By Dr. Ronald P. McArthur
Founding president of Thomas Aquinas College
Note: Dr. McArthur, a founder and tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, initially published the following essay in the February, 1991, issue of Lay Witness.
A former student of Thomas Aquinas College, now a Benedictine monk in France, writes me that a friend of his, a Benedictine priest, attended the Congress on St. Thomas last September in Rome. The Holy Father attended the Congress on the last day, and was asked if he was a Thomist. He was first taken aback, but then answered emphatically, “How can a Pope not be a Thomist?
The Holy Father’s answer is indeed to the point — a point not only for popes but for all of us who claim a concern for the truth.
There is every reason for us to be disciples of St. Thomas. So it has been since St. Albert, himself a great theologian, ordered his Dominican brothers to form their minds according to the works of his greatest pupil rather than his own; so it is today.
Why do we study, take an interest in things intellectual, discuss ideas, pursue arguments, listen to lectures? There is only one legitimate reason: We want to understand reality; we want the truth. If we are not to personally discover everything we come to know — that is, if we are not to end our days as modern pre Socratics — we will need teachers. Their task is to help us see what we might have seen without them had our intellects been better, our perceptions keener, our faith more knowledgeable. St. Thomas is above all the teacher we need if we are to progress towards wisdom.
Based on Principles
All teaching and learning is based upon principles. Those principles are discerned by the philosopher, believed by the theologian. St. Thomas is our sure guide here, for he is luminously aware of the starting points of all the disciplines; he exposes them so that we can see them, and also see, if we persist with him, that they are indeed the proper places to begin our inquiries. We begin (to take one of many examples) the study of natural things by noting that they are constantly changing, that they are never the same from moment to moment. While this might seem obvious to us — it is obvious — it was yet denied by Democritus and Empedocles, and has been denied over and over again through the present.
Thomas shows us (as did Aristotle, his master) that our first experience of reality, the ordinary experience all men have, gives us an understanding which, though vague, is yet much more certain than anything we later come to know through it. Since change is the characteristic of natural things, St. Thomas explains everything in nature, such as time, place, movers and the moved, by beginning with it. Just as he begins rightly in the study of nature, so he begins rightly in all the areas of philosophical discourse. Failure to consider natural things through their most manifest characteristic, change, has led many to think that mathematics is the key to understanding the natural order. The servant then becomes the master, an inversion we will not fall into if we follow St. Thomas.
While we might wish otherwise (and any number of modern axiomatic systems are proof) we come to know very slowly, and after many false starts. The good teacher should, so that he can help us, grasp the difficulties attending the study of any subject, and guide his student through those difficulties. Here, again, there is none better than St. Thomas. He sees the difficulties, formulates them most powerfully, gives them the attention they deserve, and discusses them reasonably. If we reason with him to some truth it is not as the result of a purely formal process, seeing a conclusion follow logically from arbitrary premises; rather we see it as a truth (or probability, as the case may be) following from premises which themselves make sense because they have been discerned through a careful consideration of the reality from which they rise. The student, then, is not led under the light of mere consistency to a conclusion as unknown as were its principles.
There are, further, different kinds of reasoning, and the good teacher is aware of them all. Sometimes we learn a fact through its effects, sometimes the reasoned fact through its cause; sometimes our discourse is certain, sometimes probable; sometimes we argue by analogy. The good teacher is aware of the kinds of reasoning, that is, he is versed in logic. St. Thomas, again, is our guide, aware as he was of the kinds of argument and their appropriateness in the various intellectual disciplines.
The Good Teacher
The human teacher orders his student’s mind from without; his words are heard, and lead the student to form images and concepts which arise from those images according to a certain order, and in this way the student is led to think. If the words are confused and disordered, the hearer, insofar as he is dependent upon them, becomes as a result intellectually disordered. This never happens with St. Thomas. His words signify most perfectly, and he who follows the master will, little by little, become able to order his own mind with greater and greater facility. So great is St. Thomas’ power of expression, so formally does he speak to us, that many who read him say that everything looks clear when they read him, but that later, if they are examined, they lose that understanding. This means, of course, that they never understood, but gives witness nevertheless to a clarity of expression not found elsewhere.
