Jacques Maritain Center

Influence of St. Thomas on Philosophy

The brief and imperfect sketch of the condition of philosophy in the thirteenth century, which was given in the preceding chapter, will suffice to determine what judgment should be passed on those who can see nothing but darkness in the Middle Ages. Notwithstanding the imperfections and errors which accompanied the rise of Scholasticism, the establishment of the universities and the general revival of philosophical and theological studies, it must be admitted by candid observers that our own enlightened century cannot boast of greater intellectual activity, or of more rapid progress in those branches of knowledge which make men truly great in mind.

When we remember that two hundred years before printing was invented the medieval universities had reached a state of perfection of which Yale and Harvard might well be proud at the beginning of the twentieth century, we can form some conception of the patient toil and giant energy which characterized the professors and scholars of the thirteenth century, and we shall be disposed to judge kindly of their imperfections and of the errors into which they fell.

PROVIDENCE RULES THE WORLD. -- That those errors were serious and of such a nature as to cause alarm is evident from a cursory glance at the history of the medieval universities. The days preceding the arrival of St. Thomas at Paris were indeed very dark. The atmosphere was filled with gloomy forebodings of schism, heresy, infidelity, and of all those dangers to the faith which necessarily flow from the destruction of the principles regulating the relations of faith and science. When the professors of a Catholic university openly taught Rationalism and Pantheism to say nothing of a host of minor errors, men might well have asked: "If the salt of the earth lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?"[48] Judging by the rules of merely human prudence one would have said that the University of Paris was fast drifting into infidelity, and dragging the world with it.

To suppose, however, that such a state of things was to continue, and that no remedy would be found to check the growing evil, would be to fall into the error of those who do not count upon Divine Providence in reading the history of the past or in prophesying with regard to the future. The one grand lesson to be learned from the reading of history in the light of Christianity is this: That there is a God Whose wisdom and power direct the affairs of this world in such a manner as to promote the ends which He wishes to attain. In order to manifest this truth to men God from time to time permits the recurrence of those dark and gloomy periods when no ray of light can be hoped for unless it be sent from above. Paris in the thirteenth century furnishes a striking illustration of such a period, of such a crisis in human affairs; and the angelic intellect of St. Thomas was the bright ray of light sent forth from the Eternal Sun of truth to remind philosophers of "the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world,"[49] pointing out with unerring accuracy the paths leading to true science and solid virtue, conducting men to the throne of the Almighty, who rules over the world of minds as well as over the material world.

Predecessors and Contemporaries of St. Thomas. -- This statement must not be understood as detracting in any way from the praise which is due to other great philosophers and theologians who illustrated the Church at the time when Scholasticism came to be the handmaid of religion. It would be a sin against justice as well as a crime against historical truth to ignore the influence for good exerted by such men as St. Anselm, St. Bernard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and a host of less renowned but very learned and saintly men whose lives were devoted in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the defence and development of Christian doctrine. But, with all due respect for their claims to our admiration and gratitude, it is universally admitted that, in the midst of the darkness and confusion of the thirteenth century, St. Thomas was the one grand, bright star in the firmament, shedding light into the darkness, throwing order into the confused mass of philosophical and theological opinions which prevented a clear and systematic conception of the truths of revelation.

LEO XIII ON ST. THOMAS. -- "Amongst the Scholastic doctors," writes Leo XIII, "Thomas Aquinas stands pre- eminent, being the Prince and Master of all."[50] The Pontiff then quotes the words of Cardinal Cajetan, who wrote of St. Thomas: "Because he had the deepest veneration for the sacred Doctors of old, he acquired, in a measure, the intelligence of them all." (Doctores sacros, quia summe veneratus est, ideo intellectum omnium quodammodo sortitus est.)

