St. Thomas for the Twenty-First Century

The month of March always reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose influence now seven centuries after his death is probably more effective on the world than at any time in history. From whom else did our age receive so clearly the concept of “person,” so central to the best contemporary understandings of human rights?

Not from Aristotle, certainly, and not from Hobbes, or Kant, or Mill. For Aquinas clearly distinguished “person” from “individual,” on the one hand, and from “nature” on the other. To be sure, one intellectual tangle which forced him to do so was the Christian affirmation that Jesus Christ shares both a human and a divine nature. Aquinas needed a concept to express what it was that remained identical in both natures. The concept person satisfied this requirement. And he needed the same concept to express what it is in each human being that is the ground of dignity and inexhaustibility. No human being is, in his eyes, individualized solely by its distinctive body. Each is an active subject, an originating agent of insight and choice, and made in God’s image, above all, by sharing in the characteristics of personhood.

The actual structures of the best and highest institutions of the civilization Aquinas most influenced (which, for want of an internal term, we geographically refer to as “Western civilization”) function better in practice than in most contemporary theories about them. This is, in part, because the genius of Aquinas has insinuated itself into the almost unconscious conceptions of the West, while millions of otherwise highly educated people no longer recognize the full intellectual tapestry from which these conceptions have been torn. As Alasdair Maclntyre remarks in After Virtue, even learned philosophers of today are in the position of clutching fragments of an entire communal hieroglyph whose whole they no longer possess.

For such reasons, I hope that Pope John Paul II, the greatest and most profound student of Aquinas which the papacy has ever produced, will follow the example of his nearest rival to such a claim, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), by issuing an encyclical once again reaffirming the place of Thomas Aquinas as the preeminent Teacher of Catholic philosophers, theologians and activists.

For it is sad, today, to contemplate the wreckage of Catholic thought in the wake of Vatican Council II. The Thomistic revival sponsored by Leo XIII awakened immense creative energies in Catholic intellectual life in the early twentieth century, which played a disproportionate role in bringing that Council to fruition. Recall the conversion of Jacques Maritain and the long labors of Etienne Gilson, Anton Pegis, Yves Simon, and so many others. The work of Aquinas was deep enough, broad enough, and sturdy and prudent enough to excite the imagination of the great sources of Catholic intellectual revival such as Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, and of remarkable contributions by Romano Guardini, Joseph Pieper, Friedrich Heer, M.D. Chenu, Thomas Gilby, Thomas Farrell, James Collins, Frederick Copleston, Martin D’Arcy, Victor White and countless others.

What has the generation which has followed the Vatican Council produced that comes even close to rivaling what was produced in the equivalent period before it, in range, solidity, learning, subtlety and practical wisdom?

From the work of Aquinas there flowed a theory of democracy and human rights, a vision of “Man and the State,” a theory of aesthetics and poetry, a “transcendental method,” a theory of insight and understanding, of unrivalled practical sweep and of orthodoxy sturdy as an oak. From Aquinas flowed the basic principles of Catholic social thought in Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII.

Then came the turn against Aquinas. In practice, the ‘open church’ seemed to involve Catholic intellectuals in rushing outside our own traditions, while into them poured intellectual “air” which was not entirely “fresh.”

In order to relate the Gospels to the world, every interpreter employs the mediation of a philosophical system. Such mediation is like a window, and the glass through which each interpreter looks is more or less distorted. Aquinas is called “the Angelic doctor” because his mediating principles are almost preternaturally clear and clean, as lightsome and translucent as the apparition of an angel. The structures of his thought are so like those of the human mind, and so like those of being, that they seem not to be structures at all, but rather like contact lenses that allow what is to be seen in unparalleled vivacity.

What, for Aquinas, is the highest work of civilization? Civil conversation: person talking freely to person. The implications of such a breathtakingly simple perception — for an “Iron Curtain,” for example, and for basic institutions of human rights — are quite powerful. What sorts of institutions does a society require in order to respect the rights of all to civil conversation, rooted in reason and argument rather than in passion and violence?

