Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


Thomas Aquinas was canonized on July 18, 1323 but he had already been put in Paradise by Dante who died in 1321.

Thomas's main role in the Divine Comedy

Councils and popes have praised him, saints and sinners have studied his writings, few philosophers are without an opinion of his main teachings. Somewhere, right now, there are people poring over his texts -- over seven hundred years after his death.

Plato and Aristotle have been dead nearly three times as long and they too are still read. Moreover, there are Platonists and Aristotelians among us today. Whitehead said that we are born either Platonists or Aristotelians, presumably the way people in Gilbert & Sullivan are born either little conservatives or little liberals.

A lot of dead philosophers are still read but very few of them have followers. Thomas Aquinas is one of that handful. (He was born an Aristotelian, incidentally.) Of course it has not hurt his reputation that he is held in such honor by the Church and is the patron of Catholic schools. There are people alive today who remember whole batteries of college courses in philosophy and theology that were, or aspired to be, Thomistic. Although that has changed, editions and translations and studies of Thomas's writings continue to pour from the presses. Journals and societies are devoted to his thought. No one would want to read everything that has been written about Thomas Aquinas. But then very few people have read everything Thomas himself wrote.

Thomas has been recommended to Catholic philosophers and theologians as their principal guide. The assumption is that he can aid them in their task. Their task, in a nutshell, is to attain the truth. The main reason to read Thomas is to learn things that are true.

Platonists follow Plato because they think he leads them to the truth.

Aristotelians follow Aristotle because they think he leads them to the truth.

There are Platonists and there are Aristotelians, but there are also Plato-scholars and Aristotle-scholars. A scholar is someone who knows a good deal more than you and I but it is sometimes unclear why he wants to. Disputes over passages in Plato have raged for centuries. The Platonist wishes to resolve the dispute in order to arrive at the true position. The Plato-scholar resolves disputes, to the degree that he does, by arguing that this or that is what Plato truly meant.

It could be argued that every Platonist must be in some degree a Plato-scholar. If that is true, the Plato-scholar is a truncated type. He is very serious about what the author actually said or meant. As to its truth or falsity, well, that is another thing.

Sometimes Platonists get annoyed with Plato-scholars. St. Augustine said that we do not send our children to school to learn what the teacher says. What we want is for them to learn the truth. Thomas said that the point of philosophy is not to find out what so-and-so said.

Of course children have to know what the teacher says in order to go on to what Augustine wanted for his son. Thomas did not wish to deny that we must learn from those so-and-so's who have written. Learn not only that they truly said such-and-such, but also whether what they said is true -- that is the point of studying them.

By and large, we think of truths as belonging to very restricted areas of inquiry. The more restricted the better. To know all that can be known about bees, for example. Which leaves out a lot of other bugs. And plants. And beasts. But you can't be busy about everything, so take bees.

Human knowledge is then the sum of all these special truths. And nobody knows them all. You might subscribe to Scientific American or World Book and read around about many things. Any scientist knows his field in that way. Bees he's an expert on but he will take your word on mosquitos. In physics he as much a tourist as you are.

One way of thinking about the many domains of knowledge is an evolution from philosophy for centuries the study of nature was carried on by philosophers. Newton still spoke of what he did as natural philosophy and until quite recently the holder of an advanced degree in physics was called a Doctor of Philosophy. Things have changed. It might seem that philosophy flourished before knowledge developed into the many disciplines we know today and now has been surpassed. There is some truth to that. Not much, but some.

We can see the limitations of this view by noticing the way in which scientists and mathematicians, heavy with achievements and honors, often turn to philosophical questions. Kurt Gödel wrote long letters to his mother on the subject of life after death. For every philosopher who thinks science has rendered obsolete the questions of philosophy, there are two scientists who turn from their discipline to consider philosophical questions.

Some Philosophical Questions

What is a philosophical question? Here is a list of some of them.

And so on.

Like the man who was surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, you may be surprised to learn that you have often posed philosophical questions. Of course you have. It is difficult not to. Fascinating as the knowledge of bees may be, few would rank it higher than answers to such questions as we have just listed.

We read philosophers in order to arrive at true answers to those questions. Not all philosophers are helpful. Only a handful are. Most philosophers are pretty bad. You have to study them to know that, which is annoying, or you can take my word for it, which is dangerous and unwise. I may be one of the bad ones myself.

Getting Started

It will occur to you that you needn't run any such risk. If you have already asked some of the questions on my list, presumably without prompting from others, you should be able to come up with an answer to them as well. In some sense, you have already implicitly answered many of those questions and by reflecting on what goes through your mind when, say, you are wondering what the right thing to do is, you can develop a theory as to what makes actions good. This path is open to you, in one sense, it is the only path you can take.

