St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

A. Faith and Reason
1. Wisdom and the Christian faith
2. Preambles vs. mysteries
3. Four natural questions
4. Five theses about faith and reason

 
B. The Structure of Natural Theology
1. Part One: Proof of the existence of a First Efficient Cause
2. An Interlude: The dangers
3. Part Two: Via remotionis
4. Part Three: Via affirmationis

 
C. Human Happiness
1. The structure of a (classical) moral theory
2. Is there an ultimate end for human beings?
3. What object(s) must we possess to be fully happy?
4. How must we possess the infinite good in order to be fully happy?
5. What are the requirements for attaining happiness?
6. Can we attain happiness?




A. Faith and Reason
 
  • 1. Wisdom and the Christian faith

    • Remember Simmias in the Phaedo: "One should achieve one of these things: learn the truth about these things or find it for oneself, or, if that is impossible, adopt the best and most irrefutable of men's theories, and, borne upon this, sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine." Well, St. Thomas (like Fr. Sorin, say) believes that the journey has in fact been made more safe upon the firmer vessel of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, conveyed to us by Catholic doctrine and sacramental life. (Of course, the journey might be more safe intellectually, but pretty perilous affectively and morally, especially if the stakes are really high--and St. Thomas, like Socrates before him, thinks that they are.)

    • Christianity and secular wisdom: This raises the issue of just how Catholic seekers after wisdom should think of their relation to the morally and intellectually well-disposed non-Christian philosophers. (Another way to pose the issue is this: how is the ideal of the philosopher proposed to us by the likes of Socrates and Plato related to the ideal of the saint proposed by the likes of St. Thomas? More on this below.)

    • The first nine chapters of the Summa Contra Gentiles constitute the heart of St. Thomas's answer to this question, which is that the classical search for wisdom is intrinsically valuable, but can find its fulfillment--even by its own standards of success--only in Catholic doctrine and practice. His answer thus differs both (a) from those Christians who claim that philosophy has no intrinsic value but is now simply replaced by Christian doctrine and practice (the so-called fideists) and (b) from those--Christians or non-Christians--who claim that philosophy is a wholly autonomous discipline that is not replaced by Christian doctrine and practice and, in addition, does not find its fulfillment in them (the so-called rationalists).

    • Aside: we should distinguish the comprehensive and coherent articulation of a claim to wisdom from the defense of such a claim against alternatives. St. Thomas's systematic articulation of the Catholic claim to wisdom is found in his Summa Theologiae, of which we will be reading one little part. In contrast, his task in the Summa Contra Gentiles is to show his intellectually and morally well-disposed non-Christian predecessors that Christian wisdom is even by their own lights a plausible candidate for the wisdom they are seeking. (Imagine St. Thomas paying a visit to the first circle of Dante's Inferno -- populated by, among others, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the great Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes (aka The Commentator) -- and saying, "Ok, boys, let's talk!") In the process he means to show both the inherent power and the inherent limitations of natural reason.

    •  
    • Absolute wisdom = firm cognitive grasp of
    •  
        (a) God in Himself (first principle of being in itself) [metaphysics]

         (b) creatures insofar as they come from God (origin of all beings, including human beings) [metaphysics]

         (c) creatures insofar as they are ordered to God as their end (destiny of all beings, including human beings) [moral theory]

      In the first three books of the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas tries to show how much of this wisdom the great non-Christian philosophers either (a) have succeeded in establishing or (b) could have succeeded in establishing if they had done better by their own methods and standards, without any overt appeal to divine revelation.
       
    • The fruits of philosophy as a way of life whose intellectual goal is to attain as much evidential certitude as possible about the components of absolute wisdom:
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      • intrinsic fruits: perfection, sublimity, usefulness, joy
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      • extrinsic fruits: resource for engaging philosophers who do not accept Christian revelation (apologetics)

      •  
  • 2. Preambles of the faith vs. mysteries of the faith
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    • Definitions:
    •  
      • Preambles of the faith: Propositions, revealed by God, that human reason could in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of revelation.
      • (Question: why does St. Thomas think that there are many such truths? Answer: because he's read his philosophers and been impressed.)
         
      • Mysteries of the faith: Propositions, revealed by God, that human reason could not even in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of revelation.
       
