Aquinas: Humility of Spirit and Intellect

I recently summarized Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas, which is the best short study of the medieval scholastic thinker. In this post I want to highlight two points. First is Aquinas’ approach to the intellectual life, which is nicely illustrated by his personal spirituality. “The forty-two witnesses at the canonization trial [prior to declaring him a saint] had little to report concerning extraordinary acts of penance, sensational deeds, and mortifications.” Of course, asceticism was a big part of the Dominican priest’s life. But not for show. It is interesting that someone so pure, who did not even have the taint of a worldly past like the great saint and convert Augustine of Hippo, appears so sensible. Augustine was notably severe in his views on sex (even in marriage) and predestination and salvation. Thomas is more hopeful and moderate.

Some earlier Christians followed neo-Platonism in treating the physical world as a mere shadow of a higher metaphysical realm, as if material things were something flawed and suspect. By contrast the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas was “existentialist.” It treated tangible reality as something fundamental and even sublime in its own right.  Creation after all stemmed from a creator. Thomas was not, however, an “Aristotelian” in the sense of one who exclusively or slavishly followed a single school of thought. Thus he was at odds with Aristotelians like the heterodox Siger of Brabant.

This leads us to the second point. Pieper tells us that the best thinkers avoid restrictive academic dogmas. In this respect, Thomas was not even a “Thomist.” People mistakenly imagine that Thomas (like Hegel) created an exhaustive ideology in which one could simply plug in data and come out with ready answers to all the world’s questions. It’s true that Aquinas was no skeptic. He believed we could know about things; indeed, so much is knowable that we can never possibly grasp it all within a single lifetime.

“The philosopher,” says Piper, “is not really characterized by the practice of clearly delineated methods. We might almost say that the person seriously engaged in philosophizing is not at all interested in ‘philosophy’.” By the latter he is referring to closed systems of thought or the modern tendency to treat philosophy as a purely academic affair, a subjective “history of ideas,” etc. Such approaches are quite different from the quest for truth which is open to all sources of knowledge. It means receptivity to what is new as well as to the traditions and wisdom of the past. Put simply: a philosopher is an observer of reality. Only a narrow egotistical “rationalism” rejects what is beyond our personal experience or biases.

Related post on Josef Pieper: The True Philosopher is Not Wise

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