For Aquinas, the fundamental model of human understanding in this world is “practical wisdom,” modeled on the Providence of God, dealing fairly and skillfully with contingent things in the hazardous sequences of history, respecting their thisness even while trying to discern the multiple and complex lines of causation by which they have come to be as they are.

There is a political wisdom in Aquinas which many educated persons of today seem to lack. Today, political wisdom is disdained, while a sort of “religious vision” is ex-tolled, a vision of “peace and justice” to which one “is converted;” in which one centers one’s “conviction” and “commitment;” and from which one “speaks out” against war and injustice, “witnesses” to peace and justice, and “liberates the oppressed.” The confusion of categories here would never have afflicted Aquinas. It owes much more to Rousseau, Hegel and Marx.

No wonder that at the end of his life, Jacques Maritain, as “the peasant of the Garonne,” laughed, if sadly, at the profusion of ideologies sweeping through the “open church.” He must sometimes have shed tears, although trusting in God eventually to lead His people again from their foolishness.

Yet the secret to Aquinas lies less in his relevance to a theology of politics and economics, important as those are, than in his “intuition of being.” This famous phrase of his should be distinguished from the actual details of working out a philosophy of “existence and the existent,” although the latter complements the former as an achievement complements an awakened aspiration. Some persons look at the world as a sequence of matters of fact. Some look upon it as a stage on which one takes up “positions,” espouses “causes,” and helps “the good guys” to win. But this world is primarily neither mere fact nor morality play. If one is gifted to look at it in a certain way, one sees that it is alive with the presence of God’s acting in all things. Everything that happens and is depends; that is, is acted on in by Another. The “intuition of being” is a way of perceiving oneself in the world from the perspective of one who is aware that the Creator acts in, wills, loves, and makes to be every event, humble or great, and that everything was first thought of and designed and loved and made to be by Him. One cannot, then, look at discreet things or events without one’s mind being lifted up — no, not lifted up, directed deeper into — the creative agency whence is their origin.

To be sure, I have couched this last paragraph in the language of “creation,” rather than in that of “being.” I did so because Aristotle provided Aquinas with a language of “being” without “creation,” and Aquinas was eager not to exclude Aristotle from among those who gave ample evidence of “the intuition of being.” And it is quite true: Many ordinary persons, in the philosophic or poetic part of a nature common to us all, gain an analogous perception of the active interconnectedness of things, without any advertence to the Jewish-Christian language of creation. (It is as if they would speak of “persons endowed by the active source of all being within them with unalienable rights.”)

Such a philosophical mediation is indispensable for the expression of Christian orthodoxy. Not by dialectics are we saved. No one needs to gain correct philosophical understanding in order to be redeemed. Yet when Christians proceed to relate the Word of God to the world of being, any distorted mediation will corrupt that Word. The eventual fruit of a distorting mediation is that the faithful will fall into massive confusion. The Faith itself will suffer.

It is not fashionable today to praise Aquinas, let alone to study him for long hours in the quiet of one’s study (or at prayer) or in the hot disputations of the hour. Yet in the generations since Leo XIII, a massive mediation of the thirteenth-century understanding of Aquinas into the language and institutions of the West (and through the Universal Charter of Human Rights, the world) has been achieved.

Through the work of Maritain, Gilson, Lonergan and others, the concepts of Aquinas were brought into the languages of our time and placed in the center of its debates. In most Catholic universities and intellectual circles today, the young are not being led to these waters. They are drinking from broken cisterns, whose fluids are already drying up. It is an intellectual tragedy of immense proportions, a failure of our generation, for which we hardly deserve the forgiveness of our children or of God.

I find myself praying, from time to time, that Pope John Paul II will one day say to all the world how much his own clarity of mind, moral strength, and quick discernment are owed to the Teacher he was privileged, in his youth, to absorb into the marrow of his bones. That inheritance should belong to our children in the twenty-first century. An appeal from the Pope, like that from Leo XIII, might in God’s good time bring forth another era like that graced by the work of Maritain, Gilson, Rahner, Lonergan, and an entire vital generation, whose like has not been seen before or since.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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