Newsletters and Articles

“Exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas”: But How?

Download pdf version here pdf.

The second sentence of DSPT’s brief mission statement already singles out the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (†1274): “Inspired by the Dominican practice of disciplined inquiry and learned preaching, the School draws its students into the rich tradition of classical philosophy and Catholic theology, especially as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas, and from this tradition engages contemporary scholarship and culture in mutual enrichment.”

The DSPT is a collegium of scholars and students, working in distinct but interrelated philosophical and theological disciplines, and it is neither necessary nor desirable that every discipline see its work exemplified by Thomas to the same degree. How this exemplarity is embraced will differ, therefore, first of all from discipline to discipline. It would be futile for the Church historian or the pastoral theologian to look towards Thomas’ work and methods with the same expectations as the metaphysician or the moral theologian. But even within the systematic branches of philosophical and theological thought, the faculty members will differ somewhat in their approach to and interest in Thomas Aquinas. In the mission statement, Thomas is but one example of the rich traditions brought to bear on the resources and challenges of our times, albeit he is also the only figure who had to be singled out as exemplary; Thomas is the leading example of the traditions that the school seeks to retrieve. Perhaps, despite all personal and discipline-related variations among teachers at the DSPT, there is a characteristic commonality among the approaches to Thomas at the DSPT that one might be able to describe as something of an emerging “Berkeley school of Thomistic studies”. But that is not, in any case, my topic here. Rather, here I want to speak only for myself, describing how my own work relates to the corpus of writings left to us by Thomas Aquinas.

Let me begin by recalling an insightful remark by H.-G. Gadamer in his much-debated work on Truth and Method (1960): “In ways that are largely overlooked, forgetting belongs to the relation between retaining and remembering. Forgetting means not merely loss and privation, but, as F. Nietzsche stressed, it is a necessary condition for the life of our mind. It is only by forgetting that our mind receives the possibility of a thorough-going renewal, the ability to see things anew with a fresh look, so that what was old and familiar now blends with what is newly seen into a multidimensional unity” (Wahrheit und Methode, Mohr, Tuebingen 1960, here according to 4th edition, 1975, pg. 13, with reference to Nietzsche’s 1874 Unzeitgemaesse Betrachtungen and their second section, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”).

In order to say what I hope to recall of St. Thomas, let me begin by saying what I first try to – partially – forget. Though it might seem at first an unlikely strategy for recognizing the importance of Thomas or using his works to draw us into the rich tradition, my work tries to – partially – forget Thomas as “Doctor communis”. The initial if partial forgetfulness that I seek has to do with (1) a recent systematic use of Doctor communis; (2) a recent historicizing use of Doctor communis; and (3) a missed opportunity for relating our times and those of Thomas Aquinas.

(1) Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Doctor communis had become such a standard and expectation of Catholic commonality that the most disparate ideas of contemporary Catholic systematicians called themselves Thomism. From transcendental theology’s attempt to retrieve a loosely Hegelian refutation of the Kantian doubts about Enlightenment reason to realist existentialism’s attempts to intensify the doubts about that same Enlightenment reason, it all was packaged under the label “Thomism”. Despite the inflationary use of “Thomism” that marked this attempt to squeeze new answers into the common framework of the Doctor communis, the form remained too restrictive for all the matter that was being forced into it. The inevitable reaction had also begun: for the sake of a broader access to rich traditions and novel problems, the call went forth to “raze the bastions”. Hans Urs von Balthasar recalled his reaction to the scholasticism of the day: "I could have lashed out with the fury of Samson. I felt like tearing down, with Samson's strength, the whole temple and burying myself beneath the rubble". The reaction, while understandable in many ways, and not confined by any means to this one theologian, led to the widespread loss to Catholic thought of many of its richest traditions, buried under the rubble of reaction by many a would-be Samson: riches that today could be unearthed and brought into a new light by renewed methods of Thomistic research. My interest in studying Thomas is not an interest in making Thomas again to be the least common denominator of future Catholic thought. In bakers’ terms: I would prefer that Thomas be seen by a renewed Catholic theology more as a leaven and less as a dough pan.

(2) The poorly historicizing method that I want to forget is the sense that, if one knows the Doctor communis, one knows what is common in medieval and patristic thought; and vice versa. In order to recover the Thomas that can help us access those traditions which could enrich our future, it is imperative to use the tools of recent medievistic research in order also to see what in Thomas’ writings was uncommon in the medieval world. Forgotten be the days when a doctoral thesis could be proposed as an ahistorical commentary on a single article from the Summa theologiae (even one as interesting as imagination’s role in cognition), with little attempt to situate the article in the context of Thomas’ own development or to ask about the possible novelty of Thomas’ thought in his own day. True, a thinker can “own” received and not just “original” material, but he will own it more the more he has received it into a new context. Even the criticisms directed against Thomas by his contemporaries sharpen our sense of what in his own time was considered new about his thought. Historical research of this kind diminishes the danger of presenting as Thomistic accepted positions that were either quite common or even positions criticized by the historical Thomas Aquinas. Thus my teaching has included the “Medieval Seminar” with topics offered such as the "retractationes" of Thomas Aquinas (where Thomas changed his mind); the reception of Thomas Aquinas in the first fifty years after his death, including the so-called correctories controversy; medieval controversies on the problem of Law and Gospel; Thomas on Judaism and non-Christian religions; the debates on realism and idealism in antiquity and the middle ages, early Thomistic epistemology in its insular (Thomas Sutton) versus its continental (Hervaeus Natalis) variations; and the commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Gospel of John. To know a thinker historically demands that we know what the alternatives were. The forgetting of the Doctor communis here is deliberately partial: it is that often distinctive thought of Thomas that proved to be such a capable conduit of the older and wider traditions. We cannot quite forget, as we research Thomas’ unique place in the development of medieval thought, that these uncommon thoughts would make Thomas the Doctor communis. And the historical research here, unlike that in many medieval studies programs, is guided from the start by the expectation that this historical research will be of help in answering systematic questions.

(3) All historical investigations are guided by prior expectations of what might be found in historical material and how it might help us to grasp and develop a problem that is stated in terms foreign to the earlier context. Especially when we are investigating an historical figure (like Thomas Aquinas) with systematic intentions, we must always begin by asking for an initial sense of what we are searching for and why. This provisional answer will do well to forget the probability of being able to simply lift entire treatises or other large segments of material in their medieval configuration for mere repetition. Thomas’ contribution to today’s ecumenical and interreligious questions will often be more in obliquo than in recto. The attempt to force a choice between recovering all or nothing of the Doctor communis would mean a lost opportunity for relating our times to his. It would fail to make our own the received thought of Thomas by failing to reconfigure it in a new context. Such a failure to forget some of the prefigurations we receive could only encumber our “possibility of a thorough-going renewal, the ability to see things anew with a fresh look”: what has been called “productive non-contemporaneity” (J.B. Metz), an awareness not so much of identity as of relation, necessary if older texts are to speak in a new context. What we have most in common with the Doctor communis will become clear only if we are also attentive to what separates us from his times. What I am seeking is not a new, allround Defensio doctrinae Thomae.

