Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



IN this comparative study we will confine ourselves chiefly to the writings of him who is the recognized exponent of the Schoolmen. The Church, through her Pontiffs, has, in no uncertain notes, proclaimed St. Thomas as her most zealous and enlightened champion. Leo XIII caps the climax of eulogy upon him when he says: "Rightly and deservedly is he reckoned a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church. . . . Greatly enriched as he was with the science of God and the science of man, he is likened to the sun; for he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendour of his teaching."{1} His pages even now throb with the glow of life, and the din of battle rings through his sentences. Some of the issues that he fought are things of the past and have for us no other interest than that belonging to every relic preserved in the history of thought. For Thomas, however, they were living issues calling for a speedy solution. A large number has still for us a special interest. If we will only penetrate the dry and forbidding form of the syllogism in which the questions are put -- so put because the great Summa Theologica was intended to be a student's handbook -- we shall find that many of the old errors have survived under a new name. The same objections there made and the same refutations there given still hold good. A comparative study, therefore, of the essential doctrines of the Stagyrite and the Angelical Doctor cannot be without profit.

We shall begin with Aristotle's conception of God. It is with a certain awe we read that magnificent chapter in his Metaphysics in which he demonstrates the existence of a Prime Mover and First Principle of all things. That a pagan philosopher, by the unaided light of reason, should acquire so clear a conception of the Godhead in Its unity and simplicity, is marvellous. Let us follow him for a moment: The eternal Something that imparts motion without being moved must be both Substance and Energy. This Immovable First Mover must be Entity; It must subsist after an excellent manner; It must be Necessary Being, and inasmuch as necessary, It must constitute the Good; It must therefore be the First Principle from which have depended Heaven and Nature. This Prime Mover must have Intelligence; but since intelligence is activity and activity is life, It must be Eternal Life; It must be Eternal Mind. Essential energy belongs to God as His Everlasting Life. With Him life and duration are uninterrupted and eternal; and this constitutes the very essence of God.{2} It is all reasoned out with the neatest precision of his great intellect. It is one of the most golden pages in all antiquity. Well, after we shall have admired it to the full, let us enter the mind that evolved it. Nature is unveiled, and the philosopher stands face to face with the God of Nature. He has found Him as the answer to a problem. He touches him as the limit of a speculation. But God for Aristotle is not a Personal God with a loving care and interest in His creation. Elsewhere, in a chapter only less sublime than that we have been contemplating, he clearly asserts the unity and simplicity of God: "The Prime Mover is indivisible; is without parts; and has absolutely no kind of magnitude."{3} This is clear, beautiful, and true. What Aristotle fails to see is the nature and operation of God as Cause. He fails to see that the highest act of causality is creation. He fails to see how the preservative act is a continuation of the causative act. He therefore misses all the consequences of these great truths. The God of Aristotle is not a God to Whom all rational beings are responsible for their every thought, word, and act. "Whatever the truth concerning Him might be," says Hampden, "it was not to be expressed in the uplifting of pure hearts and hands to Him. Though the whole world might be found His temple, He was not to be worshipped as the Holiness of their shrines. Though the heavens were telling of His glory, and the stars were singing together for joy at His presence, yet no praise was to ascend to Him, the Lord of heaven and earth, in the perfumes of their altars or the poetry and music of their hymns. Thus devotion, being banished from the heart, sought a refuge for itself in the wilderness of a speculative theological philosophy."{4} The God of Aristotle is not the God of St. Thomas. The difference is marked. The God of St. Thomas is the God of Faith and Revelation, the God of the Nicene Creed, in substance One, in personality Three.

Aristotle, in grasping the conception of God's simplicity, missed that of His personality. It enters as a fundamental principle into the philosophy of St. Thomas. The Saint accepts it as the Church presents it to him. The very definition of personality he takes as he finds in a work attributed to Boëthius. There personality is defined as the individual substance of a rational nature.{5} It is not the whole of the nature; it is simply something subsisting in the nature.{6} Thus personality does not belong to the soul of man, nor does it belong to his body; but it belongs to that combination of body and soul that we call man. Neither is it something common to humanity as such; it can only be predicated of the particular man. Nor does it apply to other than rational natures. The personality of a dog or a horse has no meaning. Personality, then, is that which individualizes, completes, perfects the actuality of a rational nature. Inasmuch as God is an infinitely Intelligent Being, possessing all excellence, might reason apply to Him the conception of personality. He is most pure Actuality. His is therefore a Personal Nature.

Here, once for all, let us rid ourselves of an erroneous notion. Personality does not in any sense imply limitation. As applied to man, the conception is finite, just as the conception of any other part or attribute of man is finite. Not so, as applied to God. His Personality is only the perfect realization of His Infinite Nature. But the perfect realization of an Infinite Nature has no limitation, except Its own Infinite Actuality. In this sense alone does personality apply to God. Thus far may reason go. But Thomas does not stop here. With fear and trembling,{7} he enters the sanctuary of revelation, and contemplates the threefold personality of God as it has been made known. The Father begets the Word from all eternity; from the mutual love of the Father and the Word proceeds the Holy Ghost. We shall see him draw many practical lessons from the contemplation of this sublime mystery.

