Jack Allen on reading more than Thomas Aquinas

If you are a Roman Catholic, odds are pretty good that you are a Thomist. Now, since this is New Directions, you’re probably an Anglo-Catholic, in which case odds are still pretty good that you are a Thomist. You may very well not know that you are a Thomist, but I would be pretty confident to put £10 on your being so. St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought is so prevalent in the Roman Church to almost make him the defining thinker of an entire religion, with the impression being that you could read Aquinas cover to cover and be able to make a good guess as to what the Pope will declare on any given issue. Aquinas is so ubiquitous, that Peter Adamson once claimed that there might be more written on Aquinas than on any other thinker of the Middle Ages, and I am inclined to believe this. There are even several Calvinists who nowadays make use of Aquinas in their theology, with Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief springing to mind. 

My objective in this article is to set out why I think we have ended up in this situation, how we got to a position in which one thinker is so defining of Catholic and Medieval thought. I will make two claims: a literary one, and a historical one. I should point out here that my aim is not to disparage Aquinas – I write on the eve of his feast, a day which I intend to keep with all the appropriate festivities for a saint to whom one has regular recourse – but to understand how he alone has become such a force apart from all the other very clever philosophers working around his time. 

Something we know from history is that Aquinas’ dominance was not obvious in his own day, and we have two pieces of evidence for this. Firstly, there is Aquinas’ disagreements with thinkers of his own day. William de la Mare wrote a book called The Corrective of Brother Thomas (1278), which includes a stunning 118 disagreements with Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae. Now it is important to note that William was a Franciscan and Aquinas a Dominican, and these two Orders spent a lot of time vying for power in the 13th and 14th centuries, so his disagreement with Aquinas should come as no surprise; the English Dominicans Richard Knapwell and Thomas Sutton and the French Dominican John of Paris respond in a work called The Corrective of the Corruptive of Brother Thomas. More interesting is the proclamation of the Dominican Robert Kilwardby, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury who – legend has – forbade the teaching of thirty-three of Aquinas’ doctrines in Oxford. Even Giles of Rome, a man otherwise very keen on Aquinas, took to correcting elements of the latter’s metaphysics of the eucharist that he did not think worked. There was, as with any other great mind, lively debate around Aquinas’ thought which spawned a lot of really excellent philosophy.

Secondly, there are the famous Paris Condemnations of 1277, which aimed to limit the teaching of Aristotelian science, which Aquinas often made (not un-critical) use of. Whilst these Condemnations were not the Bishop of Paris’ direct attacks on Aquinas – although, any knock to Aristotelianism would bruise Aquinas as collateral – it seems that a set of condemnations aimed at Aquinas were being prepared when the Papacy became vacant and drew the Bishop’s attention, suggesting that Aquinas had acquired some powerful theological enemies. In his own day, Aquinas was one of many thinkers, and whilst he is most certainly in the top five smartest philosophers of the High Middle Ages – and he was in his own day too – it is rash to say that he has always occupied the number one spot in the eyes of many.

So how did we get here? My first comment will be on the Summa Theologiae. Now, I have a lot of disagreements with the Summa, but I cannot dismiss it as one of the truly great works of philosophy. Part of the beauty of the Summa is how readable it is. The Summa was commissioned of Aquinas by the Master of the Dominicans, to be a book that covers all questions in theology with answers that can be memorised by even the most uneducated of Aquinas’ Dominican brothers. The upshot of this is that the Summa is a long list of easily digestible but philosophically profound paragraphs, each one a total argument for some thesis, sufficient to fend off the average heretic without placing too much strain on the mind of the individual Dominican. What this means for us is that the Summa is one of very few works of philosophy that you can throw yourself into as an educated layperson. Compared to, say, Scotus’ Ordinatio or Ockham’s Summa Logicae – also great works – which are composed of long, dense, tightly packed prose, the Summa stands out as the one work of medieval philosophy that anyone can read. Part of my thesis, then, is that the appeal of Thomism is the usability of the Summa as a teaching tool; if a parishioner asks me some fiddly theological question, I usually give a version of one of Aquinas’ arguments. And, frankly, kudos to Aquinas for achieving the Holy Grail of philosophical literary skill. 

But my thesis is not just literary. After all, lots of truly dreadful writing has contained within its painful prose wonderful philosophy, and it’s not like laypeople themselves are setting the philosophical agenda. Somehow, Aquinas has also become dominant in the Academy. My second claim, then, is historical.

Above, I mentioned the medieval squabble between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and this comes back with Pope John XXII. Pope John is important in the history of philosophy for two reasons. Firstly, it is Pope John who promotes Fr. Thomas to St. Thomas. Whilst sainthood can be bestowed for all manner of reasons, bestowing such an honour on a philosopher becomes a tacit approval of their philosophy. In sainting Aquinas, Pope John tells his people that St. Thomas is a man whose ideas are worth listening to. Secondly, Pope John excommunicates William of Ockham, a Franciscan who is widely thought of as being a member of the big three Scholastic thinkers, along with Aquinas and Bl. John Duns Scotus. The details of this squabble don’t concern us here, but the upshot is that Ockham writes books claiming that a pope can become illegitimate, something that makes him the enemy of the sitting pope (at least, in the morally dubious papacies of the 14th Century). What still concerns us is that Ockham is still seen broadly as the enemy of the Papacy, whose feast (April 11) is kept by Anglicans and Lutherans (Luther, we know, was a fairly big reader of Ockham) but not by Roman Catholics, despite his being an enthusiastic Catholic, keen to promote that faith above all others. We see already in the 14th Century a push away from Franciscan thought and towards Dominican. 

