Quo Vadis Thomistice?

After considerable reflection I must agree that, despite the wisdom of certain finer points of St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas truly represents the highest point of philosophy and theology and is, in this capacity, the most effective response to modern challenges. I found out that St. Thomas held positions on faith and philosophy which I thought he had totally rejected: the extrinsic influence of the faith on philosophy, the metaphysical doctrine of the divine ideas and participatory metaphysics, mystical knowledge of God, and monarchism.

Aquinas is called the Common Doctor for a very good reason. He was not a wild innovator but one who used his great wisdom to synthesize the thought of a millennia of church fathers, doctors, saints, and, most impressively, pagan philosophers. Thus he is properly called the Common Doctor since his teaching is nothing but the common teachings of tradition. At the same time of course he is not perfect in everything he says and greater depth can be found in other doctors. Reading the works of St. Bonaventure on the topic of mysticism can go a long way toward understanding that subject given its relative paucity in Aquinas.

In this discovery of Aquinas I have noticed more clearly his balanced presentation of the relationship between faith and reason. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure hold that reason is in a sense autonomous and in a sense not autonomous. Philosophy is autonomous since it must proceed from its own axioms and not from the premises of faith. Yet philosophy is also not autonomous since the light of faith guides Christian philosophers to greater truth than pagan philosophers could have ever attained.

Thus I disagree with the notion that focusing on the reality that has been revealed to us by faith discounts what man can attain by reason. On the contrary, faith purifies reason so that reason can soar to new heights of truth. It is not as if the faith merely adds on a few things to what we already know: the faith raises to a full system of understanding what is not just incomplete but also interspersed with errors.

There is a great danger to denying this view of the relationship between faith and reason: rationalism. For by denying the intrinsic influence of faith  in guiding reason we get very close to glorifying reason’s own natural capabilities to the extent that supernatural faith seems like a mere addition of inessential information. By denying the intrinsic influence of faith on reason we become like those Cartesian rationalists who treated God as one of those things they had to prove to get their whole natural science project going steadily. By denying the intrinsic influence of faith on reason we contribute toward the progress of secularism and the loss of the sacramental view of reality. It is against this danger that eminent 20th century Thomist Jacque Maritain commented:

History seems to indicate that at the time of Guillaume de Vair and of Charron, and later of Descartes, certain thinkers, who still professed the Christian faith, conjured up a man of pure nature whose lot it was to philosophize, and to whom might be superadded a man of the theological virtues destined to merit heaven. Later on the non-Christian rationalists, more logical in the same error, were to slough off this man of the theological virtues as a superfluous counterpart; they satisfied themselves that to philosophize properly, that is to say, according to the exigencies of reason, it is necessary to believe only in reason, in other words to be only a philosopher, existing only qua philosopher.

Looking more specifically at both Bonaventure and Aquinas we see that they embodied the ideal of Christian philosophy.

St. Bonaventure helps us understand his role as a distinctly Christian philosopher by comparing and contrasting Plato and Aristotle. He explains that Plato was wrong in focusing too much on the eternal things and disregarding material reality while Aristotle was wrong in focusing too much on material reality to the exclusion of the eternal things. For Bonaventure only Augustine could synthesize the truth in both of these philosophers because the light of faith allowed him to avoid errors in using philosophical analysis. The faith provides both an extrinsic and an intrinsic aid to reason. To quote Bonaventure:

To the objection that faith concerns what is above reason and science what is below, it must be said that just as nothing prevents one and the same thing from being both evident and hidden, so nothing prevents the same thing from being above and below reason according to different modes of knowing and thus being both known and believed. For though ‘the sempiternal power and divinity’ (Romans 1:19) can be known either through acquired or even innate science, yet, as compared with the plurality of persons or with the humbleness of our humanity which God assumed, it is wholly above reason and science. For should someone base himself on the judgment of reason and science, he would never believe it to be possible that the highest unity could admit a plurality of persons or that the highest majesty could be united with our humility or that the highest power should from not acting come to act without any change in itself, or other similar things which seem to go contrary to the most common concepts of the mind according to philosophy. Thus it is that science attains precious little in the way of knowledge of divine things unless it is based on faith, because in one and the same thing what is most obvious to faith is most hidden to science. This is clear in the highest and most noble questions, the truth of which is hidden from philosophers, for example, concerning the creation of the world, concerning the power and wisdom of God — matters that were hidden from philosophers but are now manifest to simple Christians. Because of this Paul writes, ‘God has made foolish the wisdom of this world,’ since any faithless wisdom concerning God in this life is stupidity rather than true science. For it will drag the inquirer into error if he is not directed and aided by the illumination of faith; it is not destroyed by faith, consequently, but rather perfected.

Many people call Aquinas a rationalist but he holds a similar view to Bonaventure. Indeed, Aquinas’s entire philosophy is a testament to the proper workings of faith and reason. We must not hold to the notion that Aquinas was a slavish follower of Aristotle. Although he did agree with Aristotle on essential points, the light of faith allowed him to both reject Aristotelian errors (the eternity of the world, no providence) and illuminate Aristotle’ s philosophy by using elements of other philosophical traditions such as the Platonic and Christian inspired distinction between essence and existence. It is agreed by all that Aquinas used the faith in an extrinsic way such as in the former example to reject errors in pagan philosophers. Although it is more disputable among the Thomist schools, many hold that the latter example shows how Aquinas used the faith to aid reason in an intrinsic way. Aquinas was inspired by the biblical (and in some Platonic) doctrine of creation in positing his famous distinction between the essence of a thing, what it is, and its existence, that it is. Everything is radically contingent since it could not have existed so there is a sense in which grasping the concept of a thing is different from that thing actually existing. This is just one way in which Christian faith directly or “intrinsically” inspired Aquinas to find philosophical arguments to prove what is perhaps the key point of his philosophy. I will end my comparisons of Aquinas and Bonaventure with a quote from Maritain:

He welded it [Aristotle’s philosophy] into a powerful and harmonious system; he explored its principles, cleared its conclusions, enlarged its horizon; and, if he rejected nothing, he added much, enriching it with the immense wealth of the Latin Christian tradition, restoring in their proper places many of Plato’s doctrines, on certain fundamental points (for example, on the question of essence and existence), opening up entirely new perspectives, and thus giving proof of a philosophic genius as mighty as that of Aristotle himself. Finally, and this was his supreme achievement, when by his genius as a theologian he made use of Aristotle’s philosophy as the instrument of the sacred science which is, so to speak, “an impress on our minds of God’s own knowledge,” he raised that philosophy above itself by submitting it to the illumination of a higher light, which invested its truth with a radiance more divine than human.

Despite their similarities, Aquinas and Bonaventure do indeed differ in one rather minor respect. While holding that reason works best when working in the light of faith, Aquinas believes that those without the light of faith can hypothetically work out a true philosophy. Bonaventure, on the contrary, holds that those without the light of faith can indeed attain truths about the natural world (Bonaventure has no less than 29 different arguments for the existence of God!) but that these truths will always be mixed with error since the philosopher will always try to complete their philosophy by arrogantly presuming too much. While this may seem like a major difference, it is in fact a rather minor difference. Aquinas only holds that forming a true philosophy is possible hypothetically but in real life sin and the weakness of our intellects will make such an undertaking impossible (or practically impossible). Bonaventure says virtually the same thing since it is the ignorance of our natural condition which makes philosophers presume too much in their investigations.

In conclusion the view about the relationship between reason and faith that Aquinas provides is a view that is neither rationalist nor fideist but acknowledges the relative autonomy of a reason transfigured by the light of faith.


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