The Trinity is a subject fruitful in thought to him who would meditate upon it with reverence. The Three-in-One is all-perfect He is self-sufficing. He is free. He may or may not create. When He does extend His activity outside of Himself He does it of His own Will. He exercises the most perfect act of causality in creating all things out of nothing. He is Infinite Goodness. He is Infinite Love. Man falls. He respects the free-will of man to such an extent that He will not prevent man from falling. He sends His Son, the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, to assume human nature and to redeem that nature from the degradation to which Original Sin had dragged it down. He holds communion with man; He reveals to man Sacred Truths of a higher order than those man learns from Nature; He stoops to raise man up, without violating any of His laws, but simply by bringing into play -- as in the case of miracles -- other laws above those that ordinarily govern the conditions of time and space in which man now lives.

Note especially the great philosophic truth that is brought out by this Christian view of God and creation. On the one hand is the Infinite First Cause; on the other, is the finite effect. Now, do what we may, we can find no expression for the relation between the finite and the infinite. State them in their mathematical bareness, and we find their relation, or their ratio, running into infinity or nothingness. How bridge over the chasm? Finiteness can never touch the infinite. Be it so. The Infinite Being is free. The Infinite Being can reach finite things. And this the Infinite Being did in the Incarnation of the Word. The Divinity touches His creation with another act beside the creative act by which He drew it from nothingness; that Divine act bridges over the chasm; God unites Himself to that being among His creatures that combines in itself both spiritual and material elements, and thus raises up His whole creation to a plane worthy of His creative and preservative power. Has it ever occurred to us what may be the infinite suggestiveness of this great truth in philosophical speculation? There is much in it for head and for heart. We have ample evidence of its life-giving force in the regenerating work of Christianity; but have we measured its power as an element in philosophy? You may say that the truth is a mystery -- is of revelation -- and as such has no place in philosophy. But are religious mysteries the only mysteries? Has philosophy none? Can philosophy explain the phenomena of thought, or of growth, or of organism, or of life, without landing in mystery? There are dark lines running all along the spectrum of our knowledge; for how few of them can we really account? Then, why not let in the light of revelation?

Aristotle missed the idea of creation. The Church presents it to the Christian philosopher as an article of faith. The Christian philosopher believes that in the beginning God created all things from nothing, of His own free Will, and out of His own pure Goodness. God spoke, and they were. All things are created by the Word, and according to the Divine exemplars existing in the Word. In this beautiful manner does the doctrine of the Trinity enter into the creative act. St. Thomas goes to show that it cannot be demonstrated that the world existed throughout all eternity.{8} God alone is eternal Albert the Great grows impatient of those who ask what God was doing prior to creation. "In eternity," he says, "there is neither soon nor late, long nor short, space nor time . . . . The eternity of God is an indivisible present."{9} Neither, according to the Angelical Doctor, can we prove the creation of all things from nothingness.{10} It is a mystery if you will; but it is one willingly accepted. Indeed, it is far less a mystery than to admit that matter is not infinite and is yet eternal. At every point in which the finite touches the infinite there is a mystery; let him explain who can.{11} Thus it is that on God and His Providence, His personality, and His attributes, on creation and preservation, and the long chain of consequences that flow from these truths, do we find Christian philosophy standing upon a plane distinct from that on which the Lyceum stood.

Again, we take Aristotle's treatise on the human soul. The close argument, the clearness and simplicity of language, the terseness and homeliness of phrase and illustration -- all carry us along a train of reasoning that opens up to us new avenues of thought. The union of soul and body, their unity and interdependence, are discussed and made to flow from those primary principles that run through all his philosophy. Substance may be viewed as matter; or it may be viewed as form; or it may be viewed as a combination of both matter and form.{12} While matter is in itself and by itself mere potential existence, the form gives it actuality.{13} Now, there is a principle of life in all organic bodies. But life is the process of nutrition, increase and decay going on under the activity of this principle. This principle is the soul. Soul we may therefore define as the formative principle of a body having predisposition to life.{14} The definition is admirable. The clear and rigid reasoning by which the philosopher reached it, is admirable. The Schoolmen accept it; they cannot improve upon it; they simply put it into a more condensed formula. They define the soul as the form of the body. But the soul as Aristotle conceived it, is not the soul as conceived by the Schoolmen. The soul, in the conception of the Stagyrite, is somewhat more than a vital principle, such as belongs to. plant and animal; but it is also perishable and becomes annihilated when the animal organism is destroyed.{15} The soul in the conception of the Schoolmen is a spiritual substance animating a material body, imperishable, undying, immortal. Above the soul, distinct and separable from it, Divine in its origin and eternal in its nature, an everlasting existence incapable of being mingled with matter,{16} Aristotle places the creative reason, and thus, as we have seen, lays the foundation for the universal intellect of the Averroists. But the Schoolmen made no such distinction. All in the human intellect is included in the soul. And the Church endorsed their doctrine, when in the Council of Vienne, in 1311, she condemned the opinion that the intellectual soul was not the substantial form of the body.{17}

