June 10, 2004

Saint Thomas Aquinas, by G.K. Chesterton

I continue my Chesterton streak with this slim biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas was a Dominican priest; and though you may not of heard of him he was also one of the world's most influential philosophers; indeed, his writings still provide the theological foundation for Roman Catholic doctrine.

A little history. You all remember the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. St. Paul, St. Augustine, and many of the other early church fathers were greatly influenced by what's called neo-platonism; they identified Jesus Christ, the Word of God, with the neo-platonic "logos". Because of neo-platonism's emphasis on the ideal, there was a tendency in the Christian followers of Plato to emphasize the goodness of the spirit and the wickedness of the flesh, sometimes to the extent of saying that the flesh and the material world are altogether evil.

Now, this is part of the Manichean heresy, and has never been acceptable Christian doctrine--after all, God created the world and then said that it was good. Jesus Christ, so the early church councils decided (and so we believe today) was fully divine and fully human--and if fully human, then partially material, ergo, the material world cannot be evil.

As Thomas approached adulthood, the work of Aristotle was becoming known in Europe once again, mostly through the work of a muslim named Averroes, and because Averroes had added some decidely problematic ideas of his own, Aristotle was acquiring a bad name among churchmen. It was Thomas, reading Aristotle afresh, who "baptized" his work and in so doing slew the dragon of Manicheanism.

In my Intro to Philosophy class in college we didn't study either Aristotle or St. Thomas; we skipped straight from Plato to Descartes, and then on to David Hume. And looking back on it, I'm very sorry we did so, for I'm acquiring a taste for Aquinas, mostly because everybody since has gotten it all wrong. Let's look at David Hume to see why.

David Hume was an empiricist. Following Locke and Barclay, he believed that we can only know what we perceive with our senses--a seemingly reasonable starting point, but coupled with the notion that Hume wasn't sure he could trust his senses it led, in the end, to solipsism--the idea that we can't be sure that anything exists but ourselves.

In my view, this is utter nonsense. Reality bites, as they say; I've long thought that any philosophy that doesn't take the existence of objective reality as axiomatic is looney-tunes. The difficulty for me, then, is that the only prominent philosophy I'd been familiar with that takes the existence of objective reality is axiomatic is materialism, the notion that natural world alone exists. As a Christian, materialism really isn't my cup of tea either.

And then I picked up Chesterton's book on St. Thomas, and lo and behold--unlike those who follow him, St. Thomas doesn't attempt to prove everything from a miniscule set of first principles. Not for him the foolish game of pretending to know less than we do. Instead, with common sense not shown by philosophers as a class, he accepts God's creation--the universe we live in--as a given.

Imagine--all this time I've been a Thomist, and I didn't even know it.

Anyway, I liked the book a whole lot. And I'm clearly going to have to spend some quality time with St. Thomas.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 10, 2004 08:25 PM