Speaking of God Continued


I want to continue now talking about God and then move on to some culminating considerations in this introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. I realize we are covering a great deal of territory and touching on many points in a kind of glancing way, but it's meant to be introductory, and other courses in the International Catholic University push beyond in a particular way points that are merely summarily spoken of here. As Christians it might seem a little much for us to be saying, as I am, that even when God talks to us about Himself we're caught up in this difficulty of a use of language: using terms whose natural habitat is some use other than to talk about God -- using those to talk about God. And we have to ask what is the relationship, how do we compare these different uses, how can such terms be common to God and creature? We might think we'll weigh rather rapidly why Thomas was saying that things really aren't any different when it comes to revelation. I mean there are more things that God tells us about himself in revelation, but the way in which he does it involves this question of analogy and how terms could be common to God and creature and so forth.

When the theologian talks about the Trinity of person in God he has to ask: what does three mean as said of the person, what does one mean as said of the nature which is shared by three Divine persons, present in three Divine persons. This is the way the issues are always stated. How can these terms, meanings of which are available to us, how can they be applied to God? In the case of the Incarnation God became man to dwell among us, so that He would be one like us, so that we could look at Him, listen to Him, and so forth. If we listen to Him we're going to find that the way He teaches obeys the same kind of necessity: that we have to be given images and stories of sensible basis in order to go beyond. If just seeing Christ were sufficient to know that He is the Son of God faith wouldn't be necessary. Many men heard Christ and did not believe, many didn't have eyes to see or ears to hear. Obviously something more is required than simply the physical presence of Christ in order to understand Him to be what He is.

Thomas the Apostle is not there when the resurrected Christ comes to visit the Apostles. He says he would only believe it if he can put his hands in His side and in the marks of the nails. When Christ comes He invites him to do that. And Thomas says, "My Lord and my God!" And Christ says, "Blessed are those who have believed and who have not seen." Now what did Thomas see? He saw the wounds, the wound in the side, the wounds of the nails. But did he see the Son of Man? Yes and no. He sees through faith such as his words and his thought. There is always this puzzle or paradox with respect to the palpable and the physical in terms of Christianity and in terms of the Incarnation. Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments goes on and on about this. The very becoming man on the part of the second person of the Trinity brings Him closer to us and in another way creates a distance between us, because we have to say: this particular Man -- we saw Him grow up; wasn't He a carpenter? This is the Messiah? In many ways the closeness creates a distance.

I'm saying this now lest you think that there is something irreverent or insufficiently grateful with respect to revelation here. I think Thomas is right in saying: if we look at it, we're seeing that God in His mercy reveals Himself to us in a mode that is appropriate to our limited capacity to understand. That's going to mean it always has to be proportioned to a mind that requires sensible images in order to get going.

The plurality of the Divine attributes, the very fact that there are many of them -- wise, just, good, intelligent and the like -- indicates their inadequacy to express fully what God is. If one of them did we wouldn't need the others. The very plurality of them suggests, it seems to me, that they are not really able to express to us what God is as wise, what God is as just, and so forth. Because, as we are going to see, there is a sense in which these things cannot be separate in God. They are all unified in God. That raises a question that Thomas is concerned with on several occasions when the plurality of the Divine attributes comes up. These are many terms -- wise, just, good, intelligent -- but they all mean the same thing: God, in whom there is none of the complexity that in creatures calls for causality, for being caused. So God is said to be simple. He is not the effect of anything. So the Divine simplicity requires that we don't have just a pile-up of attributes in the Divine nature. And ultimately we are going to want to say, God is justice, God is wisdom, God isgoodness.

Then the question arises: are these synonyms? They all refer to the same being, God. Do they mean the same thing? Ifreferring is what one meant by meaning, you would have to say yes, they all mean the same thing. And in some sense we are using these terms to talk about the same thing. But Thomas is going to say: yes, but don't think they are synonyms. Why? Tertullianism. We give a different account of wise than we do of just, and of just than we do of good, and so on. They get different meanings, and this is the second point Thomas wants to make. That reminds us of the fact that we had derived these meanings from creaturely perfection. And it's because of that and because these perfections are really different in us that these terms are not synonyms.

