Getting Personal: The philosophy of W. Norris Clarke, S.J.

When I arrived at Fordham University in the fall of 2007, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., was reaching the end of more than 50 years of teaching there, where he was a great light in the study of Thomas Aquinas. In particular, Father Clarke focused his attention on what is known as personalist Thomism, a school of philosophy that took the Thomist tradition and grafted onto it new insights about the human person and the relational dimension of all being. Right up through his last day in the classroom, young Jesuits studying philosophy at Fordham flocked to his course.

After Father Clarke’s death in June 2008 at the age of 93, a blog post on America’s website noted that both the oldest and the youngest Jesuits in the house of studies located just off the Fordham campus had taken classes with Father Clarke, “despite the six decades that separated the two.” Whatever differences these Jesuits (a group not known for mildness or uniformity of opinion) may have had, there was a common admiration for his intellect and pedagogy. He completed his last class in December 2007, six months before his death.

Advertisement

Father Clarke had an enthusiasm for the exploration of reality that was infectious. He was a man who looked at the world with the wonder of a child and always wanted to know more about it, convinced that this desire was not a vain one. Father Clarke’s approach to the world is one worth considering. His posited that all things were “substance in relation” and said that, for a person, stories are the vehicle for relations. These ideas allow us opportunities to consider reality both as it is and as it could be.

Seeing the Whole

In 2001, Father Clarke published The One and the Many, a book on metaphysics that alone would be enough to secure his reputation as a philosopher; and in March 2007 he put out a new edition of The Philosophical Approach to God. In The One and the Many, he noted that a good metaphysician needed both a diving suit and a set of wings—the diving suit to explore the particulars of reality with as much detail and depth as needed and the wings to soar as high as needed to be able to see how everything adds up. (This image also shows Father Clarke’s great talent for explaining nearly any philosophical concept with the lightness of a grandfather recounting stories at the fireside without any loss of rigor.) Anything that helps us see the whole is to be preferred, and anything that keeps us in an insular state, seeing and caring only about our immediate concerns and opinions, dismissing all others, is to be rejected, he said. But he also had great balance in his thought, always desiring to know the particulars without losing sight of their relation to the whole. Like Aquinas, he would draw upon any thinker he could to get a better view of life.

Father Clarke’s enthusiasm for getting a better view led to his eclectic style of philosophy and his signature project, the “creative retrieval” (as he termed it) of Aquinas’s thought, with particular help from personalism. A tracing of Father Clarke’s own influences shows a remarkable diversity. After his beginnings in Thomism, he was heavily influenced by Étienne Gilson’s historical study of Aquinas, especially Gilson’s idea that what Aquinas saw at the heart of each thing is an act of being rather than simply its essence. From here, he delved into the work of Joseph Maréchal, S.J., and then ideas of phenomenology, especially as articulated by thinkers like Martin Buber.

With this wide range of influences, Father Clarke was able to put Aquinas into conversation with a large swath of the contemporary world, allowing each to balance the other. Aquinas provides a “unified center” not always held by contemporary philosophers, while phenomenology described the structure of the relations and how beings manifest themselves to one another, to which Aquinas is not very attentive. To this end, Father Clarke was comfortable discussing philosophy with multiple schools of thought and took them seriously. Like Aquinas, Clarke would make every effort to present the arguments of interlocutors and treated them as if they too were searching for perennial truth, rather than as thinkers who were wrong, foolish, deceitful or some combination of the three.

Being in Relation

At the heart of this retrieval of Aquinas is the idea that there is a distinct, existing being underlying every relation. Existence is an action. We are not simply static, atomic beings with no particular connection to one another. In The One and the Many, he provides a helpful thought experiment to demonstrate his point: Consider a being with no relations—it does not act upon anything else in existence, nor is it acted upon. Now distinguish it from something that does not exist.

Far from being a sign of weakness, the interrelatedness of beings is a positive perfection on their part. Receptivity to another being’s manifestation is something that we must cultivate—as parents who have tried to instill the habit of saying (and meaning) “Thank you” into their children can attest. I recall Father Clarke asserting that even the members of the Trinity possess this receptivity, and that they could not exist as a trinity without it. Receptivity is not weakness; it enables us to enter into communion with other beings, in imitation of the Trinity.

This communitarian and relational dimension in Father Clarke’s thought is critical to us today. For thinkers like Aquinas, philosophy was a group project of sorts, where one thinker should be able to draw upon and take into account the best of what has come before. Beginning with Descartes, philosophy engaged in a “turn to the subject”—the grounding of philosophy and human wisdom overall in the individual. This individual dimension has permeated all aspects of our thinking. Alasdair MacIntyre points out in After Virtue that most modern conceptions of justice, on both the left and the right, treat humans as isolated strangers and not persons in communion.

