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


On August 4, 1879, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to the world, an encyclical, which was named from its opening words Aeterni Patris. In English it was named On Christian Philosophy. In this letter, Leo urged Catholic theologians and philosophers to take their cue from St. Thomas Aquinas and he urged Catholic schools and colleges and universities and especially seminaries to give pride of place to the thought of Aquinas.

Thus it was that the Leonine Revival came about. Leo ordered a critical edition of the writings of Thomas, which all these years later is still in progress; courses of study, schools, journals, societies sprang up all over the world and studies of the thought of Thomas poured from the presses.

In the United States, the American Catholic Philosophical Association was founded as well as its journal The New Scholasticism. Other journals, The Thomist and Modern Schoolman were founded. As mentioned earlier, students in Catholic colleges and universities took from four to eight required courses in philosophy, courses based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Why? On the face of it, this seems an extraordinary thing. Imagine that there are 643 philosophers, say, and one day, strolling in the papal gardens, Leo XIII decides to pick one of them as the more or less official philosopher of the Church. We might feel sorry for the 642. Why were they overlooked and Thomas chosen? It isn't like a governor designating the begonia as the state flower, given all the things that happened as the result of the choice.

You might even wonder why the Church should care all that much about philosophy to elevate Thomas above all the others. Of course, Thomas was a theologian as well as a philosopher and the Church has a more than passing interest in theology, but even so, it can seem an arbitrary choice. Why Thomas?

The fast answer is: because what he teaches is true. Does this mean none of the other philosophers taught truths? It would be hard to fail entirely in the quest for truth. The reason is found in the fundamental characteristics of Thomas's outlook, and these are shared by many other philosophers, but Thomas had a way of writing and arguing that has survived better.

The motivation for what Leo XIII did has to be looked for in the way the Church sees the modern world. There may have been those in the nineteenth century who thought everything was hunky-dory, but the Church didn't think so. Nowadays it is hard to find anyone who thinks the times are fine, but there is little agreement of what went wrong. That things have gone wrong is something on which you can get a lot of agreement, and I mean among philosophers.

Leo in the nineteenth century was disturbed by things out of which our own troubles have largely come. The problems were philosophical before they were religious. Kierkegaard, writing earlier in the nineteenth century, said: The reason we have forgotten what it is to be a Christian is that we have forgotten what it is to be a man. In order to understand the Church's recommendation of St. Thomas as our chief guide in philosophy we have to understand the philosophical situation to which Thomism is the antidote.

The World III Lost

René Descartes (1596-1650) stands at the beginning. Rightly called Father of Modern Philosophy, he effected a revolution in the way we think about ourselves and the world, although he himself was perhaps not aware how radically different his approach to philosophy was.

Like many others, Descartes did well in college, learned all kinds of things and then one day, in winter camp in a hot room, put an unsettling question to himself. What do I really know? All kinds of things clattered around in his head, of course -- he could remember this teacher and that at the Jesuit college at La Fleche -- but it seemed to him that he knew nothing with such certainty that he could not at least imagine it was false.

So he invented a little game called Methodic Doubt. He would sort through what he thought he knew and ask himself if it was not imaginable that it was false. The procedure can be understood it we use some such schema as the following.

I think that _______________.

The game consists of this: Is there any truth claim that can fill in the bland which is such that I cannot even imagine it to be false?

Obviously, Descartes does not propose to try to fill in the blank with just any and every thought that occurs to him -- first, grass is green, then apples are red, squash is orange, sandpaper is rough, fire is hot, water is wet, on and on and on. He's got time, but not that much time. He has to cluster judgments into types in order to play the game.

The first cluster is made up of any judgment based upon the senses. You can see that under this heading all the thoughts mentioned in the preceding paragraph are included. Are these judgments as a group such that Descartes can expect all or some of them to be true beyond the possibility of doubt?

Our senses sometimes deceive us. You thought something was flat and it's convex. The suit looked black in the muted light of the store but outside you discover it is blue. The stick in water looks bent. And so on. You get the idea. We sometimes think something has this or that quality and are deceived in so thinking.

Now out of that commonplace observation, Descartes pulls a surprising rabbit. If my senses sometimes deceive me, I will set aside as possible candidates for indubitable truths any judgments based on the senses. His idea seems to have been that if the senses sometimes deceive me, the time they do so can always be now, and I cannot build my thinking on so wobbly a foundation.

