St. Thomas Aquinas
Sunday, June 1, 2008


Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?

The next item on the St. John’s list is the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. There are several questions, some in whole, and some in part assigned. Since the Summa is large and complex, I won’t even try to be terribly profound. I’m going to point out the things that I find striking, and comment on them.

Update. I try to give an article as a question. Thomas gives it as a statement. Then I try to give the objections, Thomas’s proofs of the article, then I give his response, and the reply objections. When I refer to “new atheist” I mean the unholy trinity of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and their ilk. It might be clearer to say that so and so anticipates this position, but I’m trying to be brief. End update.

The first assignment is Part 1,Questions 1 and 2.

Q1. The nature and extent of sacred doctrine. Article 1. Whether philosophy alone is enough? Everything that is within reason falls under philosophy. Philosophy treats of God as well as everything so there is no need of a separate science. The first objection, that philosophy covers everything already, seems “new atheist,” particularly if you substitute science for philosophy. Thomas responds that the divine science is necessary for man’s salvation because man is directed to God. Thomas replies to the first objection that although some things cannot be sought because they are beyond reason, they have been revealed by God, and must be accepted by faith. Thomas replies to the second objection by pointing out that both the astronomer and the physicist may conclude that the earth is round, by different methodologies, therefore there is no difficulty in accepting that philosophy and theology may deal with the same topics.

Article 9. Should Scripture use metaphors? Metaphor is appropriate to lower sciences, not to sacred things. Second, metaphor obscures truth. Third, if it is used, it should be taken from higher creatures, not lower ones. Thomas responds that man attains to intellectual truths through sensible things because human knowledge comes through the senses. Thomas asserts that scripture is proposed to all, including the smart and the dumb, and it is appropriate that it be expressed in metaphor so that all may understand it. Thomas replies to the objections by asserting that while poetry uses metaphor for representation, theology uses metaphors as necessary and useful. Thomas defends the obscurity of metaphor as useful for the thoughtful, and as a defence against impious men. Thomas replies to the third objection by asserting that it shows that these things are not literal; that it is more fitting the knowledge of God that we have in this life; the unworthy cannot see divine truths.

Article 10. Are words in scripture polysemous, i.e., do they have multiple meanings? First, polysemy produces confusion. Second, Augustine enumerates a fourfold division that is different from that in the first objection. Third, there is also a parabolical sense. Thomas replies that not only the words, but the things signified by the words also have a meaning. Lets try to think about this for a minute. The word is the signifier, so “rock” is a signifier. The meaning, what the word points to, is either rock in general, or a specific rock. Now ordinarily that should be the end of it, but Thomas is saying that the rock becomes a further signifier, and that its signified is the ultimate meaning pointed to by the word “rock” So “rock” in “on this rock I will build my church,” points not only to Peter, but to a rock, and the qualities of a rock that make it suitable for a foundation for a building. Thomas then goes on to refer to Dionysius the Areopagite as saying that the Old Law was a figure of the New Law, and that New Law was a figure of future glory. Thomas that it is not because the words are polysemous that the meanings are multiplied, but because the things signified can be types of still other things. The second objection is refuted by asserting that three of the senses are subsumed under the literal sense. The same is asserted of the parabolical sense.

Q2. The Existence of God? A1. Is the existence of God self-evident? Aquinas gives Anselm’s proof here, in objection 2. He refutes it by saying that some have believed God to be a body. Secondly, saying that God is that greater than which cannot be though does not mean that everyone is going to understand that to have anymore than an intellectual existence. Aquinas also asserts that the existence of truth is self-evident, but that the existence of First Truth is not.

A3. Whether God Exists? First, the existence of evil negates the existence of God. This is the argument from theodicy. Second, everything in the world can be accounted for without invoking God. As Laplace is supposed to have said, there is “no need for that hypothesis.” This anticipates what I take to be the “new atheist” position. Aquinas then provides five proofs. The proof from motion, and the proof from efficient causation. Both of these rest on the denial of infinite progression, i.e., you cannot have either an infinite series of either movers or efficient causes. The third way is based on possibility and necessity. It reduces to arguing that sense it is possible for all things not to be, at some time they weren’t, and there was nothing in existence. In order for anything to come into existence, there must have been something that already was to bring it into existence. The fourth way is the gradation of things along a scale that culminates in that which is most being. The fifth way is the assertion of a teleological purpose inherent in natural bodies. Aquinas handles the theodicy argument by asserting, with Augustine, that God draws a higher good out of evil. I think it is worth pointing out that if God were to act as the proponents of the objection appear to think He should act, there would be no nature. You’d have a series of constant interventions to prevent hurricanes, stop earthquakes, disintegrate bullets before they hit their victims, etc. It’s also worth pointing out that it is only man’s presence and perception that makes natural events, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, evil. By themselves, and in themselves, they are purely natural phenomena with no moral qualities. They were going on before man appeared on the planet, and they’ll be going on after we emigrate to Alpha Centauri. Aquinas replies to the second object by saying that whatever is done by nature must be traced to God.

