Thomas Aquinas and Metaphysics

I’ve been doing posts on Thomas Aquinas, his life and contribution to the church. In this last post, I want to consider Thomas’ metaphysics. McInerny defines metaphysics as the “study [of] being as being, that is, whatever is just insofar as it is a being”.[1] This topic of being is quite obviously vast, and could consider humans, angels, matter, immaterial things, God, et al. For this reason, in this post, I want to try and consolidate Thomas’ teachings on metaphysics to the broadest categories. I want to consider where being originates.

Thomas followed the great Greek thinkers when considering metaphysics, especially Aristotle. Feser explains that during Aristotle’s time, a philosopher named Parmenides said that,

[C]hange [in being] is impossible. For a being could change only if caused to do so by something other than it. Hence, though the senses and common sense tell us that change occurs all the time, the intellect…reveals to us that they are flatly mistaken.[2]

Parmenides assumed that if there were a source of all being, it would have to be non-being, which of course is nothing. Aristotle strongly disagreed with Parmenides’ arguments. He contended instead that it was simply plain that everything could potentially change. He argued for this by making a distinction between what he called act and potency. By this he meant that everything has an act (what it actually is) and potency (potential to become something else). Thomas took this language and, while agreeing with Aristotle, argued that while everything has act and potency, nothing can simply actualize its own change. There must be something outside of it, moving or causing it to change. Feser explains:

An additional, external factor is required [to create change]. [Nothing can] actualize itself…As Aquinas says, “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act”. This is the foundation of the famous Aristotelian-Thomistic principle that “whatever is moved is moved by another”[3]

Put another way, nothing in this universe becomes anything in and of itself. It is always caused by the something outside of itself. Or thinking of it another way, there is a great something outside of everything that actualizes all things.

Thomas continued in this line of argument by attributing this something outside of everything as God himself. God himself is the great thing that actualizes everything, but is himself not actualized. Thomas went on to clarify that when anyone attempts to attribute existence to something outside of it, that person is speaking, purposefully or not, of God. Here one arrives at Thomas’ great metaphysical teaching: God is being itself. Taylor Marshall explains:

There must be a “greatest” when it comes to “being” or “existence”. The greatest way of existing would be existence itself, and this we call “God”… God is being Himself. God is not caused or created, he just is. According to Thomas Aquinas, God is existence and everything else exists in God.[4]

So then God is being itself, and everything finds its source or cause from him. Aquinas confirmed this truth from the Exodus account of God’s name: I AM WHO I AM. God’s very nature is being itself. Or, put another way, God’s existence is his essence. Thomas famously called God “esse essentia” , Latin for existence is essence.

Based on this truth, Thomas explains that everything else finds its being in and cause from God. He is that great cause which actualizes everything. Taylor Marshall says that “God is existence in itself and…humans only participate in God’s existence”.[5] In this way then, God is the only being whose essence is existence itself. All other things have an essence, or nature, which owes its existence to God. Mankind has a human nature, which finds its source in God. Animals have their own natures, which owe their existence to God, and so on. To understand this teaching, one might think of Paul’s great sermon at Mars Hill in Acts 17:28. Paul says of mankind, that “in God we live and move and have our being”. This is at the basic level what Thomas is teaching: God is the uncreated source of all being.

Thomas went on to use this metaphysic to argue his famous five ways for proving God’s existence. He called the first the “argument from motion”, or change. The essential argument is that there are things that are in motion, and are changing and morphing. One may ask: from whence does this motion originate? Motion originates of course from something that causes it from the outside. However, there must be some ultimate cause, which is itself unmoved: Thomas argues this must be God. Thomas will go on to give four other arguments that logically proceed from the first. It was his opinion that this metaphysic demanded God, because he the source of all being itself.

[1] Ralph McInerny, Aquinas, 76

[2] Edward Feser, Aquinas, 9

[3] Ibid, 11

[4] Taylor Marshall, Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 26

[5] Ibid, 27

Thomas Aquinas and the Two Truth Theory

Greek philosopher Aristotle

As I said in my last post, I am doing work on the life and theology of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. I wanted to take excerpts from a paper I’m writing, and develop them for the ole’ blog. In these next two posts I’m going to consider Thomas’ theological and philosophical contributions to the church. In this post, I want to look at what is known as the “two-truth theory”, and how Aquinas helped save the place of secular philosophy in the Christian university.

As I said in my last post, during Thomas’ years as a teacher in Paris, he was involved in a controversy with a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists. Averroist philosophers espoused what is commonly called the “two-truth theory”.

McInerny explains what this theory means:

[The Averroists] were masters in the faculty of arts to whom the infamous “two truth” theory is attributed. That is, what they seemed to be saying is that something can be true in philosophy and false in theology, and vice versa. As Aristotelians, as philosophers, they accepted the cogency of positions which were in conflict with their presumed Christian beliefs… The eternality of the world is a philosophical truth, its non-eternality is a truth of faith.[1]

The Averroists believed that the two disciplines of philosophy and theology could be in contradiction to one another. It can be philosophically true that the universe is eternal, while being theologically true that the universe is created by God. Beyond this teaching, the Averroists taught Aristotle erroneously. They misread and misinterpreted several of his works, which is why they were considered to be heterodox in their teaching.

Thomas, who was himself an Aristotelian, had been lumped into the Averroist group by his opponents, which forced him to write a response to the Averroists. Thomas’ response was both important and timely, especially considering the fact that the university in Paris was already apprehensive to pagan philosophy — this only exacerbated the problem.

Thomas replied by arguing that the two-truth theory violated the “fundamental law of thinking, the principle of contradiction, -(p. – p)”.[2] In other words, the universe is either eternal or it is not. It cannot be both. By making this argument, Thomas contended that philosophy and theology did not contradict one another. Rather, they fit together.

In addition to that, Thomas also made another important argument, namely that Aristotle taught only what his human mind could understand unaided by divine revelation. In making this argument, Thomas made an important distinction between philosophy and theology: philosophy is the study of what can be observed by the natural senses, unaided by grace; theology, on the other hand, is the study of what is supernaturally revealed by God. Both are legitimate sciences, and should never contradict; but they are not the same.

McInerny explains, saying:

Revelation is over and above what man’s natural endowments can attain; Aristotle thus becomes the privileged representative of what man can know using only his natural powers. A truism of the relation between the two orders is that the supernatural presupposes and does not destroy the natural”.[3]

It was an assumption during Thomas’ time (and is still today!) that divine revelation can and does contradict the secular sciences. Moreover, it was feared that by using philosophy, one would be led astray into paganism. However, what Aquinas argued was that they go together, like a hand in a glove. Aristotle, through natural observation, discovered many important truths; however he could only go so far without the aid of divine revelation.

Taylor Marshal explains this point further:

For Thomas, philosophy was the “handmaiden” of theology. This means that the power of reason and the truths known through reason are able to aid and assist men in theology. The key to understanding Thomas Aquinas is seeing philosophy and theology as distinct but not unrelated. For example, Thomas holds that a pagan person living on an island in the middle of nowhere can know the truth that God exists…[However,] Thomas also holds that there are truths that can never be known by reason alone. It is revealed truth. [For instance], he grants that the Trinity cannot be known by reason alone…[4]

So theology and philosophy are complementary, yet distinct. Looking at biblical texts like Romans 1, this makes complete sense. Anyone can look at creation, and understand that God exists. Yet it is impossible to understand the hypostatic union without special revelation.

It was based on these principles that Thomas attempted to synthesize much of Aristotle with Christian theology. He truly believed that philosophy, when done rightly, was not in contradiction to theology; that it was not to be pitted against divine revelation. Rather, when placed together rightly, they would compliment one another. Because both the secular and sacred, both philosophy and theology, ultimately come from God!

“The heavens declare the glory of God!” (Psalm 19:1)

[1] Ralph McInerny, Aquinas, 21

[2] Ibid, 21

[3] Ibid, 32

[4] Taylor Marshal, Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 8-9

Thomas Aquinas: His Life and Contribution

I am studying the life and works of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. So I figured I would do a few posts on Aquinas’ life and works. In this post I want to consider Thomas Aquinas’ life and contribution to the church.

First, who was Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was born in the 13th century, in 1225, near the town of Aquino — hence he was named Thomas of Aquino, or Aquinas. Aquinas was born into a wealthy royal family. Taylor Marshall tells us,

His father was the Count of Aquino and his mother was the Countess of Theate. This noble bloodline related Thomas to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire — a dynasty that includes the infamous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. (Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 3)

We also know that one of Aquinas’ relatives was the Roman Emperor. Because of his noble birth, his parents had planned to make him Abbot over the monastery in Monte Cassino. Marshall tells us that this monastic house was considered “the motherhouse of medieval monasticism…To be the Abbot of Monte Cassino was to reign as a prince” (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 3).

In 1230, Aquinas’ parents sent him to the same monastery for education; however, during his teenage years, his parents were forced to relocate him due to war in the surrounding region. His parents sent him away to the University of Naples. It was during this time that Aquinas came under the influence of men who would change his direction in life forever. Taylor Marshall explains:

As a student in Naples, the young Thomas fell under the influence of an inspired preacher by the name of John of Saint Julian. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new order of religious that did not identify themselves as “monks”, but rather as “brothers” or “friars”. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new movement, considered fanatical by some, known as the Order of the Preachers or “Dominicans”…This Order of Preachers was simply…a brotherhood of itinerant preachers who went from town to town, often barefoot and begging for food. They slept in fields, barns, or wherever they were allowed. Unlike Benedict Abbot of Monte Cassino, who rode stately horses and wre jewels and silk, the Dominicans lived a radical life of poverty and preaching. This life of penance appealed to the young Thomas, to the shock of his parents (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 4)

It was this influence that led Thomas to denounce his calling to be Abbot. Instead, Thomas would live in poverty, a beggar and traveling preacher — he would be a Dominican Friar! To be a Dominican, one would swear himself to poverty, to literally be a “dog for the Lord”, which is what Dominican means in Latin (Domini canes). At age 19, in 1244, he joined the order, and journeyed north to Rome to start his studies.

