Disclaimers in Aquinas's Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics?
Christopher Kaczor, Loyola Marymount University
Thomas Aquinas's commentaries on Aristotle, in particular the Ethics commentary, inspire radically different evaluations. For example, according to Paul Shorey,(1) the Sententia libri ethicorum remains, more than 700 years after its first appearance, the most useful commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics ever written. For René Antoine Gauthier, the editor of the Leonine edition of Sententia libri ethicorum, the same work cannot be considered even the best medieval commentary on the Ethics and distorts Aristotle so much that it hinders rather than helps the contemporary reader.(2) Scholars have also debated the purpose for which the Sententia libri ethiocorum was written. Did Thomas undertake the commentary as a textbook for Domincans studying philosophy? Was he laying a moral framework so as to introduce thirteenth century students to the more technical Summa? Did he write the Commentary on the Ethics as personal notes in preparation for writing the moral part of the Summa? What does this commentary say about the relationship of faith and reason for Thomas? Is the Sententia libri ethicorum Thomas's moral philosophy or is it really a theological work? What is the relationship between the Commentary on the Ethics and Thomas's other works treating ethical matters?
Although many interesting questions face the contemporary reader when considering the Sententia libri ethicorum, in this article I would like to consider not the value of the commentary as a reading of Aristotle, nor even the purpose for which it was written, but rather whether the Commentary on the Ethics should be considered merely as an exposition of Thomas's understanding of Aristotle or whether the commentary reflects Thomas's own thought as well. In other words, does the Sententia libri ethicorum represent not only Thomas's interpretation of Aristotle, but also, with some qualifications, his own views on the topics treated? Or does the Commentary only present Thomas's understanding of Aristotle so that one could not responsibly cite the Commentary in reconstructing Aquinas's understanding of various matters?
This issue is particularly germain to the questions addressed in this Thomistic institute considering Aquinas on nature. In considering the question of how nature, in particular human nature, relates to ethics, one can perhaps find no richer resource than Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, the Ethics Commentary, in addition to Thomas's other commentaries on Aristotle, especially the commentaries on the Physics, Metaphysics, and De anima, constitute an indespensible treasure for understanding Aquinas on nature--or do they? For Mark D. Jordan, as well as others, these commentaries are mere summaries and expositions of Aristotle, and so it would be unhelpful, indeed irresponsible, to cite these commentaries as if they represented Thomas's own view or in order to better understand Thomas's own view about natural philosophy or indeed anything else.
In this paper, first, I will present six of the considerations given by Jordan in support of the view that the Thomas's Sententia libri ethicorum does not represent Aquinas's own views but is merely an attempt to interpret Aristotle. Secondly, I will bring forward some reasons for believing that Thomas in his commentaries on Aristotle does more than mere exegisis and so it would not in fact be irresponsible to read these commentaries in order to come to a better understanding of Thomas, even though it is admitted that Aquinas's views presented in the Aristotelian commentaries might sometimes (though certainly not always) be more fully be presented elsewhere. Finally, I will answer the objections brought forward.
Jordan has argued in a series of articles that Aquinas cannot be "burdened with" the views expressed in the Aristotelian commentaries, and in particular with those in the Commentary on the Ethics. He argues that there are at least six distinct ways in which Thomas notifies his readers that the views of Aristotle are not his own within the text of the commentary itself. By means of these, Thomas marks his distance from the thought of Aristotle just as surely as did Albert. "Together," says Jordan, "they show how Thomas stands as a literal expositor of Aristotle. If there are no disclaimers in Thomas after the manner of Albert's blunt reminders, there are many signs that Thomas is not to be confused with Aristotle--even with Aristotle read well."(3) What are these signs?
According to Jordan, first, in a number of places Thomas explicitly disagrees with Aristotle. Second, Aquinas supplements Aristotle. Third, Thomas insists upon the limited scope of Aristotelian inquiry. Fourth, the Aquinas notes the rhetorical limitations under which Aristotle labors. Fifth, in the Summa theologiae Thomas repudiates the order of exposition adopted by Aristotle in the Ethics indicating the limits of a pagan pedogogy. Sixth and last, the opinions expressed in any commentary cannot generally be taken to be the commentator's own. In Jordan's view, these six indications create a distance between Thomas's own judgments and the views expressed in the Sententia libri ethicorum.
Concerning the first category, Jordan writes: "Thomas distances himself from the Aristotelian doctrine most obviously when he disagrees with it."(4) Thomas corrects Aristotle at various points in the Commentary on the Ethics. For instance, Thomas indicates his disapproval at Aristotle's mention of offering sacrifices: "Here the Philosopher speaks according to the habit of the Gentiles, which the truth having been made manisfest is not abrogated, hence if someone now were to make expenditures for a demonic cult, he would not be magnificent but sacrilegious."(5) Thomas is clearly noting that the cult of worship described by Aristotle is unfit for Christians who must offer worship to God alone. Jordan notes many other examples where Thomas "corrects" Aristotle according to Christian truth:
[Thomas] notes, against the apparent sense of the Aristotelian text, that virginity cannot be seen as an extreme beyond the virtuous mean.(6) He records that the ancients allowed marriages to be dissolved because of sterility,(7) that they posited semi-divinities known as daemons,(8) that they deified heroes.(9) Throughout the text, Thomas remarks that Aristotle speaks "more gentium" in calling the separate substances or planetary bodies "gods".(10)
Clearly, Thomas at times corrects what he takes to be mistakes on Aristotle's part or at least mistakes that could arise from possible readings of the text, such as the text which considers whether virginity could be a mean.
