On Recovering a Genuine Thomism in Our Times

by Peter Kwasniewski

“There is no doubt that Bonaventure thought of himself as a theologian, and was, moreover, seen by his contemporaries as a theologus. But, keeping in mind the whole history of philosophy, we should not neglect the fact that the model of philosophy which celebrates the so-called “autonomy of philosophical thought” is itself an historically contingent model. Can one credibly speak of “pure philosophical thought” in Aristotle, Averroes, or Albert the Great?” [1]

It takes little effort to draw out the moral of Andreas Speer’s observations. If scholastic philosophy had not allowed itself in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to become detached from the fullness of Christian life, from speculative theology as well as the communal liturgical life of the believer, if it had not over time sequestered itself in a strange nook situated between empirical science and daily life, it would not have suffered the fate of being overshadowed and eventually disregarded by its more impressive, or at least more insistent, rivals. The recovery of philosophy’s rightful place will require the undoing of many false steps, not the least of which was the divorce of philosophical exploration from theological discourse and the concomitant divorce of systematic theology from liturgical worship and a valid and comprehensive aesthetic sense. If these diverse areas are one day to be synthesized again, they stand in need of philosophy, with the inestimable services it provides in dialectic and demonstration, method and vocabulary; they stand even more in need of sacred liturgy, the solemn worship of God, the end to which they should all be ordained on our earthly pilgrimage.[2]

It seems to me that the Christian thinker must detect and root out a lingering intellectualism, an exaggerated and therefore distorted elevation of one aspect of man. Indeed, one must recognize that such an elevation distorts the larger and more fully human framework in which Aristotle places the very nobility of intellectual activities. Aristotle had seen a part—the most important part, it is true, but not the whole—of what it means to say that man bears within him a divine spark. Book X of the Ethics marks both an advance and a regression for the theory of human perfection and the imago Dei. Compared with Presocratic panpsychism and pantheism, it is an advance; compared with Plato’s insight into the cosmic and psychic eros that urges man and even, in a way, the whole of creation, toward assimilation to God, it is arguably a step backwards. However, as Josef Pieper (and Bonaventure long before him) recognized, the Aristotelian and Platonic accounts are not rivals but halves in need of reunification. And I think Pieper is right to see St. Thomas as having effected the theoretical reunification, which took place by means of fusing Augustine, Dionysius, and Aristotle in the furnace of the Christian mystery.

These considerations coalesce around the mystery of the human body, a subject concerning which Gabriel Marcel and, more famously, Pope John Paul II have carried out incisive metaphysical and theological investigations. I say “mystery” because, though it is the soul that is enslaved to sin and cries out for the freedom of grace, it is nevertheless the body—the body of the Word Incarnate making contact with our bodies in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist—through which this salvation comes to us, with all its spiritual perfections originating in God and destined for our souls.

*          *          *

There is a still deeper problem, and I confess I do not see that it permits of an easy solution. The Church teaches us authoritatively that we are to study the works of the Angelic Doctor—there can be no doubt about her counsel, so often and so forcefully has it been repeated. Therefore we set about doing so in full confidence that Holy Mother Church is guiding us along the right path. But the question immediately arises: Exactly how are we to study St. Thomas? At our place in history, occupying a certain position with regard to all the upheavals and developments, good and bad, that have taken place in the last seven hundred years, how are we to carry out this study? It seems to me that there are two basically different ways of going about it.

First, there is the historically sensitive approach, what one might (in a generous mood) call the hermeneutics of incarnation, which attempts to place Thomas in all the right factual contexts—social, cultural, psychological, spiritual—in an effort to recover something of the immediacy of environment, subtlety of contemporaneous influence, and depth of intellectual background within and behind Thomas’s teaching. For example, one would insist on reading Thomas as a theologian first and foremost; one would understand him as not only an Aristotelian but also an Augustinian and a Neoplatonist of sorts; one would see him as a moment, albeit an exceedingly bright moment, in the larger and very complex development of medieval theology; one would make an effort to view his works steadily in the light of the Fathers, in the light of Boethius, Dionysius, John Damascene, the Victorines, Peter Lombard, and so forth, recognizing that Thomas is above all a Patristic and Scriptural author; one would take into account the extraordinary history of the Hellenistic, Jewish, and Islamic interpretations of Aristotle and other ancient authors that reached Thomas after being handled by numerous philosophical merchants and middlemen down through the centuries.