June 2, 2008

Q3. The simplicity of God. Two articles from here were on the list. A3. Is God the same as His essence or nature? A4. Are essence and being the same in God? Okay, both of these are fairly technical, and not particularly interesting to a lot of people,so we’ll summarize by saying that Thomas asserts that God is the same as His essence, and that essence and being are the same in God.

Q12. How God is known by us. There are 13 articles here. The last two, 12 and 13, are the most interesting. A12. Can we know God in this life by natural reason? First is the assertion that reason doesn’t grasp simple forms. Since God is supremely simple it is impossible for Him to be grasped by reason. Second, the soul understands through phantasms, but God cannot have a phantasm because He is incorporeal. Third reason deals with both good and evil, which share a common nature. Knowledge of God belongs only to the good so it cannot be known. Thomas responds that knowledge starts from sense. We cannot know the whole of God through sense, but we can determine that He exists, and is the first cause of all things. He replies that reason can now what simple form is, but not whether it is. Second that God is known by the phantasms of His effects. Knowledge of God’s essence is by grace, and so belongs to the good. Knowledge of God by natural reason can belong to both the good and the bad.

A13. Does grace provide a higher knowledge of God than reason? The brief summary is that it does by the natural light strengthened by grace, and phantasms in the human imagination that can be divinely formed to express divine things.

June 7, 2008

It’s been a few days, but I’ve made progress, and should be finishing up the assigned readings in Aquinas in a day or two.

Part II of the Second Part, Questions 1, 2, and 4

Since it’s been while, I’m going to write about only those parts that strike me as compelling as I look them over. I’ll probably just give Thomas’ answers, and any response I have.

Q1. On Faith A5. Can those things that are objects of faith also be objects of science (reason)? Thomas asserts that science is derived from self-evident principles, and must be in some sense seen. However, what is an object of faith for one can be an object of faith for another. I think a modern example would be that Feynman believes in the existence of the electron because of science, while I believe because of faith. The question, for Aquinas, seems to be whether one knows by way of demonstration. He ultimately comes down as saying that faith and science are about two different things.

Q4. On the Virtue Itself of Faith. A2. Does faith reside in the intellect? Thomas gives a complicated answer that I won’t attempt to repeat here, which results in him arguing that because faith is an act of belief it must reside in the intellect.

A8. Is faith more certain than science and other intellectual virtues? Thomas argues that it is because faith is about eternal things whereas science and the others are about contingent things

Tomorrow I’ll try to tackle the last assigned readings from the Summa, which are from the Treatise on Law, and the first question from the Treatise on Grace.

June 8, 2008

The assigned readings were questions 90 through 97, parts of 100, 106, 108, and 109 (on grace). I’ll try to hit the highlights here.

Q90. The Essence of the Law. A1. Does law pertain to reason? Aquinas gives an etymology for lex (law), and asserts that it is derived from reason which is the “rule and measure” for our acts.

He then moves on to assert that law is directed to the common good (A2), and that promulgation is essential for law (A4).

Q91. The kinds of law. There is the eternal law (A1), a natural law (A2), and a human law (A3).

Q92. The effects of law. The law makes men good (A1).

Q93. Of the eternal law. The eternal law is known to all (A2). Every law that partakes of right reason derives from the eternal law (A3). All human affairs are subject to the eternal law (A6).

Q94. Of the natural law. The natural law is not a habit (A1). The natural law is the same in all men (A4).

Q95. Of human law. It derives from natural law (A2).

Q96. Of the power of human law. It does not pertain to human law to repress all vices (A2). Human law binds a man in conscience (A4). All are subject to the law (A5). Even though under the law one may in certain circumstances act beside the letter of the law (A6).

Q97. Of change in law. We’ll come back to this one later.

Q100. Of the moral precepts in the old law. The moral precepts belong to the law of nature (A1). These moral precepts are reducible to the Decalogue (A3). Virtue falls under the precept of the law (A9). The moral precepts of the Old Law did not justify man (A12).

Q106. The new law. The New Law is written in our hearts, and secondarily on paper (A1). It justifies (A2), and will last till the end of the world (A4).

Q108. Of the things contained in the new law. We’ll come back to this later.

Q109. Of the necessity of grace. We’ll come back to this later.

Okay, most of what I’ve marked about law and grace is for later discussion. My excuse is that I’m doing this at night, for about an hour each night, and each of the articles on law is very demanding. So I may try to post a few thoughts every now and then. Keep this page bookmarked and check for updates every once in a while.

Next up is The Romance of the Rose. St. John’s assigns part of the Summa at the end of the first sophomore semester, then does Dante’s Commedia, then returns to the Summa. I’ve done both sets of readings in Aquinas now. I’ve read the Commedia several times, including in Italian, so I’m going to substitute of roughly equal weight, and some medieval influence. Since I’ve never read The Romance, and it was a hugely popular text, that seems like the appropriate choice.

I should note that I’ll also be substituting for Shakespeare. I’ve read the major plays several times, and when I took the Shakespeare course at CUA with Gary Taylor, one of the editors of the Oxford edition of Shakespeare, we read all of Shakespeare in one semester. The logical person to substitute would be Spenser, but I’ve read The Faerie Queen too, so I think I’ll substitute Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, another influential book.

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