Jacques Maritain Center : Readings

St. Thomas and Modern Thought

Address delivered by Edward A. Pace before the Catholic University of America on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, March 1896. Catholic University Bulletin, Volume II (1896), pages 188-197.

Example is a factor in the life of institutions no less than in the life of individuals. Where men are banded together for the attainment of a common purpose, the right understanding of that purpose is the first requisite for success. But the bond of union is strengthened, and action becomes more effective, when the ideal is held up in the concrete form of example. It is thus that the patriot lives on in the nation and that the saint is a force in the Church. It is thus, too, that wise men are a power in the world, not alone for the learning they gather or the knowledge they impart, but also and chiefly because their work invites others, encourages others, to imitate and perchance to surpass them.

A university, as the very name implies, is an assemblage of men devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. As the branches of knowledge are multiplied, the departments of the university, and consequently the workers in each department, become more numerous, the general scope of the institution is specified in different ways, and the work of each member runs in particular lines. Yet, as all these converge upon Truth as their goal, they must be guided by a common impulse. They must be united by organization and by a still stronger bond, the conviction that Truth is one though the paths that lead to it are many.

In the School of Philosophy, where differentiation is rapid, it is specially needful that cohesive influences should make themselves felt. It is well that we regard the chief aim of this school not only as an ideal that may be realized, but also as a reality accomplished by one of the world's master minds. And it is meet, on this patron's day, that we clearly conceive, in order to take them more deeply to heart, the lessons which the master has taught us.

Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Friar, sometime professor in the universities of Paris and Naples, died March 7, 1274. In 1879 Leo XIII formally restored the Thomistic system as the model and norm of Catholic teaching, at the same time proclaiming its author the patron of all Catholic schools.

The period bounded by these two dates is the most remarkable in the Christian era, and in many respects the most important in the history of the human race. Great events are crowded into it, epochs that stand forth as land marks on the high-road of time, transformations that have affected, and still affect for weal or for woe, the vital interests of humanity.

Divisions in religious belief have led one portion of even the Christian world to discard the ideals which the other still reveres. Political revolutions, tending gradually to the severance of Church and State, have also set farther and farther apart the influences which should govern our spiritual life and the conditions which determine our ordinary occupations. The march of intellect has brought us new forms of thought and expression, new fields of investigation, new methods by which to explore them, new standards by which to judge the results. What then, except we be historians, is the past to us? We are no doubt a product of that past. To it and to the laws of human development we owe our present. In it we may yet discern elements of beauty that have not come down to us -- evidences of skill, of high-flown fancy, of daring intelligence, of heroic aspiration -- for which neither the modern hand nor the modern mind can offer an equivalent. But for all that, what is the past to us when our eyes are fixed on the future? The more justly we appreciate that which is by studying that which has been, the more confidently do we turn to that which shall be. If history shows us that the present is the outcome of a growth, reflection tells us that a greater growth is yet to come. If science astonishes us with what it has achieved, it reminds us in the same breath that we are only at the beginning of marvels. If we pause for a moment to admire what individuals have done, we are quickly admonished that the whole race is moving on to a higher goal, as our planetary system and its sun are advancing through space towards a dimly-seen star. What, therefore, does the past signify; what especially is our concern with that mediaeval past which to so many minds appears as a cloud bank resting on the heights of the sixteenth century? What is there, above all, in the life or works of a mediaeval monk that should call us together from our libraries and laboratories, from the living issues of our day and its busy pursuits, to do him honor?

When we go back in imagination to the golden age of Scholasticism and realize how keen was the competition of intellect, we can understand why Thomas Aquinas, with his depth and subtlety and clearness, was the object of enthusiastic admiration among the passionate lovers of learning who gathered in the schools of Paris. When we consider the purity of this life, his humility, his faith, his calmness in the hour of success, and his steadfast refusal of ecclesiastical preferment, we must acknowledge that the Church but gives him his due by honoring him as a saint. When we open his writings and discern beneath their rigid form the erudition of a scholar and the grasp of a master mind in dealing with the most sublime and difficult problems, we are ready to salute him as a Doctor of the Church, even as the Doctor Angelic. But when we rise from our study and glance upon the world about us we may still be inclined to ask: What claim has Aquinas upon the respect of this age -- what actuality does he possess for us after the lapse of six hundred years?