Secondly, Jordan argues that Thomas distances himself from Aristotle when he supplements the text with linguistic and doctrinal additions. Latin etymologies and technical terms are among the linguistic additions,(11) and "Thomas often enough notes a lacuna in Aristotle and then proceeds to fill it."(12) Thomas adds technical terms and Latin etymologies to help make sense of Aristotle's text and to show the insufficiency of the doctrine there advocated. According to Jordan, Thomas also shows his distance from Aristotle in this second way by the many additions which fill gaps in the text of the Ethics. Aristotle writes: "Whether opinion should be said to precede choice or to follow it, does not matter, for we do not intend to determine this but whether choice is identical with particular opinion."(13) Thomas notes: "Nevertheless, we must know that opinion, since it pertains to the faculty of knowledge, strictly speaking, precedes choice pertaining to the appetitive faculty, which is moved by the cognoscitive power."(14) Another place in which Thomas fills a lacuna arises from this passage in the Nicomachean Ethics: "Like fear, shame is brought about by reason of danger, for people who feel ashamed blush, and those who fear death grow pale. Both qualities are in some measure modifications of the body, and so pertain rather to passion than to habit."(15) In commenting on this passage, Thomas talks about the humors and spirits which accompany certain emotions, like honor and confusion.(16) Thomas adds to the text of Aristotle both linguistic and doctrinal additions thereby showing the inadequacy of the Nicomachean Ethics.
According to Jordan, "A third way in which Thomas marks his distance is the insistence upon the limited scope of an Aristotelian inquiry. ... Thomas reiterates, for example, that the Ethics is concerned only with the happiness of the present life."(17) Thomas says elsewhere that Aristotle does not concern himself with the question of the operation of the mind following death. Aristotle's approach is limited by its aims and its pagan author.
Consideration of audience leads Jordan to add another way in which Thomas alerts the attentive reader not to mistake an expositio on Aristotle for his own views. "A fourth way of marking distance emphasizes the particular rhetorical limitations under which Aristotle labors. As Thomas sees plainly, Aristotle needed to teach a particular audience. The audience held certain beliefs that Aristotle appropriates for dialectical purposes, even if erroneous."(18)
Fifth, Jordan claims that the Sententia libri ethicorum is merely a commentary because he believes there are explicit contradictions between what Thomas writes in his Ethics commentary and what he writes in works indisputably and in every way his own, such as the Summa. Although several authors have argued for tensions, if not contradictions, between Aristotle's pagan ethic and Thomas's Christian ethic, I will address only one such tension. The alleged contradiction mentioned by Jordan is that in the Summa Aquinas rejects Aristotle's way of ordering the moral life.(19) Jordan offers a series of contrasts between the order of the Ethics and the Summa theologiae:
First, Thomas separates the definitions of virtue and other principles or elements much more strictly from the treatment of particular virtues. Thomas insists … on the sufficiency of the four cardinal virtues as a comprehensive organization of all moral virtue. … Third, Aristotle's separate treatment of the intellectual virtues is surpressed by Thomas. … Thomas regards his revision of the order of the Ethics as an improvement in clarity and comprehensiveness.(20)
Thomas's own dissatisfaction with the lack of organization present in the summae and Sentences commentaries of the time extended also to the Ethics. For many scholars, this restructuring of the presentation of Christian wisdom constitutes one of Thomas's greatest achievements--a scientific organization of the patristic patrimony. Aquinas certainly took the structure he found in other authors, including Biblical writers, Boethius, Ps. Dionysius, and Aristotle quite seriously, lending plausibility to the idea that we too should not ignore how Thomas structured his account of the moral life. Hence, that the organization of Thomas's account of the moral life as treated in the Summa differs in order of presentation from how the same elements are treated in the Sententia libri ethicorum indicates that the Commentary cannot be considered as truly representative of Thomas's own thought.
The final way of indicating the distance between Aristotle and Thomas is to note that, generally, a commentator cannot be said to appropriate as his own all of the views expressed in a commentary. "The genre of literal exposition just by itself constitutes a kind of disclaimer. It need not suggest that the commentator disavows what is taught in the underlying text, but it does suggest that additional warrant will be required for attributing what is taught to the commentator. … The expositor of a text cannot in general be taxed with the views being expounded."(21) We don't, for example, suppose Stanley Rosen believes all the assertions made by the various symposiasts as explicated in his commentary on Plato's Symposium or that contemporary Johannine scholars themselves believe in what is found in the Gospel of John. Put another way, Thomas has adopted a genre which indicates that not his own view of the matters but only Aristotle's will be discussed.
