Archive for the ‘Dr. Ralph McInerny’ Category


Philosophy In An Age Of Science – Dr. Ralph Mclnerny

March 2, 2011

Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace painted in the years 1508 to 1511 during the papacy of Julius II, the Ceiling Medallion Representing Philosophy

IT IS OFTEN SAID that twentieth-century philosophy is defined in terms of its interest in language. The linguistic turn followed on the epistemological turn and the suggestion was that language was the source of philosophical problems. But these problems are due to misunderstanding and must be addressed by a therapy aimed at showing that they should never have arisen in the first place.

The aim of philosophy is to put philosophy out of business. Unfortunately, this seems to be an endless business. On the Continent it was held that Greek and German are the only philosophical languages and that they are the House of Being. Heidegger is its shepherd, making him, as Harry Redner has wittily pointed out, the German Shepherd of Being. But surely it is the rise of the sciences that characterizes modernity.

Nietzsche lamented that modern man, having acknowledged the death of God and the folly of Christianity, transferred his allegiance to science and made of the scientist a kind of priest. There are certainly those who, dismissing all pre-Copernican efforts, would tie the possibility of knowledge exclusively to the sciences. What is the status of philosophy vis-a-vis the sciences? One might of course simply identify the two, or, as a variation on this, describe philosophy as a reflection on the procedures and attainments of the scientist.

But what are we to make of the fact that, during the very centuries when science gained its ascendancy, the most influential philosophers were questioning the ability of the human mind to know the world? Enamored of Newton and chastened by Hume, Kant despaired of knowing things as they are, what he called “noumena”; insofar as we do know things we know them as we know them — that is, as spatio-temporal, as causing and caused, and the like. But these are categories of our sensibility or of our understanding which, while they organize our experience, cannot be taken to be an account of how things are in themselves. How are things in themselves? By definition, we can never know.

Pure Reason bears on the a priori conditions of sensibility and understanding, the epistemological cookie-cutters that shape our experience. And where is the world of action? Kant allows that somehow in acting we are involved in the real world; but that can scarcely provide the measure of what we ought to do. Kant notoriously provides the most abstract rule of action, the categorical imperative. This is the Kantian version of the fact/value split, to which we will turn in a moment.

Can it be the case that all pre-scientific knowledge must be swept away and must cede its place to a scientific account? The question can be understood either with reference to the past or as a present issue. Have all previous — at least pre-Copernican — statements about the natural world been confined to the dustbin of history? It is helpful to transpose the question to the present. What is the status of my knowledge of the world that antedates, accompanies, and survives scientific explanation? It will not do to say that all non-scientific knowledge must be discarded.

For one thing, it provides a necessary point of reference to scientific explanation. Everyday physical objects are solid; they weigh in the hand; they have a taste; and they cool or warm the hand that holds them. Color, taste, smell — aren’t these the secondary qualities which are replaced by a quantitative account of them? But consider the claim: Quantitative accounts are accounts of things attained in ordinary experience. If the color I see is illusory, there is nothing to explain, only something to explain away. This does not do away with the scientific revolution, of course. But our description of what happened may be less exuberant. If we have come to prefer quantitative accounts of qualitative experiences because they are more amenable to manipulation and to gaining control over our environment, then, that is what happened. But this does not show that the original experience was illusory.

This leaves open the question as to the value of accounts and analyses of this so-called pre-scientific experience. Obviously, much philosophical analysis is a version of this, and whatever value it has can scarcely be stated in “scientific” terms. Furthermore, such fundamental analysis as that already referred to at the beginning of the Physics has not been ruled out of court by methodological fiat. The analysis of change into three components—subject and contrary states of the subject — and of the product of change — a subject under a description — when taken on their own terms, as the first and most general things that one can say about physical objects, are as good now as they ever were. And what of the analyses of place and time and motion offered by Aristotle? Have they really all been swept away?

It is not nostalgia that prompts such questions. Unless such analyses as those Aristotle undertakes in his natural philosophy and those undertaken today by philosophers who are certainly not doing science can be appraised by criteria other than those of science, science itself becomes unmoored and ceases to be a human enterprise.