All teaching should serve the truth, and so no teacher (except God Himself) should direct the gaze of his student towards himself. Any true teaching should lead the learner to become more and more reliant upon his own powers, and to think things through for himself. This is the effect St. Thomas has on those who take him as their master. Far from becoming bookish, far from becoming slavish in their relationship to him, they are liberated so that they can follow arguments, weigh evidence, see difficulties, think carefully, and keep their attention fixed upon the reality which, finally, they wish to understand.
For these and many more reasons St. Thomas is the peerless teacher, the one who can best teach us to understand the reality around us, can best lead us to a knowledge of the God Who made all things, and can best give us that satisfaction which comes of successful study, itself that strenuous labor which the life of learning demands.
Nature, Reason, and Faith
He is that great teacher for yet another reason: He, of all Catholic thinkers, joins most compatibly the domains of faith and reason, and gives us the model of “faith seeking understanding.” This he is able to do because he never neglects the order of nature (which he learned as a disciple of Aristotle), because he was most profoundly directed by the teaching Church, and because he was most receptive of the writings of his theological predecessors.
Aristotle is the philosopher, in fact the only philosopher, who not only can lead us to a proper study of nature but also is our best guide to a study of God Himself, considered as the first cause of everything. Not only did St. Thomas study him; he became Aristotle’s disciple. His commentaries on Aristotle show us that discipleship at its best: There is a preternaturally deep penetration of the text of his master, a constant reference to other great commentators, a correction of any arguments when necessary, and a discussion at appropriate times of the impact of various philosophical positions upon our faith. So much is his understanding of Aristotle necessary for our own understanding of St. Thomas that he who neglects those commentaries (and the text itself of Aristotle) has a greatly diminished chance of understanding St. Thomas. This, of course, makes good sense: Though what we hold by faith is more certain than anything we know by reason, it is yet less known. We must use words in order to make clear to ourselves and to others what we believe, and those words must come from our ordinary experience of reality, the reality which is first known to us through our senses. If we once rupture that relationship, we lose the means to make manifest what we hold by faith. There is no one better than St. Thomas to help us here; the most difficult of all studies, for example, the study of God Himself, is yet made accessible to us by the use of words and concepts which come from our study of the natural order. As a consequence we begin to see, “if through a glass darkly,” certain truths about God as He is known through His effects. So much is this true that even in our study of the Trinity, where we are never able to see the truth, nor even the possibility or impossibility of a Trinity, we are yet able to grasp what we mean by the doctrine, and what we cannot mean by it. All this (and much more) because St. Thomas sows the seeds through the kind of knowledge which can be held by reason alone.
C.S. Lewis was fond of saying that we speak badly when we use the word creation for the work of artists and thinkers. The reason is easy to see. No human maker of a material object, or a poem, a musical work, a philosophical discourse, makes from nothing. In fact (again C.S. Lewis), all we make is based upon originals we can never make. Originality, therefore, which is thought in our own age not only attainable but even the peculiar mark of artistic or intellectual excellence, is really unattainable, and its pursuit the result of an intellectual vice. St. Thomas is not original, nor did he attempt to be. His aim, which is the aim of all serious thinkers, is to understand as best he can the reality which is the object of his intellect.