A Response: Literal Exposition Reconsidered
Jordan rightly locates Thomas's commentaries on Aristotle, and therefore the Commentary on the Ethics, within the genre of literal exposition. However, unlike contemporary philosophers or Scriptural exegetes, medieval authors did not typically differentiate exegetical, interpretative, or commentative work from creative, original, or personal work. They believed that a work of literal exposition could be both faithful exegetically and representative of the author's personal views. In fact, so widespread was this assumption in the middle ages that M.-D. Chenu argued that medieval commentaries represent the view of the commentator unless otherwise indicated.(22) In the words of Joseph Owens, "[T]he medieval mind experienced no difficulty in seeing an author express as his own material taken nearly one hundred percent from other authors. Peter Lombard, for instance, could be regarded as the author of everything in his four books of the Sentences, even though practically all the material was taken from others. As long as the writer was asserting mastery over material used and was organizing and directing it to his own purpose, he was expressing it as his own."(23) Obvious examples of such work include medieval commentaries on Scripture which sought fidelity in exegisis but did not exclude a personal adherence to that which was written in the commentary.
Of course, a fundamental difference between the Scripture commentaries and the Aristotelian commentaries is that Thomas says elsewhere that he accepts as true all that is written in Scripture, but nowhere does he say the same thing about Aristotle. In fact, he says that while Scripture is the highest and most direct authority theologically speaking, philosophical authority is only probable and indirect.(24) However, while not the highest authority in theology, philosophical authority still remains an authority. In the Summa, Aristotle is one of his most frequently cited sources, along with Scripture and Augustine. Amazingly, although Thomas's duties as master of theology necessitated commenting on Scripture and did not require commenting on Aristotle, more than 13% of Thomas's entire literary corpus is devoted to commentaries on Aristotle, almost the exact percentage Thomas devoted to commentaries on Scripture.(25)
That Aquinas made special time for this superrogatory task might be partially explained by the Averroist controversy, a controversy that presupposed that through commentaries one made not merely historical claims but also philosophical claims reflecting the views of both the author of the commentary and, at least allegedly, the author of the original work. Aquinas refers to commentaries by Averroes on Aristotle as if what Averroes had written in these commentaries represented Averroes's own view in addition to an Averroist understanding of Aristotle. He will write: "Averroes dicit" and then make reference to a commentary by Averroes.(26) Many scholars, including Jordan, believe that Thomas patterned his genre of Aristotelian commentary either directly or indirectly, through the Arts faculty, after the 'great commentary' style of Averroes.(27) If Thomas does truly adopt the Averroistic sententia style of commentary as opposed to one of the other possible genres of commentary (paraphrasis, commentarium medium, abbreviatio, summa, commentary with questions, tabula, concordatia), and if Aquinas thought that in this style of commentary Averroes put forth not just his views of Aristotle but the views of Averroes as well, then Aquinas would seem to indicate by choice of genre that his own views are to be found in the commentaries on Aristotle. A similar point could be made with respect to how Thomas handles other commentators on Aristotle. For instance, Aquinas writes as if views presented in Themistius's commentary on the De anima represented Themistius's own views.(28) "From the foregoing words of Themistius, it is clear that he not only holds that the possible intellect is a part of the human soul but the agent as well, and he says that Aristotle taught this."(29) It would seem that Thomas's working assumption when dealing with commentaries on Aristotle is to treat the views asserted as respresenting those of the commentators. A contemporary scholar citing Aquinas's commentaries on Aristotle as if they represented his own views would thus be imitating the very example of Thomas.
In the Sententia de caelo et mundo, Thomas seems to clarify that his own interest in the investigation of pagan texts is motivated primarily by the search for wisdom rather than a desire merely to understand ancient views. Certain people, Thomas notes, believe that the ancient philosophers and poets ought not to be read according to the plain sense of the text, but rather in an allegorical way since these ancient writers concealed what they were saying in fables and enigmatic sayings. Some however reject this procedure and wish to interpret the ancients according to the more exterior sense of their words. If we adopt the first view, then Thomas argues that Aristotle does not contradict the sense of Plato and other ancient thinkers, but only their words. If we adopt Alexander's position, then Aristotle objects to both the sense and the words of these philosophers and poets. "Whatever of these is correct, we ought not to care a great deal: since the study of philosophy is not for the sake of knowing what people have said but to attain to the truth."(30) If it is supposed that the Aristotelian commentaries were meant to be part of the study of philosophy for students preparing for theology or even as personal philosophical prepartation in writing the Summa, then it is rather implausible to claim that Thomas wrote them merely to get the sense of Aristotle's text, since a proper understanding of the text does not fulfill the "sapiential task" as Gauthier might say.