Its alternative is to read or listen to what others have to say on the subject. But what they have to say will be somewhat like what you find you have already implicitly thought. You are going to have to accept or reject it. Alter or add to it. Judge it to be true or false.

If we couldn't learn anything on our own, we couldn't learn anything from others.

Still, there are advantages in reading and hearing others. They may have thought of things we haven't. We can cover more ground in this way. You or I could invent the wheel, but it is convenient that it has already been done.

There are people who know more than we do. Mechanics know more about engines, doctors about disease, insurance men about life expectancy, politicians about human gullibility. Just about anyone knows more about bees than I do. If I want to learn about such matters, I am well advised to list to those who already know them.

A feature of philosophical questions, unlike questions about bees, internal combustion, and insurance rates, is that they are inescapable. They are important for everyone. Any human life is, in a sense, an answer to them.

If you are going to choose a philosopher to read you might be guided by the fact that only a few philosophers have followers today. There are Kantians, perhaps there are Hegelians. God knows there are Marxists if only in universities and in Central America. There are Platonists and Aristotelians. There are Thomists. The list could be added to but it would still be a short one. Your choice is thereby made easier. (I am assuming that you do not want to be a mere scholar.)

There is no way you can know, before making a choice. What choice is the best. The best choice will be that philosopher who helps you reach true answers to some or all the questions on our list, and others like them.

You could read about philosophers, flip through a history of philosophy and get information about what they taught. But historians of philosophy inevitably put a particular spin on their narratives -- they may be Hegelians or Thomists or Marxists -- so you will have made the other choice as well. Still, this could lead up to the choice of a teacher. A master. A guide.

If your choice is not random, it is guided. You will be guided by the historian of philosophy, by a college catalog, by your mother or some other trusted adviser.

For reasons that will become clear, it makes a lot of difference where you begin.

The Catholic Advantage

A Roman Catholic who turns to Thomas, following the guidance of the Church, has a confidence unlike any other beginner in philosophy that he is off to a good start. Unless we throw darts or follow a whim --"I like leatherbound books" -- we will be trusting someone's advice. The Church is a surer guide than anyone else.

It is well to get this right on the table now. The thought has grown up that religious faith is somehow opposed to or at any rate an obstacle to doing philosophy. I will be stressing the virtual necessity of the Church's patronage if philosophy is to survive.

Many secular philosophers nowadays have given up on reason, on our ability to know things as they are. They have also given up on our ability to know moral truths, certainly of an absolute sort.

The Church insists on the range and power of reason, in both the theoretical and moral orders. Far from threatening human reason, religious faith seems now to provide the only defense of it.


Teaching and Learning

Just as someone can be cured in two ways, either through the operation of nature alone or by nature aided by medicine, so there is a twofold way of acquiring knowledge, the first when natural reason arrives by itself at knowledge of things hitherto unknown, and this is called discovery, the other when natural reason is aided by someone else, and this is called teaching.

In things which come to be by nature and by art, art operates in the same way and by the same means as nature does. For just as nature restores health in one ailing of cold by means of heat, so too does the physician and that is why are is said to imitate nature. Something similar happens in the acquisition of knowledge, in that the teacher proceeds in the same way in leading another to knowledge of the unknown as one by discovering leads himself to knowledge of the unknown. Reason's way of proceeding to knowledge of the unknown by way of discovery is to apply common self-evident principles to determinate matters and proceed thence to particular conclusions and from those to others. Thus it is that one man is said to teach another when he proposed by way of signs the same course natural reason would follow of itself. The natural reason of the student, comes to knowledge of the unknown by using what is proposed to is as instruments. Therefore just as the physician is said to cause health in the patient by working with nature, so a man is said to cause knowledge in another by the operation of the latter's natural reason: this is teaching. So one man can be said to teach another and to be his master.

Thus Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics says that demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge. If however one proposed to another what is not contained in self-evident first principles or is not shown to be included he does not cause knowledge in the other but perhaps opinion or faith, though even these are in a way caused by innate principles. For just as what follows necessarily from the principles ought to be held with certitude and what is contrary to them ought to be completely repudiated, other things can be accepted or not, given the principles. The light of reason whereby such principles are known to us is given us by God as a kind of likeness effected in us by uncreated truth. Therefore since all human teaching has what efficacy it has from the strength of this light, it is clear that it is God alone who chiefly and interiorly teaches, as nature interiorly chiefly heals. Nonetheless, teaching and healing in their proper senses mean what we have been discussing.

-- Disputed Question On Truth, Question 11, article 1 (in part).

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