To justify this claim, to make this actuality, so to speak, palpable, we must first of all lay hold upon that which is essential in our modern intellectual life, and then make it clear that St. Thomas possessed and manifested this vital characteristic, not merely in an ordinary fashion, but also in a surpassing degree. We must convince ourselves that St. Thomas is more than a genius to be admired -- that he is a model to be imitated. And we must be assured that in following his example, we neither retrograde in our views nor surrender what modern thought has accomplished, but rather come closer to that harmonious unity of knowledge in which we hope to find truth.

Purposely I say, we must lay hold upon the essentials of our modern intellectual life. We must do so in justice to ourselves. For what is of greatest value in any age is not so much the multitude of isolated discoveries or brilliant theories, as the underlying and often undiscovered trend of thought which sets research in given directions and strikes a just balance between the results. Again, we must remember that in comparison with the hypotheses advanced and the number of erroneous interpretations put upon established facts, the net profit which endures is small -- so small that we might be discouraged were it not for the thought that such is the law of progress -- each wave advancing a little higher on the sands, then rolling back, while the tide itself steadily rises. It is the tide of intellectual advance and, more specially, the force which urges it forward that we must apprehend, if we would rightly appreciate the best elements of modern thought, and discover their real significance.

To such an appreciation we are bound, moreover, by justice to those who have gone before us, and, what chiefly concerns us here, in justice to St. Thomas. I do not mean that we are to regard him with a sort of admiring pity, as though he stood out isolated and alone, a sublime exception to the spirit of his age. For in that age neither talent nor eagerness of inquiry, neither bold initiative nor manly independence was wanting. But, in fairness, we must allow for the fact that, in the thirteenth century, many of the sources of knowledge which we now enjoy were still hidden from view, and many of the appliances by which we now profit were not even dreamed of as fair possibilities. The methods of research so productive in modern science, the means of communication which in our day annihilate space and time, the material needs which stimulate investigation and give it a practical turn -- all these were lacking in the age to which St. Thomas belonged. To judge him, therefore, by his acquaintance with this or that branch of natural science, to ask whether he favored the hypothesis of the ether or of natural selection or of space with a fourth dimension, is simply beside the question. To compare him with Newton, or Harvey, or Lavoisier, is consequently far from our present purpose. And it would obviously be out of place to ask whether his works afford guidance in the methods of empirical research, or give clues to the solution of problems which only research could suggest.

But what we may ask, justly and confidently, is this: Does not St. Thomas exemplify in a singular degree the aspiration and the intent which deeply yet powerfully moves the scientific endeavor of our age?

Consider with me for a moment the growth of our knowledge. Back of phenomena lie hidden their causes. Binding cause and effect are nature's unchangeable laws. Underlying these laws and enveloping these phenomena is a Power, which manifests itself alike in the atom and in the Universe. To co-ordinate a multitude of facts and make them converge upon a single great truth, to merge seemingly separate truths in a higher all-satisfying concept, to pierce through the manifold of appearance to the ultimate reality beneath -- in a word, to reach simplicity where all is complex, unity through the veil of variety -- such is, in its highest phase, the aim of intellectual effort -- the essential element in our modern intellectual life.

This passion for unity means more than an attempt at consistency; it aims at identification. It is not content with the orderly survey of Nature's manifestations; it seeks a supreme formula in which they shall all be embraced and explained. It overrides our divisions of knowledge, asserts itself in every branch of our science, and seizes on each product of research, standing guard at the mouth of the mine where thousands are delving for treasure.