This task means that Thomas cannot be understood as operating in the Sententia libri ethicorum in the role of intellectual historian. Sections of the commentary are undoubtedly Thomas's own and go well beyond an interpretation of the Aristotle. For example, Thomas's lengthy preface to the Nicomachean Ethics suggests four ways in which reason can relate to order, namely reason contemplating order (metaphysics and natural philosophy), reason introducing order into its own reflection (logic), reason introducing order into the will (moral philosophy), and reason introducing order into exerior matter (mechanical arts). This preface contextualizes the Ethics within the compass of the overall scope of philosophy. Joseph Owens notes a similar strategy in Thomas's preface to the Commentary on the Metaphysics. "The assembling of so many roving tenets under the one unifying principle shows a thorough mastery of the philosophical materials, and an innate ability to organize them successfully from a new and personal viewpoint. It marks Aquinas himself as the 'author' of the work about to be undertaken, in the medieval sense of the auctor. He is the one who will be doing the thinking and passing the judgments and presenting the work as his own, no matter how liberally he is drawing upon someone else for material, help, and inspiration."(31)
If even material taken wholesale from others is to be regarded as the collator's own, such as Lombard's Sentences, from this perspective how much more is a text the author's own when much is added to the original work? One finds in the Commentary on the Ethics much that moves beyond the letter of the text. Topics are sometimes treated which move beyond Aristotle or treat Aristotle in surprising ways. These "additions" have caused some, most famously Harry Jaffa in his book Thomism and Aristotelianism to devalue the commentary as a reading of Aristotle,(32) but they might be understood as part of an Aristotelian strategy. In the words of John Jenkins, Aquinas's principles:
required that in order to ellucidate Aristotle's text, he must both make clear Aristotle's individualistic understanding and construct, or at least suggest, the best account of the matter under discussion. In this way, Aquinas thought, he could provide expositions of Aristotle's texts which would be most useful for his readers' dialectical inquiries. Although Aquinas adapted and refined Aristotle's procedures, he was, in commenting on Aristotle, following Aristotle's example. In his gloss on Aristotle's discussion on the teachings of Anaxagoras, Aquinas explains that Anaxagoras's more subtle doctrine can be found "if … one seeks diligently [to state] clearly and manifestly what Anaxagoras 'wishes to say', i.e., what his intellect tended toward, but he was unable to express." Similarly, in the commentaries Aquinas often sought to be true to Aristotle's text by presenting not only what Aristotle understood but also what his intellect "tended toward," as Aquinas understood this by his own best lights.(33)
Whether these movements beyond the letter of Aristotle should be viewed with Jenkins as fruitful developments or with Jaffa as disasterous distortions, they do indicate that Thomas does more than merely offer an exposition of the text. The Commentary on the Ethics is not simply a commentary; it shows Thomas's own exploration of the issues at hand.
In this, Thomas's approach differs significantly from that of St. Albert the Great. Albert's commentary on Aristotle's De animalibus has this unmistakable disclaimer near its conclusion:
The entire work on natural things has been completed. In it I explicated the sayings of the Peripatetics as well as I could; nor should anyone be able to detect in this work what I myself believe in natural philosophy; but should anyone doubt, he should compare the things which are said in our books with the works of the Peripatetics, and then disagree or concur saying that I was interpreting and expositing those works; if however, having not read and compared, he will have critized, then it is agreed that he criticizes either from hatred or ignorance; and I do not trouble myself with the reproaches of such persons.(34)
Due to the standard medieval conception of commentary, Albert surmised his readers would assume his expositions of Aristotle represented his own thought and so regularly peppers the beginnings and conclusions of his expositions of Aristotle with such disclaimers. Since Albert did not assent to what was written in the commentaries, he makes it clear to his reader that the reader should consult Albert's own works to find out his personal views.
Commenting on Aristotle during a time in which the place of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was hotly contested in the University of Paris by such an eminent magister as Bonaventure, Thomas makes no disclaimers of Albert's kind either at the beginning or end of his commentaries on Aristotle. If Thomas cannot be taken to agree with what is asserted in the commentaries, it would seem Aquinas was being irresponsible by not indicating his intentions more clearly to his readers, as Albert did, with explicit disclaimers at the beginning or end of the commentaries. On the contrary, Thomas concludes the Commentary on the Metaphysics as well as the Commentary on the Physics with the opposite of a disclaimer, namely an affirmation of what he has written expressed by an "Amen."(35)
Response to Objections
If it seems then that we should read the commentaries on Aristotle as Aquinas's own views, how then shall we handle the first objection that Thomas occasionally corrects Aristotle? In this regard, two distinct matters ought not be confused, that is, possible misreadings of the text on the one hand and what Aquinas considers to be errors made by Aristotle on the other. The former poses no real difficulty for viewing the commentaries as Thomas's own work, since Scripture too, as Thomas points out, has been subject to numerous misinterpretations even by people with the best motivations.(36) Thus for Aquinas to admit that there are possible misreadings of Aristotle does not indicate that he does not assent to the text.
Jordan has identified passages in which Aquinas does not agree with Aristotle, but do these corrections of Aristotle indicate that we must not mistake Aristotle, even read well, for Thomas? Might not the same evidence lead to a different conclusion? One could read these qualifications or corrections simply as St. Thomas differentiating those erroneous aspects of Aristotle's work, which he rejects, from those true aspects of Aristotle's work (the vast majority of the text) which he adopts as his own.
Joseph Owens also noticed Aquinas occasionally correcting Aristotle in the Commentary on the Metaphysics as well, but in contradiction to Jordan Owens seems to draw the opposite conclusion from such corrections.
Even within the strictly philosophical explanation, however, at times the judgments are made and the decisions are given on the strength of the Thomistic metaphysics of existence. These occasions are few, comparatively, but they are concerned with philosophically important issues. They are not marked off by any indications that they are intrusions from the outside. Rather they seem part of the normal flow of thought. Do they show that the whole thrust of the commentary is to propound Thomistic thought, into which the great body of Aristotelian philosophy is skillfully absorbed?(37)
In other words, that Aquinas would occasionally note his disagreement with what Aristotle says suggests that his commentary is not merely commentary. In only seldom noting disagreement with Aristotle, Aquinas suggests a tacit concord with the uncorrected views expressed. Thus, the evidence supplied by Jordan would seem to controvert his conclusion more than support it.