So again we are reminded when this problem comes up that we are pushing in a very laborious way out of what is most commensurate with our understanding, with the things that we understand easily, and we are trying to get some intimation of the Divine. Names of the positive attributes are said of God analogously; we know that means that they are shared names, that they are shared by God and creatures. And then the question is: what is the ordered set of meanings that those terms have? The controlling meaning is always going to be what we know -- of created wisdom, of created justice and the like -- and then we will extrapolate. So they are all shared names, they are common names, common to God and creatures. And we have to ask: in what does the community consist? How do we compare the meanings?

Is there any way in which we could talk of a proper name of God? Is there any way in which we could get beyond this dependence on our knowledge and talk of creatures and get at what God is and only He is -- some name that would apply only to him? Thomas is struck by a passage in Exodus when Moses is being given the Law by God, and he says,who should I tell them is telling me all these things? And God says to Moses, tell them that He Who Is has said these things to you. He Who Is. And Thomas returns to that self-description of God any number of times and suggests that it is the most perfect name of God. And it seems, though we will see it doesn't quite, it seems to escape the restrictions that we've been putting on the Divine attributes up to this time. Who else could say I Am Who Am, or He Who Is is my name? This would seem then to be a proper name of God. It's not one that is shared by creatures. So Thomas will reflect on this any number of times. Whenever he talks about the Divine name this will be the culminating consideration.

Ipsum esse subsistens is his translation, so to speak, of He Who Is, subsistent existence. Is that the proper name for God? Thomas argues that it is the least improper name of God. It is as close as we can get to saying this is God's name. Nothing I say is to in any way diminish the reverence and the awe that we should feel when we undertake this path of talking about God. We should never lose the sense of the distance between ourselves and God in terms of dignity. Close as He is to us in many ways, we wouldn't be if His causality didn't sustain us in existence. If I sound sometimes to be a little chatty about this, and talk about God's quasi-proper name, please always understand that this is meant in a reverent way.

The He Who Is answer that God gives to Moses as to who his informant is with respect to the Law is the name that Thomas will seize upon and speak of as God's quasi-proper name, the least improper name of God. And there is no discussion in Thomas that I'm aware of in which he talks about the Divine names where this doesn't take pride of place. It's usually the culminating thing after talking about the difficulties of the plurality of Divine attributes -- they are not synonyms and so forth. He turns to this as well: God has given us this self-description, He Who Is, and let's see what we can make of that. This leads us to one of the things very often stressed in the thought of Thomas Aquinas: that is the real distinction between essence and existence in creatures. What I propose that we do here now is to turn to what to me is one of the most lucid passages in Thomas where he moves toward this description of God as subsistent existent, through not only an analysis of material existence but also angels, and shows how God differs from both men and angels. And the difference can be summarized by appeal to this name that God gives Himself in Exodus, He Who Is has told you these things.

What I want to do now is to look at Thomas' commentary on the little work of Boethius called De hebdomadibus. TheDe hebdomadibus so called is also known by a title which sums up the question that is addressed in this little tractate of Boethius, and the question is whether everything that is is good just insofar as it is? Extremely interesting question, however puzzling it might seem at the outset. Thomas' commentary on this little work of Boethius is complete as his commentary on the De Trinitate is not. Although it is quite extensive, he didn't complete commenting on the whole of that work On the Trinity. But this one is a complete one. And it is a beautiful little treatise that Boethius wrote.

There is a phrase that is used about Boethius, the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics. If you had to look to anything of Boethius that would justify that second characterization of him, it would be, I think, this little work. Why? How does he proceed in dealing with this particular question? Well, he says, I'm going to proceed in effect more geometrico. First of all I'm going to lay out the axioms, the self-evident truths that are going to be useful and important for me in addressing this particular question. And when he turns to the question he is going to create a dilemma and say it looks as if you have to answer the question this way, but that runs into difficulties. But if you answer it the other way, that runs into difficulties. So he's got a nice problem built up in this way, and then by invoking the axiom he is able to resolve the issue and respond to those difficulties. So you get the axiom, you get difficulties, you get the response, and then you get the response to those difficulties. It will remind you of an article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.

