Alas, l’esprit de l’escalier solely

I love the phrase, l’esprit de l’escalier, and overuse it, that is, I use it at all.

I also love the witticisms ascribed to the late Ralph McInerny, such as the story that when he saw “streakers” running across campus, and was asked whether they were men or women, he said, “I couldn’t tell. They had bags over their heads.”

Another sometimes ascribed to him is found in the passage below, in a review by Fred Freddoso, of a history of thomism by Romanus Cessario. It turns out that that so-brilliant statement in a faculty meeting was never said by McInerny, and never said at all – though one could wish that the legend were true.

Nor are the prospects bright for a reinstatement, or even a mere modest revival, of Thomism in the flagship Catholic universities of Europe and North America. When my own department [Notre Dame] conducted a search for a Thomist a few years ago, it turned out that some of my younger colleagues had never even heard of a Thomist! One of them, a cradle non-practicing Catholic, asked in astonishment, “Why would we want to hire someone who believes all and only what Aquinas believes?” As I sorted through the confusion about Thomism and Catholic philosophy implicit in this question, it occurred to me that one effective, though admittedly flippant, response might be, “Well, we hired someone who believes all and only what you believe. Which is worse?” The bottom line, unfortunately, is that my department and others like it harbor very little sympathy for the idea of serving the Church by cultivating the thought of St. Thomas. They are more concerned with their standing in the secular academic world. Perhaps they will claim, and in some cases sincerely believe, that this concern, far from being sycophantic, is equivalent to an aspiration for intellectual excellence. But any Catholic philosopher who has experience in contemporary Catholic universities and has thought deeply about matters pertaining to faith and reason is likely to have a multitude of good reasons for dismissing this claim.


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