Let us look for context to Thomas's commentaries on Scripture for a reply to the second objection raised, namely that the technical additions by Thomas to Aristotle mark a distance between the two. Since both were probably written circa 1271, consider in particular the Commentary on John along with the Commentary on the Ethics. Linguistic additions abound in the Lectura super Johannem. For example, Thomas considers whether the term cognitio applies to the Word of God, though the term appears nowhere in this section of the Gospel and is Thomas's technical addition.(38) He also speaks about the many senses of the word principium.(39) Further on, he treats the different senses of de, a, and ex in Latin without reference to the Greek.(40) G. Geenan, O.P., notes that Thomas: "felt duty bound to show that, as a matter of fact, these new words [not of Biblical origin] corresponded in their own way to the words of Scripture."(41) Thomas is well aware of this tradition of resorting to extra-Scriptural words to clarify the meaning of Scripture and considers himself to be acting in accord with that tradition. Geenan continues:
"Tradition" has a real place in the theology of Aquinas, since at times it is due to Tradition alone that we can arrive at an understanding of the Scriptures and that we can demonstrate that, even Scriptural texts, which at first sight and secundum litteram seem to affirm the contrary of revealed doctrine, express in fact this revealed doctrine such as it is taught by the Church.(42)
It would clearly be erroneous to claim that linguistic and technical additions to the Biblical word in Thomas's commentaries on Scripture and in his theology show that he was distancing himself from the Scripture. Thus, such additions of themselves would not seem to indicate a distancing from Aristotle. Rather, such additions are regularly used by Thomas to bring out the deeper sense of the text.
In answer to this second objection again we find similar strategies of interpretation in Thomas's Lectura super Johannem. The Johannine Gospel often poses questions that are left explicitly unanswered. For example, John 1:24-2 reads: "Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, 'Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?'" The question is not directly resolved in the text. But Thomas goes on to treat the issue himself by arguing that it is not really a question: "Their questions concerned his office of baptizing. Hence he says that they asked him, 'Why do you baptize? Here we should note that they are asking not to learn, but to obstruct."(43) Another passage from John's Gospel reads:
Now at the Feast the Jews were watching for him and asking, "Where is that man?" Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, "He is a good man." Others replied, "No, he deceives the people." But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.(44)
The emphasized sentence above is neither rhetorical nor answered directly in the text. This is similar to the cases in Aristotelian corpus where there is no resolution to a difficulty or problem or question raised in the text. Thomas fills a 'lacuna' in the text of the Gospel by noting:
Then (v. 11), he mentions the opportunity Christ had to show the origin of his spiritual teaching. He mentions two such opportunities: one was due to the disagreement among the people; the other to their amazement (v 15). The people disagreed in what they thought of Christ. He does three things concerning this. First, he shows what they had in common; secondly, how they differed (v 12); and thirdly, whose opinion prevailed (v 13). What they had in common was they "looked for him at the feast, and they asked: Where is he?" They differed...(45)
In his Lectura super Johannem, Thomas offers resolutions to the unresolved difficulty of an unanswered question by showing the question's purpose within the larger context.
We also find in his Lectura super Johannem Thomas describing more fully something only briefly mentioned in the text just as we do in the Sententia libri ethicorum. Here, Thomas is commenting on what Jesus means by telling the Samaritain woman that he can give her 'living water.'
Now water is of two kinds: living and non-living. Non-living water is water which is not connected or united with the source from which it springs, but is collected from the rain or in others ways into ponds and cisterns, and there it stands, separated from its source. But living water is connected with its source and flows from it. So according to this understanding, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given to man in such a way that the source itself of the grace is also given, that is, the Holy Spirit.(46)
Here Thomas does exactly the same thing that we saw him do earlier in relation to the Nicomachean Ethics. Thomas takes up a word or phrase and then expands on it, seeking the deeper meaning concealed, as it were, within the literal shell.
We know that Thomas accepts everything in Scripture, thus we know that he does not mean to imply by these additions that he disagrees with the authority on which he is commenting. Why, when we turn to Thomas's Aristotelian commentaries, ought we to say that these same kinds of additions indicate disagreement with Aristotle? Perhaps these additions function in a similar manner in both the Ethics Commentary and Scripture Commentaries. Certain additions to a text can help illuminate its meaning, and so Thomas includes them in his commentaries on Aristotle and his commentaries on Scripture.
In response to the third objection that Aquinas distances himself from Aristotle by noting the limited scope of Aristotelian inquiry, it should be said that to remark on the limited scope of the inquiry is not to disclaim the truth of that inquiry. That moral philosophy has a more limited scope than moral theology indicates very little about the status of the commentary. When Thomas treats the distinctions between the sciences in his Expositio super librum Boethii De trinitate, he makes clear, particularly in question five, that distinct sciences treat objects that are formally distinct. But each science is a science, that is, each gives true, but perhaps not full, knowledge of reality. Jordan's objection is helpful in so far as it reminds us that Thomas believed Aristotle's inquiry to be limited to what can be known without revelation. However, to conclude from these remarks that Thomas therefore rejected the teachings of the Ethics would require that Thomas as a theologian would be required to reject the inferior sciences.
