University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   


"Angelic Doctor"

My first words will be to express my heartfelt gratitude to the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and to tell you how appreciative I am of the great honor that the Association is bestowing upon me in granting me its first Thomas Aquinas award. Once again I am confronted with a token of that American courtesy and generosity to which I am so much indebted.

Permit me also to extend my warmest thanks to Dr. Gerald Phelan, whose staunch friendship is so dear to my heart and has been for long years an invaluable help to me, -- and is now, let me add, an excuse for the much too indulgent words he just used about my work, and which I hardly deserve. I don't deserve them, but I am immensely touched by the generous feelings which inspired them.

I am aware of the deficiencies of the work in question. It was a difficult work, begun under adverse circumstances, for on the one hand Catholic opinion, in France, forty years ago, was concerned with Blondel's and Bergson's more than with Thomas Aquinas' philosophy; and on the other hand, as concerns the official secular intelligensia, it was permeated with century-old prejudices -- all the more powerful as they were rooted in arrogant ignorance -- against Christian philosophy and famous darkness of the Middle Ages. I remember that after a particularly ridiculous discussion on the miracle, at the Society of Philosophy, I politely suggested that the honorable members should decide upon a heroic experiment, and plunge collectively into the bathing-pool of Lourdes, requesting to be granted miraculously the gift of intelligence. Such was the tone of the controversy in those good old times.

It was necessary to tear down a wall of silence and distrust; and to try to make Thomism, not an historical or archeological hobby, but a living ferment in contemporary culture. I did my best; I did little. If the Angelic Doctor, at the end of his life, looked at his immense work as at a bit of straw, what can the feelings of one of his twentieth-century disciples be, when he turns round to face the lacks of a life-long imperfect endeavor? That's a reason more for me to thank you wholeheartedly. After all, since God is the prime cause of all goodness, any sign of the goodness of our fellow-men must increase our trust in His own mercy.

But it is of the Angelic Doctor that I should like to say a few words.

Thomas Aquinas wrote or dictated his books in haste, and in troubled times, and in the face of powerful opponents. But he enjoyed the climate of an integrated culture at its highest point of development (just before the Middle Ages began to decay) -- a culture in which a common vocabulary was available even to the most opposed minds, and the heritage of human and divine wisdom was at least, despite any conflicts, commonly respected.

Still more, he enjoyed the most exceptional gifts of nature and the most eminent graces of contemplation and sanctity. He was given the beatitude of the pure in heart; the heart of this prince of the intellect was purer than that of an infant. He was given the beatitude of those that mourn; the masterpiece of serenest objectivity was born in the tears of a saint.

But first and foremost he was commissioned by God for a unique task in the Church and in the world. It is this uniqueness that I should like to stress. There are no duplicate copies of men like Socrates, Aristotle, Vergil or Dante: each one had a unique calling. And how much more striking is this law of the providential economy in the supernatural order! There cannot be a second Moses, nor a second John the Baptist, nor a second St. Paul, nor a second St. Augustine. Each one had a unique task to perform. Thomas Aquinas is unique like them, he also had a unique task to perform, for the centuries to come. From this point of view alone can we fully understand the significance of his work.

It would be nonsense to believe that, just as he baptized Aristotle, another great doctor or even apprentice in theology might baptize any other philosopher to make him the chosen servant of sacra doctrina. St. Thomas' essential work was not to baptize Aristotle (he not only baptized the aristotelian truths recaptured from the Arabs, he completely transfigured them). His essential work was to establish in a definitive manner the true relationship between Faith and Reason, and to provide the human mind, first of all in the theological realm, but in the philosophical realm as well, with the principles and weapons which enable Christian Reason ceaselessly to advance in the possession of truth. For this work -- which was primarily, as Father Chenu has shown in his recent book Introduction à l'Etude de Saint Thomas, an evangelic work, and which mustered the entire heritage of Christian thought, -- for this work he used the greatest philosopher of Greek antiquity, not because he was a great philosopher, but simply because, as a matter of fact, he recognized in him an outstanding witness of the truest achievements of human reason. May we not believe, moreover, that the divine government, which takes care of the birds and the lilies of the field, also takes care of the destinies of the human mind, and that it encompassed the genius of Aristotle, despite all the errors which were in him a token of our congenital weakness, in the natural preparations for the intellectual treasures of the kingdom of God, -- as, in a quite different order, it used the prophets of Israel for the supernatural first fruits of divine revelation? In any case the contribution of Aristotle was decisive only in this sense that he helped Thomas to see. The task to which Thomas Aquinas was essentially committed was the equipping of Christian Reason, -- that is to say, as concerns philosophy, of human reason at play in the natural order -- it was the arming of Reason with an equipment thoroughly adapted to reality, thanks to those basic and unshakeable intuitions -- first of all the intuition of being and of the primacy of the act of existing -- whose unique strength and depth were, I think, the grace-given privilege for which he deserves the title of Angelic Doctor. The great thing for us, before embarking upon any controversial technicality, is to enter in our turn into the simple, cogent and infinitely fecund light of these primordial intuitions.

