St Thomas Aquinas: philosopher for our time

St Thomas Aquinas: philosopher for our time

Fr G.H. Duggan SM

The release of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, 'Fides et Ratio' (Faith and Reason), last year has prompted discussions on the role of philosophy in the life of the Church and, in particular, the status of St Thomas Aquinas's writings. The topic has been addressed by a number of correspondents in the 'AD2000' letters section.

Fr G.H. Duggan SM, a New Zealand theologian and author, and a former seminary professor, offers the case for the continuing relevance and pride of place of the writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

When St Thomas quotes a statement of Aristotle's, as he often does in his Summa Theologicae, he introduces it with the phrase, "As the Philosopher says." In a word, for him, Aristotle was the supreme philosopher. Dante also pays tribute to Aristotle's pre-eminence in the Fourth Canto of the Inferno. When he encounters the ancient philosophers in Limbo, he portrays Socrates, Plato, Anaxagoras, Zeno and several others as paying homage to Aristotle as "the Master of them that know."

What Aristotle was for the medieval world, St Thomas ought to be for ours. Pope Leo XIII made this clear when in 1879, the second year of his pontificate, he issued his encyclical Aeterni Patris. In it he urged Christian thinkers to take St Thomas as their guide in philosophy, in order to bring a remedy to the ills afflicting the modern world. Some years later, he added that, in framing his teaching on social and political matters, he had taken the Angelic Doctor as his guide.

It is true that the Church has not commanded Catholic philosophers to adopt the philosophy of St Thomas. But she has made it clear that she values his philosophy above all others and, as a wise Mother, she urges them to take him as their guide in dealing with the various issues that fall within the scope of philosophical inquiry.

As a witness to the pre-eminence of St Thomas in this field, we may quote the testimony of Samuel Enoch Stumpf, President of Cornell College, Ithaca, New York. In his masterly one-volume history of philosophy entitled From Socrates to Sartre, chapter 9 is headed: "The Apex of Medieval Philosophy: The Scholastic System of St Thomas Aquinas." Of its 26 pages, 22 are devoted to a comprehensive and accurate account of the teaching of the Angelic Doctor. In the remaining four pages, he gives a summary account of the Voluntarism of Duns Scotus, the Nominalism of William of Ockham, and the Mysticism of Meister Eckhart, while he has five passing references to the philosophy of St Bonaventure.

It is plain that for Stumpf, obviously a master of his subject and exercising an independent judgment, St Thomas is in the class of Plato and Aristotle, and ranks as one of the great philosophers of the Western world.

His greatness as a philosopher, now acknowledged by almost everyone, was manifested in the revolution which, in conjunction with his master, St Albert the Great, he brought about in Christian thought, until that time dominated by the Neo-Platonist system of St Augustine.

The men of the Dark Ages knew, of Aristotle's works, only his treatises on Logic, which had been translated into Latin by Boethius at the beginning of the sixth century. But in the twelfth century, many of his other works became available for the first time in the West, in translations from Arabic. Among these were his Ethics, his Politics, his De Anima and his Metaphysics. This opened up for the men of the West a whole new world of philosophical thought. From their study of Aristotle, St Albert and St Thomas came to see that, on such vital questions as the relation between body and soul in man, and the origin of abstract ideas, Aristotle was right, and Plato was mistaken.

Revolutionary teaching

First, they saw that man does not consist, as Plato had held, of two complete substances - a material body and a spiritual soul. The human mind is indeed spiritual, but it is so united with the body as to form with it one substantial being, the man. Secondly, it was clear that our abstract ideas are not an innate endowment of the intellect, whether acquired in an earlier existence, or infused by God, but are derived by the action of the human intellect working on the data of sense experience.

This new and revolutionary teaching came under fire from two opposite directions. On the right, the Augustinian theologians, led by St Bonaventure, maintained that it was contrary to the Faith of the Church, because it was incompatible with the doctrine that the human soul is immortal. On the left, the Averroist philosophers, led by Siger of Brabant, maintained that St Thomas had betrayed Aristotle, whom he claimed to be following, because Aristotle had never taught that the soul is immortal.

Etienne Gilson, in his brilliant survey, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, has explained how St Thomas met these objections. It is true, as the Augustinians were insisting, that the human soul is spiritual and therefore immortal. But it is also true that it is a substantial form and is so united with the body as to form with it a single substance. But, employing a notion with which Aristotle was familiar, the human soul, St Thomas declared, is a subsistent form. This implies that it does not depend on matter in its coming into existence, or for remaining in existence after the death of the composite human being. It is, in fact, directly created by God and so maintained in existence by God that it confers existence on the composite.

It is a paradoxical truth that St Thomas had the great philosophical advantage over Plato and Aristotle that he was acquainted with the Bible. This means that reading the Bible he came into the possession of some truths that were essentially philosophical. The great Greeks could have come to them by an investigation that was purely rational in character, but in fact these truths eluded them. Such were, for example, a true conception of God, known as conferring on creatures the whole of their reality by an action that was, in the strictest sense, creative, that is, creation ex nihilo.

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