VI. THE THOMIST PHILOSOPHY

1. Logic

What is knowledge? Is it a divine light infused into man by God, without which it would be impossible? Thomas parts company at the very outset from Augustine, the mystics, the intuitionists: knowledge is a natural product, derived from the external corporeal senses and the internal sense called consciousness of the self. It is an extremely limited knowledge, for up to our time no scientist yet knows the essence of a fly;70 but within its limits knowledge is trustworthy, and we need not fret over the possibility that the external world is a delusion. Thomas accepts the Scholastic definition of truth as adequatio rei et intellectus—the equivalence of the thought with the thing.71 Since the intellect draws all its natural knowledge from the senses,72 its direct knowledge of things outside itself is limited to bodies—to the “sensible” or sensory world. It cannot directly know the super-sensible, meta-physical world—the minds within bodies, or God in His creation; but it may by analogy derive from sense experience an indirect knowledge of other minds, and likewise of God.73 Of a third realm, the supernatural—the world in which God lives—the mind of man can have no knowledge except through divine revelation. We may by natural understanding know that God exists and is one, because His existence and unity shine forth in the wonders and organization of the world; but we cannot by unaided intellect know His essence, or the Trinity. Even the knowledge of the angels is limited, for else they would be God.

The very limitations of knowledge indicate the existence of a supernatural world. God reveals that world to us in the Scriptures. Just as it would be folly for the peasant to consider the theories of a philosopher false because he cannot understand them, so it is foolish for man to reject God’s revelation on the ground that it seems at some points to contradict man’s natural knowledge. We may be confident that if our knowledge were complete there would be no contradiction between revelation and philosophy. It is wrong to say that a proposition can be false in philosophy and true in faith; all truth comes from God and is one. Nevertheless it is desirable to distinguish what we understand through reason and what we believe by faith;74 the fields of philosophy and ideology are distinct. It is permissible for scholars to discuss among themselves objections to the faith, but “it is not expedient for simple people to hear what unbelievers have to say against the faith,” for simple minds are not equipped to answer.75 Scholars and philosophers, as well as peasants, must bow to the decisions of the Church; “we must be directed by her in all things”;76 for she is the divinely appointed repository of divine wisdom. To the pope belongs the “authority to decide matters of faith finally, so that they may be held by all with unshaken belief.”77 The alternative is intellectual, moral, and social chaos.

2. Metaphysics

The metaphysics of Thomas is a complex of difficult definitions and subtle distinctions, on which his theology is to rest.

1. In created things essence and existence are different. Essence is that which is necessary to the conception of a thing; existence is the act of being. The essence of a triangle—that it is three straight lines enclosing a space—is the same whether the triangle exists or is merely conceived. But in God essence and existence are one; for His essence is that He is the First Cause, the underlying power (or, as Spinoza would say, substantia) of all things; by definition He must exist in order that anything else should be.

2. God exists in reality; He is the Being of all beings, their upholding cause. All other beings exist by analogy, by limited participation in the reality of God.

3. All created beings are both active and passive—i.e., they act and are acted upon. Also, they are a mixture of being and becoming: they possess certain qualities, and may lose some of these and acquire others—water may be warmed. Thomas denotes this susceptibility to external action or internal change by the term potentia—possibility. God alone has no potentia or possibility; He cannot be acted upon, cannot change; He is actus purus, pure activity; pure actuality; He is already everything that He can be. Below God all entities can be ranged in a descending scale according to their greater “possibility” of being acted upon and determined from without. So man is superior to woman because “the father is the active principle, while the mother is a passive and material principle; she supplies the formless matter of the body, which receives its form through the formative power that is in the semen of the father.”78

4. All corporeal beings are composed of matter and form; but here (as in Aristotle) form means not figure but inherent energizing, characterizing principle. When a form or vital principle constitutes the essence of a being, it is a substantial or essential form; so the rational soul—i.e., a life-giving force capable of thought-is the substantial form of the human body, and God is the substantial form of the world.

5. All realities are either substance or accident: either they are separate entities, like a stone or a man; or they exist only as qualities in something else, like whiteness or density. God is pure substance, as the only completely self-existent reality.