The Angelic Doctor has equipped Christian Reason. This cannot be changed. And this opens to us an infinite field of new and deeper insights, new developments, new discoveries and new conquests, for Christian Reason is not equipped to sleep on its own treasures or to repeat text-book formulas, but ceaselessly to advance and struggle, to extend its hold on all the aspects of being, to redeem time, to set free the truths that error has made captive, and to answer the new problems and the new anguishes with which mankind is faced at each step of its history.

We have to try to imitate, of course -- that's an edifying piece of advice which it behooves more competent persons than a layman to give -- all the virtues of the Angelic Doctor. Yet permit me to say that we have, in particular, to imitate his boldness: for the more we study his life and his environment, the more we realize the extraordinary, humble and peaceful boldness with which he carried, orientated, realigned, without losing the least scrap of it, the whole universe of Christian wisdom, and restated, both against averroism and medieval augustinianism, our grasping of its foundations. He was intent only on truth, -- more, to be sure, than on what was to be called Thomism, and which would have sounded like a strange word to his ears: he was Thomas, he did not need to be a Thomist, or a Neo-Thomist, or a Paleo-Thomist. And if we are Thomists, it is surely because we love truth first, and hold Thomism to be the most appropriate means to cling to truth.

Now I think that the way in which we have to imitate the boldness of the Angelic Doctor has especially to do with the task of sifting out his genuine and perennial philosophical principles from the perishable scientific imagery peculiar to his time, and to apply them to the immense amount of facts and knowledge acquired by modern science, and to the new philosophical problems which are thus constantly arising -- so that sometimes we may have to dissent from some particular accidental opinion expressed in the letter of his writings, in order to stick more faithfully to his principles and his spirit. Such a task implies a lot of risks, of course: yet, with a sound critique of knowledge, it is not so difficult after all, on the condition that we do not expect from modern science more ontological content than it itself claims to possess, and that we realize the inevitably unstable character of any scientific imagery. But such a task could not be performed if we wasted our time in perpetually questioning the prime foundations of Christian wisdom, as too many Christian thinkers, who mistake regression for progress, ceaselessly seeking new starting points, are now doing. On the contrary such a task necessarily presupposes a complete possession of all the principles and tenets of Thomistic philosophy, and a living habitus of it. For the more an organism has to assimilate new aliments, the more perfect the integrity of its structure must be. Thomism is not a guard-rail built in order to keep within the limits of prudence a search in which Christian Reason makes itself tributary to any kind of philosophical fashion. Thomism is the arsenal of Christian Reason -- and of simple natural reason -- in its very labor of search and its effort to conquer new territories. The great point is to understand that the keys prepared by the Angelic Doctor have been prepared to open the doors, not to shut them.

St. Thomas did not succeed in influencing the movement of medieval civilization. His theocentric humanism was too great for his own epoch. He was reserved for future times. The great Doctor who, at the price of such sufferings and opposition, asserted the unicity of the substantial form in man and made the intellect agent (identified by his contemporaries with the divine intellect itself), not a separate Intellect, but an integral part of each individual soul, founded a philosophy of the human person which is basic for our age of civilization, to the extent to which it will be an age of Christian civilization. The crucial task that Christian Reason has to accomplish in the generations to come will be, I believe, to disengage from Thomist theology a complete and articulate body of Thomistic philosophy. And this will require the most strenuous and fascinating effort of intellectual pioneering.

I think that America will have a great, perhaps a decisive part to play in this effort, if in the field of Thomistic philosophy as in any other field of knowledge, the American mind -- while keeping its attachment to facts and factual accuracy (that is, in our case, to the textual analysis of St. Thomas' teachings) -- gives the main importance to the creative work (that is, in our case, the new application of St. Thomas' principles) which depends on the intuitive and logical power of the intellect. Taking it all in all, the secularist prejudice is less strong in this country than in Europe; your secular Universities and philosophical magazines do not mince words in criticizing Thomism -- and this is surely their inalienable right -- but they do not deny to Thomism the fact of its own existence as a philosophy, and even sometimes secular faculties appoint Thomist professors in philosophy.

