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


Several times you have been told that St. Thomas is a theologian. Along the way, you will have noticed that a distinction is being drawn between the philosopher and the theologian. Indeed, there is a conflict between Thomas and his theologian colleagues over the newly available philosophical works of Aristotle. Yet I persist in speaking of the philosophy and philosophical work of Thomas. You are confused. Am I?

Philosophical Assumptions

When we were contrasting what we called the Classical view with Modernity, we stressed the fact that in the classical mode in which Thomas moves, it is assumed that you bring to your study of philosophy a good many truths about the world and yourself and it is from these that the formal study of philosophy begins.

Philosophy assumes these starting points are already there. It does not presume to confer on you the possibility of having true thoughts for the first time. That presumption is characteristic of Modernity, Gnosticism, and used car salesmen.

In the classical mode of doing philosophy, anything that is proposed for your acceptance must be commended on the basis of what you already know. Philosophical discourse looks like this. Given that A and B are so, it follows that C is so. A and B are the premises, C the conclusion. The premises with which all philosophical theories must ultimately accord are already known by everybody.

If you go to the library and randomly pull a work of philosophy from the shelf, chances are that, opened even at the first page, it will read like a foreign language, even though it is actually in English of a sort. Proceeding otherwise than randomly, I could cite such gems as the following to make the point.

Philosophy deals essentially with the general in which the particular is subsumed. Therefore, it seems, more than in the case of other sciences, as if the aim or the final results gave expression to the subject matter itself, even as if they did entire justice to its very essence, while the way in which things are worked out in detail may seem to be unessential. . .

Philosophy may be said to contain the principles of the rational cognition that concepts afford us of things (not merely, as with Logic, the principles of the form of thought in general irrespective of the Objects), and, thus interpreted, the course, usually adopted, of dividing it into theoretical and practical is perfectly sound. But this makes imperative a specific distinction on the part of the concepts by which the principles of this rational cognition get their object assigned to them . . .

I do not say that you might not learn to decipher such obfuscating remarks, the first from Hegel, the second from Kant, but then you might learn Swahili too. Contrast their Teutonic and musclebound prose with this.

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses, for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

That's Aristotle, beginning his most difficult work, the Metaphysics. You know from the very beginning what he is saying: he is speaking your language. He is reminding us of what we already know.

Hegel and Kant, on the other hand, are addressing the initiate. They refer to quasi-technical usage that they presume known by their readers. They are writing for professionals. They would not assume that a generally intelligent reader could follow what they are writing.

In saying these things, I am not being obscurantist. I do not intend to engage in that "clerical treason" whereby the intellectual mocks his own way of life, preening himself by implying that he is not like the others. I will plead as guilty as anyone to treating philosophy as if it were the interest of a coterie and as for abusing the language, I too have sinned, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Nor, of course, does a pellucid style guarantee that what is said is true. G. D. Moore and Bertrand Russell, the first always, the second when he wanted, addressed their philosophy to everyman.

Not every philosophical discussion is a threshold one, connecting in obvious ways with common experience and ordinary uses of the language. But in what we are calling Modernity, there is no desire to hook up with what everybody knows. The Classical view requires that every discussion, every truth claim, be such that we can be led back from it to those great common truths which everybody knows and which are the ultimate warrant for accepting whatever be proposed. Modernity begins with the denial that there is such a fund of commonly possessed non-gainsayabe truths to which reference must always be made.

Theological Assumptions

Revealed truths are to theology what commonly known truths are to philosophy.

Just as the philosopher in the classical mode draws attention to what we all already know, makes it explicit, goes on from it, so the theologian assumes faith, belief in truths revealed by God, makes them explicit, arranges them in various ways, defends them against attack, derives other truths from those which have been explicitly revealed.

Theological discourse is pretty clearly different from philosophical, or any other, discourse. Its assumed starting points are truths which are held on the basis of divine faith. That there are three Persons in God, that Jesus is both human and divine, that He rose from the dead thus enabling us to do the same, that sins can be forgiven, that Christ founded the Church, the priesthood, the sacraments -- all these, familiar as they are to believers, do not fall among the things that anybody can know on the basis of common experience of the world. If one does not hold these to be true, whatever logical connections he might see between them and the theologian's conclusions, those conclusions will not be accepted as truths by the nonbeliever.


This does not mean that the truths of faith are unrelated to what everybody knows. When Jesus wants to tell us of the mercy of God He tells the story of the Prodigal Son. The listener understands what is meant from the comparison drawn between fathers and sons, just as water and bread and wine are used sacramentally to mean cleansing from sin and spiritual food. But if common truths are appealed to in God's revealing of Himself to us, revealed truths do not follow from them as conclusions from premises.

Philosophy, as an extension of common knowledge, is presupposed by theology, in somewhat the same way as common truths are presupposed by faith. This is the origin of the description of philosophy as the handmaid or servant of theology.

The thing that struck Thomas in his study of Aristotle was that philosophers had arrived at truths about God which are equivalent to some revealed truths. We'll see later that, after recounting Aristotle's proof of the Prime Mover, Thomas will add, and that's what we mean by God. The "we" includes believers. God as the first cause of all else is known by Aristotle, Thomas says, and that is a truth we have accepted from childhood as part of our religion.

That there is only one God, that God is intelligent and good and just -- these have been taught by philosophers as truths which can ultimately be derived from truths about the world and ourselves.