Admittedly, the possibility of retrieving much of Thomas’ thought for the enrichment of our own systematic reflection is not only, not even chiefly, and also not directly a result of his otherness, his strangeness, or his non-contemporaneity. The medieval period knew spirits far more alien to us than Thomas Aquinas, but they do not therefore provide us with greater resources for meeting the challenges of our times. In fact, there are in many ways striking parallels between Thomas and us. After a long period of Augustinian hope for the graced perfection of human life, there was in Thomas’ times new attention being paid to Aristotle’s insistence on the animality and very limited transcendence of human life. At the new imperial University of Naples, the still young Thomas studied prior to his joining the Dominicans newly accessible Aristotelian texts on “natural philosophy” and on a very physical anthropology not yet accessible in the University courses of Northern Europe. The foundational insight of the young Thomas, the key realization that would carry him through his short life, seems to have been into the compatibility of Christian faith and a human finitude more restrictive than anything then known in conventional Christianity. His program of admitting as much finitude as necessary (sensibility as the foundation of cognition, passion as the regular medium of freedom, death as the privation of properly human possibilities with the grace of resurrection as their restitution), while asserting as much transcendence as is rationally possible, remained the basis of his thought. In our own age, when the former self-confidence of Enlightenment reason has long been exposed to the self-doubts of materialism and historicism, most recently in the guises of structuralism and deconstructionism, the case for affirming human dignity has again become more difficult. “The personhood of human beings stands or falls with their capacity to know the truth” (R. Spaemann), and yet the postmodern paradigm does not treat kindly claims to universal truth. The advocacy for human dignity that can argue convincingly for as much universal knowledge and sovereign freedom as is credible, while admitting as much fragmentation and servitude as the solidarity in the hardships of our age makes necessary: this is a program that will find in Thomas resources and recognition – amidst all the undeniable alienation across the stretch of ages.

Sometimes Thomas’ writings contain observations that stand on their own, with little need to consider the non-contemporaneity of the context; these include those frequent insights into human nature that light up the Second Part of the Summa like so many torches along an outdoor path. So, to choose just one example, Thomas notes once in an aside that a genuine sense of compassion can be prevented in two ways: by our never having experienced failure ourselves; or by our having failed so thoroughly that we have lost all hope for ourselves. In both cases, we are not able and willing to view the sufferings of others as our own, which is the core of misericordia. The implications for the fundamental relation of self and others are not worked out by Thomas, but someone today, taking into account recent philosophies of alterity, could develop these comments without all too much reflection on the very different context of Thomas’ day.

In many places Thomas himself comments on the development of doctrine and on how the changed times must be considered when trying to understand older texts. Thomas’ longest “book review”, now entitled Contra errores Graecorum, begins with historical and hermeneutic reflections of this kind; and since Thomas’ day, we have developed an even keener sense of the need he mentions there. Such an ability to read older texts in light of a changed context applies to our approach to many of Thomas’ own texts as well, where the non-contemporaneity is often more evident than in his occasional remarks. Thomas’ comments on religious liberty, for example, more precisely on not compelling non-Christians to baptism, precisely because faith must be free, can hardly be embraced today without also recalling the historical context which prevented Thomas from applying this principle to those who had lost the Christian faith. An inability to reconsider particular texts of Thomas outside the tangle and web of the original configurations of his writings would rob Thomistic research of its critical potential. It would isolate Thomas’ writings from the very issues that could well use many of his insights. Productive non-contemporaneity implies that we can distinguish between what is of potential value for the future and what deserves to remain consigned to the past.

