“There is…one influence that grows stronger every day, never mentioned in the newspapers, not even intelligible to people in the newspaper frame of mind. It is the return of the Thomist Philosophy; which is the philosophy of common sense, as compared with the paradoxes of Kant and Hegel and the Pragmatists.
“The Roman religion will be, in the exact sense, the only Rationalist religion…the return of the Scholastic will simply be the return of the sane man…to say that there is no pain, or no matter, or no evil, or no difference between man and beast, or indeed between anything and anything else – this is a desperate effort to destroy all experience and sense of reality; and men will weary of it more and more, when it has ceased to be the latest fashion; and will look once more for something that will give form to such a chaos and keep the proportions of the mind of man.” (The convert to Catholicism, G. K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows)
Thomism toughens thinking
The fulfillment of the Ignatian mission requires developing the intellectual capacities of the individual to the maximum.
As great and as necessary as the other intellectual figures of Catholicism are, none equals St. Thomas Aquinas in not only theological content but intellectual method.
Not only do we find the harmonious integration of open-minded rational investigation with supernatural intuitiveness of the divinely revealed truths, but also incisive penetration to the essentials, reverence for the valid arguments of whomsoever, technical sophistication, steely logic, and an enchanting self-forgetfulness.
Through his use of the scholastic method, St. Thomas forms in his disciples habits of mental clarity, precision, and rationally-constructed convictions.
Moreover, the scholastic method used by St. Thomas and genuine Thomists required the intellectual to state explicitly and clearly what he thinks and to give reasons for it. Such clear and precise language aids clear and precise thinking ‒ and to take a clear stand. As Avery Dulles states:
“The necessity of taking a definite position and supporting it by explicit arguments. In contrast with some contemporary authors, who often leave their own positions to be gathered from the way in which they speak about other authors, the scholastics never contented themselves with simply expounding the views of others. The method constrained them to enunciate positions for which they took personal responsibility. They could not base their positions on emotional attraction, rhetorical appeal, or vague hunches. The method required them to give objective reasons.” (Avery Dulles, “Is Neo-Thomism Obsolete? – Vatican II and Scholasticism,” New Oxford Review, 57, May 1990, p. 43)
At times the thought of St.Thomas and other scholastics appears dry by comparison with many modern philosophers who use colorful language full of metaphors, images and comparisons, stirring the emotions and referring to contemporary issues.
It is important to recall however the difference between momentary excitement and lasting impressions leading to convictions: vivid writing can stir up your emotions but the cool methodical reasoning of St.Thomas can enter into your intellectual building as bricks that will last a lifetime.
“St. Thomas is important for us today precisely because of our lack.” ( G. K. Chesterton)
Through the centuries many Catholics have said about St. Thomas what C. S. Lewis remarked about Plato and Aristotle: “To lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb”.
For from the heights of the Angelic Doctor’s synthesis one can see more and further. As a modern American philosopher and convert to Catholicism, Peter Kreeft, has assembled the reasons for the contemporary relevance of St. Thomas:
“Timeless truth is always timely, of course, but some aspects of truth are especially needed at some times, and it seems that our times badly need seven Thomistic syntheses: (i) of faith and reason, (2) of the Biblical and the classical, the Judeo—Christian and the Greco—Roman heritages, (3) of the ideals of clarity and profundity, (4) of common sense and technical sophistication, (5) of theory and practice, (6) of an understanding, intuitive vision and a demanding, accurate logic, and (7) of the one and the many, a cosmic unity or “big picture” and carefully sorted out distinctions.
“I think it a safe judgment that no one in the entire history of human thought has ever succeeded better than St. Thomas in making not just one but all seven of these marriages which are essential to mental health and happiness.
“For some reason, many people seem so threatened by St. Thomas that they instantly label any admiration for, use of, or learning from him as slavish, unoriginal, and authoritarian—something that they do with no other thinker.
“Of course St. Thomas cannot be the be-all and end—all of our thought. He cannot be an end, but he can be a beginning, like Socrates. Of course we must go beyond him and not slavishly confine our thought to his. But there is no better bottom story to our edifice of thought.” (Peter Kreeft, Summa of the Summa)
Ignatians are Thomistic because they are Realists
The Protestant theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, felt not only the grandeur of St. Thomas’s thought but also that quintessential Catholic combination of earthiness and the supernatural:
“Thomas Aquinas…like Plato and Aristotle before him… came at the end of the social development whose inner rationale he set forth… In his system of thought he combined without confusing philosophy and theology, state and church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine laws, Christ and culture. Out of these various elements he built a great structure of theoretical and practical wisdom, which, like a cathedral, was solidly planted among the streets and marketplaces, the houses, palaces, and universities that represent human culture, but which, when one had passed through its doors, presented a strange new world of quiet spaciousness, of sounds and colors, actions and figures, symbolic of a life beyond all secular concerns.” (H. RICHARD NIEBUHR, Christ and Culture, Harper and Row, New York, 1951, p. 130.)
