being. Second, the truth is not easy to ascertain. In many cases, the subject matter itself is difficult. But Pascal here speaks of truth being obscured, as if there were deliberate obstacles being placed before us. These obstacles are not just external forces that seek to deceive us. They are also internal, having to do with our own vices and disordered passions, our penchant for preferring our own fantasies over facts and our own will over that of others. If we have an impulse toward truth, we also cultivate impulses to evade the truth, even the truth about ourselves.

Fake news, irate passion, and violence are regular parts of our political life these days. Trapped in our ideological cul-de-sacs, eager to do battle with opponents in the disembodied world of social media, our default position is that anyone who disagrees with us must be both malicious and fatuous. Surveys show that there has been a marked decline in rich, personal friendships; meanwhile, civic friendship has been replaced by civic odium. We increasingly inhabit a culture of contempt. In response, there has been a great deal of talk about the decline in the quality of our public discourse. Thoughtful books on these topics abound, including Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility, Danielle Allen’s Talking To Strangers, Arthur Brooks’s Love Your Enemies, Ben Sasse’s Them, Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, and Aurelian Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation.

In this essay, I want to consider an element that usually drops out in the focus on civility: the habits, strategies, and methods necessary to seek truth and—as Pascal would have us do—to love it. That’s different from the goal of consensus, which is quite often desirable, if only rarely achieved. A more achievable goal would be rational disagreement, for which in our public life we currently often substitute irrational vituperation. Rational disagreement is an integral part of the pursuit of truth.

For guidance on these matters, I am going to turn to what may seem an unlikely source: Thomas Aquinas. At first glance, Aquinas may seem to advocate a model of reasoning that is highly abstract, a matter of moving from self-evident principles through lucid deductions to unimpeachable conclusions. That would seem to have little to do with rational disagreement or with the messy, passion-inflected give and take of public discourse. But this impression is misleading. In reality, Aquinas has a great deal to teach us about rational disagreement, and about the character traits that assist or hamper the pursuit of truth, especially the pursuit of truth in concert with others.


The (Anti-) Social Scene

A chilling scene from George Orwell’s 1984, the “Two Minutes Hate,” nicely captures the mood and culture of much of contemporary cable news and social media. The description of the practice of the ritual venting of animosity toward political enemies runs thus:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

The posture of contempt is a radical defense mechanism, a way of making sure that we are not taken in by the ideology of our opponents on crucial, divisive matters. But it also renders us blind to the weaknesses in our own views. What’s more, it is contagious. Unchecked, it will infect all areas of human life and thought.

This posture also contributes to inaccurate estimations of political opponents. A recent study from the Brookings Institution entitled “The Perception Gap” “explores how Americans have a distorted understanding of people on the other side of the aisle.” It is not surprising, with the growth of partisan animosity, that erroneous opinions about political opponents have increased. What is surprising are the following results: the disconnection with reality was highest among “the best educated and most politically interested,” who “are more likely to vilify their political adversaries than their less educated, less tuned-in peers.” In other words, the least engaged and least politically active came the closest to having an accurate view of their opponents. Many self-proclaimed active and informed citizens are a far cry from the sort lauded in the Federalist Papers.

The mainstreaming of extremism, the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, and the ease with which we can retreat to like-minded technological communities render our political discourse both vindictive and shallow. The isolation that so many experience as a defining fact of their lives increases the need for belonging through ideological identification and for connection through social media. These conditions exacerbate unhealthy tendencies that have always plagued us as human beings.

The Christian tradition has always been acutely aware of these tendencies, which are borne out by research in contemporary moral psychology. In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that, contrary to our perception of ourselves as fair-minded rational agents, we are in fact largely dominated by passions and unexamined assumptions, in defense of which we expend a great deal of effort. “We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves,” Haidt writes. We rarely start with a dispassionate examination of evidence and then move to conclusions. Rather, Haidt continues, we “make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments.” Underscoring the social influence on our thinking, Haidt concludes, “Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”