To physical science, in exchange for innumerable effects, wrought as once we supposed by as many differing agencies, it has given the principle that energy is one in spite of its transformations. To the science of life, just aglow with the mastery of structure and function and form, it declares -- all that now lives is but an upgrowth through countless variations from germs that we despise or know not -- but the process of life is one. To the science of mind, proudly aloof from the cycle of material causation it rudely proclaims, though not without some hesitation: dualism is no more, the substance of spirit is dissolved, for body and mind, in a deeper unknowable depth, are one.

Then laden with the spoils from our knowledge of nature and life and man, the craving for unity comes to philosophy and demands a final accounting. And philosophy, hard though it be to speak, feels that silence is harder still. Philosophy, too, has a unity, an ultimate unity, in which the most stubborn opposition disappears So that, looking abroad upon the entirety of things, philosophers assert: the universe is one in all its component parts, and one with that Being which is the soul of the world, which unfolds its activity in all phenomena, which thinks in our thought, and thinking formulates the law which we call evolution, which is in turn but the law of its manifestation.

In what measure these far-reaching attempts at unification may be said to succeed, or how far they may satisfy the innate craving of our minds, we need not for the present discuss. Whatever be their value, according to this or that standard, they are certainly indications of one and the same spirit, tendencies with one and the same direction; and for our purpose this is sufficient. At all events it is not their daring that we can condemn, nor the difficulty of their undertaking that should lead us to doubt. For if the task of science and philosophy seem arduous, what shall we say of the effort to harmonize both science and philosophy with the teachings of Faith? In the one case, bold as speculation may be, it is still within the limits of reason; in the other, reason is brought face to face with that which immeasurably transcends it. In the one case our intelligence but labors to set its own products in order; in the other, it has to take account of truths that could only originate in the intellect of God. Yet we know that it is the ambition of many an earnest mind to show forth the sublime accord which unites the human and the divine, the natural and the supernatural, finite knowledge and infinite wisdom. Doubtless there are higher motives prompting this endeavor, motives that spring from a deep-seated reverence both for the dignity of human reason and the sanctity of God's revelation. Nevertheless, we may discern in this undertaking the irrepressible desire for unity, and since the manifesting of this unity must be made in terms of our understanding and in utterances of human language, we are in no way surprised when theology proclaims: The truth that by searching you have found out and the truth that God by His Word bas revealed, are one.

Thus, in all the departments of human learning, the same spirit is at work, struggling on different planes for the attainment of one and the same end. I say "struggling," because as time wears on, and as research multiplies the data of our knowledge or modifies our notions of natural law, new horizons open up to our view. Where a multitude is busy with analysis, comparatively few maintain that mental grasp on which synthesis necessarily depends. And fewer still are they who, with keen analytical insight, combine a synthetic mastery over the widening domain of science.

Of this rarer sort was Thomas Aquinas. No shade of thought so subtle that it escaped him, no depth so profound but he fathomed it and explored its farthest recess. Where the finest of the Greeks had threaded his way, Aquinas marched confidently; where the Fathers, in passing, had gleaned, he found a harvest of untouched meaning; where his fellow-scholastics paused, he took up their work and led it with masterful strides to perfection. But analysis, with all its thoroughness, was for him only the means to an end, the necessary preparation for a vast and final synthesis.

To him, as to us, nature was a splendid unity; and though he knew less than we know of nature's details, he saw, as Aristotle had seen, the ultimate principles in which the study of nature must issue. Throughout all change, whether of material constitution or of mechanical motion, of organic function or of intellectual process, he discovered the ceaseless alternation of activity and passivity, of actuality and potentiality. In every transition from the imperfect to the perfect and from the simple to the complex, be beheld order and purpose and law. In each phenomenon, be looked beyond the specialized form of energy to the deeper impulse and influence of an all-pervading cause.