The Fact/Value Split
Modern moral philosophy defines itself in terms of the unbridgeable difference between facts and values, between Is and Ought.
When G. E. Moore defined the “naturalistic fallacy” in his Principia Ethica of 1903, he made canonical the import of a skeptical question of David Hume and the practice of Kant. When we evaluate something (i.e., call an action good), there is nothing in what the action is that accounts for its having this value.

A gap is opened up between descriptive and evaluative statements that can never be closed. The belief that a more thorough and careful description of a situation will reveal why it must be called good or bad is fallacious. Moore thought we just intuit goodness the way we do yellow, but could offer us no help when intuitions differ. The slogan became: Anything whatsoever can be called good. Nature neither justifies nor prevents a positive evaluation. Value terms express our subjective reaction to the objective and are unanchored in it.

Alasdair MacIntyre has written that what began as one meta-ethical theory among others eventually swept the field. We are all emotivists now. Universal Emotivism, he called it, meaning that moral disagreements have universally come to be regarded as conflicting subjective reactions to states of affairs. Since such conflicts cannot be adjudicated by objective appeals, various dark possibilities loom.

This is of course untenable. Such an account of human action amounts to a denial that there are objective starting points for human action. Moral principles are as arbitrary as any application of them. This has to be addressed in the way that sophistic attacks on first principles are addressed. The position must be seen to be incoherent. A convenient way of seeing this is by considering the infamous Kennedy Decision. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in an opinion rejecting restrictions on abortion, opined that it is a fundamental human right to be able to define existence, human life, and the universe itself as one wishes. Of such a statement one may say: If it is true, it is false. If I have such a fundamental right, I can employ it to define Justice Kennedy, his decision, and indeed the Supreme Court out of the universe. The Kennedy decision is not simply false. It is literal nonsense. And it can be taken as an adequate stand-in for Universal Emotivism.

Like Gibbon looking out over the ruins of imperial Rome, we can survey the moonscape of modern philosophy and find in it a powerful incentive to devote our time to the reading of Plato and Aristotle and the classical philosophy that was so cavalierly dismissed by the father of modern philosophy.

Philosophy And Religion
In its classical origins, philosophy was theistic.

In the Christian era, there was a succession of attempts to establish a modus vivendi between philosophical inquiry and religious belief. The liberal arts tradition, which characterized medieval education from Augustine to Aquinas, sought to summarize the whole of secular learning into seven liberal arts, divided into two groups. The arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were ways because they were considered to be preparatory to the study of Sacred Scripture.

Cassiodorus Senator, who lived a century after Augustine and was a contemporary of Boethius, gave this a definitive statement in his Institutiones. With the recovery of Greek philosophy and the introduction of Arabic science in Latin translation beginning in the late twelfth century, the matter of faith and reason had to be rethought, since reason was now seen to have a far greater reach than the liberal arts tradition had realized. During the thirteenth century, most notably in Thomas Aquinas, a new synthesis was achieved. But this began to unravel almost as soon as it had been achieved, and by the fourteenth century the reach of reason had been considerably diminished. Nominalists questioned our ability to grasp the natures of things since they doubted there were natures to be grasped; the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, truths which Aquinas considered capable of being established by natural reason, were now said to be tenable only on the basis of the faith, because they had been authoritatively revealed. With the Protestant Reformation came the idea that for centuries the Christian message had been distorted by Rome and that the solution was for every believer to become his own pope, consult the Scriptures, and attend to the Spirit in grasping their truth. The dissolution of Christendom was underway.

When Nietzsche’s madman comes into the marketplace crying that he is looking for God, he becomes an object of derision. The scoffers have not yet recognized that God is dead, but they have killed him. With Nietzsche begins the post-Christian age, which can be defined as the time when it is assumed that there is no God and that religion can be accounted for in psychological or economic terms. In any case, the search for truth no longer has any positive interest in theism; furthermore, it must be seen as in a polemical relation to Christianity. This is where we more or less are today.