Another significant problem here is that we think we are free when we are not. Technology may be making it more difficult for us to distinguish between freedom and manipulation. In his 2016 book, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford reflects on the fact that, in a world dominated by technology, activity on screens and interaction through social media substitutes for encounters with the real world around us. The mode of interaction with the virtual world puts before us the tantalizing possibility of what he calls a “frictionless universe,” one in which we are presented with few or no obstacles to our will. Crawford effectively deploys Freud’s contrast between the pleasure principle, most characteristic of infants and children, and the reality principle, in which adults learn to navigate various ways in which the world and other persons push back against our will. A frictionless universe is one in which we are liberated from the reality principle, in which the world ceases to push back against our will and technology reduces to the vanishing point the gap between “I want it” and “it appears.” That’s just how Tolkien describes the similarity between magic and technology: both offer instantaneous satisfaction of wants.

When we seem most unencumbered in our online activity, apparently most free to get what we want, we are also most prey to algorithms, to advertising, and to the influence of groupthink. The feeling of freedom is no guarantee of actual freedom. This is especially true of our assumption that our preferences express “a welling-up of the authentic self.” As Crawford, warns, “Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data.”


Aspiring to Rational Disagreement: Three Key Steps

What are the remedies for these obstacles to truth? I’d like to turn now to Aquinas and consider his accounts, first, of rational inquiry, which aims at least partly at rational disagreement, and, second, the role of habits and passions in our communal pursuit of truth.

One of the defining features of Aquinas’s mode of inquiry, one that students find both frustrating and tedious, is his voracious habit for objections. The disputed question mode of argument, popular in the nascent universities of the West and a pervasive feature of Aquinas’s most well-known work, The Summa Theologiae, has a determinate structure. Thomas begins with the posing of a question; then he offers a list of objections to his own position; then he resolves the question; finally, he returns to the objections and responds to them.

What seems artificial to us is but a snapshot of the very lively and highly contentious form of public disputation in the medieval universities. Josef Pieper once insightfully remarked that the disputed question is a distant offspring of the Platonic dialogue. For Thomas, the ample consideration of objections is a necessary condition of rational inquiry.

In fact, I would argue that there are at least three degrees of, or stages in, rational argumentation for Aquinas. It is good to make a rigorous argument—an argument in which the conclusion or thesis is clear, the evidence or premises used to reach the conclusion are lucidly articulated, and the connections among the premises are made evident. But it is even more convincing to add to such an argument a consideration of objections—the stronger, the better. The notion that one would go in search of strong arguments against one’s own position is counter-intuitive only to those who see argument as a weapon for defeating opponents or as a tool for the quick scoring of points. It is an indispensable element in any serious pursuit of truth.

Aquinas’s mode of proceeding may seem overly intellectual, almost disembodied, as if we were living in a realm of pure ideas. Yet clarity and rigor of argument do not mean that we are operating without passion or conviction. By all accounts, Aquinas seems to have had an equable disposition. Even so, at times he cannot avoid expressing displeasure, frustration, or jubilation. For the error of identifying God with prime matter, he calls David of Dinant stultissimus, which we might translate as “colossally stupid.” In a legend dear to G. K. Chesterton, while dining at the royal court, Aquinas interrupted the convivial conversation by slamming his fist on the table and yelling, “That will refute the Manicheans!”

Thomas seems to be most exasperated by views that have three characteristics: a) they are about matters that matter a great deal, b) they are positions he is quite confident are false, and c) they are nonetheless supported by very complicated and in many ways impressive arguments.


Take, for example, the view of the Islamic philosopher Averroes concerning the unity of the agent intellect. This view would undermine the possibility of personal immortality and bears on the question of moral responsibility. Early and often, Aquinas rebuts the position, often with great vigor. He tries to show not just that the view is contrary to the explicit teaching of the faith but also that it is contrary to reason and to the texts of Aristotle. He even devotes an entire work to this topic alone. Aquinas is not above voicing his displeasure at Averroes’s position, going so far as to label him a “perverter” of Aristotelian philosophy.