Now among the things that are set aside by this move is Descartes' body. He can hold his hand in front of his face, bend over and see his toes, but he will not trust the testimony of his eyes because they have sometimes deceived him. For now then, everything grasped by the senses, including Descartes' body, is set aside.

Descartes' Demon

So what's left? In search of something he could not possibly doubt, Descartes has thrown out any and all judgments based on the senses. Is there nothing he can know for sure?

Descartes was a great mathematician and it may surprise you that he did not immediately fill in his blank with "2 + 2 = 4," which anything we cannot doubt is simple as,

I think that 2 + 2 = 4.

Wouldn't Descartes be home free with that? Surely, he cannot imagine such a simple sum is false?

Oh yes he can. And in two ways. Remember when you did your arithmetic homework and you got all the answers, were sure they were correct, then were told they were all wrong? You couldn't believe it. You were sure the answers were correct. Your Dad was sure. And then the teacher had the gall to say you have to do the exercise over again. Which under duress, you did. You got new answers, the right answers, you got a B -- in math.

Even Descartes had the experience. Notice, he tells himself, that the feeling of certitude I had on the first occasion is indistinguishable from that I have on the second. I was sure I was right when I got the wrong answers; later I am sure I have the right answers. That being the case, I am unwise to trust that feeling of certainty. With that, all mathematical possibilities for filling in the blank go out the window that is no longer there.

As if he weren't too happy with that, Descartes offers another reason for doubting mathematical truths to be true. Imagine a malevolent demon whose task it is to whisper beneath our pillows at night that 2 +2 = 4. He is crafty, persistent, and smarter than we are, and so succeeds. The demon knows that really and truly 2 + 2 = 5. The reason that sounds funny to us is that the demon has done his work so well.

A silly story. Descartes doesn't think so. Once you have thought of such a demon, how can you ever be sure he doesn't exist? This is not a proof of the existence of the malevolent demon of the kind Descartes will shortly give of God. It is the claim that we can never be certain that he doesn't exist. And that means we can never be sure we aren't being deceived about even the most elementary arithmetical claims. So long, 2 + 2 = 4.

When Thinking Makes It So

Descartes has thought himself into a very lonely spot. He has lost the world and his body and now even the world of mathematics has become dubious. There isn't anything left but Descartes and all that is left of him is his mind. He has been reduced to a "thinking something." Moreover, something whose thinking may always be doubted; to think is to be deceived.

It is at this darkest moment of the game of Methodic Doubt that light breaks through. Pondering the possibility that "I who think may always be deceived," it occurs to Descartes that, even if he is always be deceived," it occurs to Descartes that, even if he is always deceived about everything else, he cannot doubt that he who is deceived exists.

Even if nothing can fill in the blank of "I think that ______" which escapes the possibility that it is false, there is certainty lurking in the neighborhood. Fill in the blank with anything and let that anything be false. If I think it true, I am deceived. No matter, I cannot be deceived that I who am deceived exist. Descartes has from the nettle of doubt plucked the flower of certainty. "I think, therefore I am!"

God to the Rescue

Relieved to find that he cannot doubt his own existence as a thinking something, Descartes shuffles through his thoughts looking for any whose existence would seem to require some counterpart outside his mind as their cause.

Does the fact that he has the idea of apple and thinks apples are red justify the judgment that apples exist? No. In fact, Descartes finds no idea different from apple except one, and that is the idea of God.

Where did the idea of a most perfect, all powerful, and just being, creator of all else, come from? Descartes decides that he could not have invented it and, to make a long story short, concludes that the only possible cause of his idea of God must be God Himself. God exists.

What a relief! There are now two certified beings in the Cartesian universe, René and God. Things move swiftly now. Would God deceive Descartes? Of course not. This thought removes his earlier doubts, the world is restored. Descartes gets his body back and he moves his feet closer to the stove and wriggles his toes in contented gratitude. God's in His heaven, all's right with the world and with René Descartes.