On the contrary, Thomas's remarks and strategies indicate a much more amicable attitude towards the subordinate sciences. Consider just a few examples. In his De unitate intellectus, Thomas remarks that: "we intend however to show that the position mentioned is not only against the principles of philosophy but also contrary to the evidence of faith."(47) The context makes clear that Thomas limits his scientific investigation soley to that which can be known by unaided reason. He seems to have a similar task, a purely philosophical task, in his De principiis naturae. We would not be justified, I believe, in saying that the Thomas of these philosophical works is not to be confused with the Thomas of his theological works on account of the limitations of the inquiry. We would be justified in saying that these works do not reflect all that he said about these matters, but not that what he said in a philosophical context he really did not hold on account of the limits of this type of inquiry. Mutatis mutandis, Thomas's remarks about the limits of Aristotle's inquiry do not of themselves indicate that the commentary is not representative of Thomas's thought.
The third objection, noting the rhetorical limitations of Aristotle, seems to prove too much, since in the Gospels Christ himself, according to Thomas's reading, often speaks in a certain way for rhetorical purposes in addressing a particular audience. The Gospel of John 6.5-6 reads: "Then when Jesus lifted his eyes and saw that a great multitude had come to him, he said to Philip, 'Where shall we buy bread that these may eat?' He said this, however, to test him, for he knew what he would do." Christ here, according to the Gospel, adopts the pose of ignorance to teach. Thomas comments as follows:
The Lord's intention is given when he says, he said this, however, to test him. Here the Evangelist raises one difficulty in answering another. For we could wonder why our Lord asks Philip what to do, as though our Lord himself did not know. The Evangelist settles this when he says, for he knew what he would do. But it seems that the Evangelist raises another difficulty when he says, to test him. For to test is to try out; and this seems to imply ignorance.
I answer that one can test another in various ways in order to try him out. One man tests another in order to learn; the devil tests a man in order to ensnare him: "Your enemy, the devil, as a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he can devour" (1 Pt. 5:8). But Christ (and God) does not test us in order to learn, because he sees into our hearts; nor in order to ensnare us, for as we read in James (1:13): "God does not test anyone." But he does test us that others might learn something from the one tested. ... He tests Philip... so that those who hear his answer might be very certain about the miracle to come.(48)
Thomas seems here to be suggesting that Christ adopted some of the same techniques as Aristotle. Jesus, in certain instances, spoke on presupposition of others' ignorance. We find Christ asking questions in many passages of the Gospels,(49) and according to Thomas's Christology,(50) each of these instances of Christ asking questions must be subject to a similar explanation as the preceding one. In a somewhat similar way, the writers of the Gospels, though infallible by the Holy Spirit's direction, differ in what they say, often on account of their intended audience. For example, Thomas excuses what seems to be an oratio imperfecta in Matthew because he argues that Matthew was seeking to preserve the customary way of speaking among the Jews.(51) Later Thomas takes up the question: Why do the genealogical accounts of Christ in Luke and Matthew differ? He gives a five-part answer, the fourth of which is as follows:
The reason for this is that Matthew wrote for the Hebrews. The Hebrews were glorified most greatly by Abraham. As it says in the Gospel of John: We are the offspring of Abraham, who was the first to believe; and therefore Matthew begins from Abraham. Luke however wrote to the Greeks, who knew nothing about Abraham save through Christ: for if Christ hadn't have been, they would have never known anything about Abraham; and therefore Luke begins from Christ, and he ended not just in Abraham but in God.(52)
Here Luke and Matthew seek to persuade audiences having different horizons of expectation, and these presuppositions must shape their discourse, if it is to be sucessful. Of course, Thomas holds that the Holy Spirit infallibly knows the minds and hearts of all people, but Aristotle is shrewd enough to be able to surmise the presuppositions of others in a natural way through reflection. Noting rhetorical and strategic limitations does not mark a distancing of Thomas from the text of Scripture, so also noting similar limitations in the text of Aristotle poses no real difficulty for reading these commentaries as Thomas's own.
It is assumed by Jordan's fifth objection that reorganizations of the order of presentation represent, in some sense, repudiations of other ways of ordering the material. Thomas does not follow the manner of presentation of the Ethics in the Summa, but the significance of this reorganization is not self-evident. A study by Nicholas Ayo reminds us of several reorganzations of the Thomistic treatment of the creed.(53) Ayo notes that the Collationes Credo in Deum, the De articulis Fidei, and the Summa theologiae each present a different division of the creed, dividing the clauses of the creed into twelve articles one time, fourteen articles the other two times but even in these two cases the fourteen articles are not identically parsed. The same point could be made with the reordering of the treatment of God's characteristics that is evident in a comparison of the Summa contra Gentiles with the Summa theologiae. Although both begin with a demonstration of God's existence, the Summa contra Gentiles orders the discussion of God's characteristics by treating first God's eternity, and then God's simplicity, … perfection, goodness, and finally infinity; while the Summa theologiae takes up these matters in an entirely different order beginning with God's simplicity, and moving to God's goodness, perfection, infinity, … and finally eternity. Factors other than "distancing" must account for the reordering of the treatment in these cases, which lends some plausibility to the idea that these other factors may also account for the differences in the order of presentation of virtues between the Summa theologiae and the Sententia libri ethicorum. Perhaps it is not a deep dissatisfaction with prior treatments that underlies these reorderings but rather considerations of various audiences, the nature and scope of the works involved, or a desire to cast light on a topic from various angles.
