One of the major considerations to bear in mind when one is engaged upon the task of the evaluation of Thomas of Aquinas’s contribution to the Scholastic tradition of
Aquinas was largely educated by the Church in what was referred to as the liberal arts, a tradition of training reaching back to the sixth century, a period in which Aristotelian ideas were conspicuous by their absence. The closing of the philosophical schools during the sixth century was the end of a process of the eclipsing of the sun of classical knowledge. Monastic education did, however, realize that there was a need for the supplementation of Scriptural studies with other areas of study such as logic, rhetoric, and grammar(the trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music(the quadrivium). This proliferation of subjects originally taught in monastic and cathedral schools eventually contributed to the establishment of the institution of the university. This development was probably aided and abetted by the historical conditions of the twelfth century outlined in Bertrand Russel’s work “History of Western Philosophy”:
“Four aspects of the twelfth century are especially interesting to us:
- The continued conflict of empire and papacy.
- The rise of the Lombard cities.
- The Crusades, and
- The growth of scholasticism. All these four continued into the following century.”(p422)
Secularism continued to grow in influence and although the scholastic philosophers were all involved in one way or another with the Church and subject to regulation by ecclesiastically constituted committees, the works of Aristotle were increasingly being
Russell points out that the scholars of the twelfth century were very active and creative when the conditions allowed them to be. During these times one was witnessing the birth of globalization forces of empire building and international trade. Political and economic forces struggled for power with the churches’ global ambitions sometimes in the form of military conflict. There was also resistance to the forces of globalization in the form of a re-emergence of city-state systems(the Lombard cities).
The scholastic atmosphere of the twelfth century was dialectical: debate and disputation were encouraged by the emerging system of the universities. Indeed, the first European University, the University of Bologna, embodied this scholastic dialectical spirit of it being a secular Legal Institution devoted to defending the rights of the people against both Empire and Church. It was most famous for its Constitutia Habita a decree which guaranteed the right of the traveling scholar to academic freedom(within certain limits). Bologna shared with the Universities of Paris and Oxford a commitment to a belief in the principle of apprenticeship as the road to mastery of an area of study: a principle that was partly examined and tested by disputations with opponents(a residue of the Greek dialogue?) Successful completions of a course of study of the trivium and quadrivium were conditions of entry into these largely secular humanistic knowledge driven institutions.
As mentioned earlier Aristotle was “The Philosopher” in the thirteenth century and the dominance of his ideas would over hundreds of years into the future intensify activity in all the subject areas of his writings, but probably the greatest interest was taken in restoring the validity of natural science: an area that had largely been discarded by the classical theologically inclined Platonists. Aquinas found himself at the beginning of this cycle of development and his interest in Aristotle was probably strictly regulated by the Dominican brotherhood that he had joined. As we have noted in previous chapters previous thinkers had attempted to elevate the power of reasoning to the same level as the power of faith in a supernatural power but these thinkers did not dare to embrace Aristotle’s philosophy in the way in which Aquinas attempted to do. It was far too early in the cycle of development of Aristotle’s influence for Reason and Understanding to replace Faith and Belief in certain areas of philosophical investigation.
According to A Kenny in his work “A New History of Western Philosophy”, the thirteenth century:
“…was a time of uncommon intellectual energy and excitement. The context for this ferment was created by two innovations that had occurred early in the century. The new universities and the new religious orders. Bologna and Salemo have claims to be the oldest universities in Europe. But Bologna had no permanent university buildings until 1565 and
Kenny maintains that both universities and parliaments came into existence at the same time: if by university we mean:
“a corporation of people engaged professionally, full time, in the teaching and expansion of a corpus of knowledge in various subjects, handing it on to their pupils with an agreed syllabus, agreed methods of teaching, and agreed professional standards.”
Medieval Universities quickly developed into hybrid organisations in which the Humanities were taught in the spirit of the Socratic examined life and the Aristotelian Contemplative life but at the same time the subjects of theology, law, and medicine were taught in a more instrumental spirit.
