A Nuanced View of Thomas Aquinas

At least once a year I pick up something by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. My last choice was his essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Before that, it was The Four Cardinal Virtues. This time, I chose his Guide to Thomas Aquinas (1962). Admittedly Pieper requires patience to read. It’s not that he tries to be difficult, like those pompous academics he so often criticized. But his thought is deep. Nevertheless, he seeks to emulate Aquinas in avoiding all jargon or recondite terminology. The reason for this is not only one of clarity, but objectivity. Because once a person starts using jargon he is avoiding intellectual candor and the effort needed to engage the real world.

The Guide to Thomas Aquinas stands apart from Pieper’s usual style, both for its conversational tone (it is based on a series of university lectures) and its biographical subject matter. Any life study, even an intellectual one, is easier to relate to than a work of pure theory. Aside from philosophy, the German thinker offers numerous psychological, social and historical insights. He also refutes the simplistic view that the thirteenth was “the greatest of centuries,” as some enthusiastic writers have put it. Certainly it was a remarkable time, but not without its challenges.

Ironically what colors our view of the epoch is Aquinas himself. He was highly inquisitive and even innovative, yet not for the sake of mere novelty. Amidst great controversy he remained calm. He was energetic in a rational and balanced manner. There was no bluster, agitation or contentiousness, though Thomas was involved in some of the most heated debates of his age. There was the fight over the recently founded mendicant orders – the Franciscans and Dominicans (he belonged to the latter). Many clerics opposed them. Secondly, there was the new and potentially subversive Aristotelian thought which had entered Europe by way of the Arab scholars.

At the time that Aquinas was studying, the works of Aristotle were banned in many universities by Church authorities. The Dominican theologian managed to get hold of them anyhow, and wrote extensive commentaries on the Greek thinker, whom he dubbed “The Philosopher” as a mark of his esteem. Yet it would be wrong to call Aquinas an “Aristotelian” as have many admirers and detractors alike. (As Pieper points out, Thomas quotes Plato at least as often as Aristotle.)

The Dominican prized Aristotle for the power of his thought. But he scorned mere personal authority. Aquinas would never uphold an idea of Aristotle’s simply because “he said it.” Fellow priests and scholars were suspicious of the new trend because of its bold empiricism and “naturalism.” Undoubtedly, if pursued uncritically, Aristotle could lead people away from the faith. Yet what Thomas achieved was a remarkable synthesis of philosophy and religion which, as much anything else, set “the West” apart from other cultures: the ancient world, Islam and even eastern Christianity.

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