Pope John Paul II on Thomism

The hundred years of the encyclical Aeterni Patris have not passed in vain, nor has that celebrated document of pontifical teaching gone out of date. The enclyclical is based on a fundamental principle which lends it a profound inner organic unity: it is the principle of harmony between the truths of reason and those of faith. It is this that was uppermost in the heart of Leo XIII. This principle, always consequential and relevant, has made considerable progress in the last hundred years. Suffice it to consider the consistent Magisterium of the Church from Pope Leo XIII to Paul VI and what was completed in Vatican Council II, especially in the documents Optatum totius (On Priestly Formation), Gravissimum educationis (On Christian Education) and Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church).

In light of Vatican Council II, we see, perhaps better than a century ago, the unity and continuity between authentic humanism and authentic Christianity, between reason and faith, thanks to the directives of Aeterni Patris of Leo XIII, who with this document subtitled "On Restoring Christian Philosophy in Catholic Schools According to the Mind of St. Thomas," showed awareness that a crisis, a rupture, a conflict, or at least an obscuring of the relation between reason and faith had occurred.

Within the culture of the nineteenth century two extreme attitudes in fact can be singled out: rationalism (reason without faith) and fideism (faith without reason). Christian culture moves between these two extremes, swinging from one side to the other. Vatican Council I had already had its say on the matter. It was then time to mark out a new course in the internal studies of the Church. Leo XIII farsightedly prepared for this task, presenting again -- in the sense of establishing -- the perennial thought of the church in the clear, deep methodology of the Angelic Doctor.

The dualism setting reason and faith in opposition, not at all modern, constituted a renewal of the medieval doctrine of the 'double truth,' which threatened from within "the intimate unity of the man-Christian" (Paul VI, Light of the Church, n. 12). It was the great scholastic doctors of the thirteenth century that put Christian culture on the right road again. As Paul VI stated, "In accomplishing the work signaling the culmination of medieval Christian thought, St. Thomas was not alone. Before and after him many other illustrious doctors worked toward the same goal: among whom St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great, Alexander of Hales and Duns Scotus are to be recalled. But without a doubt St. Thomas, as willed by divine Providence, reached the height of all 'scholastic' theology and philosophy, as it is usually called, and set the central pivot in the Church around which, at that time and since, Christian thought could be developed with sure progress."

It is for this that the Church has given preference to the method and doctrine of the Angelic Doctor. Quite other than exclusive preference, this deals with an exemplary preference that permitted Leo XIII to declare him to be "among the scholastic doctors, the chief and master of all" (Aeterni Patris n. 17). And truly such is St. Thomas Aquinas, not only for the completeness, balance, depth, and clarity of his style, but still more for his keen sense of fidelity to the truth, which can also be called realism. Fidelity to the voice of created things so as to construct the edifice of philosophy: fidelity to the voice of the Church so as to construct the edifice of theology.

(From an address delivered September 13, 1980 to the Eighth International Thomistic Congress.)

Descartes' Own Synopsis of His Meditations

In the First Meditation I expound the grounds on which we may doubt in general of all things, and especially of material objects, so long, at least, as we have no other foundations for the sciences than those we have hitherto possessed. Now, although the utility of a doubt so general may not be manifest at first sight, it is nevertheless of the greatest, since it delivers us from all prejudice, and affords the easiest pathway by which the mind may withdraw itself from the senses; and finally, makes it impossible for us to doubt wherever we afterwards discover truth.