The thirteenth century was clearly a time for synthesis. One interesting fact to
Aquinas perhaps has earned the right to be called the great synthesizer in one of the great ages of Synthesis. His synthesis was an attempt to bring about an integration of Aristotelian ideas with Christianity, each of which could in its turn claim to be the synthesis of positions in their respective ages. Had the conditions been different, one might argue, the Aquinian synthesis might have been more in
“Aquinas was the great synthesizer, able to use the newly discovered Aristotle to produce a philosophical system by which reason could be set alongside faith. There are for Aquinas revealed truths, and where philosophical considerations conflict with revelation–as is the case, for example, when Aristotelian principles lead to a denial of a first creation–Aquinas has no hesitation in siding with faith.”
Hamlyn goes on to point out that with respect to certain less sensitive issues of what he calls “natural theology” Aquinas felt confident enough to explain and justify such phenomena by means of Aristotelian principles:
“Aquinas’ account of the natural world is almost strictly Aristotelian, based o the reciprocal principles of matter and form, things occupying various degrees between the extremes of prime matter and pure form.”
In this context certain analytical scholastic issues surfaced in his writings, for example the question of what it is that makes a thing one and what is is that individuates things from each other. Here Aquinas appealed to quantities of stuff occupying different spaces(one of the lodestar principles of modern science) as being the major principle of individuation in the material world(materia signata quantitate).
Hamlyn also suggests that Aquinas might be guilty of projecting an idea of God as a supernatural being onto the writings of Aristotle which actually pleaded for the notions of form, principle or pure act above that of any being. But even if this is the case Aquinas was careful to point out that he rejected the Ontological argument of Anselm which in his view conflated existence in thought with existence in reality. We can, he argued, only use attributes which are used to describe the external world to analogously describe God. In other words, positive properties such as God’s goodness, omniscience, omnipotence etc, can only be known by analogy. But we also find Aquinas using standard Aristotelian arguments such as the proof that there by necessity must be a prime mover behind the actualization process that actualizes potentialities: i.e. movement or change in the world has to have an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer. It is in this realm that we encounter the possible metaphysical conflicts between Aristotle and Aquinas for whom the creation of the world is not similar to the Aristotelian teleological designer of the world(or the demiurge of Plato) who is working within the framework of the other three types of cause(efficient, material and formal): The Aquinian God, on the contrary, creates the world from nothing. No proof of the existence of God could ever suffice here because it is a parts of Gods essence that he possesses such an incomprehensible power which only the religious attitude of faith is able to “understand”. Reason and its arguments could only ever analogously or symbolically represent what it is that we “understand” in accordance with this attitude. Attitudes are related to beliefs in that they are ways of believing whatever it is we believe. At some level, of course, Aquinas “believed” Gods essence and existence to be identical and given what an attitude is this is not something that we can believe in the way we believe it to be true that man is a rational animal capable of discourse. “Man” in this proposition is a name for some kind of thing in the world which can be differentiated from other kinds of things by the definition of his essence in terms of the 4 kinds of change, the 4 causes of change and the three principles of change. God cannot be a name in this sense but if “God” is not a name for something how do we designate his presence? Aquinas turns to the Bible to answer this question and abandons philosophical investigation into the matter. A burning bush on Mount Sinai tells Moses that the name of his God is Yahweh and explains the grammar of the term with the words “I am that I am”. What can Moses have “understood” in this experience? What attitude of mind was created by this experience? Initially his state of mind was probably fearful and if Heidegger in his work “Being and Time” was correct in his assumption that every state of mind is accompanied by an understanding or comprehension of its object this state must have been transfigured or transformed into a faith state with its understanding: an understanding to be unpacked in terms of an enigmatic character of “Being-in-the-world” which involves active projection of one’s own possibilities as well as an interpretation or appropriation of what it is that is to be understood. What we are concerned with, in other words, is a work of interpretation aimed at understanding a mode of Being-in-the world.
