Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland
WHAT CAN AQUINAS OFFER US TODAY?
by CATHERINE KAVANAGH
IN HIS INTRODUCTION to the excellent Summa of the Summa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Introduction, pp. 9-23), Peter Kreeft offers seven arguments for the contemporary reading of Aquinas, all of them compelling: 1) His truthfulness, that is, his belief that it is the purpose of philosophy to discover and tell the truth; 2) His common sense–that is, his ability not to be deceived by specious reasoning–we shall return to this later; 3) His combination of theoretical and practical wisdom: although his system is in some ways very technical, and it does take time to become familiar with it, nevertheless, it always remains rooted in human experience. We tend to forget that Thomas’s magnificent philosophical work was achieved in the service of the pastoral needs of the people whom the Dominicans served. He never loses sight of that. 4) His ultimate clarity of style: an initial encounter with Thomas can be bruising, since, like a character in an old comedy show, he says things only once, and one has to pay attention, but as one gets used to paying attention, then one begins to realise just how clear he is–and that he misses nothing. 5) His depth of insight. There are people who achieve depth without clarity and people who achieve clarity without depth, but Thomas achieves both. 6) More than any other thinker, he has formed the Catholic mind, and anyone who wants to know it, for whatever reason, even if the reason is ultimately hostile to Catholicism, must engage with him on some level. The most important converts, for example, G. K. Chesterton, or Edith Stein, took up the study of Aquinas, because they wanted their conversion to be complete. As Newman observed, “an unintellectual conversion is often the sign of an unconverted intellect”. This is a task that is just as important for cradle Catholics, who are often more at risk of assuming they know their religion, when in fact they don’t. 7) Finally, there is his gift of being able to synthesise apparently opposing movements, and thus demonstrate that they are not necessarily opposed: Faith and Reason, the Biblical and the Classical; clarity and profundity; intuition and logic.
Obviously all of these reasons are compelling, but here we shall focus on what Kreeft calls his common sense. In other words, when one encounters Thomas’s position on any issue, his final conclusion seems absolutely self-evident. But actually, it is not self-evident at all, as the existence of the several objections and counter-arguments in any given article of the Summa Theologica will show. Usually, Aquinas raises all possible objections to the position he actually thinks is correct, and the final element in the article is the resolution of the objections. In fact, there are scholars of Aquinas who do not agree with him, and who think that sometimes the objections have more force than the argument with which he counters them, but they agree that he lists the objections fairly, and makes a real effort to deal with them. This is something which has a lot to offer the modern world. How often do we take the time really to come to terms with a problem, and really to think it through? Even as Catholics, perhaps, we sometimes have a temptation to go for the easy answer, rather than engaging with the more demanding process of wrestling with a problem until we have got the right answer.
More than self-hypnosis
Often this may be because, without realising it, we have taken on board the relativistic principle that there may not be a “right” answer, and this is also something we should think about. One area where this can prove very subtly damaging is in the relation of faith to the other things that we know. There is a tendency these days for people of faith to say “Well, it helps me, and it’s a comfort….I’m not too worried about attacks from the scientific community on the existence of God or the veracity of the Christian claims. It’s true for me, and I’m happy with it….” In other words, they remove faith altogether from the realm of things that can be known, and put it among unarguable experiences, such as the claim that one has a headache, which nobody is going to contradict, even if the headache is psychsomatic. However, what this tends to do is make faith completely irrelevant to anybody else, just like my love for or dislike of dogs…who cares? On the other hand, if one knows that, let’s say, a particular set of exercises can relieve a very painful back, and can teach them, then clearly that is relevant to others. If somebody comes along and says “Well, it seems to me that the last thing one wants to do with a bad back is start stretching it”, it would be unsatisfactory to say “It works for me”. We want an explanation, so that we can be sure that these exercises at least are not going to do any harm. Likewise with faith: if it is more than self-hypnosis, we ought to be able to explain why–to ourselves first and foremost.
What this means, then, is that we will have to locate faith in relation to the things that we know, and ask ourselves what it means to believe what we do believe. This will bring us up against problems: the relation of science to faith, for example. This is not a new problem–the particular scientific discovery which is raising questions may be a new one, but as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, new discoveries which alter our world-picture in significant ways have always happened, and the question as to whether that raises problems for believers is an old one, and was faced, and answered decisively, by Thomas in his day.
During the thirteenth century, following centuries during which they were lost to Western Europe, the works of Aristotle once again became available to scholars, through Latin translations from the Arabic, accompanied by Arabic commentaries, also translated into Latin, and they caused a tremendous stir in the Universities at the time, parallel, perhaps, to the stir caused by Darwin in Protestant circles during the nineteenth century. Several of Aristotle’s ideas seemed to contradict Christian teaching directly. For example, he seemed to think that the soul was not individual–in other words, that although there are individual human beings, the fact that they are all human means that they all have the one kind of soul, that soul is common, so to speak, and the arguments in favour of this seemed really quite persuasive. Obviously this contradicts the Christian teaching that the soul is unique to the individual human being, and is immortal, and it also raises ethical problems–who is responsible for ethical acts? There are other problems also. There was a fear that students studying this were losing their faith, and a number of different solutions were proposed– banning philosophy, or at least Aristotle, which happened in the later thirteenth century, or on the other hand, a solution which became very influential in the early years of the thirteenth century, until Aquinas confronted it head-on.
