Lesson 12: The Relevance of Thomas

I began reading St. Thomas more than half a century ago and I have never stopped. Nonetheless, as I come to the end of this presentation of his thought, I am gripped with a sense of inadequacy. Among the sins of my past life are a number of books in which I have tried to do what I have tried to do here. A little book called Aquinas will appear from Polity Press in Cambridge, England, in 2003. You may want to take a look at it and compare the summary treatment of Thomas in that book with that I have attempted here. They differ, no matter the overlaps.

It is a mark of an author like Thomas that one keeps finding new things in rereading him and wondering how stupidly one overlooked them on previous readings. I am sure that in whatever future that is allotted me I will look at this course as I do those books, wistfully though not entirely with regret. I have outlived Thomas by a quarter century and I will never live long enough to exhaust what he has written. A humbling realization, but salutary too.

Not that I have consciously included inadequacies in my treatments of Thomas. They come of their own accord.

Thomas and the Magisterium

I earlier drew your attention to Pope John Paul II's Fides et Ratio which, along with Veritatis Splendor, is one of his major contributions to the long line of papal commendations of St. Thomas Aquinas as our mentor par excellence in philosophy and theology. Secular philosophers are often nonplussed by the fact that Catholics get such authoritative advice on matters philosophical. Even some Catholics seem more puzzled than receptive. Perhaps a majority of philosophers who are Catholic ignore the Magisterium's advice on Thomas. Some even seem to believe that it was all taken back at Vatican II and nowadays we should fall into line behind Heidegger or some other cult figure.

The proper response to the Magisterium's recommendation of Thomas is gratitude. As Fides et Ratio points out, what has been called the Scandal of Philosophy continues apace. After millennia of inquiry, the house of philosophy sounds like the Tower of Babel. What is a beginner to do in the face of so many conflicting systems and authorities? One way or the other we get into philosophy by heeding someone's advice on how to do it, if only the fashioners of Philosophy 101 at Meatball Tech. It may seem unimportant where one takes the plunge into philosophy; once in the pool one can hope to sort out the conflicting currents and ride the crest of truth to the opposite ladder. But it matters a lot where we begin, if we are at all serious about the task. We take on a lot of intellectual freight in those first laps across the pool and we can never be completely dry again. Since Descartes, one way or the other, philosophers have driven a wedge between our mental activity and its objects. As we have already suggested, this approach is in diametrical opposition to that taken by Thomas.

Beginnings may be arbitrary, but where you have two quite incompatible notions of what philosophizing is, one of them has got to be wrong. I don't mean that either Heidegger or Wittgenstein is true. I refer to the most basic division of all. Is the human mind made to know the things that are or can it only know things as it knows them? One of these positions is false and the other true.

If you look at the long history of commendations of Thomas, particularly those since Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris, you will find that it is Thomas's epistemological realism that is stressed, and stressed as a fundamental alternative to dominant secular philosophies. The Catholic of course has antecedent certainty that the Church's advice is worth taking. But once one has taken it, once one has devoted a half century or so to the study of Thomas principally and other philosophers in the light of his thought, it becomes clear that the alternative to Thomas's way of philosophizing is incoherent. It is not a live option we might take which will land us in truths in conflict with Thomas. In this sense, Thomism is not a philosophy among others. It is synonymous with philosophy.

I will not repeat here what I said earlier about the Pope's concept of Implicit Philosophy in Fides et Ratio. Renewed reflection on it, as well as reflection on what Thomas has to say about our natural way of knowing, will bring home to you the basic reason why the Church has put Thomas before us as our mentor.

Ite ad Thomam

If what I have put before you in the lectures and lessons prompts you to immerse yourself in the writings of Thomas, my objective will have been realized. That is my final lesson. Go to Thomas!


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