6. All substances are individuals; nothing but individuals exists except in idea; the notion that individuality is a delusion is a delusion.

7. In beings composed of matter and form, the principle or source of individuation—i.e., of the multiplicity of individuals in a species or class—is matter. Throughout the species the form or vital principle is essentially the same; in each individual this principle uses, appropriates, gives shape to, a certain quantity and figure of matter; and this materia signata quantitate, or matter marked off by quantity, is the principle of individuation—not of individuality but of separate identity.

3. Theology

God, not man, is the center and theme of Thomas’ philosophy. “The highest knowledge we can have of God in this life,” he writes, “is to know that He is above all that we can think concerning Him.”79 He rejects Anselm’s ontological argument,80 but he comes close to it in identifying God’s existence with His essence. God is Being itself: “I am Who am.”

His existence, says Thomas, can be proved by natural reason. (1) All motions are caused by previous motions, and so on either to a Prime Mover unmoved, or to an “infinite regress,” which is inconceivable. (2) The series of causes likewise requires a First Cause. (3) The contingent, which may but need not be, depends upon the necessary, which must be; the possible depends upon the actual; this series drives us back to a necessary being who is pure actuality. (4) Things are good, true, noble in various degrees; there must be a perfectly good, true, and noble source and norm of these imperfect virtues. (5) There are thousands of evidences of order in the world; even inanimate objects move in an orderly way; how could this be unless some intelligent power exists who created them?*81

Aside from the existence of God, Thomas is almost an agnostic in natural theology. “We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not”82—not movable, multiple, mutable, temporal. Why should infinitesimal minds expect to know more about the Infinite? It is hard for us to conceive an immaterial spirit, said Thomas (anticipating Bergson), because the intellect is dependent upon the senses, and all our external experience is of material things; consequently “incorporeal things, of which there are no images, are known to us by comparison with sensible bodies, of which there are images.”83 We can know God (as Maimonides taught) only by analogy, reasoning from ourselves and our experience to Him; so if there is in men goodness, love, truth, intelligence, power, freedom, or any other excellence, these must be also in man’s Creator, and in such greater degree in Him as corresponds to the proportion between infinity and ourselves. We apply the masculine pronouns to God, but only for convenience; in God and the angels there is no sex. God is one because by definition He is existence itself, and the unified operation of the world reveals one mind and law. That there are three Persons in this divine unity is a mystery beyond reason, to be held in trusting faith.

Nor can we know whether the world was created in time, and therefore out of nothing, or whether, as Aristotle and Averroës thought, it is eternal. The arguments offered by the theologians for creation in time are weak, and should be rejected “lest the Catholic faith should seem to be founded on empty reasonings.”84 Thomas concludes that we must believe on faith in a creation in time; but he adds that the question has little meaning, since time had no existence before creation; without change, without matter in motion, there is no time. He struggles manfully to explain how God could pass from noncreation to creation without suffering change. The act of creation, he says, is eternal, but it included in its willing the determination of the time for its effect to appear85—a nimble dodge for a heavy man.

The angels constitute the highest grade of creation. They are incorporeal intelligences, incorruptible and immortal. They serve as ministers of God in the government of the world; the heavenly bodies are moved and guided by them;86 every man has an angel appointed to guard him, and the archangels have the care of multitudes of men. Being immaterial, they can travel from one extremity of space to another without traversing the space between. Thomas writes ninety-three pages on the hierarchy, movements, love, knowledge, will, speech, and habits of the angels—the most farfetched part of his far-flung Summa, and the most irrefutable.

As there are angels, so there are demons, little devils doing Satan’s will. They are no mere imaginings of the common mind; they are real, and do endless harm. They may cause impotence by arousing in a man a repulsion for a woman.87 They make possible various forms of magic; so a demon may lie under a man, receive his semen, carry it swiftly through space, cohabit with a woman, and impregnate her with the seed of the absent man.88 Demons can enable magicians to foretell such events as do not depend upon man’s free will. They can communicate information to men by impressions on the imagination, or by appearing visibly or speaking audibly. Or they may co-operate with witches, and help them to hurt children through the evil eye.89

Like nearly all his contemporaries, and most of ours, Thomas allowed considerable truth to astrology.