We know that Aquinas was studying and interpreting texts as part of his University training and in so doing would have reflected upon the grammar of the language for God many times. The question to raise here is whether these reflections were engaging at all with the metaphysical/
Ricoeur began his excursion into the territory of religion or the “realm of the sacred” with an examination of the language involved in what he called “The Symbolism of Evil”. In this work, he noted that the logic of the analytic philosophers could not satisfactorily give an account of the kind of meaning involved in the confession of our sins or faults. This, Ricoeur argues, is clearly a meaningful activity. The words make sense but it is not at all clear what they refer to. In the most primitive case of the confession of sins we feel, as Ricoeur put the matter, “defiled” and this attitude involves our viewing our relation to the sacred as analogous or symbolic of the spot or stain that spoils the surface it affects: we are, that is, seeing this evil act of ours as a stain on our good character. But why one might wonder, cannot one merely say “I am evil?” This impossibility reaches right to the heart of the meaning of the “Good” and its relation to our human essence. Could it be, one may wonder, that we are dealing with the same kind of problem when, according to Aquinas, we cannot directly attribute the quality of “goodness” to God. We are, after all, according to the Bible and Aquinas created in the image of God which of course eventually raises the question of Original Sin. If God could never, in accordance with his essence, will any evil act then on this account neither could man. Adam in the Garden of Eden, on an Aristotelian account, wishes for knowledge as a stage on the path to greater understanding for man, the rational animal capable of discourse. Indeed one can wonder whether if Adam had not disobeyed the divine commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, would he have been considered the first man, i.e. the first rational animal capable of discourse? This myth is clearly paradoxical if we believe with Plato and Aristotle that Knowledge of the good is divine. God, of course, does not know the good in the way that is possible for us–he is the good(“I am that I am”). We, the image, can only “understand” the good via the route of understanding ourselves, and we can only do this via the Scriptures and the Myths of the poets who only speak of the sacred indirectly in a symbolic language that only those capable of the attitude of faith can decipher. It is the power of the symbol that “reveals” the truth (Aletheia). We moderns may well have lost the ability to, as many commentators have put it, naively believe in “The Good” and therefore respond to this state of affairs by requiring proof if we are to believe in its existence. We can, that is, no longer innocently believe but must take a critical route, perhaps via the hermeneutical philosophy of Ricoeur or the
On an Aristotelian view of the Garden of Eden drama it is an interesting observation to make that were Adam and Eve to be guided by “the discourse”(?) with the serpent to consider eating the apple it would call into question their humanity insofar as this must be evidence that they do not appear to understand the discourse of God as superior to that of the serpent. But, also on an Aristotelian view of the operation of the emotions in the sphere of voluntary actions, could we not consider an intermediate case of Adam and Eve both being, as it
Insofar as the nature of the soul is concerned Aquinas relies on a complex interpretation of the Aristotelian claim that thought and reason require no organ for their activity. Aristotle’s intention
“The soul is defined as both form and substance of the body. The idea of form is drawn from Aristotle but the medievalists believed that form is dependent on its substance and is annihilated when the substance is resolved into its elements: in other words, that a form is an attribute. Consequently, to save the soul from such dependence, the scholastic doctrine makes it a substance that gives form. As such the soul is, for immediate observation, the organic principle of life which cannot be divided from the organism: but it is also at the same time separable as substance and Aristotle gives place to Plato when we pass from the organism to the soul in and for itself. Meanwhile this much is gained: the soul and the body, in other words, the organism may be taken as the object of independent inquiry. In this way, philosophy and religion acquire independent spheres or subject matters: and this is important because the sphere of Philosophy, is thus segregated and comes, in practice, to be a true science separable from theology.”
A substance in Aristotle’s work “The Categories” was tied to particulars that later on in his full-blown
“The first and major formal difference between philosophy and theology is found in their principles, that is starting points. The presupposition of the philosopher: that to which his discussions and arguments are ultimately driven back to are
This position is supported and confirmed by Aquinas in his work “Exposition of Boethius’ On the Trinity”(q5,a4) in which it is claimed that there is in addition to the Theology of faith a Philosophical Theology in which the focus of attention is the metaphysics of a subject or its first principles. Aristotle, that is, would claim that the world can be traced back to first principles via the methods and theories of the Philosophers and also independently of any putative revelatory experience of the kind Aquinas maintains happened to him. In this discussion there does appear to be space for the position that maintains that “revelation” may be an independent avenue of access to first principles but that fact may be merely a consequence of the actualizing process involving reasoning processes operating over long periods of time. If this position is sound then there does appear to be grounds for insisting that both kinds of Theology mat be merely different aspects of the study of first principles.