Why I Am A Thomist
IN 1879 POPE LEO XIII issued an encyclical called Aeterni Patris, which inaugurated the revival of the study of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Leo looked out over the modern world and did not see the sunny prospect many of his contemporaries saw. Indeed, the pope found influential views of man and nature and human society to be severely flawed. It is one thing to appraise the modern world with the eyes of faith; it is another thing to do so with the common principles of human thought, that is, philosophically. It was a philosophical revival that Leo hoped for, and as its paladin, he pointed to Thomas Aquinas.

It is because, as a philosopher, Thomas found his principal inspiration in Aristotle that he can serve the function Leo envisaged for him. The foregoing sketch has doubtless revealed my conviction that philosophy must enter the third millennium on an Aristotelian note. But this must be properly understood. It must not be understood as the suggestion that, while there is a plurality of viable philosophies, we ought to choose Aristotle. If that were the case, the choice would be arbitrary. If it is not the case, it is because there is no radical plurality of viable philosophies. Differences among philosophers are only radical when one of them is wrong. Where there is truth there is compatibility.

Thomas, we are sometimes reminded, was not aThomist. Indeed he was not. Nor was Aristotle an Aristotelian. Both denials are correct because what the two engaged in was not a kind of philosophy. They simply did philosophy. Philosophy is what proceeds from principles which guide all human thinking. It is because we live in a time when these very starting-points have been called into question that the first order of business is to defend the range of reason. Perhaps it is no accident that it is John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) who urges philosophers to regain the sense of the power and scope of human reason. The believer cannot view his faith as elevated on the rubble left by modern philosophy. If one accepts truths beyond the capacity of human reason to comprehend, as one does by the gift of faith, there is needed a contrast with truths which are grasped by human reason and within the reach of all. In that sense, faith needs philosophy.

Philosophy is the lingua franca of believers and nonbelievers alike. It has fallen on evil days. But the seeds of its renewal are present in every human mind, in the starting-points which can only be denied at the price of incoherence. Aristotle said it, but it was true before he said it and it is still true today. “All men by nature desire to know.”



January 28, 2011


Dr. Ralph M. McInerny

I read this the other night and got about half of it on first pass. But of course it lingered on so that I knew I would transform it into a post. And now after scanning and reforming it for web readers (more paragraphs, titles, bolding to emphasize the good stuff) I can tell you that this little selection is a gem. Take the time and read it so after you read it and understand it you can tell yourself just how much better you are for having known it. God bless Ralph McInerny who passed away last year at age 80. One of his parting comments on the Notre Dame controversy the previous year: “Barack Hussein Obama, enabler-in-chief-of abortion, has agreed to speak at the 2009 commencement and to receive an honorary doctorate of law,” he wrote on the Web site of the conservative magazine National Review. “That abortion and its advocacy violate a primary precept of natural law reinforced by the Catholic Church’s explicit doctrine is a mere bagatelle. Wackos of all kinds will kick up a fuss, of course, but their protest will go unnoticed in South Bend. The pell-mell pursuit of warm and fuzzy Catholicism will continue.” We miss your voice Ralph so much, it brings tears to my eyes and I never knew you.

Philosophy and Theology
From at least 1148, Thomas devoted himself to the study of theology. Once he had become a master, he held teaching positions in theology for the rest of his life. Of course so many of the major medieval figures were theologians that it has seemed to some that nothing significant in philosophy proper went on during the Middle Ages. This charge has been made by Bertrand Russell, Will Durant and Emile Brehier, among others, and annoying as many have found this, important issues are raised by the judgment, some having to do with latter-day assumptions, others with the medieval master’s self-understanding.

The twentieth-century professional philosopher is apt to think of his discipline as not only different from theology but as immune to any (if the assumptions of that benighted discipline. The theologian is in thrall to religious beliefs, whereas the philosopher starts with an unadorned mind, at square one, and follows the argument whither it goeth, obedient only to the exigencies of reason — that is, of pure reason. This charming myth has captured the imagination of many philosophers, despite the fact that it cannot account for why they raise the questions they do, in the order they do, and with the quite palpable professional passion that they do.