The movements of bodies here below… must be referred to the movements of the heavenly bodies as their cause…. That astrologers not infrequently forecast the truth by observing the stars may be explained in two ways. First, because a great number of men follow their bodily passions, so that their actions are for the most part disposed in accordance with the inclination of the heavenly bodies; while there are few—namely, the wise alone—who moderate these inclinations by their reason…. Secondly, because of the interference of demons.90

However, “human actions are not subject to the action of heavenly bodies save accidentally and indirectly”;91 a large area is left to human freedom.

4. Psychology

Thomas considers carefully the philosophical problems of psychology, and his pages on these topics are among the best in his synthesis. He begins with an organic, as against a mechanical, conception of organisms: a machine is composed of externally added parts; an organism makes its own parts, and moves itself by its own internal force.92 This internal formative power is the soul. Thomas expresses the idea in Aristotelian terms: the soul is the “substantial form” of the body—i.e., it is the vital principle and energy that gives existence and form to an organism. “The soul is the primary principle of our nourishment, sensation, movement, and understanding.”93 There are three grades of soul: the vegetative—the power to grow; the sensitive—the power to feel; the rational—the power to reason. All life has the first, only animals and men have the second, only men have the third. But the higher organisms, in their corporeal and individual development, pass through the stages in which the lower organisms remain; “the higher a form is in the scale of being… the more intermediate forms must be passed through before the perfect form is reached”94—an adumbration of the nineteenth-century theory of “recapitulation,” that the embryo of man passes through the stages by which the species developed.

Whereas Plato, Augustine, and the Franciscans thought of the soul as a prisoner within the body, and identified the man with the soul alone, Thomas boldly accepts the Aristotelian view, and defines man—even personality—as a composite of body and soul, matter and form.95 The soul, or life-giving, form-creating inner energy, is indivisibly in every part of the body.96 It is bound up with the body in a thousand ways. As vegetable soul it depends upon food; as sensitive soul it depends upon sensation; as rational soul it needs the images produced by, or compounded from, sensation. Even intellectual ability and moral perceptions depend upon a body reasonably sound; a thick skin usually implies an insensitive soul.97 Dreams, passions, mental diseases, temperament, have a physiological basis.98 At times Thomas speaks as if body and soul were one unified reality, the inward energy and outward form of an indivisible whole. Nevertheless it seemed obvious to him that the rational soul—abstracting, generalizing, reasoning, charting the universe—is an incorporeal reality. Try as we will, and despite our tendency to think of all things in material terms, we can find nothing material in consciousness; it is a reality all the world unlike anything physical or spatial. This rational soul must be classed as spiritual, as something infused into us by that God Who is the psychical force behind all physical phenomena. Only an immaterial power could form a universal idea, or leap backward and forward in time, or conceive with equal ease the great and the small.99 The mind can be conscious of itself; but it is impossible to conceive a material entity as conscious of itself.

Therefore it is reasonable to believe that this spiritual force in us survives the death of the body. But the soul so separated is not a personality; it cannot feel or will or think; it is a helpless ghost that cannot function without its flesh.100 Only when it is reunited, through the resurrection of the body, with the corporeal frame of which it was the inward life, will it constitute with that body an individual and deathless personality. It was because Averroës and his followers lacked faith in the resurrection of the body that they were driven to the theory that only the “active intellect,” or soul of the cosmos or species, is immortal. Thomas deploys all the resources of his dialectic to refute this theory. To him this conflict with Averroës over immortality was the vital issue of the century, beside which such mere shiftings of boundaries and titles as physical battles brought were a trivial lunacy.

The soul, says Thomas, has five faculties or powers: vegetative, by which it feeds, grows, and reproduces; sensitive, by which it receives sensations from the external world; appetitive, by which it desires and wills; locomotive, by which it initiates motions; and intellectual, by which it thinks.101 All knowledge originates in the senses, but the sensations do not fall upon an empty surface or tabula rasa; they are received by a complex structure, the sensus communis, or common sensory center, which co-ordinates sensations or perceptions into ideas. Thomas agrees with Aristotle and Locke that “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses”; but he adds, like Leibniz and Kant, “except the intellect itself” —an organized capacity to organize sensations into thought, at last into those universals and abstract ideas which are the tools of reason and, on this earth, the exclusive prerogative of man.