In a talk given to community servants in Los Angeles, Greg Boyle, S.J., observed that the goal of service is to make it so that “there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’—just ‘us.’” Looking at our society today, we see too many instances of “us” and “them,” some of which have resulted in tragedy. There is antagonism between members of opposing political views, between members of various races, between members of various social classes, between government and its servants on the one hand and the general public on the other. Bonds of communion have been severed—a severance that Chapter 3 of Genesis reminds us accompanied the Fall itself.

Yet Father Clarke acknowledges the good developments that have arisen from the turn to the subject, like increased respect for individual conscience. His commitment to drawing upon every possible source to explore reality enables him to find the strengths of both premodern and modern thought, and so avoid their weaknesses. Because of this, he is able to put forward the understanding that relations cannot be understood without an underlying individual to have these relations and the knowledge that any individual is understood to necessarily have bonds of relation with other beings.

The recovery of the necessity of relations is one key element in combating the injustices of society. There are myriad factors involved in systematic discrimination and antagonism, some of which only grace may overcome. But we may say that discrimination or unlawful force against another is made more difficult if one is aware of and experiences bonds of community with that person.

Telling Our Stories

Father Clarke noted in Person and Being that part and parcel of being human is “to reveal, manifest, express ourselves to other persons, to make manifest who we are, what we believe in, stand for, etc., in a word, ‘our story.’” The story of each person is what gives us our identities and enables us to relate as persons to others. To be a person is to be a storyteller, and to be a storyteller is to be one who can manifest one’s life and values in a coherent way to others, thereby entering into relationships with them.

Looking over our stories, we see that the network of relationships each being generates exists not just in the present but across time. Where I am, what I do now and what I may yet do are bound up with the stories and actions of people and groups who came into being and ceased to be on earth long before I was born. The bonds of relationship that Father Clarke has discussed are far more vast and strong than we might even imagine.

There are good and bad elements in my individual story that I did not cause. But I stand upon these elements and make them a part of myself (to an extent, I cannot do otherwise), so I must claim responsibility for them, be it through gratitude or contrition. St. John Paul II, a personalist Thomist with whose philosophy Father Clarke strongly identified, had a sense of this when he repented on behalf of the whole church for various injustices committed over its history.

Norris Clarke’s Legacy

Father Clarke’s writings have not only a topical value but a perennial, timeless one. In using ideas he has presented, we are able to bring about a way of thinking that has lasting value. First and foremost, he shows us how to look at reality. Reconciliation and salvation are ultimately a matter of creation becoming what it ought to be, what God wills it to be. Father Clarke was a metaphysician who prized looking at things more than ideas. In his mind, any look at human consciousness or thinking that did not also look at the world in which the human dwells is badly lopsided.

In his writing, Father Clarke’s excitement over exploring reality is palpable on every page. This excitement impelled him to make use of every source available. It also led him to wonder at reality, marveling at everything creation is and could be. This should be our own attitude as well. As we look more and more at creation, perhaps seeing things about it we have not seen before, we also see the journey of creation and how we may participate in God’s bringing creation to perfection.

In a festschrift for Father Clarke in 1998, Gerald McCool, S.J., called him “an alert and independent Thomist.” That is perhaps the most apt description for him. He did not see Thomism as a series of propositions to be memorized and defended, but as a way to explore the whole cosmos. Along his way of exploration, he found other vantage points to help him see reality, and he disdained none of them. He was thus able to recover and further develop insights of Aquinas on the nature of being and how all beings are inextricably bound up in relation with other beings and with “the great chain of being.” By internalizing the structure of relationships Father Norris Clarke observed, we can then examine the divisions in our world—and begin to heal them.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Edward Ray
2 years 6 months ago
Fr. Paternostro: Fr. Norris Clarke helped save may mother from atheism via her undergraduate degree at Rutgers and brought her over to Fordham to finish her philosophy MA. He was a constant source of inspiration and education to both me and my Mother until his recent passing. He was a rare breed of Thomist and Jesuit who along with my spiritual advisor Avery Dulles I miss greatly. Glad to see Fr. Norris is still appreciated by the Society of Jesus!
eduardo patino
2 years 6 months ago
He seems to have been a remarkable and saintly man.
ROBERT REILLY MR/MRS
2 years 6 months ago
Mr. Paternostro, Enjoyed your article immensely. Fr. Clarke was my philosophy teacher at Fordham College in 1959/60. Was blessed to visit with him at my 45th Reunion in 2006. He was as engaging as ever. Bob Reilly, FCRH'61

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Images: CNS/Composite: America
On Nov. 11, the Catholic Church lost a moral titan in the long struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States.
Shannen Dee WilliamsNovember 22, 2017
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar military commander-in-chief, speaks during the Union Peace Conference Aug. 31 in Naypyitaw (CNS photo/Hein Htet, EPA).
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing wields great political power in the country.
Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in “Wonder” (CNS photo/Lionsgate). 
‘Wonder’ is a tween melodrama on a mission of mercy.
Simcha FisherNovember 22, 2017
The change was in “no way” a response to the C.C.H.D.’s persistent online critics, an archdiocesan official says.
Kevin ClarkeNovember 22, 2017