It is structurally a magnificent little work, but what I'm interested in here is not just lauding Boethius, but to draw attention to Thomas' commentary on this and particularly lesson two of his commentary on the De hebdomadibus. He begins with the first axiom that Boethius lays down. An axiom is a self-evident proposition. Axiom is the Greek superlative fromgood: they are the best propositions, meaning they stand on their own feet, they don't require proof, they are self-evident, or as Thomas would call them per se notae, they are known through themselves and not through knowledge of other things. An example that Boethius gives here: the whole is greater than its part. If you know what whole means and you know what part means you don't need any proof of it. You say, I know that. Two things equal to a third thing are equal to one another. Of course you know that. There is no need of proof for that sort of thing. It's a kind of thing to which we appeal when other things are in dispute as two things that can't be in dispute. That's the meaning of an axiom or a self-evident proposition, what Thomas called a per se notae proposition.

What is the very first axiom that Boethius gives here in the De hebdomadibus? "Diversum est esse et id quod est."What a thing is and that it is are diverse or different. This is an axiom; this is put forward as a self-evident proposition. I'll be coming back to that. But when Thomas begins the analysis of this he says the infinitive to beesse, is something that is made finite in any given proposition. We say s is p. In Latin it would be subjectum est praedicatum not subjectum esse praedicatum. So the infinitive esse in the finite form of the verb est does what? Thomas says: think of it this way. The range or the boundlessness of the infinitive esse is limited both by the subject term and by the predicate term. We can think of the predicate term as attributing incidental existence to the subject term. Socrates is white. Socrates is standing. Socrates is hungry. Socrates is married, and so forth. These are attributes of Socrates which are incidental to him, some more important than others. But they are incidental to him in the sense that he could be Socrates without them. When Socrates on the side of the subject is said to exist then we're talking about esse substantiale, Thomas would say, substantial existence and not incidental existence or esse accidentale.

So in the proposition, esse the infinitive is restricted to substantive existence or incidental existence. Now for Thomas it is clear, as it was for Boethius, because it is a self-evident proposition. Thomas accepts that. It's self-evidently clear that no material thing can be such that existence is of its very nature. That it's of its nature to exist. Why? Because if that were true it could not not exist: it would necessarily exist. And if there is anything we know about the things about us, it is that they come into being and they pass out of being. So this is not a problem with respect to the things that are most knowable to us.

So the real distinction between essence and existence, the fact that existence is not an essential characterization of any material thing, is beyond argument. Why? Because to deny it would run into the counterintuitive position of saying that a changeable thing necessarily exists. And by its being changeable, it could be, and now it is, and it could not be, and now it isn't. So it's not a necessary existence. So existence is, so to speak, an add-on. It's not something you read out of the nature of the thing and say: a human being, being what he is, could not not exist. We don't know any human beings like that. We don't know any material things like that.

This is why the distinction between essence and existence is not a big deal when it comes to material substances. It's only going to emerge in this particular passage, when Thomas is saying: it looks now as if when we talk about a substance existing, a material thing, we mean it participates in existence. And this is a language that we are familiar with from Plato. Thomas uses it a lot. The particular being participates in existence, meaning it's not identical with existence, it shares in it, up to a point. It is not being in all its amplitude but being of this kind or that kind or the other kind. We can say any being participates in existence and is not identical with it.

That proceeds fairly easily both in Boethius and in Thomas in reflecting on this text of Boethius. But then Thomas raises this question, he does this in the De Ente et Essentia, On being and Essence. Before he talks about God he wants to talk about the angels. That is he wants to look into beings which are more than different from sensible or material substances, that are so infinitely less than God, and what better example for a believer than that angels can be spoken of? Separated substances on a basis other than revelation. but let's just use the language of revelation and say: what about angels? Are we going to say that they are participations in existence? Why is that a problem? Because for a material thing to exist is for the form actually to inhere in the matter. That's what Esse substantiale is for material things.If you don't have a form that is actuating a matter, what is esse going to mean? Or how are you going to talk about a participation of esse up to a point? Or is this kind of thing the nature that is constituted by form and matter? Are angels identical with existence?