Will or appetition is the faculty by which the soul or vital force moves toward that which the intellect conceives as good. Thomas, following Aristotle, defines the good as “that which is desirable.”102 Beauty is a form of the good; it is that which pleases when seen. Why does it please? Through the proportion and harmony of parts in an organized whole. Intellect is subject to will in so far as desire can determine the direction of thought; but will is subject to the intellect in so far as our desires are determined by the way we conceive things, by the opinions we (usually imitating others) have of them; “the good as understood moves the will.” Freedom lies not really in the will, which “is necessarily moved” by the understanding of the matter as presented by the intellect,103 but in the judgment (arbitrium); therefore freedom varies directly with knowledge, reason, wisdom, with the capacity of the intellect to present a true picture of the situation to the will; only the wise are really free.104 Intelligence is not only the best and highest, it is also the most powerful, of the faculties of the soul. “Of all human pursuits the pursuit of wisdom is the most perfect, the most sublime, the most profitable, the most delightful.”105 “The proper operation of man is to understand.”106

5. Ethics

The proper end of man, therefore, is in this life the acquisition of truth, and in the afterlife to see this Truth in God. For assuming, with Aristotle, that what man seeks is happiness, where shall he best find it? Not in bodily pleasures, nor in honors, nor in wealth, nor in power, nor even in actions of moral virtue, though all of these may give delight. Let us grant, too, that “perfect disposition of the body is necessary… for perfect happiness.”107 But none of these goods can compare with the quiet, pervasive, continuing happiness of understanding. Perhaps remembering Virgil’s Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas—“happy he who has been able to know the causes of things”—Thomas believes that the highest achievement and satisfaction of the soul—the natural culmination of its peculiar rationality—would be this, “that on it should be inscribed the total order of the universe and its causes.”108 The peace that passeth understanding comes from understanding.

But even this supreme mundane bliss would leave man not quite content, still unfulfilled. Vaguely he knows that “perfect and true happiness cannot be had in this life.” There is that in him which undiscourageably longs for a happiness and an understanding that shall be secure from mortal vicissitude and change. Other appetites may find their peace in intermediate goods, but the mind of the full man will not rest except it come to that sum and summit of truth which is God.109 In God alone is the supreme good, both as the source of all other goods, and as the cause of all other causes, the truth of all truths. The final goal of man is the Beatific Vision—the vision that gives bliss.

Consequently all ethics is the art and science of preparing man to attain this culminating and everlasting happiness. Moral goodness, virtue, may be defined as conduct conducive to the true end of man, which is to see God. Man naturally inclines to the good—the desirable; but what he judges to be good is not always morally good. Through Eve’s false judgment of the good, man disobeyed God, and now bears in every generation the taint of that first sin.* If at this point one asks why a God who foresees all should have created a man and a woman destined to such curiosity, and a race destined to such heritable guilt, Thomas answers that it is metaphysically impossible for any creature to be perfect, and that man’s freedom to sin is the price he must pay for his freedom of choice. Without that freedom of will man would be an automaton not beyond but below good and evil, having no greater dignity than a machine.

Steeped in the doctrine of original sin, steeped in Aristotle, steeped in monastic isolation and terror of the other sex, it was almost fated that Thomas should think ill of woman, and speak of her with masculine innocence. He follows the climactic egotism of Aristotle in supposing that nature, like a medieval patriarch, always wishes to produce a male, and that woman is something defective and accidental (deficiens et occasionatum); she is a male gone awry (mas occasionatum); probably she is the result of some weakness in the father’s generative power, or of some external factor, like a damp south wind.111 Relying on Aristotelian and contemporary biology, Thomas supposed that woman contributed only passive matter to the offspring, while the man contributed active form; woman is the triumph of matter over form. Consequently she is the weaker vessel in body, mind, and will. She is to man as. the senses are to reason. In her the sexual appetite predominates, while man is the expression of the more stable element. Both man and woman are made in the image of God, but man more especially so. Man is the principle and end of woman, as God is the principle and end of the universe. She needs man in everything; he needs her only for procreation. Man can accomplish all tasks better than woman—even the care of the home.112 She is unfitted to fill any vital position in Church or state. She is a part of man, literally a rib.113 She should look upon man as her natural master, should accept his guidance and submit to his corrections and discipline. In this she will find her fulfillment and her happiness.

