Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Foundational Realism of Saint Thomas Aquinas

No, this is not a philosophy paper. I just want to say “Happy Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas!” I often celebrate the feasts of the great theologians and philosophers by “spending time” with their writings. I have spent lots of time in my life with Saint Thomas. I was educated as a lay student at the Dominican Pontifical Faculty in Washington D.C. (one of their first lay students, back in the mid-1980s). I have published work that deals extensively with Aquinas, and he has laid the “foundations and scaffolding” of the edifice (such as it is) of my extensive study of various modern thinkers. Many of them identify themselves as “Thomists,” among whom Jacques Maritain holds a special place, not only in my intellectual development and published work, but also in my “heart.” 

I remember being four or five years old and my mother was folding the laundry and talking about the reading she was doing that was opening up her mind (and my mother had a huge, ardent, precise, and magnanimous mind). I have images in my memory from that conversation (and perhaps others): there were the two Popes (John XXIII and Paul VI) and the Council and somebody who had influenced her deeply but whose writings were confusing (that would have been the remarkable Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) but then a French Peasant who was a philosopher “corrected” her from going in the direction of the wild ideas that were brewing in 1960s “Teilhardism”… and, she was just learning so much. She radiated her still-youthful enthusiasm for truth and understanding.

And the four-year-old JJ was just imaging a French farmer-philosopher and whatever else and feeling that the being Catholic and following the Church was not a narrow thing but an immense adventure of human reason and faith that embraced everything. Later I started noticing that wise old face of Jacques Maritain staring at me from the bookshelf on the spine of “The Peasant of the Garonne.” It was the radical beginning of my own intellectual vocation, and for many years (from childhood to age 58) it was an ongoing work that I shared with my brilliant mother. How grateful I am, and how much I miss her.

Years later I would study Maritain, dedicate several chapters of a book to his realist epistemology, and write his and Raissa Maritain’s conversion story. He is one of the great figures of 20th century Catholic philosophy whose influence has been pervasive in the articulation of post-conciliar Church teaching (especially through Paul VI but also John Paul II) even if his person and work have been largely forgotten… at least in this era. The universality, openness, and precision of Jacques Maritain’s vast philosophical labors will certainly be appreciated and read in the future. He has much wisdom to share with emerging new civilizations that embrace the authentic dignity of the human person and an integral humanism—a “theocentric humanism” that Maritain called the Humanism of the Incarnation.

I also studied and wrote about two very different 20th century Catholic figures who both incorporated Aquinas into their original proposals for the renewal of Catholic faith. My STL dissertation on Karl Rahner’s “supernatural existential” was the fruit of years of wrestling with the whole scope of the thought of this singularly brilliant Jesuit theologian. Rahner’s complex efforts to bring Aquinas into dialogue with elements of Kantian, Hegelian, and Heideggerian thought are often dazzling and ingenious, although in my opinion (and others too) ultimately unconvincing. But Rahner’s expositions and inquiries move in many directions and engage many questions in provoking and fruitful ways. My thesis argued that Rahner ultimately went “too far” in the development of his theory of the “supernatural existential,” and in fact changed his original proposal. It’s an extensive study that I really should scan and make accessible online… if I can find my original copy! There is a copy safely bound and shelved in the Dominican College Library, so if necessary I can just make a trip there and scan it from the shelf. It still occasionally pops up in footnotes in other people’s articles and books, so maybe I should put it on the Academia website.

The other great figure of the contemporary Church that I continue to study, who recognized the realism of Aquinas as vital to his own immensely fruitful evangelical witness, is—of course—Luigi Giussani. That work pops up in many places, including this blog, and the paper from my 1998 lecture series “Man in the Presence of Mystery” is accessible online (just go HERE).

But enough for now. The day is nearly over! I actually spent some time revisiting Chesterton’s famous little book on Saint Thomas. These days, when I read Chesterton, I can’t help literally laughing out loud, particularly when he makes gratuitous exaggerated statements off-the-cuff, with a twinkle in his eye, or goes off rambling on a tangent. There is less of that in his book on Thomas (though it’s not absent, and I had plenty of belly laughs today). Chesterton can get down to the point with a flair and brilliance and conciseness that evokes conviction. And let me assure you, the passages in Chesterton that annoy you at the age of 20 or 30 will be hilarious when you read them at age 60. G. K. Chesterton didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was a magnanimous man, and ultimately he is funny because reality itself is funny, life is funny. Thomas Aquinas’s life has more than a few “funny moments” especially when you look at them within the perspective of God’s plan for this unique holy patient brilliant saint whose intellectual charism was destined to be a permanent gift to the Church and to humanity. Yes, there is humor to be found in any good story. Humor, one might say, is the little sister of Beauty.

I will leave you with a quotation from GKC about Aquinas’s realism that is not so much humorous as it is “getting to the point” with gallantry:

“The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes. That is what gives the indefinably virile and even adventurous quality to this view of life; as compared with that which holds that material inferences pour in upon an utterly helpless mind, or that which holds that psychological influences pour out and create an entirely baseless phantasmagoria. In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.” (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, chapter VIII).