St. Thomas himself, in his Christian humility and solid good sense, was the first to recognize the advantages he had derived from those who preceded him. It is edifying as well as instructive to note with what reverence and affection he mentions Plato and Arisotle, St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Isidore, Peter Lombard, the "Master of Sentences," Albertus Magnus, and other authors whose works are quoted in his writings. He would not accept our words of praise if, in exaggerated admiration of his mighty work, we failed to recognize and proclaim the influence exerted on his mind by those who went before him, especially by the authors just mentioned. St. Thomas does not need any words of exaggerated praise. His true glory comes from this, that having acquired, by study and with the assistance of Heaven, a knowledge of the true principles of Christian philosophy, he applied them in such a manner that posterity, in grateful recognition of his services to the Faith, has unanimously saluted him as the Christian Aristotle and the prince of theologians.

NEWMAN'S DEFINITION OF A GREAT MIND. -- "A truly great intellect," writes Cardinal Newman, "and one recognized to be such by the common opinion of mankind, such as the intellect of Aristotle or of St. Thomas, of Newton or of Goethe -- is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another, without which there is no whole and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy."[51]

Educated in quiet, trained in piety, strong in faith, obedient to authority, St. Thomas, with his all-embracing and penetrating mind, surveyed the world of the universities. He saw the old and the new, the past and the present; he recognized all that was good whether in the old or new; his keen eye quickly detected the errors which were countenanced at Paris in the thirteenth century; and he was not slow in determining to devote his life to the work of Christianizing philosophy and systemizing theology.

RECONCILIATION OF FAITH AND REASON IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY. -- The great triumph of the thirteenth century was the reconciliation of faith and reason; and for this victory we are indebted principally to St. Thomas, of whom Leo XIII writes: "He distinguished reason from faith, but he joined them together in friendly union, preserving the rights and recognizing the dignity of each; so that reason, reared aloft on the wings of St. Thomas, could scarcely soar higher, and it was almost impossible even for faith to be supported by additional or stronger aids from reason than had already been furnished by the Angelic Doctor."[52] In these words of Pope Leo we have a résumé of the life-work of St. Thomas.

CHOICE OF ARISTOTLE AS MODEL. -- The first step he took in the accomplishment of his Heaven-given task was to choose Aristotle as the model philosopher, whose works he was to use and whose principles he was to apply even in what he did for the perfection of theological science. History has proved the wisdom of his choice, which was not made without exciting some adverse criticism. If St. Thomas ever spoke to others of his plans we can imagine his brethren attempting to dissuade him from what many must have looked upon as the dream of an enthusiastic Utopian. Was not Aristotle responsible for the Rationalism and Pantheism which disgraced the University of Paris? Had not Robert de Courçon, the papal legate, forbidden the reading of Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics? These representations were made with sincerity and with much force, but St. Thomas was unmoved. From Boethius and St. Isidore and especially from his old master, Albertus Magnus, he had learned to know Aristotle and the value of his works. Moreover, granting for the sake of argument that, speculatively speaking, it would have been better to have chosen Plato, or to cry down philosophical studies which had been abused at Paris, and advocate a return to the study of the Fathers and of the Scriptures, there was a practical aspect of the question which St. Thomas did not overlook. The movement in favor of Aristotle was so strong that it could not be resisted.

"The university professors of the thirteenth century," writes Mother Drane, "regarded Aristotle much as the masters of Carthage had done, of whom St. Augustine says that they spoke of the Categories of that philosopher with their cheek bursting with pride, as of something altogether divine."[53] Hence it would have been impossible to dissuade them from reading the works of the Stagyrite. Had that attempt been made, they would have complained that the Church was opposed to the spread of learning and of philosophical enquiry. Notwithstanding all that was done of Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas, and other Scholastic doctors, that calumny has been spread and repeated, and our own ears may have heard utterances founded on a lurking suspicion that the Church is opposed to the universal diffusion of knowledge and scientific investigation. There would have been a specious pretext for the charge had the great Scholastic doctors risen up in arms against Aristotle. It must now be branded as an infamous calmny by every intelligent man who has even an imperfect knowledge of the career of St. Thomas, and of the honors which learned men of all classes, during the last six centuries, have united in heaping upon the great Christian Commentator of Aristotle. Wisely, then, did St. Thomas resolve to use his influence and devote his energies, not to the suppression of Aristotle, but to the purification of his works.