Such a thinker’s charge against the Christian philosopher is of course just, or can be restated so as to make it just. One who accepts Christian revelation as true will no doubt be influenced by that fact as he goes about his philosophical work. Let us call this an antecedent influence on, and the continuing ambience of, his thinking. Those who profess to be shocked by this seem to imagine a philosopher who has no antecedent convictions and no cultural ambience within which he does his professional work.

Perhaps this would be possible for pure reason in East Prussia or a disembodied spirit but it is manifestly impossible for any flesh and blood human thinker. Doubtless this is why modern philosophers wearied themselves in the task of finding a method with which to disencumber themselves of all antecedent beliefs. It may seem to amount only to a Johnsonian kick but Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus: or De omnibus dubitandum est (of everything doubtful be ) is the best purgative for this ailment.

Relativism in Philosophy
Recognition of the inescapable existential setting of any human activity, including thinking, may seem to relativize all philosophical positions, as if each can be reduced hack into its existential antecedents. But these antecedents are manifestly different in the case of the non-believer and believer. Does this mean that what each of them says is thought to be true only because it jibes with the antecedent assumptions of his inquiry? Are truth and falsity to mean only `true within the assumptions of Christian belief’ or `true within the assumptions of, say, reductive materialism’?

That such unexamined if workaday relativism explains a good deal of the failure to communicate between philosophers has been observed by many, not least by Alasdaire MacIntyre. If such relativism were absolute, so to say, philosophical agreement, or disagreement, would be explained by features extrinsic to what is being said.

The way out of utter relativism is to maintain that, whatever one’s antecedent existential assumptions, a philosophical position must obey criteria which are public and intrinsically independent of one’s motives for philosophizing. Lord Russell set out to show that free love is morally acceptable; he was looking for arguments on behalf of that amorous position. But if his arguments are convincing only to those who share his antecedent dispositions, they may be called rationalizations and not philosophy. So too a Christian sets out to show that God can be known to exist from the world around us, prodded, let us say, by Romans 1:19. But his arguments have to hold in the public philosophical forum and be cogent to those without as well as with faith.

Thomas’ Two Truths About God
It seemed well to begin with this problem, the problem of Christian Philosophy, because it is often confused with what Thomas meant by theology. There are two kinds of truth about God, Thomas observes. First, truths which can be known by anyone employing his natural capacity to think about the world around us; second, truths which God has revealed about himself and which are accepted as true on the basis of a gratuitously granted disposition of mind called faith.

The whole aim of philosophy, as it was begun by the Greeks, is to achieve wisdom; wisdom is knowledge of the first principles and causes; but the first principles and causes are divine. Philosophy by definition strives towards knowledge of the divine, and if it is successful, ends as theology. Truths about God do not begin where philosophy ends; they are the telos of the whole philosophical enterprise. On this basis, Thomas distinguished two kinds of theology, one philosophical, the other Christian theology. On what basis? There are two kinds of truth about God.

In the Summa contra Gentiles 1.3 Thomas writes: “For there are some truths about God which quite exceed the capacity of human reason, for example, that God is three and one, but there are others to which even natural reason can attain, for example, that God exists and that he is one, and others like them, which in fact philosophers have demonstratively proved about God, led on by the light of natural reason.” This distinction between the theology of the philosophers and that of believers provides the basis for a general distinction between philosophy and theology.

Philosophy takes as its starting point knowledge that is in the public domain, which any human mind is in principle capable of knowing. A philosophical position, no matter how sophisticated, is characterized by the implicit promissory note that it can be shown to follow from what we and everyone else already know. Indeed, if this cannot be done, it is the philosopher who loses. In the Aristotelian methodology, it is assumed that latent in ordinary thinking there are certain truths of a necessary kind. Sometimes these are of breathtaking scope, such as, `It is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time and in the same respect,’ and, `Two things equal to a third are equal to one another.’ These are such that they immediately claim our allegiance once we know what is being said. They are judgments known to be true of themselves, as opposed to being known in dependence on other truths.