Recognizing with Aristotle the intimate union and interdependence of soul and body, the Schoolmen accepted the principle of Aristotle that there is nothing in the intellect which is not first in the senses.{18} But rejecting his doctrine of a creative reason distinct and separable from the soul, they sought elsewhere the explanation of that phenomenon by which the soul separates universals from particulars, and apprehends them, and reasons upon them. They went to the fountain-head. They also admitted a principle above and beyond human reason; but they recognized it to be the Divine Light, proceeding from the Word and illumining every man coming into this world.{19} From the Word proceeds that light by which our intellect thinks and reasons. "That intellectual light which is within us," says the Angel of the Schools, "is naught else than a certain participated likeness of the uncreated light in which are contained the eternal reasons."{20} And our intellect knows and apprehends truth only in the light of these eternal reasons. Thus is it that St. Thomas connects the active intellect{21} of the soul with the Supreme Intelligence; thus does he explain that marvellous power by which the human intellect separates the universal from the singular and makes it the object of thought.{22}

Throughout the theory of knowing developed by St. Thomas there runs a golden chain connecting all knowledge with God. He defines truth with Isaac{23} as the equation of the thing with the intellect. But this equation results from a twofold conformity: first, truth is in the intellect according as it is conformed to its principle, namely, the thing from which the intellect receives its cognition; and second, truth is in the thing according as there is conformity between itself and its principle, which is the Divine Intellect.{24} Thus does St. Thomas place all truth between the Divine Mind and the human understanding, the latter receiving its sanction and its certitude from the former. And in this elevated sphere of thought, taking in the whole scale, does he, in a sublime manner, distinguish between the different orders of intelligences according to their mode of apprehending truth. God is the Prime Intelligence, knowing all things in the light of His own Divine Essence. Therein has He the plenitude of all cognitions. Now the nearer and the liker created intelligences are to God, the more they resemble Him in the mode of their knowing. And since He knows all things in the light of His Essence, which is One, the higher the scale of intelligence, the fewer is the number of ideas by means of which that intelligence knows. Thus, the superior angels have, because of their greater proximity to God, in the light of fewer ideas, a more perfect knowledge than have the inferior; and these latter have greater knowledge in a simpler conception and by means of less ideas, than have human intelligences. And so, among men, the more superior the intelligence, the greater the grasp of thought, and also the less the number of ideas.{25} Thus it is that the genius has chiefly a single idea in the light of which he resolves and explains all other ideas. Here is a doctrine with suggestiveness enough for a volume of thought. In this manner does St. Thomas construct a theory of knowing undreamed of by Aristotle. Turn we now to their relative treatment of the question of morals.

{1} Encyclical, Eterni Patris, 1879.

{2} Metaphysics, XIII. vii.

{3} Physics, VIII. xv. § 26.

{4} The Fathers of Greek Philosophy, p. 48.

{5} Summa, I. i. quaest. xxiv. art. i.

{6} Summa, I. i. quaest. xxx. art. iv.

{7} "Ideo cum de Trinitate loquimur, cum cautela et modestia est agendum" (Summa, I. i. quaest. xxxi. art. ii.).

{8} Summa, I. i. quaest. xlvii. art. i.

{9} Lib. Phys., viii. cap. i. p. 313. See also cap. vi. p. 320. Opp., tom. ii. Edit. Jammy.

{10} Summa, ibid., art. ii.

{11} See Paul Janet, La Crise Philosophique, p. 264.

{12} De Anima, II. i. § 2.

{13} Ibid.

{14} De Anima, II. i. § 6.

{15} Ibid., I. iv. § 9.

{16} Ibid., III. v. § 2. See also I. iv. § 14; II. i. § 11. And De Gener. Animal., II. iii. 10.

{17} "Definientes, ut si quisquam deinceps asserere, defendere seu tenere pertinaciter presumpserit, quod anima rationalis seu intellectiva non sit forma corporis humani per se, et essentialiter, tamquam hereticus sit censendus." Labbé, Sacrorum Conciliorum Collecio, tom. xxv. p. 411.

{18} De Anima, III. iv.

{19} St. John i. 9.

{20} Summa, I. i. quaest. lxxxiv. art. v.

{21} Intellectus Agens. See Summa, I. i. quaest. lxxix. art v.

{22} See this admirably treated in Summa, I i. quaest. lxxxv., and q. lxxxvi.

{23} In lib. De Definitionibus. See I. i. quaest. xvi. art. ii.

{24} I. i. quaest. xvi. art. v. ad. 2.

{25} Summa, I. i. quaest. lv. art. iii. C.

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