Text of Aristotle Corrected and Purified. -- His first care was to obtain an accurate copy of the works of Aristotle. William of Moerbeke, O.P., who was afterwards appointed archbishop of Corinth (in 1277), translated Aristotle's works directly from the Greek for the use and at the request of St. Thomas, "who himself understood the language well enough to criticise his friend's version."[54] He next set himself to the task of purifying the text of the pagan philosopher from all errors that were opposed to the truths of Christianity. This he did in his Commentaries on Aristotle, which alone would have sufficed to render his name immortal. They fill five volumes (small quarto) in the Parma edition of his works.

Averroes Annihilated. -- St. Thomas never lost sight of that arch-enemy of Christianity, Averroes, whose writings had contributed more than any other cause to the perversion of the principles of philosophy at Paris. One feels like saying that this "perverter of Peripatetic philosophy," as St. Thomas calls him, had the genius of a fallen angel, so insidious are the errors which he cunningly wove into his explanantions of Aristotle's theories. Abelard had been captivated by the vigor and originality of his writings, and became, in consequence, the parent of Rationalism. Amaury de Bene fell into Pantheism because he was blinded by the insidious and specious Averroistic theory which asserted that all men had but one intellect. In fact, most men of ordinary capacity either would have been carried away by the current of universal enthusiasm and admiration for the Commentator, or would have shrunk with horror from the study of a philosophy which caused the professors of a Catholic university to forget the principles of their faith and to ignore the warning words of the authority appointed by Jesus Christ to point out the ways of truth. St. Thomas, in the calmness of his transcendant and penetrating genius, took a more elevated and practical view of the situation. Averroes, not Aristotle, was the cause of all the confusion; hence Aristotle was to be retained, Averroes was to be confounded, refuted, and rejected by all means known to champions of the true faith.

Hence it is that the errors of Averroes are mentioned and refuted on almost every page of St. Thomas' writings, and after the example of his master, Albertus Magnus, he wrote one book, "De Unitate Intellectus," which is devoted entirely to a refutation of the fundamental theory of Averroes, viz., that all men had but one intellect. Because universal ideas are alike in all minds, therefore, concluded Averroes, they are the product of one intellect; hence there is but one intellect in all men. Amaury de Bene, considering that this intellect is the noblest part of man, and that which makes him like unto God; considering also that all things are one in the mind of God, concluded that the intellect of God and the intellect of man were identical. This was downright Pantheism, yet these strange theories were openly taught by professors of the University of Paris. St. Thomas refuted these pernicious theories by establishing a true conception of the nature and powers of man's intellect and of his knowledge of universal ideas.

Soul is the Form of the Human Body. -- Rejecting Plato's dualistic theory which made the soul and body of man two distinct beings joined together without substantial unity, he adopted, explained, and defended the teaching of Aristotle, that the soul is the substantial form of the human body, distinct from it, but united so intimately with it that the two form one substantial being, which is an individual of the human species.[55] The soul alone is not the man; the body is not the man; but the soul and body united constitute an individual man, a person, e.g., John, or Peter, or Paul. This doctrine was afterwards solemnly defined as a dogma of the Catholic faith at the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), and its proclamation by St. Thomas was a death-blow to Averroism. If the soul belongs to a particular individual, then there is no place for the Averroistic dream of one intellect for all men. Moreover, there is no foundation for such a oneness of intellect as Averroes imagined. Universal ideas are alike in all men, but they are not numerically identical. By my intellect I form the same kind of idea that you form in your mind. The matter of these ideas is furnished by the senses, which perceive the objects of the external world, but from the same material furnished by the senses I form my idea and you form your idea, as each one knows from pyschologoical experience. Likeness of the ideas formed is no proof of the identity of the intellects forming them; just as a strong resemblance between two beautiful faces does not prove -- and no one thinks it does prove -- that the two beauties are one person.

Pantheism Refuted. -- This doctrine of Aristotle and St. Thomas removes the foundation on which was built the Pantheism of Amaury de Bene. If ideas which are alike can be formed by intellects which are distinct, this is no reason for supposing that God's intellect -- the Mind in Which all things are one -- is identical with the intellect of individuals. The wild error of Amaury is nothing but the exaggeration and perversion of a great truth. Contemplating his intellect every man should exclaim with the Psalmist: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us," but he is not justified in saying, as did the Pantheists of old and the Ontologists in our days, that the light is God Himself.[56]

Our minds are participations and effects of the one great, supreme Intellignece; they are rays emanating from the great Sun of justice and truth; but effects are distinct from the causes which produce them, and rays are distinct from the light which sends them forth. The intellect of each man is a substantial unity, with its own powers and its own operations, and the very imperfection of those powers and of those operations should have been sufficient to convince men that they were distinct from the Divinity, being mere shadows, when compared with the great light by which the minds of all men are enlighted.

RATIONALISM REJECTED -- TRUE RELATIONS OF FAITH AND REASON. -- The next great service which St. Thomas rendered to Philosophy was to determine the true relations between faith and reason. Leo XIII writes in his Encyclical "AEterni Patris": "One would almost say that St. Thomas was present at all the Councils of the Church held since his time and that he presided over the deliberations of the assembled Fathers." In the last General Council, held at the Vatican under Pope Pius IX, decrees were promulgated against the Rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whoever takes the pains to read the chapter of the Council on Faith and Reason will see that the principles therein proposed and defined are almost verbatim the same as the principles which St. Thomas proposed and elucidated in order to confound the Rationalists of his days. St. Thomas was not a Don Quixote, fighting against spectres and windmills; he was a living, practical philosopher, and he used the poewrful intellect which God gave him to destroy theories and errors which were actually in vogue when he wrote. Whether the Rationalism of the thirteenth century should be ascribed principally to the infidelity of Averroes, who had no faith, or to the pride of Abelard, who was full of conceit and self-sufficiency, or to the exaggerated enthusiasm for philosophical studies, which blinded men in so far that "fools rushed in where angels feared to tread," certain it is that Rationalism was one of the living errors which St. Thomas was called to destroy. Philosophers attempted to prove and explain everything, even the sublimest mysteries of faith. Disciples of Averroes taught that the doctrines of faith and the conclusion of reason might be contradictory; but that made little difference, because then the mind simply came to no conclusion; in other words, it believed nothing at all, and truth became a mere matter of words.[57]

St. Thomas' whole person and life and all his writings are a contradiction and refutation of this doctrine. He was a living proof of the truth that faith and science should not be enemies, but should live in harmony, and that strong faith does not preclude the fullest exercise and development of man's highest faculty, reason. He was a firm believer in all the truths of Christianity, yet no scientist of any age used his reason more than St. Thomas did; but he was careful to determine with the pen of a master the province of faith and the limits beyond which reason must not venture. St. Thomas determined so accurately and so luminously the true relations of faith and reason that, since his time, nothing more has been required to refute any error that may have arisen on this subject than to call attention to his principles; and the principal motive which impelled Leo XIII to write his Encyclical on the restoration of Scholastic philosophy was the desire to see reason united with faith and serving it in our time as it did in the days of St. Thomas.

The following is a summary of his principles determining the true relations of faith and reason. They are found chiefly in "Cont. Gent.," Book I -- "Exposit. in lib. Boethii de Trinit.," Quest. II, art. 3., and in the "Summa Theol.," passim, especially in Quest. I.

Distinction Between Natural and Supernatural. -- (1) There are two distinct classes of truth, the natural and supernatural. Natural truths are those which can be known by the reason of man unaided by revelation. Man, by the power of his intellect, without any especial assistance from God, can know many things about himself, about the material world, and about God; or, as St. Thomas says, about things that are beneath him, things that are in him, and things that are above him.[58]

Supernatural truths are those mysteries,[59] hidden from ages and generations in God, which man never could or would have known, had they not been revealed by the Spirit of God, which "searcheth all things, even the deep things of God."[60] The elevation of man to the supernatural order, the Trinity of Persons in one God, the Incarnation, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, the efficacy of Baptism and of the other sacraments -- to give a few examples -- are truths which man can know only because God has deigned to make them known by revelation. Hence it is wrong to suppose with Abelard and other Rationalists that all things are to be measured by the mind of man. Our intellect is finite, but it tells us with certainty that God is infinite, hence we could prove a priori a truth which we know from experience, that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

No Opposition Between Faith and Reason. -- (2) Although the truths of faith are distinct from natural truths, and faith is above reason, there can never be any real contradiction between faith and science. God is the Author of reason as well as of revelation; God cannot contradict Himself or teach error; hence, as St. Thomas wrote,[61] revelation does not destroy the light of reason, but rather completes and perfects it, as grace perfects nature and the faculties of the soul.

How can any intelligent man for an instant suppose that there could be real opposition between faith and reason, both of which come from God? There may be an apparent contradiction, but this only proves that what we suppose to be a certain teaching of science was not science, or that we had a false conception of God's revelation. Admit God, and it must be admitted that He cannot contradict Himself.

Faith and Reason United in Harmony. -- (3) Faith and reason should go hand in hand, not indeed as equals, because one is the light of God and the other is the light given to a creature by God, but as a mistress and her servant live together in peace and harmony.

Faith Protects Reason from Error. -- (1) Faith, or revelation, protects reason and prevents it from falling into error. We know from history that the greatest among the pagan philosophers fell into many errors even concerning truths that could have been known by reason. Cicero denied God's fore-knowledge. Plato admitted the eternity of matter, and in his ethico-political system defended communism, the suppression of individual rights and the supremacy of the state. Aristotle, who was perhaps the greatest of all the philosophers of antiquity, improved upon the political system of Plato, but retained some of his errors. Moreover, he denied the universality of God's providence, and to this day it is an open question whether he denied the eternity of matter and whether he affirmed the immortality of the human soul. Without revelation, says St. Thomas, sublime, natural truths would be known only by a few, and after long investigation, and even then doubt and error would be intermingled with their knowledge.[62] See what wild theories are proposed to-day by those who do not follow the guidance of faith!

Widens the Field of Investigation. -- (2) Moreover, faith opens up new fields of investigation. Outsiders think that believing Christians are very much restricted in the use of their reason. Why do they not pause to think more seriously? We have as wide a field for investigation as they have, plus the very wide and fertile field furnished by the revelation of truths which to them are unknown. The difference consists in this: they investigate as groping around in the dark, we investigate under the direction of a Guide Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. If they will take the pains to read a good work on Catholic philosophy and theology, they will soon see how much has been added to the science of philosophy by the efforts of those who investigated and penetrated, as far as it is possible for the human mind to penetrate, into the depths of the mysteries which were revealed by God to man.

WHAT REASON SHOULD DO FOR FAITH. -- This brings us to the point where St. Thomas (especially "Exposit. in Boethium De Trin."), definitely and accurately points out the service which reason should render to faith. In sacred doctrine, says St. Thomas, we can use philosophy in three ways: (1) to prepare for faith, (2) to explain the truths of faith, (3) to defend the truths of faith. Revelation in itself does not need the service of reason; because revelation, objectively taken, is God's own knowledge, which is perfect in itself and in no manner depends on the mind of man. But this revelation, if it is to guide man, must be received by him, and understood by him; the work of preparing man to receive the faith and to understand what he believes is the work of reason.

Reason Proves the Preambles of Faith. -- In the first place, there are certain truths which faith presupposes -- preambula fidei -- preambles to faith -- St. Thomas calls them. Before we can believe what God has revealed we must first know that we have a soul capable of grasping metaphysical truth; that there is a God Who knows all things and is incapable of deceiving us, and that we have good reasons for believing that God has spoken to men, revealing truths which otherwise would not have been known. Moreover, we should not be prepared to believe what is revealed with regard to the supernatural and ineffable joys of Heaven if we did not first hold that our souls are immortal. To prove these truths and thus prepare men for faith is the first service of reason to revelation.

