McLuhan’s realism 5: Cambridge 1934-1935

In two letters to his family from Cambridge at the turn of the year, 1934-1935, McLuhan offered advice to his younger brother Maurice (‘Red’) on the question of “Plato and Aristotle”. Tellingly, the two modern authorities cited in the letters are Chesterton and Maritain. In both letters McLuhan ends by advocating “Aristotle”, aka, a “fleshly” realism.

Now I can heartily recommend GK [Chesterton]’s book on St Thomas as being of use to you in your philosophy. He deals with Plato and Aristotle and their influence on Christendom — incidentally there is a very clear exposition of their theories of knowledge (how we know and know we can know). (…) In any case these ideas are not simple. I remember what difficulty I had. I never understood the importance or meaning of Plato and Aristotle until I read Kant a year later. (…) It is useful broadly to distinguish PI. and Arist as tending towards Bhuddism [sic] and Christianity respectively. Plato was an oriental in mind (…) Aristotle heartily accepts the senses just as Browning did and says: (…) “All good things / Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul”. [“Rabbi Ben Ezra”, #12, 1864]. And that is why great Aquinas accepted Aristotle into Christian theology. (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, November 10, 1934, Letters 39)

As a handbook on Philosophy with especial regard to its historical development I strongly commend Maritain’s “Introd. to Phil.” to you Red. He is the greatest living French thinker and is one of the foremost students and interpreters of Aquinas. Like most French texts it is a marvel of lucidity and order. I have read or dipped into numerous histories (all of which supposed Augustine and Aquinas were spoofers) and which therefore misunderstood everything that happened in society and philosophy after them. It is for his sympathy in this matter, as well as his general account, that I recommend him to you as certain to prove most coherent and stimulating. Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine.  (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, February 1935, Letters 53)

Rupert Lodge, chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Manitoba, had been one of McLuhan’s favorite professors there.  He had helped McLuhan obtain his scholarship for Cambridge with a glowing review. Lodge practiced what he called “comparative philosophy” in which he treated issues as originating in one of three possible basic outlooks: materialism, idealism and a middling position he sometimes called ‘pragmatism’. In rejecting “comparative religion”, McLuhan was denying that this approach was applicable to religion. Instead, as he came to think at this time (and would continue to do for the rest of his life), it was necessary to hold to a foundational realism with Aristotle, but in such a way that other basic positions were admitted and even justified — exactly in their undeniable reality.1

  1. “Far from turning his back on it (all the “arrogant confusion” of modern thought) he (Joyce) invaded it and took it up into the analogical drama of his art.”  (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)