Thomas deals with this rather swiftly. An angel: there is Gabriel, there is Raphael, just to take two. That's enough to have a plurality. They are different from one another. So how do they differ? They differ in the nature that they have and the essence that they have and the form that they have. So their subsistent form and their distinction from one another in terms of the form of Gabrielitas and the form of Raphaelitas, that's how they differ. So they are beings of a kind. This is the point. They share in being; they are not identical with it. They share or participate in existence; they are not identical with it. So in the case of the angels, as in a way similar to yet different from material substances, what they are is distinct from existence. They are beings of a kind, not being as such. So we speak of them similarly but differently as participating in or sharing in existence in the way that material substances do.

It's at this point that Thomas is going to regain God's description of Himself to Moses as He Who Is. And then he's going to say this, that there is a way of talking about God which enables us to see that He is different not only from the material substances but also from angels. And we have to say of Him that He doesn't participate in existence but He isexistence. He is subsistent existence. He is ipsum esse subsistens. Now this is the proof that is required when it comes to essence and existence.

The real achievement of Thomas is not to prove that there's a real distinction between essence and existence; if Boethius is right this is self-evident: that means it's not in need of proof. So it's no big deal, as I said earlier, about material substances, because the denial of the distinction would land you into the incoherent claim that something which is contingent is necessary. With respect to angels it's a little more complicated to indicate why it is that they are not identical with existence, but the basic reason is that there are several of them and they share in existence. This one is Gabriel; this one is Raphael; Raphael isn't Gabriel and Gabriel isn't Raphael. Whereas in the case of God alone existence is not parceled out, it is not shared. God is not in this instance a kind of being: He is the totality of being; He is the fullness of existence. That's what Thomas said ipsum esse subsistens to mean. And he speaks of this as the sublime truth about God.

That's what has to be established. Not that essence and existence are distinct in creatures but that they are identical in God. In God there is no distinction between essence and existence. He alone is such that it is of His essence to exist. So this is the payoff on the quasi-proper name of God. But you can see that the very way in which Thomas proceeds in the second lesson of his commentary on the De hebdomadibus is familiar to us from what we've been saying. Only by dint of comparison and denial and immanent statement can one arrive at an understanding of what is meant by saying that God is ipsum esse subsistens, subsistent existence. This is the least improper name of God because it doesn't suggest. as wise or just might do, a kind of: He is up to a point; He is just, but what about this? When you say God is, when God says it Himself, I am who am, when we say God is subsistent existence we mean: this is unrestricted existence; it is not limited to a kind; it is the fullness of being. God's causality then will be spoken of in terms of this participation. Causality and participation will start to look like complementary approaches when we are talking about the Divine causality. That sublime truth, as Thomas calls it, that is the ultimate in what Thomas has to say about the quasi-proper name of God that we are given in the Book of Exodus.

Now to start to bring together the various themes that I have been presenting to you in these six short lectures, I want to turn to the question of the natural and the supernatural. I obviously in these talks have been emphasizing the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. This is an introductory course. It is meant to be part of our sequence leading towards the Masters in Philosophy. If one were to develop such an introductory course on Thomas in our theology sequence many other things would be emphasized that I haven't even touched on here. But all of the things that I've spoken of would be presupposed in that other and more theological presentation of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. This very little apologia reminds us of the distinction that we spoke of earlier between philosophy and theology, and a thing that we're often reminded of, and it's worth being reminded of, is that Thomas was primarily a theologian. He was primarily a theologian. But as I tried to suggest by my analysis of article one of question one of the first part of the Summa, you can't be a theologian unless you are first a philosopher. It's not as if they are two doors and you choose to go through one or the other. But as in the medieval university you can get into the faculty of theology only by going through the faculty of arts, which of course became the faculty of philosophy once the influence of Aristotle was sufficiently felt. So we see in Thomas a relationship not of opposition or a kind of alternative between philosophy and theology, but of dependence of theology on philosophy.

Now I want to return to an issue that arose when we were talking about the moral order, Thomas' moral thought that is of the ultimate end. We can be struck in reading Thomas when he's commenting on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle how at home he seems to be in this context, and yet we might say he's a Christian, he's a Dominican, he's a priest, he's a theologian. Shouldn't he feel some sense of inadequacy in this philosophical approach? And of course the answer is yes. He doesn't have to express it there. But what we don't find in Thomas is any tendency to say: that's just pagan talk, or that's just philosophical talk. Because of his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology there is always going to be the subsuming of philosophy into the theological enterprise and of course pushing the reflection beyond anything that philosophy alone could do. But there is again the point of referring to the opening article of the Summa, there is a dependence of theological reflection on philosophical reflection.