    • Representative examples (according to St. Thomas):
     
    Preambles
    Mysteries
    God exists Creation in time
    There is one God Fall of Adam
    God is eternal Call of the Patriarchs and Moses
    God is immaterial Trinity
    God is simple Incarnation of the Son of God
    God is good Atonement: Life, death, & resurrection of Christ
    God is just Coming of the Holy Spirit
    God is merciful The Church: Sacraments and Teaching
    God is provident The last things: Final Judgment, Heaven, Hell
  • 3. Four natural questions
  •  
    1. Is it likely that there are truths about God that exceed our natural cognitive abilities? [Chapter 3] (The main argument here is that our natural knowledge of God is limited to what is involved in his causing and acting in the world; hence, the "inner" life of God (e.g., as revealed in the Christian doctrine of the relations among the three divine persons) is wholly hidden from us.)
    2.  
    3. Wasn't it pointless of God to reveal the preambles? [Chapter 4] (For various reasons, only a few are capable of becoming philosophers, and even they would not have secure wisdom; but everyone needs this knowledge in order to live the best kind of life for a human being.)
    4.  
    5. Isn't it wrong for God to demand that we accept the mysteries of the faith, given that they exceed our natural cognitive abilities? [Chapter 5] (Without cognition of the mysteries, we cannot understand clearly what our ultimate end is or how to live so as to achieve it.)
    6.  
    7. Isn't it in any case stupid, foolish, and irresponsible for us to assent to the mysteries of the faith, given that they exceed our natural cognitive abilities? [Chapter 6] (Notice here that St. Thomas answers not by trying to prove the mysteries--that's impossible according to him. Rather, he answers by giving reasons for thinking that the authority that stands behind the mysteries is reliable.)

     
  • 4. Five theses about faith and reason (Chapters 7-9)
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    1. There can be no genuine conflict between the deliverances of faith and the deliverances of reason (vs. both (a) enlightenment rationalism (or modernism), which separates reason from faith and gives exclusive preference to reason, and (b) fideism, which separates reason from faith and gives exclusive preference to faith).
    2.  
    3. Apparent conflicts are in principle resolvable by us, though this demands that we get very clear about just what the deliverances of faith are and just what the deliverances of reason are. (Side note: with regard to the mysteries, we can at least show by natural reason that they are not self-contradictory or intrinsically incoherent--this is the burden of book 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles.)
    4.  
    5. Philosophical or scientific objections to the faith can and should be answered on their own terms--this is an important task for Christian intellectuals (vs. fideistic tendencies).
    6.  
    7. Reason, while not so corrupted by sin that on its own it yields falsehoods as certitudes, nonethess needs the guidance of faith to do its best (vs. rationalist tendencies).
    8.  
    9. Philosophical reason is an important tool in spreading and maintaining the faith.
    10.  
      • Note: These theses apply to both metaphysical doctrines and moral doctrines.

  • For more on chapters 1-9 see my The Necessity for Revelation:  A Primer on Summa Contra Gentiles 1, Chaps. 1-9


B. The Structure of Natural Theology

  • 1. Part One: Proof of the existence of a First Efficient Cause (FEC) [chapter 13]
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    • Definition of an FEC:
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      • An FEC is an agent that acts (causes, moves) but is not acted upon (caused, moved)
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    • Form of the proof:
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      • From effect to cause ["cosmological" proof] and not from the mere concept of a most perfect possible being ["ontological" proof]
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    • Conclusion of the proof:
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      • There is at least one First Efficient Cause, and so it itself is uncaused


  • 2. An interlude: The dangers
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    • Anthropomorphism: The position according to which God is a being who has perfections proportionate to those of creatures, only to a much higher degree (God as superman)
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    • Obscurantism: The position according to which God is so utterly different from creatures that none of the perfections belonging to creatures in any way resembles any perfection belonging to God (God as wholly incomprehensible)


  • 3. Part Two: Via remotionis [= the method of removing or denying]
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    • Explanation: [chapter 14]
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      • We have no positive quidditative or natural-kind concept of God
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      • The preceding proof yields a being which falls under the concept First Efficient Cause
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      • We have to begin by determining how a First Efficient Cause differs from the things we do have positive quidditative concepts of. This is accomplished by arguing that various features of such things must be denied of a First Efficient Cause.

       
    • Execution:
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      • An FEC does not have a beginning or an end (= is eternal) [chapter 15]
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      • An FEC is not intrinsically measured by time (= is intrinsically atemporal) [chapter 15]
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      • An FEC does not have does not have passive potency and so cannot become more perfect or less perfect [chapter 16]
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      • An FEC is not the matter or stuff out of which the material universe is composed [chapter 17]
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      • An FEC does not have any sort of composition (= is simple). The types of composition denied of an FEC are these:
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        • composition of bodily parts [chap. 20]
        • composition of substance and nature [chap. 21]
        • composition of being and essence [chap. 22]
        • composition of substance and accident [chap. 23]
        • composition of genus and difference [chap. 24]
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      • An FEC does not belong to a natural kind [chapter 25]
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      • An FEC is not the form or structure of the universe or of any material thing [chapters 26-27]
       