A very different approach, found in Great Books or liberal arts programs, may be styled “letting the text speak for itself.” Students and teacher grapple with a text from St. Thomas, without in most cases having done the background work that the historically sensitive method would consider absolutely necessary. Partisans of the hands-on approach tend to argue that the historical method collapses into historicism and that sometimes the worst way to read an author is to submerge him, or his individuality and his works, in a network of infinitesimally charted associations. To open up a book written by a great author and simply read its contents, doing the best one can: this is taken to be not only possible but desirable, since it clears away distractions, prevents disproportionate attention to details at the expense of a general but decisive grasp of the whole, and relieves to a large extent the philosophically paralyzing pressure exerted by the demands of cultural history. The person who advocates “just reading the text” really means to say that the text is important only insofar as it raises and answers, or makes an attempt at answering, the “perennial questions”; the text as an artifact (and in a certain sense, even the author as a writer) ceases to be central, giving way to the thing itself which is being discussed. We use the text in order to find out, or come closer to apprehending, the truth about things; as Thomas himself says, we are not interested in knowing what men’s opinions happen to be, but rather what the truth of the matter is.

These two methods are compatible to some extent, as any good scholar knows. But it is obvious that they are on a collision course with one another if one considers strictly their inner trajectory, their foundational assumptions, their systematic claims. And each method, by itself, is defective. If the goal of our studies is not to know just what Thomas says, then at the same time our goal cannot be just to know the truth of a certain matter; for why, then, should we study St. Thomas’s works—why not a scholastic manual, or a catechism, or a thick book written by a German scholar who summarizes the entire history of Catholic thinking on x, y, and z? Why would the Church recommend Thomas? It cannot be simply that he has a logical mind or shows an extensive familiarity with the great sources. There are many such thinkers in our tradition. It must be something about Thomas’s personally achieved synthesis; the spirit that breathes in his works; the peculiar gifts of mind and expression that belonged to him; the insights he had, which others have not surpassed.

We do, then, want to study Thomas, both to know the truth about things and because of the special quality of Thomas’s works, or rather, the theological genius responsible for them. We are interested in the saint as well as the subject matter; we cannot divide the person who probed reality from the reality he probed. This relationship is a corollary of our belief in the living communion of saints. When we study Thomas properly, we are communicating with him in a manner difficult to put into words. That is why many Thomists I know preface their study of St. Thomas with a prayer to him. It may be no more than a silent “pray for me,” a prayer that places the thinker in the presence of the teacher who lives in eternal life. In this way, studying and teaching Thomas or any great Christian thinker can be a form of prayer, a dialogue that rises above the historical contingencies binding the student to his place and time. When we place ourselves into communion with Thomas, we are necessarily linked to his and our common Teacher, the Word “who enlightens every man that comes into the world.” In a similar vein, Gabriel Marcel writes that “to pray to God is without any question the only way to think of God, or more accurately, a sort of equivalent, raised to a higher power, of the action which would, on a lower plane, be thinking of someone.”[3]

It is difficult for me to find exact words for the notion I have in mind, but it would go something like this: we commit a fundamental act of betrayal when we treat a man or his works as a mere springboard, a set of exercises, a bag of ideas, a toolshed of mental rakes and trowels. There is an inseparable link between a person and his works (a point well developed by Wojtyła in Person and Act), but even more so between the saint and his sanctity, his theology, his life in God.

Thus the second method described above seems to prescind from Thomas the thinker, from all the ideas, books, influences, surroundings, agitations, assignments, and devotions that made him who he was—and thus made his works what they are. The first method, on the other hand, never seems to ask a question or pursue a train of thought for its own sake; in fact, it appears to have a problem exactly contrary to that of the other method, namely, the problem of not being ahistorical and disinterested enough to become wholly absorbed in the matter at stake just because of what it is. And would it not be strange to claim to be studying the “real” Thomas if one did not enter wholeheartedly and passionately into the substance of what he discusses, exactly as he did? In other words, to the extent that Thomas himself was thoroughly transhistorical in his thinking, the most historically accurate appropriation of his legacy is to enter into the transhistorical domain of truth alongside him. A pure historicist could never be a good interpreter of Thomas the truth-lover, just as a pure theorist could never grasp what is contingent about Thomas the 13th-century Dominican.