In the Second, the mind which, in the exercise of the freedom peculiar to itself, supposes that no object is, of the existence of which it has even the slightest doubt, finds that, meanwhile, it must itself exist. And this point is likewise of the highest moment, for the mind is thus enabled easily to distinguish what pertains to itself, that is, to the intellectual nature, from what is to be referred to the body. But since some, perhaps, will expect, at this stage of our progress, a statement of the reasons which establish the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, I think it proper here to make such aware, that it was my aim to write nothing of which I could not give exact demonstration, and that I therefore felt myself obliged to adopt an order similar to that in use among the geometers, viz., to premise all upon which the proposition in question depends, before coming to any conclusion respecting it. Now, the first and chief prerequisite for the knowledge of the immortality of the soul is our being able to form the clearest possible conception (conceptus -- concept) of the soul itself, and such as shall be absolutely distinct from all our notions of body; and how this is to be accomplished is there shown. There is required besides this, the assurance that all objects which we clearly and distinctly think are true (really exist) in that very mode in which we think them and this could not be established previously to the Fourth Meditation. Farther, it is necessary, for the same purpose, that we possess a distinct conception of corporeal nature, which is given partly in the Second and partly in the Fifth and Sixth Meditations. And, finally, on these grounds, we are necessitated to conclude, that all those objects which are clearly and distinctly conceived to be diverse substances, as mind and body, are substances really reciprocally distinct; and this inference is made in the Sixth Meditation. The absolute distinction of mind and body is, besides, confirmed in this Second Meditation, by showing that we cannot conceive body unless as divisible; while, on the other hand, mind cannot be conceived unless as indivisible. For we are not able to conceive the half of a mind, as we can of any body, however small, so that the natures of these two substances are to be held, not only as diverse, but even in some measure as contraries. I have not, however, pursued this discussion further in the present treatise, as well for the reason that these considerations are sufficient to show that the destruction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body, and thus to afford to men the hope of a future life, as also because the premises from which it is competent for us to infer the immortality of the soul, involve an explication of the whole principles of physics: in order to establish, in the first place, that generally all substances, that is, all things which can exist only in consequence of having been created by God, are in their own nature incorruptible, and can never cease to be, unless God himself, by refusing his concurrence to them, reduce them to nothing; and, in the second place, that body, taken generally, is a substance, and therefore can never perish, but that the human body, in as far as it differs from other bodies, is constituted only by a certain configuration of members, and by other accidents of this sort, while the human mind is not made up of accidents, but is a pure substance, For although all the accidents of the mind be changed -- although, for example, it think certain things, will others, and perceive others, the mind itself does not vary with these changes; while, on the contrary, the human body is no longer the same if a change take place in the form of any of its parts from which it follows that the body may, indeed, without difficulty perish, but that the mind is in its own nature immortal.

In the Third Meditation, I have unfolded at sufficient length, as appears to me, my chief argument for the existence of God. But yet, since I was there desirous to avoid the use of comparisons taken from material objects, that I might withdraw, as far as possible, the minds of my readers from the senses, numerous obscurities perhaps remain, which, however, will, I trust, be afterwards entirely removed in the replies to the objections: thus among other things, it may be difficult to understand how the idea of a being absolutely perfect, which is found in our minds, possesses so much objective reality [i.e., participates by representation in so many degrees of being and perfection] that it must be held to arise from a course absolutely perfect. This is illustrated in the replies by the comparison of a highly perfect machine, the idea of which exists in the mind of some workmen; for as the objective (i.e., representative) perfection of this idea must have some cause, viz., either the science of the workman, or of some other person from whom he has received the idea, in the same way the idea of God, which is found in us, demands God himself for its cause.

In the Fourth, it is shown that all which we clearly and distinctly perceive (apprehend) is true; and, at the same time, is explained wherein consists the nature of error; points that required to be known as well for confirming the preceding truths, as for the better understanding of those that are to follow. But meanwhile, it must be observed, that I do not at all there treat of Sin, that is, of error committed in the pursuit of good and evil, but of that sort alone which arises in the determination of the true and the false. Nor do I refer to matters of faith, or the conduct of life, but only to what reagrads speculative truths, and such as are known by means of the natural light alone.

In the Fifth, besides the illustration of corporeal nature, taken generically, a new demonstration is given of the existence of God, not free, perhaps any more than the former, from certain difficulties, but of these the solution will be found in the replies to the objections. I further show in what sense it is true that the certitude of geometrical demonstrations themselves is dependent on a knowledge of God.

Finally, in the Sixth, the act of the understanding (intellectio) is distinguished from that of the imagination (imaginatio); the marks of this distinction are described; the human mind is shown to be really distinct from the body, and nevertheless, to be so closely conjoined therewith, as together to form as it were, a unity. The whole of the errors which arise from the senses are brought under review, while the means of avoiding them are pointed out; and finally, all the grounds are adduced from which the existence of material objects may be inferred; not, however, because I deemed them of great utility in establishing what they prove, viz. that there is in reality truth of which no one of sound mind ever seriously doubted; but because, from a close consideration of them, it is perceived that they are neither so strong nor clear as the reasonings which conduct us to the knowledge of our mind and of God; so that the latter are, of all which come under human knowledge, the most certain and manifest -- a conclusion which it was my single aim in these meditations to establish; on which account I here omit mention of the various other questions which, in the course of the discussion, I had occasion likewise to consider.

Translation by John Veitch, 1853.

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