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The Spell of Saint Thomas – I
Jaroslav Pelikan

One of the most important figures in the philosophy and theology of the twentieth century is a man who lived and died in the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas, “the Angelic Doctor” (1225-1274).

The Man and His Work

There would seem to be little about the person or life of this man to warrant his present importance. He entered upon his career as teacher and writer against the will of his family; he grew fat in the course of the years —a fact that only someone like G. K. Chesterton could properly interpret; and in 1274 he died, without having attained either his fiftieth birthday or the completion of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica.

In this work he had taken upon himself the task of describing the Christian faith as precisely and adequately as he could in its relation to the best productions of the unaided or “natural” human mind. Essentially, then, the Summa was a religious project, an act of faith. As Adolf Harnack has correctly observed, “from God to God through grace is the basic thought in Thomas.”

How devotionally St. Thomas conceived of his writing is evident from an incident purportedly witnessed by three of his brethren in the Dominican order. While he was in a church in Naples a year before his death, a voice came from the crucifix on the altar, saying: “Bene scripsisti, Thoma!” (“Well hast thou written, Thomas!”) He was not prying into the secrets of God and the universe because he wanted to satisfy his own vain curiosity, but because he believed that “man's ultimate happiness consists, not in the knowledge of any separate substances, but in the knowledge of God, Who is seen only through grace.” He wrote as he did because he was a Christian.

But in the course of his writing, Thomas felt obligated to do justice to the ability of the human mind to perceive reality outside the context of the Christian Gospel—not, indeed, so as to glorify the mind, but rather to show the superiority of revelation over reason, of grace over nature, and of theology over philosophy. As the outstanding example of that ability he selected Aristotle, utilizing the translations from the Greek which were appearing in the thirteenth century. And though he did “criticize Aristotle in the name of philosophy,” as Prof. Pegis puts it, St. Thomas was so impressed by Aristotle that he often does not refer to him by name at all, but simply calls him “the Philosopher.”

Viewing his work as a unit, one must admit that he succeeded in achieving the end which he had set for himself, but not without doing considerable violence to both Christian faith and Aristotelian philosophy. For that reason, Protestants like Martin Luther rejected the Thomistic synthesis in the interests of a purer Gospel; others, like Philip Melanchthon, were interested in purifying Aristotle as well.

Despite this rejection by the Protestant branch of Christendom, St. Thomas Aquinas has increased in popularity through the centuries. He was canonized on July 18, 1323, and declared a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1567. This latter step, part of the grand strategy of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, presaged the growing importance of Thomas for the Catholic Church after the Protestant schism was completed.

Thomistic philosophy finally came into its own in the nineteenth century as a result of the Vatican Council of 1870. Leo XIII's bull Aeterni Patris (August 4, 1879) named Aquinas “the prince and master of all scholastic doctors,” and exactly one year later Pope Leo made him the patron of all Roman Catholic higher education. Word got around that “there were cardinals' hats lying ready between the pages of the Summa,” and the past half-century has seen a revival of Thomism which is as astounding to the Catholic as it is alarming to the Protestant.

Modern Thomism

At the present time, too, the voice of Thomistic philosophy is heard in the councils of education and thought throughout the Christian world. Perhaps its best-known representative is the brilliant and bigoted Jacques Maritain, who was so carefully and critically evaluated by our learned colleague in The Cresset of August, 1941. More profound and almost as prolific as Maritain is Etienne Gilson, professor at the College de France and prominent participant in UNESCO. In the New World the Thomistic cause has been ably represented by such men as Anton C. Pegis of Fordham, editor of the Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, published in a magnificent two-volume set by Random House in 1945. It is well-known what significance Chancellor Robert May-nard Hutchins of the University of Chicago assigns to the writings of St. Thomas, and we can expect additional material from the Institute for Medieval Research recently established at the University of Notre Dame.

How explain the spell which St. Thomas has cast over so many modern minds? At least three possible reasons suggest themselves.

1. Certainly one of the factors involved is the bankruptcy of the type of bourgeois liberalism and individualism represented by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. War and personal crisis have combined to prove that there is more to the idea of the Holy, as well as to the concept of the demonic, than modern wiseacres would like to believe; and in seeking for a well-ordered synthesis, many disillusioned intellectuals have seized upon the Summa as a means toward securing faith without surrendering thought. For them the choice seems to be between Thomism and positivism; it is quite understandable that they should choose the former.

2. But why Thomism and not Protestantism? In the answer to that question can be seen another significant reason for the rise in St. Thomas' popularity. The original objection of the Reformers to both medieval collectivism and modern individualism was voiced in the name of an Absolute beyond all human -isms. By reason of its involvement in theories and hypotheses not generically related to its structure, much of Protestantism failed to survive the criticism of the Enlightenment. Having thus surrendered the faith in which the Reformers' objection to Thomism had been rooted, it lost the ability to challenge the formulations of St. Thomas with any degree of religious conviction. For Luther, Thomas was not religious enough and therefore vulnerable in terms of his own standards; for the Enlightenment and the Protestantism which it produced, Thomas was too religious and therefore impregnable in terms of his own standards. The rise of modern Thomism outside the Catholic Church is, then, a severe indictment of much of contemporary Protestantism, which is either too self-satisfied to see the threat of Thomism or too unsure of itself to do anything about it.

3. Nor dare it be forgotten that modern Thomism is not identical with the thought of St. Thomas. As was stressed above, Thomas' task was a religious and a Christian one. Many of his latter-day disciples, however, have become so enamored of his prelude on “natural” theology that they seem to have ignored the fact that the purpose of this prelude is to demonstrate the inadequacy of any system of thought not illumined by the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ. As a result, they have only half the Summa —and not even the better half!

This mutilation of the Summa is but a part of a greater “historical reconstruction,” which has sought to make of the thirteenth “the greatest of centuries” and of the Reformation—or rather, “Protestant Revolt”—the first act in the tragedy of Western civilization. The fact that the Reformers did not, indeed could not, do historic justice to Thomas' philosophical and theological achievements is not an adequate reason for the attempt to make of him now “the greatest Christian thinker since Augustine.” Students of the history of ideas will see in this attempt a by-form of romanticism.

All these considerations may cast doubt on St. Thomas' relevance for the contemporary mind, but they cannot explain away his importance. For St. Thomas Aquinas is shaping much of modern thinking, and it seems quite possible that he will continue to do so for some time to come.

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