The first, or historical method, is artificial and, at worst, servile, whereas the second, or theoretical method, can be naive and, when exaggerated, incapable of coming to grips with its materials. The historical attitude risks becoming a lifeless catalog of data, whereas the philosophical stance may shrink into empty disputation, pointless repetition, stony insensibility, and ultimate irrelevance. The historian may degenerate into an historicist, the philosopher into a philosophist.[4] That such degeneration frequently occurs is obvious to all; its prevention, or better, the surmounting of any reductionism, must be among the ends actively willed and worked towards by a Catholic thinker.

We are living in an age acutely conscious of history, which is as much as to say, acutely self-conscious. As thinkers, we have become convinced that our judgments are steeped in temporality and contingency. Marcel expresses this point vividly, if hyperbolically:

Our appreciations of a work of art are always, say what we will to the contrary, affected by the “climate of the age,” they reflect the unconscious general assumptions which we share with our contemporaries during some given period in history; the historically conditioned attitude is something which, for all of us, is quite inescapable; and perhaps we cannot even imagine, without tangling ourselves in contradictions, a dehistoricized attitude in the name of which completely objective judgments, judgments quite untainted by the local, the temporal, the personal, and, in a word, quite free from relativity, could be made about works of art, literature, and philosophy.[5]

We cannot shirk off this consciousness as though it were a stifling garment, not only because it is a powerful and ubiquitous force but, more importantly, because it contains some truth.

How, then, should we bring together history, that is, historical consciousness with all that it implies (for example, with basic honesty and humility, an awareness of the severe limitations of any period or thinker—one cannot expect even the greatest mind or school to have asked all the questions that need to be asked or to have given answers incapable of improvement or development) and the unhistoried act of philosophy which wells up in a soul animated by wonder and the longing for truth? Evidently, we have to aim at a difficult reconciliation: one and the same person needs to be a philosopher (who qua philosopher has no concern with history) and a person attentive to historical context and its lessons, or, to look at it from the other side, a historian (who qua historian is not competent to resolve questions of meaning) awake to philosophical implications and unafraid of drawing them out.

These and other problems are evoked the moment one is told to “study St. Thomas” or “follow St. Thomas as a guide.”[6] One must sort them out and arrive at an intelligent practical solution; one has to choose a line right down the middle and try to hold a steady course against the winds of either extreme. But before all else, one has to be aware of the difficulty. If, for example, a Thomist dismisses secondary scholarship, historical research, and textual criticism, he betrays the very truth he claims to be serving by failing to take advantage of ways in which he could come to understand it more deeply.[7] If a Thomist fails to realize that Thomas can be fully appreciated and thus kept within a living tradition only to the extent that he is consciously read in light of—or better, kept in constant companionship with—the Fathers of the Church and his own medieval contemporaries,[8] then such a one will perpetuate (and unless God intervenes, will even add to) the simplistic positions, peremptory dismissals, shallow appraisals, inadequate categorizations, unintelligible formulations, and unappealing lumps of detached and dessicated scholasticism with which our heritage is loaded, and in so doing will, by an exquisite contradiction, continue to undermine the tradition to which he has dedicated his efforts. St. Thomas only lives to the extent that he is placed into dialogue with the best thinkers of our own time—or at least, to the extent that the study of his work, even when done for the sake of understanding it on its own terms, does not terminate in a kind of literary fetishism which has as its end the preservation of a secret initiatic knowledge. What is needed are men like Josef Pieper and Charles De Koninck, who having become familiar with its fertile richness, can apply Thomas’s thought to contemporary problems and, at the same time, take modern insights and incorporate them positively into the investigation of the perennial questions with which philosophy must be chiefly occupied. As Maritain observes:

Thomism is not a museum piece. No doubt, like other systems of medieval philosophy, indeed, philosophic systems of all ages, it must be studied historically. All the great philosophies, whether of the Middle Ages or any other period, have that in their substance which to an extent triumphs over time. But Thomism does so more completely than any other since it harmonizes and exceeds them all, in a synthesis which transcends all its components. It is relevant to every epoch. It answers modern problems, both theoretical and practical. In the face of contemporary aspirations and perplexities, it displays a power to fashion and emancipate the mind. We therefore look to Thomism at the present day to save: in the speculative order, intellectual values; in the practical order, so far as they can be saved by philosophy, human values. In short, we are concerned not with an archaeological but with a living Thomism. It is our duty to grasp the reality and the requirements of such a philosophy.

This duty gives rise to a double obligation. We must defend the traditional wisdom and the continuity of the philosophia perennis against the prejudices of modern individualism, insofar as it values, seeks, and delights in novelty for its own sake and is interested in a system of thought only insofar as it is a creation of a novel conception of the world. But equally, we must show that this wisdom is eternally young, always inventive, and involves a fundamental need, inherent in its very being, to grow and renew itself. And in so doing we must combat the prejudices of those who would fix it at a particular stage of its development and fail to understand its essentially progressive nature.[9]

Thomism has its timeless side and its time-bound side, just as Thomas has his unparalleled stretches of genius and his occasional weaknesses. Theology neither began nor ended with St. Thomas; even more is this true of philosophy. Too much scholastic learning leads, moreover, to “canned” or “instant” answers, where a person behaves as if, when faced with a given question, he need only select the right package and unwrap the ready-made answer. One is reminded of the way that the Cartesian or Baconian experimenter confronts nature with his calibrated instruments, ready to inject intelligibility furnished by hypothetical ideas, already anticipating the answer to whatever questions he may pose. There is another problem with the type of philosopher at hand: he has far too great a confidence in his own education and reasoning powers, as evidenced by a strong habit of answering quickly without (one is tempted to say) really thinking. He will propose the swift and exhaustive answer, which, in one stroke, destroys not only the question as an opportunity for dialectic wherein the nature of the difficulty as well as different pathways into its resolution are glimpsed, but also all of its wonder and complexity as a question that will always recur.

Anything that is not won with labor, any fruit we taste without having earned a right to its savor, can be a cause of frustration or weariness, whereas that which is purchased with labor is used with greater enjoyment. Attractiveness, whether physical or intellectual, seems to result chiefly from the possibility of disclosing a hidden beauty whose outward contours prepossess us to want to see it naked. That is to say, we have to know that what we see is not all there is, that our sight has only glanced upon the surface; and this awareness of limitation in our knowledge of a thing impels us onward to know it in full, “to penetrate its very core,” as Thomas says when treating of the effects of love.

The origin of philosophy is wonder, and wonder naturally expresses itself in the form of questions, the most important being the “why” or “for what purpose.” Philosophy, then, expresses its origin in the question, it takes its point of departure from questioning and formulating questions. To remain true to its origins, it must never lose sight of the wonder which initially inspired the questions, the restless search for better formulation, the deeper wonder arising from the always partial answers that outline a path to fullness of truth. For philosophy to remain alive, then, it must never “settle” a question in such a way that it becomes impossible to raise the question any longer. The moment that an answer is prepackaged, provided in a bottle, or given as an instant mix, it ceases to respond to the living question and detaches itself both from the activity of philosophizing and from its goal, which is the truth seen through the medium of the question.

The “technique” or treatment of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or unsympathetic. For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. . . . A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.[10]

A question must be invested with personal meaning before an answer can acquire its due importance or significance. The questions make possible the answers; they are the condition for the truth’s appearing. If the questions as real questions are lost, the truth contained in traditional answers is lost as well, replaced with a simulacrum that one can only idolize or ignore—perilous to thought, in either case. The philosophical question is like a good wine in that it must breathe before its full flavor can be tasted. The materials from which the question arises are like the grapes that must be crushed to yield their sweet liquid; and just as this liquid must be allowed to sit and ferment before the wine can be produced, so too the question must have time to ferment, to develop its own potencies, and to work upon itself, before it can acquire the flavor that invites the palate to savor it. The same is true when it comes to proposed answers. An approach to philosophy that makes it consist in a correspondence of formulaic questions and catechetical answers threatens to suffocate the motivating eros of philosophy, the loving exploration that sustains thoughtful inquiry. “Just as the imagination of a form without estimation of fittingness or harmfulness does not move the sensitive appetite, so neither does the apprehension of the true without the aspect of goodness and desirability.” (Ia-IIae qu. 9, art. 1). The wise man tastes what he knows and rejoices in the feast.

Clarity of thought, or getting a purchase on the truth about something, often requires not only distance from the object but removal from the place where one thinks one will find the answers. Instead of reading a treatise on poetry, for example, one will understand its essence better by relishing a large number of good poems and, moreover, listening to a lot of music and taking many walks in the fields and mountains. If one has not explored the thing and its cousins first, one will get nowhere with formal considerations. In like manner, one can understand St. Thomas much better by making forays into Augustine, Gregory, Dionysius, and Bonaventure, and by living (with necessary adjustments) the kind of life he lived; one will return to Thomas with brighter and keener eyes, and discover more riches there than if one had a strictly Thomistic diet. It is in the same spirit that I once recommended to an overly rationalistic friend that he take a “vacation from thinking”; why not spend some time listening to Gregorian chant and Beethoven’s string quartets, or visit museums where you can gaze for hours at Rembrandt portraits?

System-building is among the greatest evils of modern philosophy. It is contrary to the genuine nature of philosophy as one sees it, for example, in Plato, Bonaventure, or Marcel. Thomas himself is not a system-builder because he does not pretend to deduce everything from a handful of first principles. He leans on Scripture; he leans on his predecessors; he leans on natural reason and experience; he leans on dialectic with others. He is not unfolding a predetermined pattern which he finds wrapped up in his own mind, à la Spinoza. The synthesis he produced is designed to be a beginning and admits of perfecting by others, even as it perfected what preceded it. Thomas is a dialogical thinker; anyone who ponders the format of most of his works will appreciate this fact. It is a decisive fact, for it means that we must use Thomas dialogically, as a guide to the truth who wishes to apprentice us in a way of life, as did the desert fathers when young aspiring monks came out eagerly to hear their apothegms. Thomas’s most characteristic activity as a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris was to engage in quaestiones disputatae et quodlibetales, the redactions of which give us a keener appreciation for the role of living speech, dialectical encounter, in Thomas’s thinking; one sees in the format of an actually disputed question, the open-ended nature of scholastic discourse.

That Thomas’s greatest work looked to him like so much straw in comparison with the vision he had been granted on December 6, 1273, does not mean that we should dispense with this masterful “summary of theology,” but rather, that we should study it in such a way as to be straining ever closer to the realities it evokes, realities which infinitely transcend the letter of the text. How absurd it would be to give any student the impression that sacra doctrina begins with the confusion of Scripture but culminates in the clarity of the Summa theologiæ! St. Thomas himself, the magister sacrae paginae, would be shocked to see his own “straw”—useful though it is as a bed on which to lay the Christ-child—taken as the centermost principle of Catholic formation, when in reality this principle is, and shall always be, the Word of God in his written tokens and Eucharistic presence. We are all familiar with Thomas’s admission that he learned more from his crucifix than from all the books he had read; we have heard that he rested his head upon the tabernacle and sought divine help whenever he encountered a difficulty; we know that he celebrated a Mass in the morning and immediately served a second Mass afterwards. Can we say the same—are we imitators of him as he was of Paul, and Paul of Christ? The Church proposes him to us as a model of the holy theologian, and holiness counts a great deal more than knowledge; or rather, knowledge is worthwhile when it is a cause and effect of deification.