On the other hand it might be said, it seems to me, that just as a kind of diffuse Christian is involved in the deepest cultural strata of this country, so, despite John Locke or through John Locke himself, a stock of moral notions that can be traced back to mediaeval common consciousness has been inherited by the New World in its temporal structures, and especially in the American Constitution, which would not be historically understood without the concept of Natural Law, for instance. There is, thus, in the background of the American mind and civilization, a sort of remote instinctive predisposition to appreciate the value of a Thomistic philosophy of culture, on the day when such a philosophy develops.

In the third place, and here I come more specifically to the part played by American Catholics, the steady growth of American Catholic Universities and institutions of higher learning, the general progress of Thomistic studies, due to the persevering effort of a larger and larger number of scholars and teachers, the collective work performed by associations like the American Catholic Philosophical Association, are a historical phenomenon not only significant in itself, but significant also for the general movement of culture. If we look at the state of affairs twenty-five years ago, as Father Charles Hart did in his remarkable article, we see that the number and quality of books, articles, periodicals, editions and translations of basic texts, dealing with mediaeval history and Christian philosophy have increased in an amazing manner.

Finally there is another phenomenon which seems to me to be of capital importance for the future of the Western world: namely the intense thirst for philosophical knowledge, as well as for spiritual life and contemplative experience, which appears now in some significant sections of American youth. If this phenomenon is lasting, as we can hope, it will be of a nature to have a decisive impact on modern history.

For all these reasons we have grounds for thinking that if American Thomism continues to grow as it is now doing and strengthens its living contacts with all the fields of modern science and culture, the work and the adventures of the Angelic Doctor in America will some day be a topic for the historians of civilization. He rode a donkey from Italy to France and from France to Italy. Now he needs neither donkeys nor planes but the wings and energies of human minds to travel all over the world. Speaking of donkeys, I should like to pay my respects to one on whom the Master of the Angelic Doctor made his entrance into Jerusalem. You are a donkey, St. Augustine said to him, but you carry Christ, asinus es sed Christum portas. That's in my opinion a good motto for Christian philosophers. Theologians are eagles. We philosophers, who keep the plodding pace of reason, are but patient and stubborn donkeys; yet it is possible for such humble animals to carry the Savior on their back into the streets of human cities.

It would be quite natural if in view of the tremendous labor which is progressing here in the field of science, the Angelic Doctor, -- who from the heights of beatific vision is surely intent on pursuing his intellectual mission on earth, -- should particularly rely upon his American disciples to perform his great task of reconciling science and wisdom. I do not mean that he expects the other schools of philosophy to become Thomist! I assume, moreover, that he has but little hope in any constructive cooperation with them, for lack of common first principles, but that he would welcome a fair critical cooperation, through a mutual prodding and enriching of each other's problematic. Yet what matters most to him, I think, is the continuity, progress and living spirit of his own intellectual lineage. The undertakings of this lineage here in America have been first, it seems to me, concerned with preparing, by a collective work of prime importance, a sufficiently large area of well tilled philosophical soil, permeated with a sure knowledge of Thomistic doctrines; they are now interested, I think, and will be more and more interested, in starting research groups dedicated to cultivating special fields in which creative work is badly needed, as for instance the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of science, or political and social philosophy, or the philosophy of history.

In looking at the work which is developing here, I think of the effort which has been made for many years in my own country and of the young friends of mine who are admirably playing their part, there, in the common endeavor. And I have a great hope that a growing cooperation will be worked out, under the guidance of the Angelic Doctor, between French and American Thomists.

To conclude let me say that I have loved your country so deeply, since the first time I landed on its shores, and even before, and so deeply trusted the spiritual resources of its people, that the happy development of American Thomism, to which you are witnesses, does not surprise me but is one of the greatest joys and comforts of my life as a philosopher. In renewing my heartfeld thanks for the award that the American Catholic Philosophical Association is granting to me tonight, it is not only for this award that I thank you, but also for the generosity with which you have accepted what I have tried to do in the service of the Angelic Doctor as a part of your own work, a small part in the preparation of the future harvests which he expects from the workings of Christian Reason in America.