Then, at the Council of Trent – the really big counter reformation council – Aquinas is given the highest of honours, with the Summa being placed on the altar along with the Bible and the book of the laws of the Roman Church. Pope Leo XIII goes so far as to say that “In the Councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results”. The real dominance of Aquinas begins in his utility in fighting Protestantism, since he has given so all-encompassing a treatment and defence of Catholic theology in the Summa that it becomes the inspiration for much of post-Reformation Catholicism. This literary skill that we mentioned earlier pays dividends compared to the confusing hair-splitting of all other Scholastics, and Aquinas finds himself promoted to – effectively – attending all councils of the Roman Church. Aquinas is not yet quite dominant in the Academy – since the councils of bishops are not themselves philosophers -, but this is the beginning of his reign.

But we know from recent scholarship on the theology of Gerard Manley Hopkins that Aquinas had not won the position of dominance even after Trent, with Scotus struggling with him in the heart of the Oxford Movement over the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Absolute Primacy of Christ whilst Hopkins was at university (1863–1867), as well as continuing the old Scholastic battle between analogical and univocal talk about God, plus a host of squabbles in sacramental theology. Aquinas may have been influencing bishops, but he still had to fight his contemporaries in the Academy. But all this would change in 1879 with the publication of the Papal Bull Aeterni Patris. 

Aeterni Patris is really the single most important part of this puzzle, written as much as a love letter to Thomism as an item of pastoral guidance. In paragraph 33, Pope Leo XIII declares “We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences”, which tells all good Catholics in the Academy that the Pope is approving Aquinas as his guy, and as the person they need to be reading to offer proper defence of Catholicism. This glowing and enthusiastic promotion of Aquinas reaches its completion in the document De sacrorum alumnis formandis (1967) which sets out the curriculum for all aspirant Catholic Priests, and which claims that “Scholastic philosophy in all its parts… is to be transmitted according to the principles and method of St. Thomas Aquinas so that the students acquire his complete and coherent synthesis by solid and accurate study of his chief arguments”. Aquinas is here made the thinker for the Roman Catholic church as well as being the Scholastic, with all priests versed in at least the basics of his philosophy. This gives Aquinas the weight of the power of the Papacy in his fight in the Academy, and it is this that leads to the great revival of virtue ethics under the famously Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe, and her likewise Catholic husband Peter Geach. 

Now, none of this is to say that Aquinas is not a good philosopher; he really is one of the greats, and if you haven’t, you should read him. What this is to say, is that the overwhelming dominance of Aquinas on the stage of medieval philosophy is not just due to his skill, but to the way he has been received. Aquinas is an important figure in how we think about how the history of philosophy is done, and these non-philosophical aspects need always to be borne in mind when one is doing history of philosophy.

Most recently, Thomism has started to bite back against its historical rivals, with individuals like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock criticising Scotus and Ockham for deviating from Thomistic orthodoxy and setting us on the path to contemporary secularism. Of course, we know from above that this was never the case, with both Robert Kilwardby and Giles of Rome dissenting from Aquinas, and Bishops of Paris considering outlawing parts of his thought. But this is the real problem with the dominance of Aquinas: if you only read Aquinas, you miss all of the other interesting stuff, and end up both doing bad history and missing good philosophy.

Ockham’s logic is worth reading because he was a good logician, Scotus’ doctrine of God is worth reading because he was a good theologian, and Giles of Rome’s eucharistic theology is worth reading because he was a good eucharistic theologian. These individuals are not worth rejecting just because they are not Aquinas. And this should matter to both Christian and non-Christian philosophers. In all of these great and lesser known medieval thinkers, there is excellent philosophy that may yet allow us to solve some otherwise intractable problem, but we don’t know about it, because everyone is still reading Aquinas. 

Fortunately, I am not the only person who thinks this, and we are living at the start of what I hope is a golden age of neo-Scholastic philosophy. On 20 March 1993, Pope St. John Paul II gave Scotus the title blessed – the rank one below saint – finally giving papal approval to the thought of an otherwise ignored Scholastic (his Feast is November 8 and I keep it fastidiously), and beginning the great run of contemporary medieval literature. For a start, we have Peter Adamson’s excellent History of Philosophy podcast (which is an excellent place to start if you want to get into wider Christian philosophy), which is exposing people to a far wider collection of thinkers than an idealistic young lad like myself could ever hope to. Also, we are seeing more good translations of medieval thinkers come out in good English translations; you can get almost all of St. Anselm, for example, for about a tenner in any good medium sized bookshop. We finally have a good critical edition of William of Ockham, and whilst the critical edition of Scotus has taken 50 years already, it is getting there. Papers are being published about John Buridan and Peter Ogilvy and John of Reading. Outside the Scholastic bubble, people are taking seriously the philosophy of women like St. Catherine of Sienna and Julian of Norwich. 2020 is a good year to be getting into medieval thought.

The value of medieval thought is that it is essentially Christian thought, worked out in the fullness of the Catholic faith, and I would encourage anyone who cares about these things to remember that Aquinas isn’t the only option if you fancy something new to read.

Jack Allen is a Pastoral Assistant at St. Pancras Old Church 

and St. Paul’s, Camden Square