It is worth noting what Aquinas does not do. He does not ignore Averroes. He does not seek to have his books banned. He does not simply invoke authority in an effort to forestall further debate or to reach a peremptory judgment. In fact, he returns to the topic repeatedly. What’s more, each time, he constructs different arguments, sometimes completely of his own devising, on behalf of Averroes’s position. For all this disagreement on this particular issue, he is more than willing to embrace other positions of Averroes and even to model his own commentaries on Aristotle after those of Averroes, who is called The Commentator.

The appetite for objections contrary to his own position is, for Aquinas, a requirement of the pursuit of truth. It is a practice intrinsic, not accidental, to the quest for knowledge. As he says in a number of places, it is impossible to untie a knot of which one is ignorant.

The path toward truth is through one difficulty after another. In the examination of difficulties, we will find ourselves both learning from and disagreeing with others. One of the suggestions that Aquinas makes about how such conversations might best proceed occurs early in the Summa Contra Gentiles (I, 2), where he urges that in disagreeing with an opponent, it is best to begin from some sort of common ground. He states that with Christian heretics, we share the New Testament as a basis for debate; with members of the Jewish faith, the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures; and with all others, we have recourse to reason, which we share with everyone. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive points of departure. One can argue with Christian heretics using all three. The strongest arguments are those that come from within the position of one’s interlocutor. To be able to make such arguments in a convincing way can be quite difficult and is often possible only after one has learned the alternative position in a fairly deep and comprehensive way. In turn, this can require that we learn to see whatever question we are considering from a perspective quite different from the one we currently have.

Beyond clarity of argument and the response to objections, Aquinas offers something further in his account of rational disagreement. We can see it in his admiration for Aristotle’s mode of proceeding in the first book of the Physics, where Aristotle examines the nature of change. He begins by considering the received opinions about the matter, both those latent in common belief and ordinary language, and those that have been defended by philosophers. This is a common practice in Aristotle. It rests on the supposition that truth is like the proverbial door that no one can fail entirely to hit. I won’t take you through all the arguments, but he ends up arguing for a position that he thinks salvages the reality in our experience of both endurance and change. At the end, he doesn’t simply say, “I’ve made my arguments; that’s it.” He returns to the two most influential, inherited philosophical opinions about change: that of Parmenides, who through an analysis of the meaning of being and non-being insists that there is no such thing as change, and that of Heraclitus, who observes that all things are in flux and hence defends the view that permanence or endurance is an illusion. Aristotle takes the time at the end to go back over these positions, to sort out what is true from what is false in them, and then to explain how it is that they each depart from the truth. Presenting his own position as that which encompasses what is true in the positions of his rivals and showing where and why they go astray is the most convincing kind of argument.

So, in Aquinas, we can discern three stages in argumentation that enable rational disagreement: the giving of straightforward arguments, the consideration of objections (the stronger, the better), and the providing of an account of where and why rival positions differ from one’s own.

There is a further step, I’d like to suggest, in Aquinas’s account of rational disagreement, one that is quite close to what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the rationality of traditions. In a work like the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas seeks not only to give convincing arguments and to respond to objections. He is also interested in offering a comprehensive account of philosophy and theology as an integrated pursuit of wisdom, an account that engages and seeks to surpass the accounts found in the most ambitious philosophical and theological texts of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. He seeks to show where and why he disagrees with these various traditions of wisdom.

Now, such an ambitious model of rational disagreement might seem to be only relevant at rare periods in human history when there is enough in common to aspire to bring varied traditions together in this way. Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes that the engagement of wisdom traditions is likely to be the most fruitful path for the development of natural law discourse in the modern world. In much of contemporary society, he notes, the very grounds for morality have been weakened and the conception of nature, on which Thomistic natural law rests, has been “capsized.” Ratzinger issues a caution to the excessive optimism of those who would seek to deploy natural law in the public square as a basis for moral or political consensus. Rather, he proposes that we recover natural law as surfacing in various communities or traditions, what he calls wisdom traditions. In his marvelous summary of Ratzinger on natural law, Russell Hittinger writes that the result is a “new emphasis on natural law . . . as a search or path.” The fruits of such an approach can be seen in the recent book, Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Trialogue, written by David Novak, Matthew Levering, and Anver Emon.


