Objections from an etymologist

by John R. Holmes

It is no simple matter to give a succinct reply to criticisms as many and varied as those excited by my “polygamy piece.” Happily, subsequent articles have made it unnecessary to answer some of them—such as Mr. Brust’s charge that the article would do nothing to stimulate intelligent discussion.

Even so, to treat the others point by point would be too laborious, I think, and mostly uninteresting. So, I will instead address myself to what I gather to be the more general reaction to the article—viz., that it was out of touch with Franciscan University, where no one advocates polygyny; that it was “too emotional,” and that I might have spared everybody some annoyance and myself some loss of esteem if I had “taken the trouble” to find out what St. Thomas really says on this matter, in which case I would have seen that the whole discussion was moot, since he nowhere says that polygyny is in accord with natural law.

If I can make some headway against this view of my article, I will be well satisfied.

I should begin by clearing up a point which seems to have been widely misunderstood. The students I criticized were not arguing that polygyny is morally acceptable! (If they had been, the article would have included a suggestion that they be booted—or hooted—out of Catholic academia.) Everyone in the discussion agreed it is wrong and against Church teaching. They only claimed, using St. Thomas as their authority, that it does not go against natural law. I thought the claim worth public attention because it is bound up with at least three different problems, all of which are very common in orthodox intellectual circles: 1) a bad notion of natural law; 2) a failure to give women their due; and 3) a misuse of Thomas’ writings.

The first seems to come at least in part from the ambiguity of the term “nature.” Many confuse a philosophical examination of a thing’s nature—in other words, its essence—with observations of nature in the sense we mean when we say “nature park.” For instance, I once read an article in a serious Catholic journal in which a woman wrote of trying to persuade her homosexual brother that his lifestyle is “unnatural” (i.e., immoral) by pointing out that we do not find male squirrels mating with each other. To my mind, this “argument” tells no more against homosexuality than the fact that one bull serves dozens of cows tells against monogamy. The wrongness of homosexuality comes from its being an offense against the essence and meaning of conjugal love as a personal self-donation, not from its being out of keeping with the usual practice in the animal kingdom!1 And, personally, I find it surprising that any human being can bear to have his sexual morality likened to that of squirrels, chickens, chimpanzees and so forth without becoming a bit “emotional” (I do not say “irrational,” which is a different thing).

The second problem is more difficult to expose. It is very subtly and very deeply entrenched. As Elizabeth Magaletta showed in the last issue, it is easy for men especially (though women cannot be entirely exempt from guilt in this area) to think that so long as they acknowledge the “equal dignity” of women in theory, they cannot be guilty of sexism2 in fact. And the excesses of the feminist movement can incline us to dismiss even its valid concerns as stemming from a rebellion against the divinely-ordained “proper place” of women in society. Thus we can become reactionaries, and prevent ourselves from seeing what the Holy Father has pointed out with such clarity and firmness: that human society has failed throughout history to give women their due, and that the time has come to repair the injustice. The first task in the reparation is to get us to acknowledge that the problem is real—something many Catholics seem strangely reluctant to do.

This is another reason why I thought it might be useful to make the polygyny discussion public: it provided striking evidence that Catholics have a long way to go before our declarations about the worth of women have made their full impact in our intellectual life and cultural habits.

The third problem (i.e., the misuse of Thomas) is similarly well-entrenched in Catholic academia, and exceedingly difficult to challenge—because it is so mixed up with praiseworthy religious sentiments. Devout students do well to look with reverence to someone so highly recommended by the Church as St. Thomas is. The difficulty only comes in when, as so often happens, he is treated as an authority in philosophical matters—not in the sense of someone to be consulted (which of course he is) but rather as someone to be obeyed. It is as if the measure of our worth as thinkers were the extent to which we acquiesce in whatever St. Thomas has said.

Again, I thought the polygyny discussion a good opportunity to highlight this anti-intellectual tendency in Catholic schools. Here you had graduate students claiming the authority of Thomas for a patently bad idea, and putting religious pressure on the consciences of fellow students—in effect telling them that they had to agree that polygyny was natural if they wanted to be genuinely Catholic. The readers may think the particular example too improbable to be taken seriously, but this kind of thing goes on continually in Catholic universities, our own included.

Several of my critics have proposed that I might have solved the problem by simply checking to see what Thomas actually says on the subject. But would this really have solved it? As it happened (so I heard afterwards) these students themselves later recanted their original claim. They went to the Summa, saw they had misunderstood Thomas and (to their credit) frankly acknowledged as much. But, glad as I am to hear it, I do not think it touches the more serious concern. Their change of opinion came not from having been convinced that polygyny was “unnatural,” but rather from having been convinced that they had misread Thomas. In other words, though they had made philosophical claims, they never investigated the question philosophically at all. They treated the Summa almost as if it were the Catechism, and expected others to do the same.

My argument was that the personal dignity of every woman, coupled with recent developments in our understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality, should be enough to make any Catholic shudder at the manifest “unnaturalness” of polygyny. Thomas’ view, however worthwhile in itself, was simply not directly to the point.

In sum: though I would not count the “polygamy piece” among my top ten favorite Concourse articles, and though I would not append it to my vita as an example of my best writing, neither will I allow that it was irrelevant or irrational or overblown or in any other way beneath the attention of Catholic intellectuals or the standards of the University Concourse.

Kathleen van Schaijik graduated from FUS in 1988. She edits the Concourse from Gaming, Austria.

I was going to stay out of the discussion of polygamy and “chauvinism,” since my objection was philological rather than philosophical. But, buoyed by the reflection that Nietzsche, too, was a philologist (making me guilty by association), and by the fact that the misuse of the word “chauvinist” was repeated for the third issue in a row in the October 2 Concourse, I will ply my trade as etymologist.

It is quite likely that the feminist skewing of the word from its original meaning will stand, and that its original meaning is already an archaism (as are Nietzsche and I). Nicolas Chauvin, when the word was first coined from his name, was himself an anachronism. He had served under Napoleon in those devastating wars of the early nineteenth century, receiving seventeen wounds. When French sentiment turned against Napoleon later in the century, Chauvin refused to acknowledge any flaws in the emperor, becoming a bit of a laughingstock for his extreme (and misplaced) patriotism. Chauvinisme, then, referred to Nick’s type of exaggerated devotion to one’s own regime.

Applying it to male supremacists in the term “male chauvinist” was actually, I think, a stroke of brilliance. But soon people who used the term forgot that it was essentially an analogy, and began using “chauvinist” as if it were a synonym for “sexist.”

As for the other philological issue, name-calling versus using the right name, I am reminded of the story about the nun who refused to do pastoral work near a construction site where she heard foul language. Father Murphy pleaded that these were simple men of the earth who just called a spade a spade. “Oh, no, Father,” Sister objected, “they don’t call it a spade. They call it a [supply your favorite expletive] shovel!”

John R. Holmes, Dr. Holmes is an Associate Professor of English at FUS.