Acquired knowledge is such that a judgment is seen to be true because of its connection with other judgments already taken to be true. This is the nature of discourse, the Greek term for which is syllogismos. Scientia, knowledge in the strict sense, is discourse whose conclusion shares in the necessity of the premises from which it follows. That is, not only does it necessarily follow from them that would be a feature of any successful discursive reasoning or syllogism but what follows is necessary, that is, it could not be otherwise. Thus science is demonstrative reasoning or apodictic discourse.

Attaining the Ideal of Knowledge
This ideal of knowledge is variously attained. Mathematics was taken to exemplify it in an obvious way and the ideal of science thus seems to be simply a suite of demonstrations. Most subject matters do not permit this, needless to say, although Thomas, like Aristotle, thought that there were constitutive demonstrations in our knowledge of nature that permitted us to speak of natural science, even though most of the reasoning in the science falls short of being demonstrative, that is, necessary. Besides mathematics and natural science, there is a theoretical science that Aristotle called theology or first philosophy, and that came to be called metaphysics. If natural science has being as subject to change as its subject and mathematics has quantified being as its subject, metaphysics was assigned being as such, or being as being, as its subject. It is in this culminating intellectual effort that the philosopher achieved some knowledge of God. This is what made it wisdom, according to Aristotle, and that is the goal of philosophizing. [Book of Causes, Prologue]

Thus when Thomas speaks of two kinds of truth about God, he is comparing the culminating achievement of philosophy as he found it in Aristotle with the starting point of Christian reflection on revelation. A believer who holds, as Thomas did, that the pagan philosopher Aristotle achieved such truths as that God exists and is one and the like, will then of course notice that such truths are included in revelation, implicitly or explicitly. That is, some truths about God which are in principle knowable — Aristotle knew them — have none the less been proposed for our belief or revealed.

The Role of Scripture
Of course Scripture is characterized by those other truths about God — the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the like. Thomas called truths of the first kind, as they figure in revelation, “preambles of faith”, and truths of the second kind, “mysteries of faith. He derives a very important result from the fact that some truths about God that are knowable have been included in revelation. If some of the truths about God that have been revealed can come to be known (the preambles), then it is surely reasonable to accept other truths about God found in revelation that cannot be comprehended or understood in this life (the mysteries). This is not a proof of the truth of the mysteries of faith, but rather an argument on behalf of accepting those mysteries as true.

This comparison of philosophy and of “the science of Sacred Scripture” is not merely adventitious. The discourse that is found in the theological writings of Thomas is unintelligible without acknowledging the influence of Aristotle. The very first question asked in the Summa theologiae is, `What need is there for any science other than the philosophical ones?’ This question only makes sense to a reader already acquainted with philosophy.

Moreover, the questions that are posed at the outset of sacred science are only meaningful against the background of Aristotelian methodology. To ask what the subject of a science is, what its principles are, how it should make truths about its subject known — these questions only begin to be formulated by the theologians of the thirteenth century. If one looks at the theological work on which they all commented, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he will find no comparable discussions. Peter follows St Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine in saying that all the things considered in his four volumes are either divine things or signs of them — res et signum. This is a far cry from Aristotelian methodology.

The Very Heart Of Thomas Thought
The suggestion that a knowledge of the philosophical sciences is presupposed by Christian theology is not merely a pedagogical aside. It points us to the very heart of Thomas’s thought. From his earliest theological writings he is employing what he clearly regards as the achievements of Aristotelian philosophy in his reflection on the mysteries of Christian faith.

