From Fulton J. Sheen,
Treasure in Clay: The Auto-biography of Fulton J. Sheen,
Doubleday & Com-pany, 1980, 25-28. Impromptu, a young doctoral student
publically subjected to a concise internal critique the system of a
misosopher who basked in all the glory the academic world had to give.
The title is mine.
March 5, 2013
Truth versus Novelty
Fulton J. Sheen
After two years of graduate studies
at the university [Catholic University of America], I felt that I did
not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor of
Philosophy. I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said,
“What would you like to have in education?” I said, “I should like to
know two things—first, what the modern world is thinking about; second,
how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the
philosophy of St. Thomas.” He said, “You will never get it here, but
you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.”
In September of 1921, I left for
Louvain, Belgium, and entered the School of Philosophy. My brother Tom
left with me to study medicine at the same university. Regardless of
how long I live, I will never be able to express the depth of my
gratitude to this great university for the brilliance of its teaching,
the inspiration of its leadership and the development it gave to the
human mind. There were no optional or elective course—every course was
required. So we had to learn metaphysics, experimental psychology,
cosmology, Aristotle, modern space and time; these courses were part of
the curriculum for all doctoral candidates. Everything contemporary was
stressed in every area of knowledge. Even the professors of the Medical
School gave us advanced courses in science. But along with being
up-to-date, we were drenched in Aristotle, Plato and the ancients and
immersed in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The way the professors
handled Aquinas he did not belong to the Middle Ages; he was our
contemporary. No assigned reading was ever given, but it was always
assumed that any book which a professor suggested to be read could be
brought up on the final oral examination.
most brilliant professor I had was Dr. Leon Noel, whose last name was
the same as his first, if spelled backward. One course he taught was on
the philosophy of Bergson, who was then the dominant French thinker.
Another course was on American pragmatism. On one occasion he called me
into his office and said: “Have you read the Gifford Lectures of Dr.
[Samuel] Alexander?” I told him that I had not. He said: “Well, they
have already been published for at least thirty days.
[They were published in 1920.—A.F.]
I advise you to read both of those volumes, and then go to the
University of Manchester in England and then consult with Dr.
Alexander.” Dr. Alexander had won a medal from King George for his
philosophical treatise on Space, Time and Deity, his thesis being
that deity is evolving.
Dr. Alexander if I might be permitted to follow one of his courses. I
do not remember if he said: “It is on Kant” or “It is just cant,” but in
any case, he refused. He did invite me back to tea that afternoon.
When I went to the building at the appointed time, I found a sign
outside: “This afternoon at tea time, Dr. Alexander will debate Dr.
Sheen of the University of Louvain.”
not yet have my doctorate from the University of Louvain, nor was I
qualified to represent the university. But a tea table was prepared in
the middle of the room for Dr. Alexander and myself. Hundreds of
students sat around at various tea tables to listen to the discussion
Dr. Alexander began: “Well, what would you like to know?” I realized,
for the first time, what it must be like to sit at the feat of Divine
Omniscience. I said: “You do not believe that God is Infinitely
Perfect, do you?” He said: “Have you read my books?” I said: “Yes. I
have read them twice.” “Well,” he said, “if you ever read them with any
degree of intelligence, you would know that I believe that God is
perfect.” I said: “May I explain to you your view as I understand
it?” I then explained that Dr. Alexander’s position seemed to me to be
that God was an urge, or nisus, one level above the present level of
evolution. “When there was only Space-Time, God was a chemical; when
chemicals came into being God was the ideal of plant; when plants came
into the universe, God was the ideal state of an animal; when there were
animals God was the ideal state of man; now that there is man, God is an
angel. Someday we will reach that state. God will keep moving ahead as
the Urge of the universe.” And he said: “Yes, that is my theory; you
have understood it perfectly.” I said: “Well, Dr. Alexander, your God
is not perfect: He is on the way to perfection. A Perfect God would be
One Who has at each and every moment of His Being the fullness of
perfection.” “I’ve never had that put to me that way before,” he said.
I asked him if would be interested in reading the philosophy of Thomas
Aquinas. “No, I would not be interested because you become known in this
world not through Truth, but through novelty, and my doctrine is novel.”