Careful Thinking Demands Care with Language

Few of us might have the opportunity or need to develop all the elements in Aquinas’s account of rational persuasion, though we can all aim for clarity and make the effort to examine objections to our views. But there is another feature of Aquinas’s approach that is relevant to all of us nearly all of the time.

Aquinas spends a great deal of time on what we might be tempted to call “grammar”: the clarification of the different senses or meanings of words. He is not inclined to think that all our disagreements are merely verbal. Still, he realizes that many of them are—or, at least, their resolution is greatly assisted by making distinctions about the meaning and scope of terms. Becoming reflective about the words we use can help loosen up the sedimentation that often afflicts our language. Sedimentation can have a variety of causes; perhaps our language has become overly and artificially technical or riddled with clichés and jargon. Clarifying terms helps us to frame the difficulty or problem in as clear a manner as possible.

In an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” written long before the advent of social media, George Orwell has some pertinent observations about the decline of public discourse. Orwell highlights for us the danger of a kind of passivity with respect to the common language, the way in which a certain laziness with language atrophies the imagination and paralyzes thought. What sounds like a mere matter of style, mere rhetorical ornament, is for Orwell a matter of taking ownership of our own writing and thus of our own thinking. The habits he urges upon us have especially to do with skills of articulation, but these are inseparable from skills or virtues of inquiry and discovery. The realization that I don’t know exactly what I want to say or how to say it can generate questions: What do I think about this? What should I think? Why?

In a lesson that is spelled out in greater and more dramatic detail in his famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell insists that if we don’t consciously use language, language will use us. Others can seize on the sloppiness or deceptiveness of language to use it and us for their own aims. Passivity in our writing allows ready-made phrases to “construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

Such self-appropriation of language is particularly needed when we are in the grips of a ready-made vocabulary. Partisan discourse, whether in the form of the jargon of a particular philosophical school, in the catch-phrases of the social sciences, or in the clichés of approbation and derision of political movements, can all too easily control our thinking and speaking. Graduate students in philosophy, for example, would be well advised to learn how to explain their work in ways that are accessible to non-experts, to undergraduate students, and to those who inhabit different philosophical systems.

What Orwell is calling for in our writing, what Aquinas, in his varied modes of reasoning, is what the contemporary British philosopher, Bernard Williams, calls the virtue of accuracy, “a desire for truth for its own sake—a passion for getting it right.” Williams, who died in 2003, was a notoriously captious thinker, an agnostic and a skeptic of large claims in philosophy. Yet late in his life, in the book Truth and Truthfulness, Williams sought to provide a positive account of truth. He was concerned that we were entering an era, both in the wider culture and in academia, of a crisis of truthfulness, of a decline in truth-conducing practices.


Internal Obstacles to the Pursuit of Truth

In his analysis of the obstacles to accuracy, Williams turns our attention from external to internal obstacles to rational discourse, to the sorts of obstacles Jon Haidt and Pascal are fond of pointing out. Williams highlights laziness and a host of “desires and wishes” that “subvert the acquisition of true belief.” Thus, in addition to methods of investigation, accuracy also has to do with the will and the passions, with our penchant for self-deception and fantasy.

Aquinas seems to have an overly optimistic view of what reason can accomplish, as if it could operate in an unhindered way simply through practice. Yet he has a great deal to say about the way in which disordered passions can undermine our capacity for getting at the truth. In fact, he argues, for example, that we can hate the truth. Since our souls are naturally ordered to truth and goodness, it would seem that we cannot hate what it true. Aquinas counters that hatred is possible under certain conditions, namely, “when a particular truth . . . is considered as hurtful and repugnant.” Such conditions obtain when we strongly wish that something were not true, especially in cases where the acknowledgment of its veracity would get in the way of our fulfilling some desire. In another way, we can hate the truth when it concerns something about ourselves that we prefer would remain hidden. Aquinas quotes Augustine’s Confessions: we “love truth when it enlightens,” but “hate it when it reproves.” The aversion to truth exhibits itself in “blindness of mind,” evident in our turning away, sometimes quite deliberately, from a relevant truth or fact.

Such blindness can lead us to be unjust to others in ways that run from the innocuous to the heinous—a position Aquinas develops in his discussion of the vice of suspicion. Aquinas calls suspicion a “perversity or disorder of the affections” that has to do with thinking ill of someone based on “slight indications” or what we might call insufficient evidence. That’s a pretty apt description of the default disposition of many who are active on social media. In its gravest forms, suspicion involves the judgment that someone is evil, on the basis of flimsy evidence.

The vice of envy, which is rooted in sorrow over another’s good fortune, can also play a role here. What makes us sad is the alleged harm to our honor or good name caused by the good fortune of another. If justice looks to the good of the other, injustice, particularly in the vice of envy, is preferring my own good name or honor over what others deserve. This turning of the world in upon oneself, in an inaccurate estimate of one’s own worth and one’s own desires, is a source of injustice. Such a perversion of the just estimation of others can occur not just on an individual level but also on a communal one, when I prefer the good of my group, precisely because it is mine or ours, to the good of other groups or parties. The danger here is that we consider the truth to be our possession or our right and thus become envious when the argument of another is superior.

The interesting thing about our current divisions in relation to Aquinas is that he would recognize a basis for justified fear of opponents. And we are indeed fearful. A recent Pew survey reveals that 72 percent of adults think that, on the issues that matter to them, their side in politics has been losing more often than winning. Just 24 percent say their side has been winning more often than losing. The accuracy of such statements is less at issue than the fact that each side thinks this way. We on both sides are prone to apocalyptic pronouncements about what will happen if the other side wins. These are likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Each action on one side generates an opposite and exponentially greater reaction on the other.

Aquinas actually has something to say about such cases, and it is not hopeful. In the discussion of suspicion above, I skipped one type, which arises from “long experience” and can be justifiable. What if our suspicion is justified? What if it’s based on long experience or at least on sufficient evidence? In an odd twist, Aquinas finds in the high level of our mutual hostility grounds for justified fear of opponents. Aquinas identifies a type of envy, rooted in sorrow over another’s good fortune. Unlike the cases of envy that we mentioned above, in this case, the advance in another’s good fortune occasions sorrow because “it threatens to be an occasion of harm to” us, “as when a man grieves for his enemy’s prosperity, for fear” that “he may do him some harm.” Aquinas comments, “such like sorrow is not envy, but rather an effect of fear, as the Philosopher states (Rhet. ii, 9).” The divisions are great, and each battle, each election seems an all-or-nothing proposition in which if one side wins, it promises destruction of the other side. Aquinas would say fear is justified in this situation.


Joy, Inquiry, and Friendship in the Face of Irrational Incivility

The presence of feared evils or the prospect of their imminent arrival breeds sadness. If the sadness is not dispelled, it generates anger, a welling up of the powers of the soul in opposition to the present evil and the desire to defeat or evade it. It doesn’t take much observation of present-day America to see that we are a people consumed by anger. With Aquinas’s help, we might also see that the anger rests on deep pools of sadness, a depressing sense of isolation, loss, and fear.

Now, Aquinas does not think that anger is always evil. In fact, there are occasions when it is the appropriate response to evil. Still, he adds a warning from Gregory the Great: “We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it overrule the mind . . . instead of following in reason’s train, ever ready . . . to obey.” He also observes that anger is mostly useful in situations in which the evil can be directly vanquished by action. In cases in which we have to endure evils, the virtues of patience and hope are more important than anger.

I’d like to propose one other remedy to our divisive, sorrowful, angry culture. We can seek out those with different views who nonetheless have a genuine interest in truth and engage with them in a difficult but joyful pursuit. We can also seek to embody the standards of Aquinas on rational inquiry even in our interaction with those with whom we largely agree. Now, the paucity of folks with a love of truth may mean that the shared pursuit of truths across ideological lines will be rare, but we should also realize that the paucity is likely present on all sides, not just on the side of those with whom we disagree, perhaps even in our own souls.

This practice will not provide a quick fix for our political malaise. Nonetheless, the cultivation of such friendships can aid us in our individual and communal pursuit of truth, reshaping us into people who earnestly love the truth.

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