Seeing Both Sides
December 5, 2002
Before I discovered Shakespeare, the writer I most
admired was St. Thomas Aquinas. Dazzling as Shakespeare is, I think I was
right the first time. Apples and oranges, of course; but in this case I think
the apple diet would have been better for me.
Many, not all of them
Catholics, regard Aquinas as the most profound thinker of whom we have
record. Im not qualified to judge that; Id be like Mr. Magoo
judging a beauty contest.
I cant even call
myself a Thomist. I dabbled in his writings in my teens, when I converted
to Catholicism. But it was enough to give me a taste of his austere joy in
Ive just been
reading some recent theological controversies, and how I wished St.
Thomas could have stepped in to settle them. The disputes were full of
vigorous, thought-provoking arguments; but the arguments were also
adulterated by overstatements, imprecision, and even personal
accusations. The phrase odium theologicum sprang to mind. And in
some cases the disputants hadnt taken the preliminary step of
defining their terms.
In other words, if
youre not careful, theological debates can become alarmingly
similar to political journalism, where truth-seeking easily turns into
mere partisan polemics, or just bickering with annoying people. The goal
is victory over a humiliated opponent. This spirit is not necessarily
The spirit of Aquinas
is very different. He isnt merely charitable to his opponents; he is
always on his opponents side. That is, he wants to confront
opposing arguments at their best, even if he has to reformulate them
himself and make them purer, stronger, and more precise than their
advocates have done.
has the rare quality of wanting to know all that can possibly be said for
the other side. He understands that you cant find good answers
without good questions. The human mind needs both.
There are no cheap
shots or straw men in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas has no
need of them; they would only corrupt what he is trying to do. When he
debates the existence of God, he doesnt cast aspersions on wicked
atheists; he simply tries to make the strongest case for atheism before he
gives his reasons for rejecting them and for affirming Gods
existence. Thinking is complicated enough, without being further
complicated by personalities even ones own personality.
Given the immense,
impersonal calm of his writings, its hard to recall that Thomas
Aquinas himself was once a figure of controversy. In modern times his
sanctity has been turned against him, and he has often been caricatured
and dismissed as slavishly orthodox the modern stereotype of
medieval man. But there is a startling boldness in his orthodoxy. Time and
again the reader finds him seeming to contradict the obvious meaning of
Scripture, Aristotle, or St. Augustine; only to find him patiently
explaining that the passage in question must be understood in a certain
Aquinas was born in
Italy around 1225 to a noble family (his second cousin was the Emperor
Francis II) who were shocked by his decision to become a Dominican friar.
Nicknamed the Dumb Ox for his bulk and quiet manner, he
taught at the University of Paris. He died in 1275. That is pretty much all
we know of his life, except for a few anecdotes.
One of these is the
famous story of a banquet with the king of France, Louis IX, at which
Aquinas sat brooding absent-mindedly on a theological dispute. In the
middle of dinner, an idea occurred to him, and he burst out, That
will answer the Manichaeans! Far from taking offense, the king
ordered pen and paper brought immediately so that his guest might
scribble down his brainstorm.
Aquinas left a huge
body of work (all of it in Latin), which is still being edited. Though he won
renown in his own day, he was also controversial. A few years after his
death, the Archbishop of Paris ordered his works burned, thinking their
deep debt to the pagan Aristotle heretical. Yet he was canonized a saint
only a short time later, and his influence spread; he had become the
preeminent Catholic theologian and philosopher long before Pope Leo XIII
declared him a Doctor of the Church late in the nineteenth century.
G.K. Chesterton said
that Aquinas had made Christendom more Christian by making it more
Aristotelian. I think I know what he means; but Im content to
admire St. Thomas Aquinas him as a writer of the most exquisite