Now what I want to do is in terms of this notion of ultimate end. I want to illustrate that in terms not of the absence of any demure in the commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, but turning to the moral part of the Summa, the first part of the second part. In the first we would look at the opening five questions. There you'll find Thomas talking about the good and the ultimate end, and if you look at the references and those whom he is invoking as he argues you'll find Aristotle showing up all over the place. Augustine is there and others of the Fathers, but Aristotle is right in there with them. It's as if he is at home in theology the way Thomas was at home in commenting on the Nicomachean Ethics. What is going on here? The reason for the surprise should be that Thomas knows as a Christian what the point of human life is. We are called to an end that is far beyond anything that our nature would be owed. We have a supernatural end; we're called to the Beatific Vision, the union with God after this life. That's not owed to us: that's gratuitous, totally gratuitous. And it's why Augustine called Original Sin the happy fault, felix culpa -- because what is given in recompense for the fall of nature goes far beyond anything that was lost by Original Sin. So the gain is far more than the loss in the supernatural order. So when we think of that, as indeed we are likely to, we wonder how could Thomas, holding this notion of what human life is all about and the supernatural end, can be so comfortable with the Aristotlean statement as to what the ultimate end is.

In order to understand this we can remind ourselves of the twofold sense of the ultimate end that Thomas puts before us. On the one hand he can say everybody pursues the same ultimate end in the sense that the notion of ultimate end has to be operative in any action that anyone performs. Whatever we do we do on the assumption that it is conducive to our overall good or happiness. That is the only way we could desire it. So our overall good or happiness is the ultimate end that explains any particular choice that we make. That's the notion of ultimate end. But what is it that realizes that notion truly? And here there are all kinds of differences obviously between one man and another and some of the differences are unacceptable. There are many different emphases in human life which are equally moral and justifiable, but there are some that are just ruled out as being not conducive at all to the fulfillment or perfection of human beings.

So the notion of ultimate end has to be realized in a concrete way. Not every concrete way of realizing it or seeking its realization truly matches what we mean by the overall perfection or fulfillment of the human agent. Now here is the problem. Thomas and Aristotle would hold exactly the same meaning of ultimate end. They would have the same notion of ultimate end: that which is completely fulfilling and perfecting of the human agent. There is no difference between them on that. But when we looked at Aristotle we had one kind of account as to what realizes that notion, and we want to say that cannot be the answer for Thomas because he is a Christian and he knows we are called to something far beyond anything that entered into Aristotle's account of what human happiness is. Now if it were the case that Aristotle is saying what I am putting forward here fully and entirely satisfies the notion of ultimate end, then Thomas who holds that it does not, that we are called to a supernatural end, Thomas would have to say you are wrong and that's false to say that. Why is it false? Because of what he believes. And he is saying this is what we are called to, if this is what our destiny is, to say it is only this would be false.

But what Thomas noticed and what he emphasizes is that Aristotle never said that. As a matter of fact he suggests just the opposite, that any life we could lead in this world that will satisfy the ultimate end of complete good or perfect good will satisfy us only partially. That is, we can only have an imperfect realization of the ultimate end in this life. Thomas cites a certain text of Aristotle in the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics saying Aristotle knew that, look what he says here. There are a lot of other ways out of Aristotle in which one can show that he is not under any illusions about the adequacy of what he puts forward as the material, we might say, ultimate end. And that enables Thomas in the moral part of the Summa of Theology to say that what Aristotle the philosopher might have to say about human existencerelates to what we know as the result of the faith as the imperfect to the perfect.