So there is an overlap between the theology of the philosophers and that based on Holy Scripture. Some of the things God has told us about Himself can be known apart from Revelation, derived from what is known about the world. Thomas calls these Preambles of Faith.

These are matters to which we shall return. For now, we have said enough to show the difference Thomas sees between philosophy and theology. The analogy we noticed is of great importance.

Common Truths : Faith :: Philosophy : Theology

In order to do theology, one must first have done philosophy. The very first question Thomas asks in his Summa theologiae is: What need is there for any science other than those which make up philosophy? The question only makes sense if one knows those philosophical sciences.

In analyzing the truths of faith, truths like the Trinity, the theologian will employ such notions as nature and person and substance and will rely on what philosophers have to say on those subjects. Sometimes the theologian has to develop philosophical notions which are not available and when he does he is contributing to philosophy as well as to theology. Thomas often does this and we will add those contributions to the synthesis we call Thomistic philosophy.

The way Thomas does theology follows from his attitude toward Aristotle. Rather than see Aristotle as a threat. Thomas studied him closely and learned an enormous amount of truth. The basic characteristic of Thomas is that there can be no real conflict between what is known and what is believed, between faith and reason, between philosophy and theology. If philosophers think they know something that is in conflict with faith, Thomas would proceed as he did with Aristotle, wanting to discuss the matter, in the conviction that something must have gone wrong in the philosophical discourse that has led to a conclusion which contradicts the faith.

The skeptic and agnostic may be annoyed by this untroubled conviction, but they can always demand that the flaw be shown.

The theologian and Christian philosopher should be ready to pay off on this sunny conviction. When philosophical positions which conflict with faith are shown to be flawed, the reasonableness of belief is made clear. Thomas's policy to the effect that this can always be done is the policy of the Church as well. Let no man think that religious faith runs from reason. As we have said before and will say again, in our day the best safeguard of reason is precisely the Christian faith.


Knowledge of God

[1] The human intellect, to which it is connatural to derive its knowledge from sensible things, is not able through itself to reach the vision of the divine substance in itself, which is above all sensible things and, indeed, improportionately above all other things. Yet, because man's perfect good is that he somehow know God, lest such a noble creature might seem to be created to no purpose, as being unable to reach its own end, there is given to man a certain way through which he can rise to the knowledge of God: so that, since the perfections of things descend in a certain order from the highest summit of things -- God -- man may progress in the knowledge of God by beginning with lower things and gradually ascending. Now even in bodily movements, the way of descending is the same as the way of ascending, distinguished by beginning and end.

[2] There is a twofold account of the descent of perfections from God just mentioned. One account looks to the first origin of things: for divine Wisdom, to put perfection in things, produced them in such order that the universe of creatures should embrace the highest of things and the lowest. The other account comes from the things themselves. For, since causes are more noble than their effects, the very first caused things are lower than the First Cause, which is God, and still stand out above their effects. And so it goes until one arrives at the lowest of things. And because in the highest summit of things, God, one finds the most perfect unity -- and because everything, the more it is one, is the more powerful and the more worthy -- it follows that the farther one gets from the first principle, the greater is the diversity and variation one finds in things. The process of emanation from God must, then, be unified in the principle itself, but multiplied in the lower things which are its terms. In this way, according to the diversity of things, there appears the diversity of the ways, as though these ways began in one principle and terminated in various ends.

[3] Through these ways our intellect can rise to the knowledge of God. But because of the weakness of the intellect we are not able to know perfectly even the ways themselves. For the sense, from which our knowledge begins, is occupied with external accidents, which are the proper sensibles -- for example, color, odor, and the like. As a result, through such external accidents the intellect can scarcely reach the perfect knowledge of a lower nature, even in the case of those natures whose accidents it comprehends perfectly through the sense. Much less will the intellect arrive at comprehending the nature of those things of which we grasp few accidents by sense; and it will do so even less in the case of those things whose accidents cannot be grasped by the senses, though they may be perceived through certain deficient effects. But, even though the natures of things themselves were known to us, we can have only a little knowledge of their order, according as divine Providence disposes them in relation to one another and directs them to the end, since we do not come to know the plan of divine providence. If, then, we imperfectly know the ways themselves, how shall we be able to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the source of these ways? And because that source transcends the above-mentioned ways beyond proportion, even if we knew the ways themselves perfectly we would yet not have within our grasp a perfect knowledge of the source.

[4] Therefore, since it was a feeble knowledge of God that man could reach in the ways mentioned -- by a kind of intellectual glimpse, so to say -- out of a superabundant goodness, therefore, so that man might have a firmer knowledge of Him. God revealed certain things about Himself that transcend human intellect. In this revelation, in harmony with man, a certain order is preserved, so that little by little he comes from the imperfect to the perfect -- just as happens in the rest of changeable things. First, therefore, these things so revealed to man as, for all that, not to be understood, but only to be believed as heard, for the human intellect in this state in which it is connected with things sensible cannot be elevated entirely to gaze upon things which exceed every proportion of sense. But, when it shall have been freed from the connection with sensibles, then it will be elevated to gaze up the things which are revealed.

[5] There is, then, in man a threefold knowledge of things divine. Of these, the first is that in which man, by the natural light of reason, ascends to a knowledge of God through creatures. The second is that by which the divine truth -- exceeding the human intellect -- descends on us in the manner of revelation, not, however, as something made clear to be seen, but as something spoken in words to be believed. The third is that by which the human mind will be elevated to gaze perfectly upon the things revealed.

-- Summa contra gentiles, Book Four, chapter I

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