This hermeneutic is not tied to the idea of inevitable progress; it is only sometimes the case that our age is in a position of a privileged perspective. To choose another example: The late 20th century Catholic criticism of scholasticism came from two opposite extremes: on the one hand, from the voices of self-assimilation and far-reaching accommodation to the Western consumerist cultures of the early 1960’s; and, on the other, from voices calling for a Catholic reception of the Calvinist dialectic between the complete perversion of human nature and the grace of a radically new and independent start. The first reaction sought to take its place – or just any seat, if need be – at the common table of society; the second reaction looked for a private room and better company. These alternatives are represented today by the relativistic theory of religions on the one hand and the sporadically absolutistic claims of “Radical Orthodoxy” on the other. While disagreeing drastically between themselves, these two movements of accommodation and isolation have always agreed that the scholastic distinction of grace and nature is to be rejected. Together, they have managed to popularize the polemical caricature of the scholastic sense of nature and grace as a two-story apartment with two self-contained condominiums, a separate and superfluous dwelling of grace just added on atop an already self-sufficient structure of nature. The polemic was so successful that textbooks today cite the caricature without any sense of its intended irony as portraying accurately the fabric of scholastic thought on grace and nature. The crossfire from these two opposed, anti-scholastic trenches not only pinned down in the middle any programmatic Thomistic renewal after the Council; arguably, it has also prevented until today the recovery of that “diastasis” of grace and nature necessary for the renewal of Catholic thought as a whole: a discernment necessary if we are to experience our nature’s many-faceted and continued need for God’s grace and if we are to take up fruitfully the challenges well-defined by Pope John XXIII for the Council: the issues of world and unity. No mere quotation of Thomistic texts can suffice of its own to offer a serious alternative. The reading of Thomas remarks on nature and grace can no longer be “innocent”: they must negotiate the new blind that has been erected before the resources of the past through the double critique of those older texts by the 20th century discussion. And yet, prepared by serious historical research into the historical position and choices of Thomas, we can ask about the distinction and relation of grace and nature that he worked out for the chief anthropological issues of faith and reason, freedom and compulsion, as well as tragedy and hope. With that, we can help Catholic thought to address today’s problems of faith and culture in a new language unknown to our contemporaries who have been reduced to silence by the recent de facto conflation of nature and grace. In the 13th century, Thomas spoke to the opposing factions of excessive self-confidence and self-doubt in his own day. With resources gained in part by the careful study of his answers, we can speak to this oscillation between presumption and despair in our own time as well, addressing the personal, cultural, political and ecclesial deficits of our times.

This hermeneutics of studying Thomas Aquinas with both the historical tools and the systematic intent described above has guided not only my teaching but my writing as well. Some examples might help to make my intentions clearer. Already my doctoral dissertation in Munich in 1989 was the attempt to establish a trialogue among Thomas Aquinas, Martin Heidegger and Karl Rahner on the chief anthropological questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? Taken together, what is the human being (by nature and grace)? In order to establish a more reliable picture of Thomas, it explored the two long, Platonic traditions known by Thomas, as well as the often critical reception of his thought by his own immediate successors. Soon afterwards, I began the critical edition of a previously unprinted work by Robert Kilwardby, the best known of Thomas’ contemporary critics. I have written on many of Thomas’ earliest critics and defenders, on his place in the history of reflection on sin and merit. I have explored some of the changes within Thomas’ own thought, for example in his attitude toward the First Covenant. Systematically, I have recalled aspects of Thomas’ thought to address such contemporary themes as the dignity of the person, the notion of sacrifice and idolatry, the Christian sense of Judaism and of non-Christian religions, of laughter and of mourning, temporality and theodicy, wisdom and labor, metaphysics and political discourse, faith and reason, ecology, Christology and Mariology, notions of truth, falsity, and unity, ecumenism and variations on the basic idea of vowed religious life in different Christian confessions and world religions. In all these systematic reflections, aspects of an historically understood Thomas Aquinas were brought into conversation with pressing issues of our times. This was roughly the direction of Thomistic studies recommended with Thomas’ own words by the Dominican Order’s General Chapter at Providence in 2001: “It is into a studious and concerned wisdom of this sort that Thomas Aquinas inscribes the Dominican vocation – contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere (cf. STh II-II 188, 6 as well as STh I 1, 4; II-II 45, 3 co). Wisdom of this kind tells us not only of what is eternal, but also of the “...regulae contingentium, quae humanis actibus subsunt“ (STh II-II 45, 3 ad 2; vgl. 19, 7). “It belongs to the gift of wisdom not only to meditate on God but also to direct human actions. Such direction is concerned first and foremost with the elimination of evils, which contradict wisdom. That is why fear is called the beginning of wisdom, because fear moves us to move away from evils. Ultimately, it has to do with the aim of how everything might be led back to the order justly due it: something which belongs to the idea of peace” (STh II-II 45, 6 ad 3; cited here in De vita intellectuali 106).

October 4, 2006