It is sometimes thought, and has been repeated many times, that St. Thomas is self contained, that his works comprise an insulated system closed off from any other thinkers. To study him, however, proves the opposite. One is, through him, connected with a whole theological tradition. He is, in theology, principally a disciple of St. Augustine, but not of him alone. He refers constantly to Boethius, Dionysius, and other great theologians in our tradition. So assiduously did he study their works that it can be said that they actually come to fruition in his understanding of them. You are, then, not cut off from theological tradition; on the contrary you are joined to it more solidly than you would he had you read in that tradition without St. Thomas. So true is this that you believe, see, and speak from within the bosom of the teaching Church when you learn from St. Thomas. A sign is this: study St. Thomas as long as you wish, study him as deeply as you can, ponder his teaching as carefully as possible, and you will never be separated from the teaching of a good basic catechism; nor will you be separated from your fellow Christians in the pews. The doctrine of the Church is proposed to all of us, learned and unlearned, young and old, and we all believe the same truths. As such we can, with good will, pray together, speak together, teach and learn together. So much was St. Thomas in concert with ordinary Christians, many of them even illiterate, that he could preach to them (as he did in Lent) such that they were eager to hear him. There was not, to put it differently, one doctrine for theologians and another for ordinary believers; and certainly nothing of the division we often see today between an intellectual teaching which all but denies the faith itself, and the orthodox teaching which is seen as a collection of myths which satisfy only the ignorant. There is for St. Thomas, as for any Christian, one faith, one doctrine, one teaching understood by the believer more or less fully depending upon his natural ability, training, circumstance, grace, and opportunity.
The study of St. Thomas confers benefits upon the student far beyond anything he might hope for as he begins to learn. It is lamentable, but nevertheless a fact, that most of what passes for the life of intelligence is based, not upon the evidence of the objects we think about, but upon how we wish the world to be. And so we see if we are careful in our analysis of our own thought. If we would think well, in the way which befits our intellect (desiring as it does the truth), we must overcome our intellectual deficiencies and our tendency to let our appetites rule our mind. There is no greater ally, should we seriously undertake this endeavor, than St. Thomas. His intellect was rectified as almost no other; his ability to grasp and articulate what he thought was unparalleled; and his awareness of the positions contrary to his own was comprehensive. He shows us, then, how to think, how to express our thoughts, and how to see the various sides of a question. All this is an antidote to what passes for thinking in our own time specialized terms, sloppy expression, inability to make or follow arguments, failure to consider the difficulties in answering questions, ignorance of the starting points of arguments. St. Thomas is in fact the answer to that general disparagement of reason which ends in the skepticism of those who have given up the attempt to understand.
Not Unuseful Today
If we can be led to understand the world and its Maker as he understood it, we can act in the practical order, in the order of means and purposes, with some success. We can first of all discriminate means from ends, understand that happiness is our last end, understand its nature, and map out a way to attain it. We can, further, understand the right ordering of political life. This is in contrast to what we find today, the almost hopeless ignorance about not only the details of the whole moral order but even the existence of a moral order.
If we look at the popular versions of religious faith in our own day, we find it reduced to sentiment divorced from reason, to beliefs which are probably irrational: there is, of course, no connection with faith so considered and the life of reason. This view, contradictory to the teaching of our faith from the beginning, becomes more prominent daily. St. Thomas again gives the lie to such a view. Anyone who studies his works can see that reason is developed, brought to completion in theological study, and that it is never better used than when it thinks about the Trinity, the Real Presence, the Sacraments and other mysteries of our faith.
As with any great mind, the study of St. Thomas leads to further study of him. We do not, as in the case of inferior works, think we have mastered the works we finish. We see instead that our best interest lies in going over and over the same texts, each time learning what we did not quite see before.
For these reasons, to which more could he added, St. Thomas is the teacher for the serious Christian who wishes to know the natural order and to understand his faith. All other study pales in comparison.
It is not, thus, surprising (to come at it another way) that all the popes since the death of St. Thomas have taught, most explicitly, that he should be our master, and a master as none other. All which they have said, and said much better than I, should give us pause before we lend ourselves to the chorus of those who think him outmoded, an embarrassment, ignorant of the things we need to know if we would he thought learned in our times, and all the other evasions we hear from time to time.
I would suggest, for anyone who takes his faith seriously and is concerned with the life of intelligence, that he read or re read as the case may be, Aeterni Patris. There Leo XIII lays out, in words both trenchant and beautiful, our task.