As to evil, Thomas labors to prove that metaphysically it does not exist. Malum est non ens, evil is no positive entity; every reality, as such, is good;114 evil is merely the absence or privation of some quality or power that a being ought naturally to have. So it is no evil for a man to lack wings, but an evil for him to lack hands; yet to lack hands is no evil for a bird. Everything as created by God is good, but even God could not communicate His infinite perfection to created things. God permits certain evils in order to attain good ends or to prevent greater evils, just “as human governments… rightly tolerate certain evils”—like prostitution—“lest… greater evils be incurred.”115

Sin is an act of free choice violating the order of reason, which is also the order of the universe. The order of reason is the proper adjustment of means to ends. In man’s case it is the adjustment of conduct to win eternal happiness. God gives us the freedom to do wrong, but He also gives us, by a divine infusion, a sense of right and wrong. This innate conscience is absolute, and must be obeyed at all costs. If the Church commands something against a man’s conscience he must disobey. If his conscience tells him that faith in Christ is an evil thing, he must abhor that faith.116

Normally conscience inclines us not only to the natural virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, but also to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These last three constitute the distinguishing morality and glory of Christianity. Faith is a moral obligation, since human reason is limited. Man must believe on faith not only those dogmas of the Church that are above reason, but those too that can be known through reason. Since error in matters of faith may lead many to hell, tolerance should not be shown to unbelief except to avoid a greater evil; so “the Church at times has tolerated the rites even of heretics and pagans, when unbelievers were very numerous.”117 Unbelievers should never be allowed to acquire dominion or authority over believers.118Tolerance may especially be shown to Jews, since their rites prefigured those of Christianity, and so “bear witness to the faith.”119 Unbaptized Jews should never be forced to accept Christianity.120 But heretics—those who have abandoned faith in the doctrines of the Church—may properly be coerced.121 No one should be considered a heretic unless he persists in his error after it has been pointed out to him by ecclesiastical authority. Those who abjure their heresy may be admitted to penance, and even restored to their former dignities; if, however, they relapse into heresy “they are admitted to penance, but are not delivered from the pain of death.”122

6. Politics

Thomas wrote thrice on political philosophy: in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, in the Summa theologica, and in a brief treatise De regimine principum —On the Rule of Princes* A first impression is that Thomas merely repeats Aristotle; as we read on we are astonished at the amount of original and incisive thought contained in his work.

Social organization is a tool that man developed as a substitute for physiological organs of acquisition and defense. Society and the state exist for the individual, not he for them. Sovereignty comes from God, but is vested in the people. The people, however, are too numerous, scattered, fickle, and uninformed to exercise this sovereign power directly or wisely; hence they delegate their sovereignty to a prince or other leader. This grant of power by the people is always revocable, and “the prince holds the power of legislating only so far as he represents the will of the people.”123

The sovereign power of the people may be delegated to many, to a few, or to one. Democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy may all be good if the laws are good and well administered. In general a constitutional monarchy is best, as giving unity, continuity, and stability; “a multitude,” as Homer said, “is better governed by one than by several.”124 The prince or king, however, should be chosen by the people from any free rank of the population.125 If the monarch becomes a tyrant he should be overthrown by the orderly action of the people.126 He must always remain the servant, not the master, of the law.

