Chasing After Unicorns


Chasing After Unicorns
By Dcn. Peter Trahan, M.A.Th

So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God . . . We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written:
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (1 Cor 2:5-10)

Fr. James V. Schall, in many of his writings reminds us that “Reality, what is, rules our minds.”[1] What he means by this is that, as rational creatures created in the image and likeness of God, we have the ability to ponder what is, to consider reality. This actually, by extension, is philosophy, and supplemented by Divine Revelation it becomes theology. The problem with the rational mind, the human rational mind, is imagination. That is to say, we can use our reality-seeking-mind, to imagine things that are not. In one form imagination is creative and leads to discovery of things that are, that were not known to be; on the other hand the same human rational mind, using its imagination, can and does conceptualize things that are not and were never meant to be; yet it seems that these thoughts of what might be are more intriguing to the human mind than those that could be or that are. A classic example is the thought of a unicorn. The creature of legend, poetry, and fantasy; and each time science “discovers” a deformed creature with a bone protruding from its head, the “joy-of-unicorns-being-real” is rekindled in the hearts and minds of those who seek the transcendent but reject truth and reality.

The imaginative faculty of human reason resides in the union of intellect (seeking truth) and will (seeking the good.) The human imagination, like all of the faculties of the soul, is there for the good of human thought. To see the difference between mere flights of fantasy and authentic development of truth is not to distinguish creative fiction from philosophical speculation, which would eliminate all of literature; rather the distinction is that line of thought that is grounded in truth and builds truth upon truth, in opposition to that line of thought that develops concepts and images that have no relation to truth and reality. In fact, to emphasize this point, we can begin the distinction with the realm of fiction itself. Ernest Hemingway, on writing, once said, “good fiction must be true;” and to overcome writer’s block he said, “just begin by writing one true sentence.” What this means is that fiction and truth are not two opposing realms. Even in the genre of fantasy writing there can be seen the distinction of truth and non-truth, which the distinction that we are seeking in this essay.

For this initial exercise I would propose a brief comparison of two great fantasy classics, Peter Pan and the hobbit adventures of The Lord of the Rings. In both stories we find creatures of fantasy, creatures that do and do not exist, humans, horses, birds, fairies, dwarfs, elves, dragons, hobbits, wizards, etc. In the classic Lord of the Rings, the creatures, imaginative or realistic, do what it is their nature to do. They live and act in the stories according to what they are, even if it is the writer who created their nature. In other words, dwarves, do and act as dwarves; elves as elves, men as men, dragons as dragons, and hobbits as hobbits. In the story of Peter Pan however, the boy and other children fly! They not only fly, but they fly across the universe to, not another planet, but to “Never-Never Land,” making even the universe itself “act” against its nature. In the hobbit stories, even though the hobbits ride on the backs of giant eagles, it is the eagles that fly not the hobbits. The adventure of travel, so critical to both stories, on the one hand is real and true, walking or riding horses across vast expanses of land to distant locations, as opposed to humans flying merely by the “will of the mind.”

The distinction between truth and non-truth, even in fiction, is a distinction between, what is, and what is not. What is true in great fiction is the human condition and the condition in which humans live. Not, on the other hand, what humans want to be nor an environment in which they want to be in. In the hobbit stories for instance, we find that there is a challenge of good and evil within each creature as well as in the environment of “middle earth.” It is the challenge to avoid or prevent evil and to do and promote good; and the challenge is attempted and accomplished within the realities of what is, not by changing what is into something else. Again acknowledging that dragons do not exist, in the story of the hobbit adventure, the dragon represents evil, it is conquered, not by turning it into a butterfly, but by confronting it and killing it as it as it is. In the story of Peter Pan, it is all about changing realities, even as those new realities contain the same good and evil. Escape is the first motivation, not the triumph of good.

