Reality is Superior to the Idea

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Gaetano Piccolo, SJ

 Gaetano Piccolo, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:14 October 2017/Last Updated Date:24 July 2020

Pope Francis and the primacy of reality

When speaking of evangelization in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis addresses the topics of the common good and social peace (EG 217-237). He speaks of four principles in this regard: time is greater than space (222-225), unity prevails over conflict (226-230), realities are more important than ideas (231-233), and the whole is greater than the part (234-237).[1] He returns to the third principle in Laudato Si’ (LS), where he invites us to confront the ecological crisis by thinking about the common good and pursuing the path of dialogue (LS 201).

His insistence on the crucial importance of the real world in protecting us from isolation in the heady world of ideas is also extremely relevant to and present in contemporary philosophical debates. In various cultural contexts – not only in Europe but also in the United States and Australia – there is talk of a “new realism” and even of a return to metaphysics.[2]

So it is easy to imagine that there is a convergence between the debate stirred up by Francis’ words and contemporary philosophical discussions. This should come as no surprise, since it was precisely the Catholic philosophical tradition, whose most recent proponents belonged to the Neo-Scholastic circles of the early 20th century, that upheld the primacy of reality, seemingly without great success judging from the anti-metaphysical turn in philosophy during that century.

It therefore seems extremely timely that Pope Francis has recovered the core of a debate dear to the philosophical tradition, reinserting it into modern-day cultural discussions and pointing out its ethical implications.

Above all, Evangelii Gaudium warns us of the risk of separating reality from ideas by retreating into words, images and sophistry. Pope Francis’ assertion that reality simply is, whereas ideas are elaborations, seems to focus on the contemporary debate in which a return to realism, especially in the European context, is framed as an accusation against the tendency in philosophy to make conceptual elaboration an absolute: the world, Richard Rorty asserted, simply does not exist, nor can we think that our language and thought reflect reality.[3]

If, therefore, reality is superior to the idea, human projects cannot be merely formal, nor fantastical, nor ideological, nor anti-historical. Ideas separated from reality are prone to manipulation, that is, to masking reality so that one can achieve one’s own ends, as Plato reminds us in the Gorgias.[4] When separated from reality, an idea works like cosmetics, hiding the true face of a person. A real body, Plato suggests, is kept in shape through physical exercise. Otherwise, it will possess only a fake beauty through the use of cosmetics. In other words, an idea is sometimes aimed at manipulating reality, or showing it off with fascinating descriptions and persuasive arguments, but in the end they end up artificial and detached. Our reasoning can also be logical and clear, but this does not mean that our concepts will always engage with or change reality. Politics is constantly exposed to this risk.

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