We can rightly say that the Ethics commentary represents Thomas's own thought, as well as his understanding of Aristotle. Thomas wrote a literal commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The literal commentary is the kind of commentary used in the middle ages for those texts of highest authority, like Holy Scripture, and it was regularly assumed that the commentator agreed with the text and assented to the truth of what is related therein, unless he explicitly said otherwise. Thomas does not have explicit disclaimers at the beginning or at the end of the text, where others usually do, although in other matters he follows the traditional form of the commentary quite precisely. The disclaimers that other scholars have brought forward as evidence of Thomas's distance from Aristotle are similar to disclaimers found in Scriptural commentaries save for those occasional corrections of Aristotle which underscore that the text is Thomas's own. In fact, if it were Thomas's intention to make disclaimers in the text, the ambiguity of the disclaimers would stand in stark contrast to the clarity exhibited throughout Thomas's corpus. Is it probable that Thomas so badly communicated his intentions about such a fundamental matter that they were not brought to light until the latter half of the twentieth century? Given the implausibility of evidence to the contrary, it seems much more likely that the commentary on the Ethics represents Thomas's own thought, even if not in its theological fullness, on ethical matters or issues in the philosophy of nature.
1. Paul Shorey, Platonism Ancient and Modern. (Berkeley, 1938) 90.
2. Especially harsh is the judgment of Francis Cheneval and Ruedi Imbach: "Die Aristoteleskommentare des Thomas von Aquin sind zwar für eine historish-kritische Exegese der Texte des Aristoteles bedeutungslos…." Thomas von Aquin, Prologe zu den Aristoteleskommentaren. Herausgegeben, übersetzt und eingeleitet von Francis cheneval und Ruedi Imbach. (Frankfut am Main: Vitorrio Klostermann,1993) XIII.
3. Mark D. Jordan "Thomas Aquinas's Disclaimers in the Aristotelian Commentaries" in Philosophy and the God of Abraham: Essays in Memory of James A. Weisheipl, OP, ed. R. James Long. Papers in Mediaeval Studies 12 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1991) 99-112, at 109-110.
4. Jordan "Disclaimers," 107.
5. Loquitur hic Philosophus secundum consuetudinem Gentilium, quae nunc manifestata veritate est abrogata, unde, si aliquis nunc circa cultum daemonum aliquid expenderet, non esset magnificus, sed sacrilegus. Sent. Eth. 4.7.
6. Sent. Eth. 2.2 (LE 47:81.124-131).
7. Sent. Eth. 8:12 (LE 47:488.285-288).
8. Sent. Eth. 4.7 (LE 47:222.23-26).
9. Sent. Eth. 7.1 (LE 47:381.88-90), as Jordan notes Aquinas "goes on to stress that Aristotle denies deification in any literal sense. (381:118-123)." See too, Mark D. Jordan "Aquinas Reading Aristotle's Ethics," in Ad Litteram: Authoritative Texts and Their Medieval Readers. Edited by Mark D. Jordan and Kent Emery, Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992) 229-249, at 248.
10. Sent. Eth. 1.14 (LE 47:50.66-76), 1.18 (47:65.78-80), 3.13 (47:157.112-113), 5.12 (47:306.158-160), 8.7 (47:465.130-131), 10.12 (47:591.126, 592.169). See too, Jordan "Aquinas on Aristotle's Ethics," 236.
11. Ibid., 3.22, 4.14, 6.5, and 7.7.
12. Jordan "Disclaimers" 109, see section III, 6, #456 and IV, 17, #870
13. Nicomachean Ethics, 1112a11-13.
14. Sent. Eth. 3.6.456.
15. Nicomachean Ethics 1128b12-15.
16. Sent. Eth. IV, 17, #870,
17. Jordan "Disclaimers" 109.
18. Jordan "Disclaimers" 109.
19. I will not treat the objection that additions indicate disagreement both because additions may be from revelation and hence outside of Aristotle's philosophical scope, and because additions may arguably be said not to contradict but to fulfill that to which they are additions.
20. Jordan "Aquinas on Aristotle's Ethics," 238-239.
21. Jordan "Disclaimers," 104, 107. See too, Mark D. Jordan, The Alleged Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas. Etienne Gilson Series 15 (Toronto: PIMS, 1990) 11.
22. M.D. Chenu, O.P., in his Introduction a L'Étude de Saint Thomas D'Aquin, Paris, Libraire Philosophique J. Vrin, 1950, concurs: "Ainsi, à la différence de l'exégèse moderne, qui abstient de faire sienne la pensée de son auteur, et n'a pas à dire s'il ne l'accepte pas, le commentateur médiéval fait sien implicitement le contenu de texte, et, s'il ne l'accepte pas, le dit explicitement, tandis qu'il est présumé le faire sien s'il ne dit rien" (177). As I will mention, Thomas's teacher Albert the Great does just this.
23. Joseph Owens, "Aquinas as an Aristotelian Commentator" St. Thomas Aquinas: Commemorative Studies. (Toronto: PIMS, 1974) 236-37.
24. ST I, 1, 8 ad 2.
25. In his article "Theology and Philosophy" in the Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, Mark Jordan rounds off the word count from the Index Thomisticus for the scripture commentaries at 1,170,000 or 13.5% of the Thomistic corpus and for the commentaries on Aristotle at 1,165,000 or just over 13% of the corpus.