Law is threefold: natural, as in the “natural laws” of the universe; divine, as revealed in the Bible; human or positive, as in the legislation of states. The third was made necessary by the passions of men and the development of the state. So the Fathers believed that private property was opposed to natural and divine law, and was the result of the sinfulness of man. Thomas does not admit that property is unnatural. He considers the arguments of the communists of his time, and answers like Aristotle that when everybody owns everything nobody takes care of anything.127 But private property is a public trust. “Man ought to possess external things not as his own but as common, so that he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.”128 For a man to desire or pursue wealth beyond his need for maintaining his station in life is sinful covetousness.129 “Whatever some people possess in superabundance is due by natural law to the purpose of succoring the poor”; and “if there is no other remedy it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly.”130

Thomas was not the man to make economics a dismal science by divorcing it from morality. He believed in the right of the community to regulate agriculture, industry, and trade, to control usury, even to establish a “just price” for services and goods. He looked with suspicious eye upon the art of buying cheap and selling dear. He condemned outright all speculative trading, all attempts to make gain by skillful use of market fluctuations.131 He opposed lending at interest, but saw no sin in borrowing “for a good end” from a professional moneylender.132

He did not rise above his time on the question of slavery. Sophists, Stoics, and Roman legists had taught that by “nature” all men are free; the Church Fathers had agreed, and had explained slavery, like property, as a result of the sinfulness acquired by man through Adam’s Fall. Aristotle, friend of the mighty, had justified slavery as produced by the natural inequality of men. Thomas tried to reconcile these views: in the state of innocence there was no slavery; but since the Fall it has been found useful to subject simple men to wise men; those who have strong bodies but weak minds are intended by nature to be bondmen.133 The slave, however, belongs to his master only in body, not in soul; the slave is not obliged to give sexual intercourse to the master; and all the precepts of Christian morality must be applied in the treatment of the slave.

7. Religion

As economic and political problems are ultimately moral, it seems just to Thomas that religion should be ranked above politics and industry, and that the state should submit, in matters of morals, to supervision and guidance by the Church. Authority is nobler, the higher its end; the kings of the earth, guiding men to earthly bliss, should be subject to the pope, who guides men to everlasting happiness. The state should remain supreme in secular affairs; but even in such matters the pope has the right to intervene if rulers violate the rules of morality, or do avoidable injury to their peoples. So the pope may punish a bad king, or absolve subjects from their oath of allegiance. Moreover, the state must protect religion, support the Church, and enforce her decrees.134

The supreme function of the Church is to lead men to salvation. Man is a citizen not alone of this earthly state but of a spiritual kingdom infinitely greater than any state. The supreme facts of history are that man committed an infinite crime by disobeying God, thereby meriting infinite punishment; and that God the Son, by becoming man and suffering ignominy and death, created a redeeming store of grace by which man can be saved despite original sin. God gives of this grace to whom He will; we cannot fathom the reasons of His choice; but “nobody has been so insane as to say that merit is the cause of divine predestination.”135 The terrible doctrine of Paul and Augustine recurs in the gentle Thomas:

It is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to His Providence…. As men are ordained to eternal life through the Providence of God, it likewise is part of that Providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation…. As predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory, so also reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of that sin…. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.”136

Thomas struggles to reconcile divine predestination with human freedom, and to explain why a man whose fate is already sealed should strive to virtue, how prayer can move an unchangeable God, or what the function of the Church can be in a society whose individuals have already been sorted out into the saved and the damned. He answers that God has merely foreseen how each man would freely choose. Presumably all pagans are among the damned except possibly a few to whom God vouchsafed a special and personal revelation.*137

The chief happiness of the saved will consist in seeing God. Not that they will understand Him; only infinity can understand infinity; nevertheless, by an infusion of divine grace, the blessed will see the essence of God.139 The whole creation, having proceeded from God, flows back to Him; the human soul, gift of His bounty, never rests until it rejoins its source. Thus the divine cycle of creation and return is completed, and Thomas’ philosophy ends, as it began, with God.