So there is not a contradictory opposition, but the one is, so to speak, a component of the ultimate and perfect summation of happiness. This way in which Thomas shows the compatibility of Aristotle's account of what realizes the ultimate end and what the Christian believes, between imperfect and perfect fulfillment of the notion of ultimate end, isinteresting in itself, showing us how Thomas can lift the natural into the supernatural. There is an old adage that grace elevates nature and does not destroy it. The supernatural order is not the negation of the natural order, but it subsumes it into a wider whole in such a way that it reaches a fulfillment it could not possibly have attained independently of it. This is why Thomists are always just a little reluctant to be mere philosophers, because theology is the queen of the sciences, and in the ultimate order of learning of course the whole of philosophy is going to be seen as subservient to theology. The handmaid of theology, ancilla theologia, as it was called. That was sometimes thought to be demeaning, but it doesn't call into question the autonomy of philosophy. That is, the philosophical arguments have to stand on their own feet and cannot appeal to anything that is not in the public domain. But it indicates that we human beings who engage in philosophy have a destiny far beyond what can be achieved in philosophy. To forget that, to try to elevate philosophy into the last word without remainder, is to distort philosophy and is indeed to get a very bad picture of what a human being is.

One might go on about that because we live in a time when the secularization of philosophy along with almost everything else seems to be almost complete so that people unfortunately and falsely think that religious faith is an impediment to philosophy or to human reason, that it is incompatible with the use of human reason. I've often thought that the best thing that ever happened to the human mind is Divine faith. If you look at the history of the West, if you look at the development in the arts and in literature and music and architecture and so forth, and see the tremendous impact that religious belief has had on, so to say, the natural order, sublimating it and bringing it up to a level it could not possibly otherwise have reached, one is not likely to think religious faith is somehow an impediment to cultural effloresence. Quite the opposite, quite the opposite.

One of the ways in which Thomas has had an impact far beyond Catholic circles or even circles that are made up of people who agree to the Summa Theologiae is through Dante, through the Divine Comedy. Dante lived a few decades after Thomas Aquinas. The great Divine Comedy, as you know, is set in the year 1300 and in Easter Week, in Holy Week, and in this magnificent poem, the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, we have, what is often said, perhaps too often, we have the Summa in verse. We have the Summa in verse. Now as soon as you hear a remark like that you begin to think of reasons why you wouldn't want to accept it. It seems odd to talk about the Cantos of the Purgatorio on the same level, as if they were doing the same thing, as articles in the Summa. But there was a deep sense in which the world view that Thomas articulated so beautifully in the Summa Theologiae is the world view that sustains this great poem of Dante. Dante in his dedicatory letter to a patron of his, dedication of the Paradiso, applies to his own poem the kind of device that we apply to Sacred Scripture, asking what is the literal meaning, what is the symbolic meaning. What Dante says of the Divine Comedy is this: the literal meaning of the poem is the condition of souls after death. The allegorical meaning is the way in which human beings by the use of their freedom justly merit either reward or punishment.

That is the Christian view of what life is all about, what life in this world is, what the point of it is. Of course in Dante people are looking back from the other side of the grave. They are losers in the Inferno; they are not quite losers, they are eventual winners in the Purgatorio; and they are united with God in the Paradiso. But in various levels. Now in the circle of the sun in the Paradiso Dante introduces Thomas Aquinas. Also Saint Bonaventure. Thomas gets a lot of space in the Paradiso, so that it's not wholly, in fact it is not at all, a stretch to say that Thomas Aquinas has an enormous impact on the Divine Comedy. This influence, I think, is something that has enabled the world view of theSumma to affect lots of people in this aesthetic and poetic way who perhaps would not have read the Summa as such.

Let's hope that eventually they will. Dante certainly did, and one of the features of Dante's life as a poet is that he tells us that in order to write about Beatrice as no woman has ever been written of before he had to put his mind to study, and the study was philosophy and theology at the Franciscan and Dominican Convents in Florence. Perhaps he studied in Paris; there is a story that maybe Dante did. But whether or not he did, he knew what was going on in Paris and what Thomas had achieved. This was before Thomas was canonized, and Bonaventure, too, that Dante has got them in Heaven with the saints.

So he canonized then before the Church did, and you might say he wasn't a household name as yet except in certain circles, but he looms enormously large in Dante. One of the things that my dear colleague Otto Bird told me about his time at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto was that Etienne Gilson, who was the founder and first director of that Institute, gave as the aim and purpose of Medieval Studies at Toronto to train people who would be able to read Dante intelligently. The more I reflect on that, the more it seems to me there is no better way in which one could sum up what is required to read Dante intelligently than all of the things that are done in such places as the Pontifical Institute and Medieval Studies at Toronto.