A scholar called Siger of Brabant proposed a double-truth kind of theory. If one reads something in Aristotle, and finds the argument convincing, then one has to accept it as true. However, one also knows that what I am taught by the Church is true. If these two truth contradict each other, then one just has to accept both–and there Siger leaves it. Aquinas was most unhappy with this as a solution to the problem of apparent contradictions between Aristotle and Church teaching. Like Siger, he found a great deal of value in Aristotle–he believed that he should be taught, and was opposed to the banning of the teaching of Aristotle. Like Siger, he was a devout man, who held to what the Church had taught–it is interesting the Dante places the two of them close together in Heaven in the Paradiso. However, he could not accept that a mind could accept a contradiction, and remain sane: that a thing and its contrary cannot be true, simultaneously and in every respect is not only a basic element of logic, but the foundation of a sane and functioning mind.
Truths cannot contradict each other
In 1270 he composed a treatise called “On There Being Only One Intellect”, which is really a polemic against this position. In this conflict, we see Aquinas’s typical method and habit of mind. On the one hand, we have new knowledge; on the other hand, we have Christian teaching. If both are true, and it seems that both are true, and if it seems that there is a contradiction, then it must be that there is a misunderstanding somewhere, and then we have to go back to the problem, and work it through again–as he did on the question of whether Aristotle believed in the individual soul. There is common sense at work here–it’s just a commonplace of everyday life that two truths cannot contradict each other; if they could, then we simply couldn’t function. What Aquinas did was to bring that commonsense intuition to bear on his work in philosophy, and patiently and diligently work out an authentic solution. We see that everywhere in his work: he has an ability to see that even the most abstract problem relates in some way to human experience, and he brings the commonsense intuition by which we work our way through the world in the most basic and practical way imaginable to bear on the most abstract of problems. Siger’s double- truth theory leaves the problem at the purely abstract level because he has not thought through the implications of willingly accepting a contradiction, but Aquinas has.
We live in an age in which theoretical knowledge of all kinds has increased exponentially, but has not been well integrated into our world-view–we have simultaneously great knowledge and great confusion, and this feeds into the culture of relativism about which Pope Benedict has spoken–that view that there is no absolute truth , but only truths relative to me. Thomas acknowledges that there are individual truths in individual minds, but that ultimately all are true by the one truth–in other words, that unless truth is unified, we cannot really talk about truth at all, but only about a series of illusions projected by our own minds on the chaos of impressions we receive through the senses, and actually the Scottish empiricist David Hume does say something very like this. How would one prove Hume wrong? On one level we cannot do so, because our sense impressions are absolutely primary: how would you demonstrate, logically, that you were having an experience? You can’t. However, we know that the world just doesn’t work like that–we communicate, we share impressions, and so on. I know that I only know a certain amount, but I also know that the things I don’t know relate to what I do know, and that if I learn something new, which contradicts something I thought I knew, than I have a problem that I have to resolve.
Faith must permeate all life
That we know in everyday life. The thing is to bring it into our understanding of theoretical matters also. It is not enough to say well, in this sphere, as a scientist I know X, and my faith has nothing to do with that, and if my faith seems to contradict it, then I am not going to worry about it. Or think of that American saying–“the business of business is business” without any reference at all to faith or morals. It is not enough to switch off intellectually when it comes to faith–we have to get to know it, and if we find apparent contradictions with things that we already know, or think we know, we have to work those through. Our faith is meant to permeate every aspect of our life. That is not just following rules: it is far more a matter of knowing why the Church teaches this or that, and knowing how to apply it. There will be areas of our lives where no-one can tell us what to do, and where we can only act as Christians, as Catholics, if we have that capacity. What that means is that we have a duty to exercise the intellect in every area of life, including our faith–and that can sometimes mean exploring quite unexpected avenues, depending on where we are.
When we say that Aquinas articulates the mind of the Church, that is not to say that he does so exclusively. One finds the tradition of the Church in all sorts of other authors, and it is important to read them, since they offer other, and valuable, perspectives. It is to say that he found extremely clear and sharp ways of articulating what was a perennial tradition (a course in Aquinas is like learning to read all over again, and it enriches one’s encounter with other authors immeasurably), and of pointing out ways in which it could engage with any form of thought whatever–that is not to say accept any form of thought whatever, but certainly engage. It has nothing to fear from new discoveries, since new discoveries, if true, will actually reinforce it. What Aquinas brought to the Catholic mind, what was his own, and is now ours, was an incredible confidence in the truth, and in the power of the human mind to discern it. Far from being the closed, fearful thing of the parody of the “brights”, the Catholic mind is actually very outgoing, confident in its ability to meet new challenges endlessly–and this, I think, it gets from Aquinas.
Dr Catherine Kavanagh is a lecturer in philosophy in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
Also in this issue:
EDITORIALS: New York’s Holy Innocents Will Remain Open
A Battle We Cannot Afford to Lose
WHAT CAN AQUINAS OFFER US TODAY?
Dr Catherine Kavanagh
ISLAM, ISIS AND THE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…
Professor James R. Lothian
IS SEPARATISM ANTI-EUROPEAN? GERMAN DEBATE ON THE SCOTTISH REFERENDUM
Muinice de Bairgéad
AN ANSWER TO HUMANISTS
Rev Professor Brendan Purcell
OF SUGAR AND SALT Joe Aston
From the Editor’s Desk includes ‘Children’s Literature’ and ‘Liturgical Colours’; a Letter to the Editor from Dominic Greer; Hibernia Hibernici shows why ‘Sinn Féin are not our friends’; Hurling Shots reflects on ‘Papal diplomacy, Barack Obama and Cuba’, and ‘Throwing away votes’.