The explanation for this realism is fundamentally the following:
“If the propositions are true, this can only be because there is a certain stable and intelligible metaphysical structure of reality which discloses itself to the reflective mind of the philosopher. And if there is such a permanent structure, it will find expression, to some extent at least, in ordinary language in the form of an implicit metaphysic. And if it can be shown not only that there is an implicit metaphysic which is not simply the reflection of linguistic forms but also that this implicit metaphysic leads naturally to an explicit metaphysic on Thomist lines, the claim that Thomism is the perennial philosophy might appear less unreasonable to philosophers at large. To those who think that philosophical theories must be erected on the changing hypotheses of the sciences, the philosophy of Aquinas can be of little but historical interest. But to those who think that philosophical reflection is grounded in common experience and that metaphysics has an intimate connexion with this experience it can be a source of constant stimulus and inspiration.” (F. C. COPLESTON, Aquinas)
St. Thomas is the Thinker who excelled in uniting Reason and Faith while guarding the rights of both
As Pope Leo XIII remarked in Aeterni Patris, “Moreover, carefully distinguishing reason from Faith, as is right, and yet joining them together in a harmony of friendship, he so guarded the rights of each, that, as far as man is concerned, reason can now hardly rise higher than she rose, borne up in the flight of Thomas; and faith can hardly gain more helps and greater helps from reason than those which Thomas gave her.”
St. Thomas excels in mentoring truth hunters
There are many reasons why one benefits from studying St.Thomas but the first is because he searched for truth : “The study of philosophy is not the study of what men have had opinions about but of the truth”. And elsewhere he wrote: « I will be quite happy if someone wants to write against my solutions. There is no better way to discover the truth and to refute error than in defending oneself against opponents” (On the perfection of the Christian Life); or again: “Just as in the courts no one can judge who has not heard the arguments of both parties, so also it is necessary for the philosopher to hear all the thinkers and their conflicting evidence, to have more resources in forming his judgment” (Commentary on the Metaphysics). Moreover he teaches concretely how to reason, analyze, define, use information from others, handle objections, synthesize, and to show the mind’s capacity to build “truth upon truth in the same order and structure that exists in reality, the source of truth” (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis)
“The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense.” (G. K. Chesterton)
St. Thomas, unlike Hegel and others, started his philosophy at the same starting point as the man in the street: with the way things are experienced by universal experience. This is why St.Thomas and Thomism in general (excluding Transcendental “Thomism”) is held by the Church to be the perennial philosophy – it’s a matter of following experience and logic capable of being recognized by the open-mind.
St. Thomas Aquinas is preeminently the realist philosopher par excellence and the one most suitable for the technological, materially-minded culture we move in today.
St. Thomas’s focus on truth and realism sharply distinguishes him from the main modern philosophies of Cartesianism, Kantianism and Hegelianism. One agnostic convert to Catholicism, G. K. Chesterton, highlighted this Thomistic feature as he remarked about a Jesuit’s commentary on Hegel:
Above all, his [the Jesuit’s] wide reading in metaphysics has made him patient with clever people when they indulge in folly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. “A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible.” Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the “remarkable difference” seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand. Yet Father D’Arcy mentions this Hegelian paradox as if it were all in the day’s work; and of course it is, if the work is reading all the modern philosophers as searchingly and sympathetically as he has done.” (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas)
The Church names only one thinker as guide to theology: St.Thomas Aquinas
The intellectual whom the Church has singled out as her leading pedagogue by conferring on him the title of Doctor Communis [Universal Teacher] is Thomas Aquinas, whose brilliance ranks him alongside Plato and Aristotle.
His synthesis of reason and the Catholic Faith, unequalled in integrity and excellence, has been esteemed by popes, councils and theologians for centuries. St. Thomas is the only thinker whom both Vatican Council II and the Church’s Code of Canon Law present as an authoritative guide for the future priests of the Church as they study theology, and therefore implicitly philosophy, since the two are inseparable.