26. See, for example, Aquinas's Commentary on the Metaphysics, II, 1, 286.
27. "Thomas's models in the genre would seem rather to be immediately in styles of reading learned from the Arts faculty, more remotely in the 'great commentaries' of Averroes." Mark Jordan, "The Alleged Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas," in The Etienne Gilson Series 15 (1990): 11. The view that Thomas's Sententiae imitate the commentaries of Averroes is expressed by E. Renan and criticized by René-Antoine Gauthier, "Saint Thomas et l'Éthique à Nicomaque." Sententia libri politicorum. Leonine XLVIII, Rome 1971, xxi.
28. Aquinas, De unitate intellectus, ch. 2 (51-53).
29. Aquinas, De unitate intellectus, ch. 2 (53); translation from Ralph McInerny, Aquinas Against the Averroists. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993) 73.
30. Quidquid autem horum sit, non est nobis multum curandum: quia studium philosophiae non est ad hoc quod sciatur quid homines senserint, sed qualiter se habeat veritas Sententia de caelo et mundo, I, capt. X lect. 22. (LE 3.91). An objection of circular reasoning may arising from appealing to another Sententia since the dispute at hand is what Thomas is doing in the genre of Sententia. Jordan and others agree however that at least some times Aquinas speaks in his own voice in these commentaries when explicitly remarking on the truth of something or in this case where he speaks in the authorial second person plural.
31. Joseph Owens, "Aquinas as an Aristotelian Commentator" St. Thomas Aquinas: Commemorative Studies. (Toronto: PIMS, 1974) 217.
32. H.V. Jaffa, Thomism and Aristotelianism. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952) 187.
33. John Jenkins, "Expositions of the Text: Aquinas's Aristotelian Commentaries." Medieval Philosophy and Theology 5 (1996): 36-62.
34. Commentaria in libros de Animalibus, in fine (ed. Borguet, 12, 582). Expletum est totum opus naturalium, in quo sic moderamen tenui, quod dicta Peripateticorum, prout melius potui, exposui; nec aliquis in eo potest deprehendere quid ego ipse sentiam in philosophia naturali; sed quicumque dubitat, comparet haec quae in nostris libris dicta sunt, dictis Peripateticorum, et tunc reprehendat vel consentiat, me dicens scientiae ipsorum fuisse interpretem et expositorem; si autem non legens et comparans reprehenderit, tunc constat ex odio eum reprehendere vel ex ignorantia; et ego talium hominum parum curo reprehensiones.
35. I thank John O'Callaghan for bringing this to my attention.
36. In his Lectura super Johannem, Thomas notes both heretics and respected Church authorites, such has Anselm, who have in his view misinterpreted the Bible. See for example the Lectura super Johannem I, 2, 73; II, 2, 370; and III, 2, 467. translated by James A. Weisheipl and Fabian R. Larcher (Albany,New York: Magi Books, 1980).
37. Joseph Owens, "Aquians as an Aristotelian Commentator" 228.
38. Lectura super Johannem, I, 1, 26.
39. Lectura super Johannem, I, 1, 34.
40. Lectura super Johannem, 1, 6, 162.
41. G. Geenan "The Place of Tradition in the Theology of St. Thomas." The Thomist XV (1952): 133.
42. Ibid. pp.133-134.
43. Sententia super Johannem, I, 13, 243.
44. John 7:11-13
45. Sententia super Johannem, 7, 2, 1028-1029.
46. Lectura super Johannem, 4, 2, 577.
47. intendimus autem ostendere positionem predictam non minus contra philosophiae principia esse quam contra fidei documenta De unitate intellectus, 2, 29-32.
48. intentio autem interrogantis [domini] aperitur cum dicit hoc autem dicebat tentans eum etc. ubi evangelista unam dubitationem excludens, ducit in aliam. potuisset enim dubitari quod dominus philippum quasi ignorans interrogasset; sed hoc excludit dicens ipse enim sciebat quid esset facturus. sed cum tentare videatur etiam ignorantis esse cum idem sit quod experimentum sumere, videtur quod evangelista in aliam dubitationem inducat cum dicit tentans eum. sed dicendum, quod diversimode aliquis tentat aliquem, ut experimentum de wo sumat: aliter enim tentat homo, quia ut addiscat; aliter diabolus tamquam leo rugiens circuit quaerens quem devoret. deus vero et christus tentat quidem non ut addiscat, quia ipse est qui scrutatur corada et renes.... ita ex hoc philippum tentat ut insinuaret aliis suam responsionem, inducens per hoc eos in certissimam futuri signi cognitionem. Lectura super Johannem, 6, 1, 850.
49. For just a few examples, see Mark 10:5, 10:36; Matt. 9:28, 14:31, 21:25.
50. ST III, 10, 2-3.
51. Lectura super Evangelium Matthaei, I, 1, 12.
52. Lectura super Evangelium Matthaei, I, 2, 28. Cuius ratio potest sumi ex hoc quod Mathaeus scripsit Hebraeis. Hebraeis autem maxime gloriabantur de Abraham; Ioan. viii, 33: Semen Abrahae sumus, qui fuit primum credendi principium; et ideo Mattaeus ab Abraham incipit. Lucas autem scripsit Graecis, qui nihil de Abraham sciebant nisi per Christum: si enim non fuisset Christus, nihil unquam scivissent de Abraham; et ideo Lucas incepti a Christo, et terminavit non solum in Abraham, sed in Deum.
53. Nicholas Ayo, The Sermon-Conferences of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Apostles' Creed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). See especially pp. 184-185.