Day 20. T is for Thomism

Thomism refers to the school of theological/philosophical thought that developed out of St. Thomas Aquinas’ work. To a lot of religious folk, Aquinas remains an example of the worst excesses of Roman rationalistic theology – an arrogant and presumptuous attempt to use pagan reasoning to pry into the mysteries of God. To a lot of secular people he is just another thinker who pontificated a lot about things he didn’t know much about and was subsequently outmoded by later developments in science and philosophy.

A lot of these critiques come from people who have often at best only taken a cursory glance at his famous Five Ways in their Philosophy 100 class, and so are often difficult to take seriously. There are interesting critiques that could be made of him, but by and large people aren’t making them (similarly with Catholicism and theism more generally).

I am, I suppose, a sort of Thomist. And I would describe Thomism, from a philosophical perspective, as an ontology of being/existence, not to be confused with Heidegger’s (now) more famous phenomenology of being. In particular, it explores the notion of existence as act as opposed to a sort of brute fact. This marks a departure from much of classical Greek philosophy, and is worth making the comparison to draw out the distinction. In Platonic cosmology, the demiurge acts upon primordial matter in order to craft the cosmos. With Aristotle, the unmoved mover is the principle of motion/change in an otherwise eternal universe. In both cases, the fact that there is stuff at all is taken to be just a rather banal, basic fact. But Aquinas is interested in the question, not only of how stuff may or may not have come into being at some point, but how individual existences persist in being. This is explored through a refinement of some of the key aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics: Act/potency and hylomorphic dualism, especially. Aquinas was also heavily indebted to the neoplatonic tradition by way of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. I’m less familiar with that tradition and the extent to which Aquinas’ own analysis of being has precursors there.

Theologically, Aquinas considers all things departing from, and returning to God. There is a sense in which all of creation is a medium of communication between God and creatures. Christ’s incarnation was not required, but was the most fitting manner of saving us. The Crucifixion was not an act of penal substitution, but rather an act of penance that reveals God’s love for us.

The claim that Thomist thought is an encroachment of philosophy upon theological mystery is off base. God, for Aquinas, remains unknowable and mysterious, transcending all our conceptualizations. Our positive statements about God have, at best, an analogical value, for they are derived from our experience of creation, which God is radically different in kind from. The fear that Aquinas is, in his explications of Christian doctrine, supplanting divine revelation and reducing Christianity to a kind of philosophy is also misguided. Things should make sense: if Christianity is true, it should harmonize with natural reason, even if it extends beyond it.

About Josh W

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1 Response to Day 20. T is for Thomism

  1. Gaheret says:

    Great post! St. Thomas Aquinas is by far my favorite among all philosophers. It feels for me like a humble giant, analogous to that brilliant and quiet army of Cathedral builders, liturgic poets or ius commune jurists, or to Mallory, or to Dante, that mixed with a strong, admirable, funny, clueless, kind and unique personality. Still now, when I have a deep moral/political/theological question, wheter is how does prophecy work, or if you can support a better-but-still-evil political faction, or what the arguments are both for and against death penalty, I look up the Summa Theologica. If the reasoning does not always convince me, at least it always shows me the way I should reason it. The foundations and budgets indicated, deep commitment to the truth, attention to detail and to the thing as we perceive it, not just the word, not just the mental image, coherence with reality and common experience, exploration of difficulties one by one, taking Revelation into account, using the best of every one of his philosophical sources, searching always for the best explanation. He writes so that everyone can critise him, the funniest thing ever is that the majority of his critics come up with less than a half of the arguments he himself lists against his own view! The Dark Ages. Yeah.

    The fact remains that if the world is the way we see and feel it, if dogs die, child are born, empires rise, cause-effect operates and humans think, then a great part of philosophical Thomism is true under the best-explanation-given-the-facts standard. If the Bible and the Gospels are true, the same must be said about a great part of theological Thomism. But better yet, all the Thomist corpus is built to be built upon, invites to reach higher heights, to dig deeper, gives you tools to do it. That´s very Aristotelian, completely anti-Hegel, and truly amazing.

    And our religious folks, that sentimental and kind-hearted guys, may fear and disdain him, but there is a Book of Wisdom in the Bible in which we are invited to meditate, to deepen, to think about God and His creation. That´s the first purpose we have a head for in the first place. If it isn´t accompanied by love and humility it worths nothing. Amen. But the same can be said of good works, deep feelings, kindness, even miracles. And those things are still good, even necessary.

    As a philospher, I´m a novice yet, but I will say that “existence as act” is the higher notion you can build over Aristotle, by the way. In my view, it opens the way for a deeper comprehension of personhood as a real, trascendent thing, so “act of being-essence” explains “personhood-nature”. Which is interesting because we have all the same nature, but we are also unique (the peek of all Creation in some specific way).

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