His knowledge of Aristotle, we have noted, would have begun at Monte Cassino, been deepened at Naples and, under the tutelage of Albert the Great, become a comprehensive command of the Philosopher. Impressed as we can be by his grasp of Aristotle when he returns to Paris from Cologne and writes On Being and Essence and On the Principles of Nature and comments on Peter Lombard, that knowledge grows over the course of his career. When, in the final phase of his academic life, at Rome in 1268 and then during the second regency at Paris and continuing when he returned to Naples, Thomas produces his amazing book by book, chapter by chapter, line by line, word by word, analyses of the Aristotelian corpus, we are getting the fruit of a lifetime’s meditation on the works of the magnificent Macedonian who became simply the Philosopher. For others, this may have been merely a conventional sobriquet; for Thomas it was the literal truth.

Key Aristotelian Doctrines Of Thomas Thinking
It will be well to say a few things about some of the key Aristotelian doctrines that define Thomas’s thinking:

  1. 1.       All our intellectual knowledge takes its rise from the senses.” This fundamental Aristotelian assumption pervades Thomas’s intellectual work, both philosophical and theological. The commensurate object of human thinking is the nature of sensible reality. That is, what anyone what anyone can be taken to know are the things around us that we see and touch and ~smell and hear. Our ideas are in the first instance ideas of them. Since we name things as we know them, our language will reveal this priority of the sensible, the palpable, the visible. The trajectory of human knowing is a movement from what is obvious to us, though hardly most real, to knowledge of the more real but less obvious to us. Things most obvious to us are not obviously the most important things there are. The order of our learning does not match the order of things, as Aristotle took Plato to be saying. It is not subsisting Ideas or ideal Forms with which our mind is most at home, but rather with what we can grasp of the things we see and touch and hear. Knowledge of these sensible things can lead on to knowledge of the less obvious in the sensible world and even beyond the sensible world, but the order of our learning, like the priorities of our language which express our knowing, will reveal the primacy of the sensible.
  2. “Whatever comes about as a result of a change is a composite of stuff and form.” It is scarcely an accident that one of the first philosophical works we have from Thomas’s pen — and indeed one of the few purely philosophical works he wrote — is devoted to an exposition of the composition of natural things, that is, of things that have come to be as the result of a change. Written while he was yet a student, On the Principles of Nature cannot be read simply as an account of what Aristotle taught. The opusculum (vocab: A small, minor work) is clearly a laying out of what its author regards as the truth of the matter. The least we can say about the end result of a change is that something which did not have a certain characteristic has come to have that characteristic. When Agatha went to Miami she was not tanned, but look at her now. Some subject which was not-P is now P. A lump of clay that previously did not have the shape of my mother-in-law, after minimal manipulation now does. Shapes and forms are ways of discriminating things, of classifying them. The term “shape”, forma, comes to be used to talk of temperature and texture and even place, such as Agatha’s being in Miami.

This progression and extension of terminology already exhibits a movement from the more to the less obvious. If the subject or matter of such forms as shape and temperature and weight and place is substance — a lump of clay, my mother-in-law, Agatha — the question arises as to how we can speak of substances themselves coming to be. Not just coming to be such-and-such, that is, white or light or over there, but coming to be tout court (vocab: and nothing else… briefly: without qualification or additional information). What could be the subject of the becoming of the subject? We come to know it by an analogy, Aristotle said.

If there are substances, and if substances come to be, and if coming into being involves a subject or matter as well as a form, then we will seek the subject and form of substantial becoming on an analogy with the subject and form of accidental or incidental becoming. In substantial change, the subject cannot be itself a substance, since then the change would be an incidental one; that is, a change in which the subject acquires a form that does not account for its being a substance so much as a tanned, tired and impecunious substance. In the change whereby a substance comes to be a substance, the form must be of a kind that makes a substance to be a substance, not a form that makes an already existing substance to be such-and-such: in Florida, tanned, up to no good.

