Remembering Thomas Aquinas

Today, January 28, is the feast day and birthday of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274). Thomas is celebrated by many in the Christian tradition, often in terms like this:

One of the most brilliant and creative theologians in the church’s history, Aquinas worked to bring together scripture and the philosophy of Aristotle. A member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), Aquinas was also a hymnwriter.

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In this installment of A Philosopher Loose in Church, I want to commemorate Thomas by sharing my deep relationship with him as a philosopher. I’ll start with an old scholastic joke: St Augustine baptized Plato, and St Thomas baptized Aristotle.

I know, I know: “I guess you had to be there.” But to see why this joke works, we need to take a brief journey into the history of Christian theology and philosophy. In the early centuries of the Christian movement, Christian intellectuals realized that, as a worldview, their competition included not just other religious traditions but also  classical philosophical schools, like those associated with Plato and Aristotle (and Stoicism and Epicureanism – but that’s another story). This was especially true among fellow intellectuals, who had been educated in these traditions. And so, theologians began to explain Christian ideas and doctrines using Greek philosophy. In a way – and not to trivialize their intellectual achievements – it was good marketing for the Christian worldview: The way Augustine “packaged” Christian teachings using Plato’s ideas and arguments made that package more appealing to people who might otherwise be attracted to Platonism. (Really, neo-Platonism, which is largely Plato filtered through Plotinus, another great philosopher – but that’s also another story.)

At the risk of giving you historical whiplash, now we need to turn to the Roman Empire. Because most of Europe descended into political and social chaos at the disintegration and eventual fall of the Roman Empire, the transmission of books and scholarship was disrupted. Remember that, before the invention of the printing press in 1450 or so, if you wanted a book, you had to commission scholars to copy it for you. This means that there were relatively few copies of Aristotle’s writings, and they were extremely expensive to produce. When you add the normal vicissitudes of history, you get a pretty good picture of why most of Aristotle’s writings were lost and therefore unknown in the early and middle medieval period. Since no one could actually read Aristotle, people assumed that Aristotle was just a follower of Plato – his star pupil, perhaps, but mostly a megaphone for Plato’s thought. 

That ignorance of Aristotle changed with the Crusades in the later medieval period. Whatever else we may want to say about the Crusades (and I have a lot to say), one of the outcomes was the rediscovery and translation of Aristotle’s writings. Ironically, while Aristotle’s writings were lost to the European intellectual tradition, in the Arabic-speaking world, Aristotle’s works were preserved and studied intensively by Muslim theologians and philosophers – for example, by philosophers like ibn Sina (known in “the West” by his Latinized name, Avicenna). As these writings became known in Europe, they actually caused an intellectual crisis: Aristotle was not just a mouthpiece for Plato, but a strikingly original thinker who departed in many substantial ways from his teacher. The Roman Catholic Church had embraced Aristotle when he was known only as a star pupil of Plato, so the burning question became: What do we do with Aristotle now?

Enter Thomas Aquinas, one of the most brilliant philosophers of the “Western” tradition. Thomas systematically studied Aristotle’s writings, and wrote meticulous commentaries on most of Aristotle’s major works, often consulting Arabic sources and commentaries. Thomas’s profoundly influential work in theology was, among other things, a methodical integration of Aristotle’s thought into Christian theology. Aristotle profoundly influenced Thomas’s thinking on everything from the nature of faith all the way to the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Eucharist and rational arguments for the existence of God.

I regularly teach Thomas as a superlative example of philosophical method. In his most influential works, like the massive Summa Theologiae, Thomas proceeds by posing questions, providing answers from a variety of perspectives along with the philosophical arguments that support them (many of which are even better than the philosophers and theologians who had proposed them in the first place!), and then Thomas sets forth his own responses to the original questions. Thomas’s greatest gift to philosophy is the opportunity to see his mind in action, painstakingly working through deep and difficult questions. And in the way he approaches these questions, he’s following the example of Aristotle, too.

Throughout his writings, Thomas supports his line of thought with quotations. Not surprisingly, the most frequently quoted source is the Bible, but guess who comes in second: Yes, it’s Aristotle. And in one of the supreme ironies of intellectual history, guess who Thomas quotes as frequently as many of his fellow Christian theologians: It’s that same ibn Sina, the Muslim philosopher, who also integrated Aristotle into his own tradition’s theology and philosophy.

I’ll conclude by going out on a limb: Without Thomas’s brilliant and meticulous arguments supporting Roman Catholic doctrines, later figures like Martin Luther would have had a lot less to talk about. Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Among philosophers and theologians, Thomas was a giant among giants, and every Christian theologian since St Thomas of Aquino owes him a tremendous, if often unacknowledged, intellectual debt.

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