Antonio Cua and Ethical Argumentation

January 1, 2018

In 1984 a course on Aristotelian/Thomistic Metaphysics was not to be found in the catalog of The Catholic University of America.

Students got a smattering of The Philosopher and The Angelic Doctor in the required Philosophy 101. There was a good course on the Existence of God, good in that it was not called "The Problem of God," as if God were a problem. Unlike many Philosophy courses on God, it did not lead 20-year-olds to conclude that God does not exist. Rather it explored the methods of proving that there is a God (Ps 14:1).

There was also a nice Epistemology (study of Knowledge) class taught by a professor whose name I've forgotten but who wore brown pants to every meeting. The venerable Msgr. Robert Paul Mohan taught Ethics and probably saved many a Business major's soul (Jury out on Susan Sarandon until Judgment). However for those like me who wanted to delve deeply into Aristotelian and Thomistic Metaphysics, there was nothing. The only "Metaphysics" was taught by Paul Weiss, a spry little Jewish man born in 1901 New York. Logic and Fallacy were touched upon in Ethical Argumentation taught by Confucian Antonio Cua.

How did it come to pass that America's official Catholic university (which CUA, not Notre Dame, is), an institution instigated by the pope of the Thomistic Revival, Leo XIII, served as side dishes the church's long-favored philosophers while promoting Twelve-Tribesmen and heathen to top chefs?

Some boilerplate history

Beginning in the 1960s, parties with their own agendas of change used the occasion of The Second Vatican Council to sell many Catholics on the idea that what had been used in the church for centuries had to be abandoned for or otherwise diluted with new stuff.

Along with a fear -- unfounded, as it turned out -- that they would be ineligible for federal student money, the esprit of makeover inspired Catholic colleges and universities to divest themselves of their Catholic identity. They literally locked it in storerooms or discarded it altogether. They were further ambitious to be like the "[poison] Ivies."

Whiff of ivy

Catholic U. never vandalized its identity as extensively as Georgetown or Notre Dame did, but it followed the trend a bit. Paul Weiss was just the sort of faculty member to fill the halls of Caldwell and McMahon with a whiff of ivy. Weiss had taught at Yale back in the days of William F. Buckley's enrollment. The old man, who continued his career at CUA into his 90s and lived to be 101, had the advantage of "looking like" a philosopher, just as the Dalai Lama or Francis the Talking Pope look like holy men (Of the two, DL is more adept). Weiss's Metaphysics was typical modern stuff, thinking about thinking and trying to figure out how where the subject ends and the object begins.

To further prove that modern Catholic universities aren't intellectually incestuous, CUA hired Confucian Antonio Cua. However Cua was a real philosopher. Of a Chinese Philippino family, he spent his career exploring the points at which Eastern and Western philosophies intersect.

I took Dr. Cua's class in the then-unrestored, gloomy McMahon Hall, built 1890, with its attic still housing an aboriginal messenger-pigeon coop, its few graces covered over with firewall, its main foyer haunted by a life-sized statue of Pope Leo XIII. President Theodore Roosevelt rode uptown on horseback to admire this just after it was installed.

Having a name that matched the university's initials (CUA), Dr. Cua and the university experienced no end of mix-ups with the mail. A linguistic quirk of the doctor was pronouncing the short "o" ("ah") like the short "u" ("uh"). This had a comic effect when the professor talked about Immanuel Kant, as in "How many of you have had Kant?"

Dr. Cua's book was Ethical Argumentation: a Study in Hsun Tzu's Moral Epistemology.(1) Hsun Tzu was how Dr. Cua spelled the name of the 3rd-century B.C. Confucian philosopher, but his name seems to be more commonly known as Xunzi or Xun Kuang.

Aristotle, Hsun Tzu's more ancient (by 100 years) predecessor in the west, was concerned primarily with formal logic, such things as syllogisms and the opposition of propositions as described in the books of the Athenian's Organon. The problem with formal logic is that arguments can be formally logical, but materially untrue if the propositions are untrue. All animals have five legs. Unicorns are animals. Therefore unicorns have five legs.

Formal logic is also deadly dull. It can kill one's interest in Philosophy if professors spend too much time on it. It's possible that excessive focus on formal logic, rather than critical logic, assessing the truth of things, is the reason that some Theology students were turned off by Thomism in the mid-20th-century. I'm glad the diagramming was back-burnered for a bit of Confucianism.

Hsun Tsu emphasized the ethics of argumentation. He believed that argumentation is a method of addressing a matter of common concern, of working out a solution to a problem. Argument is not a contest or an exhibition of skills. As Unknown agreed, "Argument sheds light, not heat." Hsun Tsu's ideal leads one to recall the citizens of Greek city states (at their best) debating a problem or a 1950s Civics textbook describing how the will of the people smoothly becomes law and how everyone should be thankful that they live in a society where all viewpoints are heard in open and respectful debate.