In the Summa’s structure of part, treatise, question, article, objections, sed contra, corpus, and responses, I see not a rigid systematization or ossification of inquiry but a Socratic model of amicable confrontation distilled into polished notes, seminae conversationis, condensed dialogues for the student and teacher to consult in common when they wish to open up a problem anew and come to grips with what is at stake in it. Every article is a locus meditationis, which can therefore also function as a principle of true dialogue, since all dialogue presupposes an awareness of participating in truths common to all the speakers or, put differently, speech can become philosophical only to the extent that it evokes and invokes what is truly common to many. The writings of St. Thomas, organized according to scholastic custom, should be considered loci meditationis, readily assimilable and abundantly nourishing, capable of fostering the contemplative act whereby the student rises above the text—rises, in a certain sense, outside his contingent place in the material conversation—into the heart of the problem or mystery being considered; and as this act becomes habitual to him, the student can rise past the problem, can go through the mystery, into the very Heart of Christ, towards whom everything in St. Thomas is ultimately directed.

Philosophy (a fortiori, theology) are endeavors wherein a stable depositum of questions, ranging from the highest universality to the lowest particularity, must be posed again and again, not only to make progress, but more importantly, to return to the sources of thought and life—sources to which man is always in danger of growing numb, of which he can lose sight, from which he often wanders in forgetfulness. “This perpetual beginning again, which may seem scandalous to the scientist or the technician, is an inevitable part of all genuinely philosophical work; and perhaps it reflects in its own order the fresh start of every new awakening and of every birth.”[11]

The need always to “begin anew”—which has nothing to do with the Cartesian artifice of razing the foundations and starting from scratch—stems from the inescapable task of self-criticism, the task of purging dross, reassessing terminology, weighing antitheses, pursuing new insights, and incorporating new givens. The commitment to clarity and precision forces the philosopher to question his own questions and retain an inward distance from his answers. “Let us remember that for the philosopher everything is in some way a trial; how can he fail to be almost overwhelmed by the disconcerting multiplicity of the empiric data which he has to take into account, by the fear of falling into arbitrary simplifications?”[12] In the continual striving for greater breadth and height and depth, he preserves the attitude of beginning anew even when he has gone far into the truth.

For this reason, stubborn attachment to a favored terminology or network of distinctions might actually undermine the meaning of the terms and the legitimacy of the system in use. In one of his unforgettable metaphors, Marcel says that when we adhere to certain expressions or formulae too fixedly, “what I am tempted to call a mental clot is formed, which interrupts the circulation of thought; and it is precisely this circulation of thought which we have to re-establish. I mean that the words, so to say, interpose themselves between me and the thought I am driving at; they get a bogey-like and unwelcome reality of their own; they become an obstacle instead of remaining an instrument.”[13]

Keeping in view St. Thomas’s manner of doing theology and the proper way to approach his indispensable textbook, it is evident why Marcel errs in saying, evidently with Thomists in mind, that

the very structure of duration and of life show[s] that philosophical thought is unfaithful to reality whenever it attempts to proceed from conclusion to conclusion towards a Summa which, in the end, needs only to be expounded and memorised paragraph by paragraph.[14]

If my analysis is correct, St. Thomas, the most famous Summa author of the Church, is not touched at all by Marcel’s complaint. Thomas never attempted to capture the whole of natural reality—much less the infinity of God and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ—by “proceeding from conclusion to conclusion” so as to “sum up” everything that can be known. The fact that he has been presented in this way is a great misfortune whose evil effects we can never too diligently combat. If one bears in mind the kind of students for whom Thomas was writing—young men steeped in the fruits of lectio divina, beneficiaries of a constant encounter with the word of God in prayer, in the divine office, in the sacred liturgy, in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament where the Word escapes its textual prison and comes to us in the flesh—if one bears in mind the life of these young men and is careful to cultivate among modern pupils of St. Thomas a comparable discipline, it will not be difficult to see how much more subtle is the true relationship between a Summa of theology and the life of oratio et labor to which the Christian is called.

In St. Thomas’s mind, there is always something preceding and something succeeding the use of a theology textbook or attendance at a series of lectures; the theologian provides no more than an evanescent middle term between life and thought, experience and reflection. Beforehand there must be the praeparatio of prayer and penance; afterwards, there must be action and contemplation, transcendence and incarnation, a continual circulation from earth to heaven, self to neighbor to God. If there is no prayer and no active charity, the study of theology is perfectly useless, as St. Bonaventure stressed over and over to his Franciscan brethren.