But his unification of knowledge went farther. He conceived the totality of things as proceeding from one source and returning through the cycle of time and space to one sovereign end, the source and the end being God. Nor was God, to his way of thinking, an isolated, unknowable somewhat, entirety apart from the world. On the contrary, St. Thomas emphatically teaches that a divine energy is put forth in every production of nature's causation; as a consequence, that each physical process is a manifestation of God's power; and, what may seem strange to the modern mind, that each effect is more truly the outcome of God's omnipotence than of the physical agency from which it immediately proceeds. Consequently, too, in his eyes, each separate created being reflected, according to its measure of perfection, the wisdom and power of God, as the tiniest drops of dew reflect the morning sun; which creation as a whole shone as our planet shines, transfigured and illuminated with a radiance central and divine.

Upon the mind of man, when properly adjusted, as upon a mirror set true, fall these reflected rays, begetting therein an image, small, yet proportionately just, of their dazzling infinite source. And thus, from the things that are made, we rise to a knowledge of their invisible Maker. But because God, their Maker, is a personal God, infinite mind and infinite will, in one; and because in the depths of unlimited being and unbounded goodness there are truths which no finite mind, of itself, can perceive; it is possible, it is fitting, that God should make Himself known by a more immediate revelation. To this direct effulgence of divine truth Aquinas opened his mind, and realized in a glance that it must be in unison with the truths which nature and reason had taught him. Not that he pretended to compass the ways of God, nor that he presumed upon superhuman intuition, or even upon rational insight, beyond what was granted his fellows. What convinced him was the thought that God manifesting Himself in the universe and God revealing Himself in His incomprehensible Word, is one and the same. Between the knowledge that comes by seeing and the Faith that comes of hearing, there is, and there can be, no suspicion of discord. Such is the conviction that St. Thomas carries with him as he approaches the several mysteries of Faith. Such is the conclusion to which he returns and in which he abides after scanning the page of revelation illumined by the learning of the Fathers and the authoritative teachings of the Church. In his mind, therefore, as expressed in his writings, we behold the most perfect blending of natural and supernatural truth. In his concepts, as in all created modes of thought, the several beams of knowledge undergo a refraction; but of the interference which means darkness, there is none.

The science of our day, my friends, fills us with admiration of Nature' s beauty, because it shows us with the lens of observation and the crucible of experiment, how much is concealed beneath the humblest form and the simplest function. Yet far above the wonders of the material world are the marvels contained in the lowliest act of conscious life. And beyond these again our admiration stretches to the sublime synthetic endeavors of singularly gifted minds. That St. Thomas was endowed by nature to an exceptional degree, that in his speculation we find a model of synthetic comprehension, and that he is, for this reason, a well-chosen patron of Catholic scholars in our day, will be, I think, frankly admitted.

But there is a fact to which, in conclusion, I would ask your attention. Not only has St. Thomas pointed the path to synthetic knowledge; the man himself was a synthesis. He united the most brilliant intellectual attainments with the most solid and most attractive virtue. His virtue was not of the showy kind; for him the parade of piety possessed no charm. Humility did not bar him from independence of thought; calmness did not subdue his critical acumen; charity did not withhold him from the exposure and censure of error wherever he found it. In all these respects, he is the especial model of Catholic teachers and Catholic students. The more deeply we penetrate the secrets of nature, the more thoroughly we reconstruct the past of our race, the more keenly we analyze the laws, the workings and the products of human intelligence, the greater reason have we for humbling ourselves and acknowledging our ignorance. And feeling how limited is our own span of truth, we will readily make allowance for those whose opinions we cannot logically endorse. We will gain their respect and mayhap their love. We will strive not merely for the unification of our own ideas, but also, and principally, for the uniting of all hearts and all minds. We may not be rewarded with instant success; but if we can convince men that their installment of truth finds its complement and completion in that which we offer them, a great deal will have been accomplished. We will have fulfilled the mission of a Christian University in the nineteenth century; we will have rendered the highest tribute in our power to the Dominican friar of the thirteenth century, to Thomas, the Angel of the Schools.