According to Hsun Tzu, how one engages in argument reveals one's character. Contentiousness indicates a lack of concern for the problem. Isn't that true? The University of Lublin (Poland) philsophers, including Fr. Karol Wojtyla (Now Pope St. John Paul II) were interested in the behavioral implications of beliefs. Ideas have behavioral consequences. Hsun Tzu looked at the problem a posteriori: behavior has ideological causes.

The bottom line of ethical argumentation is: If someone is not in the true spirit of argument, if someone is misusing argumentation for selfish purposes or a desire for power, you don't have to argue with him.

Pope Leo XIII, McMahon Hall

"...[McMahon Hall's] main foyer haunted by a life-sized statue of Pope Leo XIII."

Hsun Tsu was greatly concerned with what he called "rectification of terms," getting the meanings of terms right. The best-known Western approach to this was classifying terms as univocal, equivocal, analogous, fixed, vague, singular, universal, particular, collective and on and on depending on which Logic book one reads.

Yes, varying understanding of terms is often a problem in communicating about an issue. Some examples from contemporary life: What does a church mean by "welcoming"? Does it mean welcoming people with the hope that they will work on their sins or does "welcoming" mean encouraging and even celebrating the sins? What about the term "justice"? Does it mean giving everyone his due or giving everyone what he thinks is his due which, in some cases, means anything he wants.

Hsun Tsu attached so much importance to unanimous understanding of terms that he advocated government control of term-meanings just as Plato proposed regulation of storytelling.

The sorry state of civil discourse these days has me thinking of Ethical Argumentation and Dr. Cua inspiring smirks with his malaprops. The problem with such nostalgia is that discourse has seldom been civil while Man has walked the earth, while there has been power to be grabbed and while there have been manipulable dimwits useful for grabbing it.

Indeed in his book, Dr. Cua touches on a bit of intriguing ancient Chinese history noting that Confucius developed the ethic of rectifying terms in response to an "anarchical condition of his time."(2) Hsun Tzu was also "harassed by disordered times and constrained by severe circumstances.... The men of [benevolence, humanity] were removed from office and restrained, and the whole country was in utter darkness....The wise were not given the opportunity for reflection, the able were not given the chance to rule well, and the worthy could not find employment [Sounds like my life!]."(2) It appears that Hsun Tzu was afraid for his life and put on an act of being crazy and stupid to survive.

Discourse wasn't civil when Aristotle dictated his Organon in the 4th-century B.C., the heyday of Athens' professional liars, the Sophists. Discourse wasn't civil as the catalog of ad-fallacies lengthened throughout the second millenium.

Ad "Fallacies"

Speaking of "ad" fallacies and the sorry state of civil discourse, today's preferred ad-fallacies are six that Celestine Bittle (3) categorizes under Ignoring the Issue. They are -- and you will recognize that they overlap each other:

Argumentum ad populum: Appeal to the prejudices and passions of a populace.

Argumentum ad baculum: Threat of dire consequences if a certain course or policy is not followed.

Argumentum ad verecundiam: The "truth" is that which "intelligent," "rational," people-who-are-not-fascist-monsters believe. A common flavor of this is what I would call in guessed-at Latin, "Argumentum ad derrisionem",(?) argument by sneering (See Argumentum ad hominem below).

Argumentum ad misericordiam: Useful on a) people who feel sorry for every whiner, especially the whiner they have most recently heard whining or b) those ambitious to outdo God in being merciful.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam: People who know nothing can be persuaded of anything.

Argumentum ad hominem: The depiction of an opponent as one unworthy to make the argument he is making i.e., "You're a man. Shut up."

My generation and a few before it were born in a time when discourse was perhaps uncommonly civil. There were no reports of one Congressman beating another close to death with a cane in the U.S. Capitol. We lived in the century between the era when debate was distorted by the evil of slavery and our current era when debate is distorted by the evil of abortion. For the most part during that 100-or-so years the public, generally more religious than it is now, insisted on standards of respectability and decency. Surprise, surprise: respectable and decent people behave decently in civil discourse.

Americans in that era of tolerance also fought for freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, and launched hot and cold wars against tyrants who behaved in manners that many American college students advocate and act out today. Tomorrow they will make tyranny public policy

Is Hsun Tzu's ethical argumentation useful for restoring civil discourse? It and other good Philosophy are useful if your manner of restoring civil discourse is rearing up rational, ethical people from birth. And if you really want to build a society that maximizes human potential and saving souls, breeding them from birth is the way to go. As for rescuing the irrational: no. Reason doesn't work on irrational (that is, emotion-ruled, double-thinking ("Love is hate"), insane people who think that the car will function properly if you put sugar, or whatever you want, in the gas tank, or whatever you want to put wherever you want.

Most likely civil discourse will be restored by another civil war.


(1) Cua, A.S., Ethical Argumentation: A Study of Hsun Tzu's Moral Epistemology, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1985, 232 pp.

(2) Id., p. 102.

(3) Bittle, O.F.M.Cap., Celestine, The Science of Correct Thinking: Logic, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, Wisc, 1935, pp. 373-376.

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