Reason Explains and Develops the Doctrine Revealed. -- In the next place, reason may be used to explain, to put in order and to develop the revealed doctrines. St. Augustine, for instance, in his books on the Trinity, makes use of many similitudes taken from philosophy in order to give some faint conception of the unity of God's nature in three Divine Persons. Moreover, the truths accepted on faith must be put in order, lest there be confusion in the mind of the believer. Some people cannot tell just what they do believe, and it is easy to find men who stumble over the Immaculate Conception or papal infallibility after accepting, without the least hesitation, the greatest of all revealed mysteries, the Trinity. They would not be so illogical if they made better use of their reason. Then, again, the truths revealed are like seeds or germs containing in themselves many other truths which may be evolved or developed from the principles of faith. For instance, when it has been declared that Jesus Christ was God and man, this truth, scientifically explained and developed, furnishes us with a number of truths with regard to the Body, the Mind and the Will of Christ, and with regard to the nature of the union between the divinity and humanity. But these truths will remain hidden unless reason deduces them as theological conclusions from the principles of faith.

Reason Defends Faith. -- The third service of reason to revelation consists in defending the faith. The dogmas of the Christian religion are not accepted by all mankind. Some attempt to undermine the foundations of our faith, and some, without paying any attention to the foundations, attack the sacred edifice in spots which to them appear weak. Against such attacks we cannot use any weapons except those furnished by reason, because our opponents do not admit the principles of faith. Reason, says St. Thomas, can defend the faith in two ways: First, positively, by showing that the objections brought forward are founded in falsehood; second, negatively, by showing that, whatever truth may be in them, they at least do not prove the falsity of the Christian dogma against which they are urged.[63]

To sum up: reason prepares the mind for faith; reason explains the truths of faith; reason defends the truths of faith. These principles are frequently laid down by St. Thomas, and they were applied in all his works, especially in the "Summa contra Gentiles" and in the "Summa Theologica." There is no exaggeration in saying that these principles form an undercurrent which runs through all his works, coming to the surface from time to time, as if to remind his readers that they furnish the key to St. Thomas' plans for reforming and perfecting philosophy.

St. Thomas Proves the Preambles. -- (1) St. Thomas surpasses all ecclesiastical writers in his masterful treatises on those truths which are necessary as a preparation for faith. The chapters which he wrote on the reality of intellectual knowledge, on the existence and veracity of God, on the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, and on the reasonableness of Christian faith, supported as it is by God's own arguments, miracles and prophecies, stand to-day and will continue to stand as monuments to his genius.

St. Thomas Explains and Develops Faith. -- (2) His explanations and developments of the dogmas of faith, in the "Summa against the Gentiles" and in the "Summa Theologica," affords a justification for all the encomiums that have been heaped upon him by popes, councils, universities and religious orders, and have caused his "Summa Theologica" to be considered the ne plus ultra of human reason explaining the truths of revelation -- a masterpiece of human genius, the greatest masterpiece that the world has ever known.

St. Thomas Defends Faith. -- (3) In defending the truths of faith and in answering objections St. Thomas is truly wonderful. Those who are acquainted with his works are not surprised at the words of Leo XIII: "He alone confuted all the errors of past times, and at the same time supplied invincible weapons for overcoming those which were constantly to arise in the future."[64]

St. Thomas saw all sides of a question and it is a well-known fact that it is almost impossible to find an argument brought forward by modern heresy or unbelief which was not proposed and answered by St. Thomas. In the "Summa Theologica" alone ten thousand objections are proposed and answered. Thus did St. Thomas press reason into the service of faith.

This compendious and imperfect description of his labors for the reformation of Christian philosophy will suffice to show that he was in reality the Heaven-sent genius who introduced order into the confused efforts and systems Christian philosophers in the thirteenth century. Much might be said concerning the army of learned teachers, preachers, and writers whose talents have been devoted to the service of God, and who gloried in being called disciples of St. Thomas, whom the University of Paris calls the fons doctorum -- the source, or fountain, from which doctors spring. The history of these disciples, from the close of the thirteenth century down to our own days, would be very interesting and instructive, but such a study would extend far beyond the scope of a short sketch. Whoever knows, though it be only in outline, the writings of the Angelic Doctor, will see clearly that his was the master-mind which, after Christianizing the philosophy of the thirteenth century, became, and will continue to be, the type of perfection for all Christian philosophers.

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