Skip links

Germain Grisez, Christian Philosopher

Germain Grisez, who died on February 1, early on the eve of Candlemas, wrote the twentieth century’s most adequate, profound, creative, and faithful work of moral theology. And down to his very last days in this world he was working toward a theological book on the Last Things, a work that even in outline had the same unique combination of qualities.

But his richest talent was as a philosopher. Speaking of himself on the websitehe painstakingly constructed over the last decade—a resource set up to endure, complete with a short autobiography, a full and explanatory bibliography, a republication of virtually all his printed and some valuable unprinted works, and a guide to the life and work of more than a dozen of those he counted as his personal colleagues—he rightly says: “in 1978, his understanding of his commitment compelled him to become a theologian but enabled him to do so without ceasing to be a philosopher.”

In November 1960, early in his thirty-first year and little over a year after completing (under the formidable Richard McKeon) his University of Chicago PhD on logical theory, Grisez wrote a short but deep-going paper on “The Four Meanings of ‘Christian Philosophy.’” What he there wrote about the first and fourth of these meanings says much of what a truthful obituary needs to say of him, nearly six decades later, when he had in wonderful measure fulfilled what he had long before envisaged as the good to which, and for which, he should commit himself.

The first of his meanings of “Christian philosophy” focuses on the philosophers themselves, those who

having good will . . . see . . . that their diverse commitments conceal an implicit unity, for one and all they are committed to a reality which lies outside their proper and peculiar interests and beyond their clear vision and grasp. Hence they tolerate diversity of [overarching] commitment . . . because they accept it as a significant and common evil toward whose elimination they must co-operate, using themselves in the service of that one reality beyond interest, in which their diverse explicit commitments implicitly unite.

He continues, about philosophers of this kind:

Among these . . . some appear pre-eminent over the rest in their extraordinary intellectual competence and activity, in their detachment from both technicalities and vulgar concerns, in their universality of interest, in their indifference to praise and condemnation, in their magnanimity, in their fairness to collaborators and critics, in their sagacity in appreciating the common human predicament, and in their determination to unfold their commitments to the point where their hidden community can appear in reality . . .

And that, we can now see, was Grisez’s preeminence, achieved and maintained over many decades even if not widely recognized. Having delineated other characteristics of such philosophers, including that “they know well their limitations,” he concluded his portrait of them in this way:

such as these deserve the title “philosopher” . . .  and the title will be qualified by the denominations of commitment—for example, they will call John Henry Newman “a Christian philosopher.” The qualification does not diminish the title, nor is it a mere extrinsic addition to it . . .

His outward productions, his utterances and writings, are not what such a philosopher hopes mainly to accomplish, but in so far as those works are relic of his life they will be called after him, “Christian philosophy.”

Then his account of the fourth, complementary meaning of “Christian philosophy” focused not on the philosopher so much as on philosophical inquiry’s outcome:

We may call a philosophy “Christian” in itself—and denominate its author “a Christian philosopher” from it—inasmuch as that philosophy has the truth that it has in itself at the end of an analysis which is intrinsically related to a Christian’s wonder—wonder that initiated the inquiry preceding the analysis—wonder upon the worlds of which we find ourselves a part: the world of nature signed by the Creator’s hand; the world of truth illumined by the Light of man; and the world of value sanctified by the Love that abides within.

Read more at The Public Discourse. 

Share with Friends: