Monday, 28 January 2013

Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis

I could not let today pass without saying a quick word about St. Thomas Aquinas, my intellectual hero and generally one of my favorite saints.

Aquinas was born in 1224/5 to a noble family at a time of political tension between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor. Because Aquinas’s family supported the Emperor in this struggle they sent the young Thomas, after some initial schooling at the famous Benedictine Abbey Monte Casino, to study at the imperial university in Naples. Unlike the ecclesiastical universities, students at Naples were allowed to study Aristotle, whose writings were just beginning to filter back in to the Latin West via the Muslim World.

There was a perception at this time that Aristotelian science lead to conclusions that contradicted revelation and in some circles this science was therefore considered to be a threat to traditional Augustinian theology. It was the genius of Aquinas to synthesize these two streams of thought, the Augustinian and the Aristotelian, by showing the complementary nature of faith and reason.

The result is a liberating vision of the world and human life in which God holds all things in being through his creative love, and calls human beings to live in friendship with him in this life, and eternal happiness with him in the next.

And from 2011 on the same site, which does not seem to allow links to individual posts:

As we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican Doctor of the Church, it seems appropriate to reflect on his teaching, in which in particular we recognise his sanctity. First of all, we can marvel at the sheer quantity of writings he left: suffice it to say they occupy several shelves in the library here at Blackfriars! The amount of works St Thomas wrote, and the range of them, gives us a sense of his passion for exploring what we can know about God and for passing on his insights and discoveries to others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the many questions he considers is, in effect, what is the point of all this talking about God? Why do we need doctrine? How is knowing things about God useful?

The answer, which could be seen as a theme running through the whole structure of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, is that the fulfilment of human beings is to be found in something not just beyond ourselves but beyond what we could work out for ourselves: to discover it, and so to attain it, we need not only the conclusions we could come to on our own, but also the truths which God has revealed. In this already we see the amazing fact at the heart not only of doing theology but of our human life itself: God, the Creator of all that exists, is not some remote object for us to consider from afar, but has drawn close to us, revealed himself to us, and in that shown his love for us. In this we find that the purpose of human life, the fulfilment which we need God’s revelation to understand, is nothing other than seeing and knowing God as he really is, in what we call the beatific vision. Thus, in seeking to know God, not only do we learn what he has revealed about our ultimate fulfilment, but already by his grace we have a foretaste of that fulfilment.

All this is amazing enough in itself: as we read the Bible and explore, with the great theologians such as St Thomas, the many implications of what God has revealed, we discover many wondrous truths about God and his love for mankind; and yet, as St Thomas reminds us in the words he spoke after the mystical vision he had at the end of his life, all that he wrote is ‘as straw’ compared with the splendour of the reality which awaits us in the blessed life to which God calls us all.

Saint Augustine of Hippo is an important forebear of the Dominican tradition in which some of us stand. His Rule remains part of the Constitutions to this day, and his influence suffuses the great theologians and spiritual writers of Dominicanism. Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican. Therefore, far from being the rupture with Augustinianism that is often asserted, his thought is wholly within it, and indeed utterly incomprehensible apart from it. Other attempts to affirm the Augustinian vision of all knowledge as divine illumination are not necessarily in opposition to Thomism; rather, under the Magisterium (its own point of reference and correction), it provides their point of reference and correction.

This applies to the entire rational and empirical systems, since, at least in the context of those who devised these systems in Early Modern Europe, the very belief in the possibility of true knowledge by rational or empirical means - indeed, of true knowledge at all - is Augustinian, and indeed Thomist. Blessed John Paul the Great, in Fides et Ratio commended at once Thomism in paragraphs 43 and 44, and the works of Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Russians of various stripes alongside Maritain and Gilson in paragraph 74, not to mention engagement with Indian and other non-Western philosophies in paragraph 73.

Alas that Chesterton defines Aquinas against the Christianised Neoplatonism of the Augustinian illuminist tradition, rather than recognising Thomism’s Christianised Aristotelianism as nevertheless belonging within, and greatly enriching, that tradition. Had Chesterton done this, then he would have been quite astonishingly prescient in this as in so many other areas. However, what Chesterton writes about Thomism as the definitive philosophical articulation of the world-view that he shares is of course entirely correct. In Saint Thomas Aquinas (1933), he sets out that “the primary or fundamental Part” of Thomism “or indeed the Catholic Philosophy” is “the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.” Precisely so.

Ora pro nobis.


  1. Did you read Dante's Monarchia? Dante is my favorite Christian Aristotelian. With or without the Christian syncretic (NOT synthetic David) stuff Monarchia is a brilliant defence of global governance (indeed, government).

    Aquinas and Dante would not have approved of a nationalist Guelph like you!

  2. Loyal to the world's 16 sovereign Guelph monarchies. You do realise, do you, how and by whom Dante envisaged global governance? Never mind Saint Thomas.

    It is not syncretism. It is synthesis: the recapitulation in Christ and His Church of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism, and the Roman Empire. It is all in a chapter of my first book.

  3. Yes, the emperor. In politics, all roads lead to Rome. Or Constantinople. Or New York. The city doesn't matter. The end to global anarchy does.

    My undergraduate dissertation on Monarchia - with which I'd probably now be terribly embarrassed if I could recall what I wrote - is allegedly available in Durham Library along with all the others. Were you taught by Bob Dyson? I recall you from The Union Society (my admiration for your rhetoric began there) but I don't recall seeing you in either the Politics or History departments, though I think you have a few years on me (2001-4).

  4. Oh and how do you square your loyalty to Brenda with her, you know, not being a Catholic?

  5. The city matters utterly. It is the whole point. There is one Eternal City. With one eternal feature, still there since Greek was spoken at Alexandria and since before a single Frank had crossed the Rhine.

    I am as loyal to my Queen Elizabeth as Lord Howard of Effingham was to his.

    More broadly, monarchy embodies sheer good fortune, whereby Divine Providence confers responsibilities upon the more fortunate towards the less fortunate. Hence the superior records of the United Kingdom, the Old Commonwealth countries, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia.

  6. Purely out of intellectual curiosity, would you like to see the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire?

    Give my regards to McNally, I reckon he'd bend the knee to Constantine given half a chance. Might be the only thing we agree on these days.

  7. I shall certainly pass on your good wishes to the Great Man.

    In Caritas in Veritate, the present Pope drew on the long, long tradition concerning the role of such a figure as the Christian Roman Emperor, the Byzantine Emperor, the Holy Roman Emperor, or the Tsar of All the Russias. In practice, no such figure ever enjoyed sway over the whole world, or all Christians, or all Catholics. Many such a figure – not only Byzantine or Russian – was in serious conflict with the Papacy.

    If there is still a comparable mission and ministry accorded by Divine Providence, then it has been accorded to the British monarch within each and among all of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, within each and among all of the Commonwealth Realms, within each and among all of the Territories dependent on or in free association with any of those Realms, within each and among all of the Crown Dependencies, as Paramount Chief of the Great Council of Chiefs of Fiji, as Head of the Commonwealth, and elsewhere.

    Such has been the case for a very long time. Ireland was incorporated into the Union specifically on the promise of Catholic Emancipation, which the previous Irish Parliament would simply never have countenanced. The Orange Lodges duly opposed the Act of Union. Even 70 years later, calls for repeal were led by those to whom the only nation in Ireland was the Protestant, "Saxon" nation; leaders who gleefully pointed to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, with its consequences for the system of tithes, as a nullifying breach of the Union.

    The Crown alone made it financially possible for priests to be formed in Ireland, and the alliance of Throne and Altar delivered breathtaking improvements in Irish education, agriculture, industry, and so on. From Ireland and from her Diaspora in Great Britain, the Faith was propagated to the ends of the earth, under a flag incorporating Saint Patrick's Saltire, and on a scale without any real parallel, not even when one considers Spain or Portugal. English, Scots and Welsh Catholics have never had any more desire to go down the road of who did or did not "really" belong in an English, Scots or Welsh Republic (as they would certainly become if they were ever set up) than Ulster Protestants have to go down the road of who does or does not "really" belong in an Irish Republic.

    Only within and under the British Empire was the old France, "the Eldest Daughter of Holy Mother Church", able to survive, having providentially passed from French to British sovereignty so early that Jacobinism still forms no part of the heritage there. The fleur-de-lys, on the Royal Arms of England and then of Great Britain from 1340 to 1800, remains the symbol to this day, and the Assembly quite recently voted without any dissent whatever to retain the Crucifix between the Speaker's Chair and the Royal Coat of Arms.

    One could go on, and on, and on.

  8. It is impossible to construct a purely secular or atheistic argument for having a monarchy, and countries with them have exemplary records in constructing social democracies not just happening to be compatible with Catholic Social Teaching, as in Scandinavia, but profoundly influenced by it, as in the Benelux countries and up to a point in the United States. And as in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

    It was at least a generation before quite different forces began any serious assault against the Christian-based moral consensus that those measures were so popular precisely for upholding, and those measures themselves only came under sustained attack a generation later, when those forces reached political dominance.

    At the same time, the institution of the monarchy also came under such attack, especially, at least in Britain and Australia, from newspapers strongly supportive of the dismantlement of the Common Good.

    We now have a Political Class which regards both the 1960s and the 1980s as unquestionable, and which treats the monarchy and everything that it embodies - social cohesion, historical consciousness, public Christianity, the Commonwealth, increasingly also the Union - as if it did not exist.

    What we saw when Her Majesty all but literally embraced His Holiness was not a new alliance. But it could not possibly have been a timelier one.

  9. Where does it say that in Caritas in Veritate? I can't find it.

  10. A lot of people read it as "world government", but that was not what it said.

  11. I literally mean I can't find the relevant paragraphs.

  12. I'll take a look. Or ask John Milbank, who published something on this at the time.