8. The Reception of Thomism

It was received by most of his contemporaries as a monstrous accumulation of pagan reasonings fatal to the Christian faith. The Franciscans, who sought God by Augustine’s mystic road of love, were shocked by Thomas’ “intellectualism,” his exaltation of intellect above will, of understanding above love. Many wondered how so coldly negative and remote a God as the Actus Purus of the Summa could be prayed to, how Jesus could be part of such an abstraction, what St. Francis would have said of—or to—such a God. To make body and soul one unity seemed to put out of court the incorruptible immortality of the soul; to make matter and form one unity was, despite Thomas’ denials, to fall into the Averroistic theory of the eternity of the world; to make matter, not form, the principle of individuation seemed to leave the soul undifferentiated, and to fall into the Averroistic theory of the unity and impersonal immortality of the soul. Worst of all, the triumph of Aristotle over Augustine in the Thomist philosophy seemed to the Franciscans the victory of paganism over Christianity. Were there not already, in the University of Paris, teachers and students who put Aristotle above the Gospels?

Just as orthodox Islam, at the end of the twelfth century, denounced and banished the Aristotelian Averroës, and orthodox Judaism, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, burned the books of the Aristotelian Maimonides, so in the third quarter of that century Christian orthodoxy defended itself against the Aristotelian Thomas. In 1277, at the prompting of Pope John XXI, the bishop of Paris issued a decree branding 219 propositions as heresies. Among these were three expressly charged “against Brother Thomas”: that angels have no body, and constitute each of them a separate species; that matter is the principle of individuation; and that God cannot multiply individuals in a species without matter. Anyone holding these doctrines, said the bishop, was ipso factoexcommunicated. A few days after this decree Robert Kilwardby, a leading Dominican, persuaded the masters of the University of Oxford to denounce various Thomistic doctrines, including the unity of soul and body in man.

Thomas was now three years dead, and could not defend himself; but his old teacher Albert rushed from Cologne to Paris, and persuaded the Dominicans of France to stand by their fellow friar. A Franciscan, William de la Mare, joined the fray with a tract calledCorrectorium fratris Thomae, setting Thomas right on 118 points; and another Franciscan, John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, officially condemned Thomism, and urged a return to Bonaventura and St. Francis. Dante entered the lists by making a modified Thomism the doctrinal framework of The Divine Comedy, and choosing Thomas to guide him on the stairway to the highest heaven. After half a hundred years’ war the Dominicans convinced Pope John XXII that Thomas had been a saint; and his canonization (1323) gave the victory to Thomism. Thereafter the mystics found in the Summa140 the deepest and clearest exposition of the mystic-contemplative life. At the Council of Trent (1545–63) the Summa theologica was placed upon the altar together with the Bible and the Decretals.141 Ignatius Loyola imposed upon the Jesuit Order the obligation to teach Thomism. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII, and in 1921 Pope Benedict XV, while not pronouncing the works of St. Thomas free from all error, made them the official philosophy of the Catholic Church; and in all Roman Catholic colleges that philosophy is taught today. Thomism, though it has some critics among Catholic theologians, has won new defenders in our time, and now rivals Platonism and Aristotelianism as one of the most enduring and influential bodies of philosophical thought.

It is a simple matter for one who stands on the shoulders of the last 700 years to point out in the work of Aquinas those elements that have ill borne the test of time. It is both a defect and a credit that he relied so much on Aristotle: to that degree he lacked originality, and showed a courage that cleared new paths for the medieval mind. Carefully securing direct and accurate translations, Thomas knew Aristotle’s philosophical (not the scientific) works more thoroughly than any other medieval thinker except Averroës. He was willing to learn from Moslems and Jews, and treated their philosophers with a self-confident respect. There is a heavy ballast of nonsense in his system, as in all philosophies that do not agree with our own; it is strange that so modest a man should have written at such length on how the angels know, and what man was before the Fall, and what the human race would have been except for Eve’s intelligent curiosity. Perhaps we err in thinking of him as a philosopher; he himself honestly called his work theology; he made no pretense to follow reason wherever it should lead him; he confessed to starting with his conclusions; and though most philosophers do this, most denounce it as treason to philosophy. He covered a wider range than any thinker except Spencer has dared to do again; and to every field he brought the light of clarity, and a quiet temper that shunned exaggeration and sought a moderate mean. Sapientis est ordinare, he said—“the wise man creates order.”142 He did not succeed in reconciling Aristotle and Christianity, but in the effort he won an epochal victory for reason. He had led reason as a captive into the citadel of faith; but in his triumph he had brought the Age of Faith to an end.

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