Martin Heidegger in his work on Kant claims that that Metaphysics in Kant’s work is divisible into Metaphysics Generalis and Metaphysics
One of the advantages of Philosophical Theology over Scriptural Theology is that in the former case one can know what one is talking about when one is talking about first principles. In Scriptural Theology it appears that we can somehow apprehend the essence of God but yet not know this essence because of the fact that we are not God, we are merely images of God. The way in which we apprehend the essence of God is via knowing that the proposition “God exists” is true in virtue of the knowledge
Perhaps it could be argued that the Aristotelian account of God and the Biblical account are two “aspects” of the same “Being” and that the logical reasoning of Aristotle in the “Metaphysics” actually presents God in terms of the “second intention”(as rational thought) far more clearly than the symbolic language of the burning bush or the symbolic language of the New Testaments description of the life and death of the son of God (requiring for their full understanding the religious attitudes of faith, hope and love).
Paul Ricoeur maintains interestingly that Biblical texts have referential intent and are world revealing in the sense that Heidegger claimed great works of art are revealing–“
We also encounter the above teleological “conversion” in Kant’s account of religion and its role in the categorical imperative. For
Ricoeur argues in a work entitled “Figuring the sacred” that religious language operates in a manner very similar to the way in which poetic language operates, namely by refiguring the world in terms of the possibilities connected with the good. The language used in this poetic way operates much as psychoanalytic therapy does by disorienting a wounded cogito and reorienting it towards a new world of possibilities. It is the performative nature of the language–its imperative mode–that is here revelatory. The language is, in other words, active and cathartic and its “second intention” is to introduce the listener/reader into the realm of the contemplative sacred world.
The above account contains the elements of what Neo-Kantians would call the transcendental imagination, pure intuition, pure reason, and understanding: an account made possible by Aristotelian critical philosophy. Aristotle was rehabilitated as an authority figure by Aquinas in an act of reinterpretation which perhaps was not entirely true to the spirit of Aristotle’s legacy but it did manage to keep the legacy alive long enough for a new and better reinterpretation by Kant whose critical philosophy was rapidly overshadowed by the challenge of the Hegelians in the spirit of something new and different(something “sensational”). Just as Science and analytical logic were to move into the cultural vacuum created by Aquinas in the name of Theology, history was to repeat itself after the Hegelian deconstruction of Kant’s Critical Philosophy and create a Philosophical vacuum based on an inadequate reinterpretation of both Aristotle and Kant. This state of affairs allowed Science and analytical logic to “colonize” all the realms of culture. Now whilst it would be unfair to characterize Aquinas’ position as “modern”, one can still maintain that it shared with modernism a Philosophical Psychology that did not engage as significantly as it should have with Aristotelian Metaphysics and Aristotelian writings on the soul. This was perhaps nowhere so apparent as in his treatment of the role of perception and imagination and their relation to reason and the understanding. According to Kenny the mistake of Aquinas was to regard the imagination as an “inner sense”:
“Many philosophers besides Aquinas have classified memory and imagination as inner senses. They have regarded these faculties as senses because they saw their function as the production of imagery: they regarded them as inner because their activity unlike that of the outer senses was not controlled by external stimuli. Aquinas indeed thought that the inner senses like the outer
All this can be granted without hesitation but where then is the correct positive characterization of the imagination? Kant’s philosophy may provide an answer to this question. He referred to the Transcendental Imagination and the process of schematizing our concepts independently of experience. In the Critique of Judgment Kant also refers to the way in which the imagination works in aesthetic contexts, where it is the form(the principle) of the object which is the focus of our activity. This activity resembles
Aquinas’ view of the intellect includes the power of the mind that earlier thinkers(excluding Aristotle) referred to specifically as the will. For
“In contingent matters, reason can go either way… and what to do in particular situations is a contingent matter. So, in such cases, the judgment of reason is open to alternatives and is not determined to any one course. hence humans enjoy free decision, from the very fact of being rational”. (“Summa Theologiae 1a 83 1c)
Brett believes that this step of the
“From the given definition it follows that intellect is individual: each persons intellect is no more than the
Jonathan Lear in is work “Aristotle: the desire to understand” points out that Aristotle abandoned the view of soul as substance that was presented in the work “Categories”:
“However when Aristotle wrote the Categories he had not yet developed the concepts that would enable him to conceive of a particular like Socrates as a composite of form and matter. He knew that Socrates had an essence but he had not yet come up with the idea that the essence was the formed aspect of Socrates, his body
There is therefore no reason for the Theologian to forsake Aristotle if the ultimate goal is to ascertain the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There may, however, be reason for the philosopher to suspect Aquinas of a form of dualism that Aristotle might have been guilty of in his earlier work, the Categories.