    • Conclusion: The FEC is a perfect being, unlimited in perfection [chapter 28]


  • 4. Part Three: Via affirmationis [= the method of affirming]
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    • Foundation: the similarity of effects to causes. The result is that some names are predicated of God literally and not just metaphorically [chapter 29] [check against obscurantism]
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    • Constraint: The FEC is an utterly transcendent perfect being. The result is that those names which are predicated literally of God are predicated of him via analogical rather than univocal predication [chapter 28] [check against anthropormorphism]
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    • Literal and metaphorical predication:
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      • Names that are literally predicated of God:
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        • Those which signify pure perfections: 'wise', 'good', 'intelligent', 'provident', 'merciful', 'just', etc.
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        • Those which signify preeminence in perfection: 'First Efficient Cause', 'Unmoved Mover', 'Unlimited (Unparticipated) Being', 'Pure Actuality', etc.

         
      • Names that are metaphorically predicated of God:
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        • Those which signify a perfection but express a mode that can belong only to a creature: 'rock', 'mighty fortress', 'lion', 'paper towel'.

    • Types of literal predication:
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      • Univocal: Same name and same kind of form or perfection: 'Socrates is wise' and 'Plato is wise'
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      • Equivocal: Same name but utterly disparate forms or perfections: 'Babe Ruth's bat weighs 37 ounces' and 'A bat is a mammal'
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      • Analogical: Same name and different but ordered forms or perfections: 'This animal is healthy' and 'This food is healthy';  'This person is intelligent' and 'This paper is intelligent"
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        • As applied to God: 'Socrates is wise' --- 'God is wise', but not like Socrates --- 'God is Wisdom'
    • Some positive attributions arrived at by means of the via affirmationis--based on principle that a perfect being has what it is more perfect to have than to lack:
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      • goodness
      • uniqueness
      • intelligence
      • power
      • freedom
      • love
      • mercy
      • justice
      • providence
      • blessedness ........This is precisely what God offers us a participation in = human beatitude


C. Human Happiness (see The structure of a medieval quaestio)

  • 1. The structure of a (classical) moral theory

    • 1. What is the good or ultimate end for human beings?

      2. What is our starting point (the 'human condition')?

      3. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?

      4. How do we come by knowledge of the sort that enables us to answer questions 1-3?


  • 2. Is there an ultimate end for human beings?
  • [Question 1]

      • From natural inclination to rational desire
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      • Human act vs. act of a human being
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      • The ultimate end or ultimate good:
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        • Formal notion: Human happiness (or beatitude or fulfillment or perfection or excellence or flourishing)--that which satisfies all our well-ordered desires.
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        • Material notion: That which human beings de facto desire as their ultimate end.
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      • The examined life for a human being = A life whose human actions are ordered toward the attainment of that object which those with well-disposed affections desire as their ultimate end. [See ques. 5, art. 8, ad 3]


  • 3. What object(s) must we possess to be fully happy?
  • [Question 2]

      • Possibilities:
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        • External Goods: wealth, honor, fame (glory), power
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        • Internal Goods:
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          • Goods of the Body: longevity; good health; good looks; strength and athletic prowess; food and drink; transportation; clothing; housing; sensory pleasure (including comfort in general and sensory pleasure), etc.
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          • Goods of the Soul: intellectual ability and accomplishment; moral virtue; friendship; artistic ability, accomplishment, and appreciation; knowledge (especially philosophical and scientific knowledge), etc.
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      • Conclusion: No finite good or set of finite goods can completely satisfy our desire for human happiness--only an infinite good (God) can satisfy this desire.
      •  
          Note: See page 57 on "imperfect happiness."


  • 4. How must we possess the infinite good in order to be fully happy? [Question 3]

      • Complete human happiness is:
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        • an activity
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        • an activity of the intellectual part of the soul
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        • an intellectual activity of the soul by which we apprehend God directly [or "face to face"], so that (i) we know God and all other things in the way He knows them and, as a result, (ii) we love God and all other things in the way He loves them. In other words, we share in the inner 'family' life of the triune God. This is called the beatific vision.


  • 5. What are the requirements for attaining happiness? [Question 4]

      • Antecedent requirement: rectitude of the will (supernatural charity)
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      • Concomitant requirements:
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        • Absolute: Love of God, delight in God, rectitude of the will, love of whatever real good is present in created things
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        • Relative: Bodily delight, friendship with others who share the beatific vision


  • 6. Can we attain happiness? [Question 5]

      • We can attain happiness, but .....
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        • not in this life [art. 3]
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        • not by our natural powers [art. 5]
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        • not without rectitude of will [art. 7]
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        • not without supernatural grace healing us and elevating us [art. 7, ad 2]