John Herve comments on the renewed scholarly interest in Thomas Aquinas


Well would you believe it? Having been neglected by serious thinkers outside Catholicism for centuries, philosophers are now paying more and more attention to Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). This has ignited an ongoing debate: is he primarily a philosophical theologian, or a theological philosopher? This debate was triggered for the simple but profound reason that he was heavily influenced by the then recently unearthed writings of Aristotle. Thus, much of academic thinking at the time was a ferment of rational investigation into the most fundamental aspects of reality in general, and human behaviour and nature in particular. When he died, relatively young, Aquinas left a vast legacy of almost 8 million words, but to know something about Aquinas you need to know something about Aristotle. Born in 384BC and a disciple of Plato, he also tutored Alexander the Great (356–323BC) until the latter was aged 16. Aristotle is recognized as the most methodical and systematic of the Greek philosophers, an approach Aquinas emulated. Aristotle founded philosophy as a distinct discipline (and thus intellectual enquiry falls into separate disciplines) and distinguished between reflecting upon the actual nature of philosophy and the practice of philosophy. The main areas with which he is identified include:

Logic: His Prior Analytica formulates a system of deductive reasoning that includes the study of language as an essential element.

The Nature of Being: A quarter of his corpus is devoted to this. Modifying Plato, he concludes that things are not just the ‘matter’ of which they materially consist, but by virtue of their being constructed into a particular shape adopt a particular ‘form’ or ‘substance.’ He goes on to analyse what the ‘substances’ are that constitute reality.

Metaphysics: This follows on from the previous area. Here, a universal science of the nature of being is posited. This includes an attempt to describe the distinctive and irreducible character of living organisms and also the existence of an ultimate cosmic order.

Mind: ‘Form’ and ‘matter’ explain the relation between soul and body, the soul being a ‘form’ of the living body. This leads on to a discourse on the philosophy of the mind.

Ethics/politics: He held that to understand the principles of moral and political practice, you have to understand the essential and natural aims of the human agents involved. He elucidates this ethical theory by placing it against actual societies and states.

Literary criticism/rhetorical theory: These are closely connected to the preceding area and to his system of logic.

Aquinas built on this heritage, and on the work of his contemporary and fellow Dominican Albert the Great (1200–1280). As a result, Aquinas’ work holds the preeminent position in Western philosophy, for it synthesised the work of Aristotle with the (then) current scientific and Christian thought.

Aquinas aimed to sift out the areas in which he perceived Aristotle as sound and to distinguish these from some of the Aristotelian conclusions. For example, Aquinas posits that any conclusions Aristotle draws are known by revelation alone. Reflecting on Aristotle’s work, Aquinas constructs the platform for the fundamental pivot of his teaching—that is, the acute distinction between reason and faith. He states that Christian doctrine is beyond the remit of, and cannot be discovered by, human reason. But whilst it cannot be established by human reason it is not contrary to human reason! Further, human reason can often indicate the probability of doctrinal truth: the acknowledgement of Christian doctrine being a matter of faith (not will) and thus a moral decision. In contrast to his novel philosophical stance, it can be argued that his theology is not as original as is often supposed, and tends to reflect his Dominican tradition. However, his philosophical synthesis with, and reflective insight upon, Aristotelian thought, plus his employment of a detailed systematic approach in explaining and elaborating it, is unsurpassed and remains the foundation and ‘yardstick’ of catholic theology up to the present day. For example, the doctrine of substantiation was defined at the First Lateran Council (1215) just before he was born, but he built an edifice of sacramental theology upon it using the concepts of ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ gained from Aristotelian philosophy. The extent and scope of his writings is vast. The culmination of his work came in the two ‘Summae.’ The first (Summa Contra Gentiles) was a textbook for missionaries, being a defence of natural theology against the influence of current Arabian thought. The second, Summa Theologica, is, as the title implies, a profound systematic and comprehensive theological treatise on catholic doctrine. Despite being unfinished at his death, it remains not only the high point of medieval theology but the basis of modern catholic theology. We must rejoice that this champion of the catholic faith is being taken more seriously again by the philosophical community and the wider academic world. This type of interface is essential in our postmodern world. Philosopher or theologian? Tres intéressant!

Canon John Herve SSC is a canon emeritus of Birmingham.