[1] Andreas Speer, “Bonaventure and the Question of a Medieval Philosophy” in Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997): 43.

[2] From a different angle, John Inglis, in his article “Does Aquinas Do Epistemology?” (Journal of Neoplatonic Studies 5.2 [1997]: 29–57), joins a larger movement critical of the once-common effort to separate out independent disciplines, e.g., ontology, epistemology, psychology, from the writings of St. Thomas. The modern university’s division of the sciences has well-nigh destroyed the unity of ancient-medieval thought by failing to apprehend its root cause, the integral vision of “the Catholica,” which resists atomization and automation, the splitting apart and separating off of internally connected goals, methods, and activities.

[3] Being and Having, trans. Katherine Farrer (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 31. The words of Balthasar are even more pointed: “There is no truth except in prayer.” From the letter he sent to his Jesuit confreres in 1950, quoted in de Lubac, Service of the Church, 375.

[4] The historicist also tends to revel in a Walpurgisnacht of scholarly references and cross-references, infinite rounds of commentary and counter-commentary, tome-thick textual apparatuses, much like the brainy deconstructionists who delight to exhibit their linguistic and hermeneutical dexterity. Yet I have always felt suspicious of such pyrotechnical displays. I notice at any rate the great distance that separates a supreme genius like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, or Thomas from the flock of contemporary scholars with their flamboyant academic phylacteries. There is a different feel, having everything to do with the presence or absence of eros for truth and for God. There is something irredeemably empty about any act of analysis or synthesis, however brilliant it may be, when this eros is absent. “Dilettantism treated seriously, and knowledge pursued mechanically, end by becoming pedantry” (Goethe, Maxims, n. 132).

[5] The Mystery of Being, vol. I, 197.

[6] Any attempts to downplay the Magisterium’s clear and oft-repeated recommendations of St. Thomas as the foremost guide in Catholic philosophy and theology are short-sighted, harmful, and in many cases dishonest. Of course, a Catholic thinker need not style himself a Thomist. But someone who is not a Thomist, or who does not wish to be placed into a certain school, does not thereby acquire the right to attack or dismiss St. Thomas. A deep respect for Thomas’s teaching, as well as a consistent and sustained effort to consult his works, is mandated by the Church, even in the period of the Council and the post-Council.

[7] Even the simplest text has a history; and the weightier or older or lengthier the text, the deeper and more complex its history. Take the example of Thomas’s “Treatise on Law.” If you hand it to a beginning philosophy student, he will learn much from it; one can go a long way in the classroom with so rich a segment of the Summa. But consider how we excerpt that treatise and read it in isolation, from a later vantage in history, when tremendous philosophical transformations in law, society, government, nature, have long since occurred. Consider then how, owing to our tendency to isolate passages, the true context of this particular treatise, along with its presuppositions and implications—its bearing on the whole of Thomas’s theology and theory of law—have been forgotten, if not undermined. Much recent scholarship has shown how grievously the fabric of Thomas’s thought has been rent by false divisions and lack of balance, by neoscholastic assumptions and agendas, by undetected modern suppositions. What I have illustrated using the Treatise on Law could be illustrated with any commonly used (and commonly alienated) portion of Thomas’s work. Inglis gives a fine example, the attempt to carve out a formal “epistemology” from the Summa theologiae or the De veritate. To be aware of the historicity of a text also involves an awareness of its “negative history,” the story of its misinterpretations or mishandlings and the way these mistakes have given rise to the wrong questions, the wrong critiques, the wrong appropriations. Reading an old and venerable text is no simple matter after all!

[8] The writings of Josef Pieper exemplify of the kind of approach I have in mind: one thinks especially of his introduction to St. Thomas, his trilogy on the theological virtues, his work on the cardinal virtues, his little book on eschatology, and his remarkable book The Silence of St. Thomas.

[9] From A Preface to Metaphysics.

[10] Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key.

[11] Gabriel Marcel, “An Essay in Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harari (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 125.

[12] Marcel, Mystery of Being, vol. II, Faith & Reality, trans. René Hague (Chicago: Regnery, 1960), 160.

[13] Mystery of Being, vol. 2, 12-13.

[14] Ibid.