“Lectures are to be given in dogmatic theology, based always on the written word of God and on sacred Tradition; through them the students are to learn to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of salvation, with St.Thomas in particular as their teacher…..” (Code of Canon Law, n. 252)
As regards the seminarian’s study of philosophy, the Church’s law states in Canon 251:
“Philosophical formation must be based on the philosophical heritage that is perennially valid, and it is also to take account of philosophical investigations over the course of time. It is to be so given that it furthers the human formation of the students, sharpens their mental edge and makes them more fitted to engage in theological studies.” ( italics added)
But of course in order to have St.Thomas as your guide for theology, it is implied that you have already learned about St.Thomas during philosophy studies. The Church is only continuing to recommend him whom she has been recommending for 800 years. This was manifest at the Council of Trent where on the altar lay two books: the Bible and the Summa Theologiae of St.Thomas Aquinas. As Pope Pius XII stated:
“If one considers all this well, he will easily see why the Church demands that future priests be instructed in philosophy ‘according to the method, doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor’ [St.Thomas Aquinas] since, as we well know from the experience of centuries, the method of Aquinas is singularly preeminent both of teaching students and for bringing truth to light; his doctrine is in harmony with Divine Revelation, and is most effective both for safeguarding the foundation of the faith and for reaping, safely and usefully, the fruits of sound progress.” (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis)
St.Thomas as a Gateway to ancient and modern philosophy
“You may not agree that St. Thomas is history’s greatest philosopher, but he was certainly the greatest philosopher for the two thousand years between Aristotle and Descartes. He represents the medieval mind par excellence, and the Middle Ages are the parent and source of all the divergent streams in the modern world, like a mother whose many children went their own various ways.
“Not only does St. Thomas represent a unity of ingredients that were later to separate, but also a unity of ingredients that existed separately before him. In reading St. Thomas you also meet Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus, Justin, Clement, Augustine, Boethius, Dionysius, Anselm, Abelard, Albert, Maimonides, and Avicenna.” (PETER KREEFT, Summa of the Summa)
Because it’s the way to understand the language of the Magisterium and theology of the past 1,000 years
“Finally, for Catholic theology to grow in a healthy way, it must maintain contact with its own philosophical tradition. The fathers and early councils played a providential role in establishing guidelines for the proper understanding of faith. The medieval doctors must likewise be accepted as part of our own past. We are a part of their future. For the sake of progress the Church needs a relatively stable philosophical tradition. “Perennial philosophy,” as it used to be called, should be cherished because it provides an intellectual home for Catholics who are conscious of their own philosophical roots.
“Besides using philosophical categories as vehicles for specifying the contents of revelation, church authorities have, in the second place, pronounced on certain philosophical questions that are intimately connected with faith. In continuity with the Christian philosophical tradition, the magisterium has taught, for instance, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, the falsity of pantheism and emanationism, the knowability of God’s existence and the omnipotence and immutability of God. The Catholic philosopher therefore is not at liberty to adopt any system that denies these traditional positions.” (Avery Dulles, “Is Neo-Thomism Obsolete? – Vatican II and Scholasticism,” New Oxford Review, 57, May 1990, p. 8)
Or as Latourelle stated:
“In order to understand the formulation of Divine Revelation from the earliest councils of the Church, one needs to understand the onthological language in which they have been formulated. Too much is at stake in the concepts of nature, substance and accident, person, subsistence, grace, eternity, transubstantiation, form and matter to even think – were it even to be considered – of abandoning them for some new formulation.”
“Such a new formulation was proposed by Modernism at the turn of the twentieth century. It stressed the immanence and subjective character of revelation and “was interested precisely in replacing the notions of supernatural revelation and immutable dogma by a religious development for which individual or collective religious awareness is the only rule.” (RENÉ LATOURELLE, Theology of Revelation, Alba House, New York, 1966, p. 289.
Thomistic because St. Thomas respects the roles of both the natural and the supernatural
Ignatians are Thomists because Thomism puts the supernatural first – the Thomistic framework ensures giving the primacy to grace and the supernatural vis-à-vis mere voluntarism and raw asceticism. Yet it simultaneously exalts the importance and beauty of the natural:
“He [St. Thomas] had insured that the main outline of the Christianity that has come down to us should be supernatural but not anti-natural; and should never be darkened with a false spirituality to the oblivion of the Creator and the Christ who was made Man.” (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas)