The earliest appearance of Mary Flannery O’Connor as the Avenging Hillbilly Thomist seems to have been in 1944. The sweater-clad crusader emerged from her Fortress of Silence while taking Introduction to Modern Philosophy (Philosophy 412) with Professor George Beiswanger. Her instructor was known as Dr. He-B, his wife on the Arts faculty at the Georgia State College for Women was called Dr. She-B. The Doctors B were curiosities in Milledgeville for having cosmopolitan and Modernist approaches respectively to philosophy and terpsichore. He-B assigned Randall’s The Making of the Modern Mind to his students; She-B instructed in “godless” modern dance.
Randall’s book championed Descartes, the Enlightenment, and philosophical Pragmatism and was dismissive of Medieval thought in general and Aquinas in particular. O’Connor is described as being sullen during lectures and shaken before being stirred. When Dr. He-B proposed the Medieval Church was “polytheistic,” she cast away her shyness, challenging him in class. His reaction was cold and “anthropologistic.” She continued her defense of Thomas to Beiswanger outside of class. Beigwanger became convinced of her potential if not her astuteness. While he would only concede that she had a solid foundation in “earlier philosophy,” it was he who pushed her and endorsed her applications to graduate school at Iowa and Duke University (Gooch 112-115).
Beset at every corner after the Reformation, Catholicism had withdrawn from debates about most theological and ethical refinements choosing to focus on the necessary defense of fundamental tenets like the Ressurection and the divinity of Christ. Unfortunately for Aquinas’ reputation, many of his writings, like the classification of lies and the criteria for justifiable war seemed less critical to a Papacy under attack. Furthermore, Aquinas was sometimes out of step with Suarez, the most prominent Jesuit thinker. Thomist thinking fell from the mainstream of Catholic intellectualism. In 1827, when an Italian Thomist was named to teach logic at the Roman College, objections caused the appointment to be withdrawn.
Leo XIII began a recall of Thomas from his exile in 1879. This occurred only through two Thomist champions, a Medieval scholar and the second a convert who was anxious to separate the philosophical from the theological writings of Aquinas. The first was Etienne Gilson, whose influence on O’Connor will be discussed a bit here; the second is Maritain whose contribution will keep until another day.
Gilson wrote his doctoral dissertation about Rene Descartes, but as years passed, he became increasingly disillusioned with Human rationality’s ineffectiveness in dealing with core theological problems. Descartes had attempted, for example, to prove the existence of God with logic. I believe, and some smart people agree, that the proof was unsatisfactory. Faith seems to be the cornerstone of theological logic. Gilson said: “Faith comes to intelligence as a light that overflows it with joy and inspires it with a certitude that does away with question.” The instability of unguided reason seems to be central to the themes that emerge in Flannery O’Connor’s writing. In her letters, she takes Descartes to task but saves her most vociferous concern for Nihilism.
I don’t know yet and may never know how much Etienne Gilson influenced O’Connor by the day she fenced with Professor Beigwanger in 1944. It wasn’t until 1946 that Gilson was elected an “Immortal” of the Académie française (“Gilson, Etienne,” Wikipedia). She may not have known his work as an undergraduate, but by September 1955, she described herself as an admirer of Gilson’s Unity of Philosophical Experience and reported that she was reading his Christain Philosophy in the Middle Ages (O’Connor 107). We do know that she was already well versed in the Summa Theologicae when an undergraduate. Even better evidence may be found in her fiction, particularly in her two finished novels. It was Gilson who wrote before her: “Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful.”
“Gilson, Etienne,”Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophy 26 August 2021.
Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Bay Back Books., 2010, pp. 112-115.
Herr, William A. Catholic Thinkers in the Clear: Giants of Catholic Thought from Augustine To Rahner. The Thomas More Press, 1985, pp. 195–206.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being, Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999, p. 107
Sundell, Carl “ETIENNE GILSON ON MAD-HATTERS AND METAPHYSICS,” Catholic Insight, 12 November 2018. https://catholicinsight.com/etienne-gilson-on-mad-hatters-and-metaphysic/ 26 August 2021.
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