His family, however, would not have it. During his trip, his own brothers (at the request of his mother) kidnapped him and locked him in their castle in Monte San Giovanni Campano. This “house arrest” lasted for one year; and during this time, his mother and brothers attempted to dissuade him from joining the friars.

Feser comments on this time:

In hope of getting him to change his mind, his brothers abducted him and put him under house arrest at the family castle… for about a year, though he spent time committing to memory the entire Bible and four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Notoriously, they even went to the extent of sending a prostitute into his room on one occasion, but he chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterward to make a sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord. Eventually his brothers relented and he was allowed to return to the Dominicans (Aquinas, 3-4)

After being released in 1245, Thomas’ order assigned him to the university in Paris where he would study theology under Albert the Great. It was during this time that Thomas Aquinas was given the name “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his large, yet quiet stature. GK Chesterton tells us this of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness… [He] was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools in which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce (Dumb Ox, 4)

Understandably, it was because of this trait that Thomas struggled to integrate with his fellow students. Feser tells us that during those years, Albert the Great, seeing Aquinas’ great intellect, warned his class that “the Ox’s ‘bellowing’ would someday be heard throughout the world” (ibid, 4). How right he was!

It was also during this time under Albert, that Aquinas was greatly influenced by Aristotle. And while Thomas loved Aristotle, the university was quite apprehensive to philosophy. In fact, in order to study him, Aquinas had to take an extra “track” at the university, because philosophy was considered a “secular” subject rather than theological.

After graduating with a masters, Thomas Aquinas went on to teach in the university in Paris and in other Dominican houses for the next 13 years (1259-72). We are told by Ralph McInerny, that it was customary for Dominican masters to teach for a three year segment in the formal university, and then move on to teach in houses of the Dominican Orders. However, because of Thomas’ great intellect, he was invited to teach a second three-year stint (McInerny, Aquinas, 16-23).

During Aquinas’ second stint teaching in the university of Paris, a controversy arose over the place of Aristotle and pagan philosophy in the church: a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists espoused a theory called the “two truth” theory, which argued that something could be true philosophically that is not true theologically — hence, two types of “truth”. Aquinas argued against this position, seeing the inherent danger. He ultimately argued that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be philosophical, theological, or scientific. I will take up this topic in another post.

Thomas Aquinas was an avid writer. In fact, McInerny tells us that “Thomas’ output during…[his] years in Paris seems scarcely credible” (ibid, 23). To write faster, McInerny tells us that Thomas would write in shorthand. McInery explains:

A feature of Thomas’ manuscripts is the obvious haste with which they were written, in shorthand Latin, in a scrawl which led to calling a text of Thomas litera inintellgibilis, unreadable writing. Eventually he would be assigned secretaries, among them Reginald of Piperno, who took down Thomas dictation, a process which doubtless increased his productivity. (ibid, 18)

Thomas wrote many works under this method, with his most important being the unfinished Summa Theologica, which he began in 1265.

After his time in Paris was finished, in 1272, he returned to Naples and lived in the Dominican house there. McInerny tells us that it was during this time that Thomas did something strange: he stopped writing altogether. McInerny explains:

On December 6, 1273, Thomas decided to stop writing. Some biographers conjecture that he had a kind of mental breakdown. But it was a mystical experience that silenced Thomas. After what he had seen, he told Reginald (his secretary), everything he had written seemed mere straw. He could not bring himself to complete the Summa (ibid, 25).

Apparently a heavenly vision halted Thomas’ writing. Thomas never spoke of the details of what he saw, but the magnificence of it made his writings seem inadequate. Fortunately, some of Thomas’ disciples supplemented his incomplete Summa with other commentaries of his after his death. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was summoned to a council in Lyons in 1274. While on his way to that council, he hit his head on a branch, and died soon after from complications on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 years old when he died.

What was Aquinas’ greatest contribution to the church? GK Chesterton is helpful with this question: he says simply that Thomas “reconciled Aristotle with Christ” (Dumb Ox, 8). What he means is that Thomas Aquinas synthesized philosophy with Christianity. Many Christians then (and today) did not believe that reason and philosophy could be trusted or reconciled with the Christian worldview. However, Thomas argued that this was not the case.

Chesterton goes on to explain:

Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were windows to the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies…It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted (ibid, 11)

Faith and reason, in other words, were what Thomas labored to reconcile. We will go on in later posts to examine just what that means.