It would not be appropriate in a discussion of Aquinas to omit a discussion of Natural Law theory which is normally attributed to the Dominican scholar. D W Hamlyn characterises Aquinas’ view thus:(p112)
“Aquinas is also notable for a theory of natural law. Aristotle’s moral theory is naturalistic in the sense that it sees the good for man in terms of what is part of human nature, and of what is natural for man to aim at, as rational beings. Men, as political animals and in society are governed by human laws, which are, in a sense, a sort of image of the divine law that governs the universe. But individuals can be regarded in themselves as an analogous system subject to laws which govern the relationship between their parts. The law that governs this is natural law, and it lays down what must be done to further the ends of man. As such, this law, as is the case with human laws, is prescriptive but the basis of what is prescribed is to be sought in what is natural(or supposed to be natural) for human beings. Aquinas thus attempts to derive the moral laws that govern human conduct from a conception of human beings and what is natural for them. Whether this sort of “ought” can be derived in any way from this sort of “is” is still the subject of debate among philosophers.”
Among philosophers of analytical persuasion ought to have been added to this characterization. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have claimed that the initial premise of the premises of a practical syllogism should be an “is-premise”. The Good by definition is a teleological concept and thereby future-oriented. This essential feature is registered in a practical syllogism by the initial premise being a universal ought premise, e.g.
“Everything sweet ought to be tasted
This is sweet
This ought to be tasted.”
And the final action gives rise to an action that must necessarily be done unless as Aristotle points out one suddenly becomes physically unable or drunk with emotions of strong anger or appetites for something else. Emotions shut this rational
“Promises ought to be kept
Jack promised Jill he would return the money he borrowed from her
Jack ought to pay the money back”
The action here too ought to follow the reasoning process and we know from the writings of Aristotle that there is in any particular case a possibility of incontinence if the body or the soul is overwhelmed with emotion. Analytical philosophers have been prone to argue that if Jack does become overwhelmed with the desire to gamble all his money away, this suffices to compromise the universal validity of “Promises ought to be kept”. This position fails however to understand the role that facts play in this kind of reasoning. The fallacy of confusing an is fact statement with an ought founding ground is the same fallacy that Socrates encountered in his dispute with Thrasymachus in book one of Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus was asked to define Justice and he did so by appealing to a principle, namely that strong rulers rule cities in their own interests, and appealing to a number of observational facts(this is and has been done in
Aquinas understood the above complexities and might have objected to Hamlyn’s words: “This law as is the case with human laws, is prescriptive, but the basis of what is prescribed is to be sought in what is natural (or supposed to be natural) for human beings”. Such a formulation Aquinas would argue, opens the flood gates of logical descriptivism and enables one to argue on the basis of the assumption that “Everything natural is good” the following:
Everyman is naturally irreligious
Therefore being irreligious is good
Being religious is unnatural
Therefore being religious is not good.
The Fransiscan logicians who followed Aquinas would of course be seeking to undermine Aristotle because they despised the so-called pagan Greek Philosophy and to the extent that Aquinas was an Aristotelian was the extent to which he too was pagan.
Indeed, these forces were to prove overwhelmingly powerful because Aquinas may have been the last standard bearer of the Philosophy of Aristotle until the philosophy of Kant several hundreds of years later.