Having made this point about Thomas' impact on one of the cultural giants of the West, we could talk about other influences that he's had, direct and indirect, on the other arts. But I want now to return to the biographical and the last years of Thomas. We know that in 1272 he had completed his second Regent Professorship at the University of Paris, and he returned to what would have been his home base. This is where he joined, Naples and there Reginald, the secretary that I mentioned, is with him. And Reginald tells us that Thomas, as the result of a mystical experience, stopped writing. The Summa Theologiae as I mentioned is incomplete. It isn't the case that he just died too soon: he decided not to complete it. As a result of this mystical experience that he had, he said: after what I have seen everything I have written seems to me mere straw.

Now this, I think, is something that every student of Thomas ought to reflect on. Josef Pieper, a great twentieth-century Thomist, wrote a little book. He wrote a lot of little books, wonderful little books, but a little book called The Silence of Saint Thomas in which he dwells on this decision on Thomas's part to stop writing, to stop dictating, to devote himself solely to prayer and the other functions of a religious friar. This is puzzling because if there is any achievement of the human mind in theology, in the opinion of many and not just myself, the Summa Theologiae, even unfinished, stands out from everything else. There are a lot of reasons for that, and one of them was pointed out by Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris, the encyclical that initiated the Thomistic Revival in the nineteenth century that went on into the twentieth century. Thomas, he said, is a summation of everything that went before.

So Thomas is not trying to come up with some totally unheard of interpretation of this or that. He saw himself in continuity with the great effort over the centuries of Christian believers reflecting on the faith. And so he is building on that. He is summarizing that. He is putting it forward in a more orderly way. We don't ever find in Thomas any suggestion that he is doing something or saying something that is original. He did say many things that were original. But this certainly wasn't his intention or ambition. Aristotle sometimes stops to congratulate himself on having done something that no one else had ever done. In one of the logical works, for example, he congratulates himself in that way. Thomas never does that. But nonetheless, despite his modesty, his thought is indeed the bringing together, the synthesizing of truths that were scattered, so to speak, through the various Fathers, through the philosophers and so forth, and unifying them in a way that is absolutely magnificent.

This is the achievement of which Thomas is saying is mere straw. Now the only way we can understand that is, I think, to be reminded of what I was underscoring when we were talking about the Divine Name. The desire to know God, to know what we can of God, to understand what words applied to Him mean is the be all and the end all not only of philosophy but of human life. That's what we are made for. We are made for knowledge of the truth, and knowledge of the source of all truth is going to be the only satisfying objective of that quest for truths and knowledge. And yet in the pursuit of it in this life there is always the sense of falling short from it. Our names, even those that God lends us, so to speak, such as Ipsum esse subsistens, don't lock into what God is. They don't really enable us to comprehend or see what God is. Even without the mystical experience that caused Thomas to stop writing, there is always the sense of inadequacy, of pushing, so to speak, beyond the reach of the human mind. And yet not to do that would be defeating of what it is to be a human being. This is what is so paradoxical about it.

What our chief concern ought to be is what we can do least well, we might say, and yet to do it even in the way that we can do it is infinitely preferable to any other kind of activity. But here is Thomas now acknowledging that, in the most dramatic way, by falling silent, by no longer writing. Now biographers might say: wait a minute, he was on his way to the Council of Lyons after this experience, and then fell ill, and then died in Fossanova. So he must have been ready to go up there and talk theology in the way in which one would at a Council. When he was dying at Fossanova at the Cistercian abbey, we are told that the monks begged him to comment on the Canticle of Canticles, the Song of Solomon, and that he agreed. I think Pieper is right to underscore the silence of Saint Thomas. Finally there was this dramatic recognition that even in the most exalted achievement in theology as one could take the Summa to be, we are falling far short of the capacity to comprehend what God is. So silence is a sign of that recognition. I suppose it is only fitting, in imitation of Saint Thomas, having spoken so much, that I now fall silent and acknowledge that in the end we must recognize the infinite distance between ourselves and the vision that alone can make us happy.


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