The Same Aristotlian Vocabulary
This pressing on to the principles of substantial becoming from reflections on the way things change color and place and size and temperature is already a rich lesson in the development of philosophical terminology as Thomas learned it from Aristotle. And like his mentor, Thomas will use this same vocabulary to talk of sensing and imagining and thinking itself, and indeed to speak of the principle of life in living things. The soul is a substantial form. Ultimately, and by a vast stretch of imagination and understanding, he will be able to speak of separated forms. That is, forms of the kind with which Plato blithely began are the hard-won achievements of prolonged philosophical analyses for the Aristotelian. Along the way, thinking about thinking becomes an analysis on the model of physical becoming. Coming to know will thus be spoken of as acquiring a form, but whether in sensing or imagining or understanding, the form will be more unlike than like its physical counterpart, though sufficiently alike to form a pedagogical bridge.

These central tenets concerning progress in knowledge and the mirroring progress in language sank deeply into the mind of St Thomas Aquinas. His Aristotelianism is not a patina over something more basic, or a terminology to express what he knows on some other basis. In learning from Aristotle Thomas does not of course think of himself as conforming his mind to another’s, but rather as conforming his mind to the ways things are, aided in the task by his great precursor, the Philosopher.

Christian Faith Mysteries Seen From Thomas’s Aristotelianism
Seen from this philosophical perspective, the mysteries of the Christian faith take on an awesome character, unimaginably exceeding the range of human reason. Nonetheless, as the distinction of preambles and mysteries in revealed truths makes clear, Thomas sees philosophy as the necessary instrument for a meditation on faith that exemplifies the Anselmian motto: fides quaerens intellectum (vocab: faith seeking understanding). Faith is the acceptance as true of what the mind cannot comprehend in this life; theology is the inevitable effort to diminish the strangeness by putting what is believed into juxtaposition with what is known. Theology comes to mimic the methodology of the philosophical sciences, but this never results in knowledge in the usual sense, that is, philosophical knowledge. The starting points of theology are not truths in the public domain, but truths that God has revealed which can only be accepted on his say-so. The theologian will defend those truths against attack, he will undertake to show that nothing we know is in conflict with them, and he will draw out the implications of what has been explicitly revealed, thereby contributing to the development of doctrine of which Cardinal Newman and then Vatican II have spoken. Theology in this sense is not addressed to just anyone; it can be a vehicle of truth only for one who accepts its starting points, and that acceptance has a name, faith.

Thomas’s Aristotelianism is obvious in his insistence that God reveals Himself to us through images and likenesses. Scripture is figurative and metaphorical, which is a concession to what is easily grasped by the human mind. “The creator makes himself known through his creation first of all, and then through the Book, those inspired writings that come to us from the Chosen People. In Christ himself, there is the ultimate concession to our mode of knowing: God becomes man, he walks among us and speaks to us and shows us the way to salvation. And he speaks in parables and stories so that we can be led on from the obvious to the mystery beyond. The sacraments of the Church are also seen as making the spiritual palpable: outward signs of inward grace, in the phrase.

When Thomas undertook his commentaries on Aristotle, he was in part continuing a practice of his mentor Albert. If Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul does date from 1268 when he was teaching at Santa Sabina in Rome, it could not have been prompted by the controversies raging in Paris. But when Thomas did go back to Paris, his Aristotelian commentaries multiplied and this at a time when he was busy about the many tasks of the regent master of theology. Doubtless the spur was what the so-called Latin Averroists were making of Aristotle. Thomas had long expressed discontent with the commentaries of the Commentator and now he called Averroes the distorter rather than the expositor of Aristotle. These commentaries cannot in any way be seen as a cynical or well-intentioned effort to tailor the Aristotelian text to alien demands, shaping it so that it conformed with Christian doctrine, baptizing Aristotle.

It is simply libel to say that Thomas twisted Aristotle for polemical reasons, whether the twisting is taken to be conscious or unconscious. No one who reads On Whether There Is but One Intellect, a polemical work of this period, can have any doubt about what Thomas as commentator is doing. The task proceeds on two levels, guided by two overriding questions. First, what does Aristotle actually say? Second, is it true or false? The first question cannot be terminal for Thomas, but it is the first question. In this massively impressive effort, Thomas is every bit as much the defender of Aristotle against misreading as he is a defender of the Christian faith.


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