The human being, created by God of a rational nature, has an intrinsic desire for truth, beauty and good. This seeking of truth formulates what is called “the great questions.” Questions of man, God, and the world. “Who are we (who am I?”); “Where did we come from?”, “What is our place in the cosmos (what is our purpose in this existence?”); and “Where are we going (do we have a destiny or is this all there is?”) These are the great questions, but they manifest themselves either in speculative truth, or in creative non-truth. Regarding creative non-truth, on the one hand there are flights of fantasy and a search for unicorns in an imaginative transcendence, untethered with no moorings to the ground of truth; on the other hand the search is scientific and of material reality, bracketing off transcendent truth and therefore limiting itself, building a wall between the seekers (scientists) and that which they are seeking. As editor of a collection of essays entitled The Vocation of the Catholic Philosopher, in the Introduction John Hittinger says this of the great questions… “What is needed is an attention to the very intrinsic order of human intelligence, not an indiscriminate mixing together of science, poetry, and philosophy.”[2] Untethered creative thinking begins with “what if this is true;” whereas “attention to the very intrinsic order of human intelligence,” begins by saying, “since this is true, then . . .” The latter builds truth from truth based on speculative thinking, the former creates a non-reality based merely on imaginative thinking.

In the age and culture we live in today, the search for what the human heart desires has been disconnected from the reality of the way things are; it has been disconnected from reason. In the decades of encouraging our youth to experiment, to be who you want to be, we have disconnected the search from the thing itself. If we are to search for who we are, that means that we are and our search is to discover who we are, not to invent our self. Chasing after an imaginative self of our own notion is the same as chasing after unicorns. The chase after unicorns is a substitution for a chase after God and answers to the great questions. Even if unknown, that which is, is and is what it is because of God’s intentionality. The thought of a unicorn in the creative rational mind of a human being, does not make a unicorn real. The thought of a unicorn in the mind of God and within His will, would make a unicorn real, but it is not God’s intent that there be unicorns, therefore there are no unicorns. This is not to say that God never thought of unicorns, if a human can think of unicorns, why restrict God’s imagination; no we have to allow that God’s wisdom is infinite and eternal, yet at the same time we have to allow that within God’s wisdom is his intentionality. Furthermore, that which comes into being through God’s intentionality is what it is, as it is. This calls to mind the age old question that school yard atheists ask, “can God make a square circle.” Initially we stammer for an answer; “well eh, I guess God can do anything?” Surprisingly, this is the wrong answer. We may, on second thought, say “God could have . . ., but He didn’t;” and this would be closer to a correct answer.
In acknowledging that things are, the way God intends them to be, we can simply say, this is not that.  In speculative thought, therefore, we can also say, these things are, and these things are not.  What we are considering here, is what St. Thomas Aquinas refers to as Eternal Law. In Thomas’ explanation of Eternal Law, we find two perspectives, that things are the way they are because God intended them to be that way and with a purpose, and that things are because God intended them to be. Here’s St. Thomas’ explanation:

A law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community. Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since the Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Prov. 8:23, therefore it is that this kind of law must be called eternal.[3]

[Furthermore] in every artificer there pre-exists a type of the things that are made by his art,   . . . and the type of the things yet to be made by an art is called the exemplar of the products of that art . . . Now God, by His wisdom, is the Creator of all things in relation to which He stands as the artificer to the products of his art.   . . . Wherefore as the type of the Divine Wisdom, inasmuch as by It all things are created, has the character of exemplar or idea; so [also] the type of Divine Wisdom [exemplar of all things created by It and giving it purpose], is moving all things to their due end, [it therefore] bears the character of law.[4]

In the first excerpt we find Divine Providence (God’s will and acquiescence) and Divine Reason (reasonableness), together are the actualization and governance of all that is. In the second excerpt we find that, of all things that are, first are of a type existing in the maker, prior to the thing being made. Looking at this excerpt carefully then, we see that God is the maker (artificer) and Divine Wisdom, “through whom all things are made,” is the type of which all things are.

Thomas gives us the answer to what seems to be a limitation on God. Can God make a square circle, No. Because in Divine Wisdom a square is identifiable by certain characteristics (of a type,) without which, or if altered, would be rendered not a square. To make a square-circle would be to make a non-reality. This is called the principle of non-contradiction, x cannot be n-x.
A square is not a circle, therefore a square cannot be a circle. To say “no” to the question of “can God make a square-circle, is also to say “no” to the statement that “God can do anything.” In short, God is truth and reality itself, therefore God cannot contradict Himself. He cannot deny Himself. (2 Tim 2:13)

So, no boys and girls, there is no such thing as unicorns, but keep searching for what your hearts’ desire. But by coming back to reality and the ground of truth your imagination will lead you to things “that the eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”



[2] John P. Hittinger, ed., 2010, The Vocation of the Catholic Philosopher: From Maritain to John Paul II, American Maritain Association, p xiii.

[3] cf. ST I-II.Q91.a1

[4] cf. ST I-II.Q93.a1