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Why Saint Thomas Aquinas?

Saint Thomas Aquinas

1) Introduction

Why is Saint Thomas Aquinas a good master we should trust? Right from the start, I insist on repeating what your common sense has already whispered in your ear: "If some day we find a better Philosophy master, we'll have to chuck Saint Thomas in the dumpster!" Thomism is not a superstition, but in my opinion the best philosophical option.

But why "choose a philosophical option"? Why not just be neutral? In a simplified way, because we don't have the choice of making a choice. Starting from the moment we open our mouths to assert anything, historians of Philosophy will "pigeon-hole" us and give us a tag like "Thomist", or "Materialist", or "Idealist", etc. Since we're going to be labeled anyway, let's at least try to choose the best available label!

Here are therefore a few arguments, sorted roughly in increasing order of importance. Let's start with "non-reasons", i.e. the "dirty bathwater of the Thomistic bath" we want to throw away, while keeping our beautiful philosophical baby.

2) The deviations of bad Thomists we have to reject

2.1) Latin fetishism. Bad Thomists, when they are faced with a thorny question, sometimes try to hide their ignorance by whipping out some Latin quote, without translating it into English. If you insist, they'll say something like: "Only Latin can express such a lofty concept". That is false. By the very nature of what a human language is, it can be shown that everything is translatable from one language to another (although not necessarily with the same conciseness). Of course, there is nothing wrong with using technical terms in Latin to increase precision and conciseness of one's text, as long as those terms are explained in English before they are used.

2.2) The rhetoric of sainthood. Bad Thomists often argue by saying things like: "The Angelic Doctor said that...", or "the Angel of the School asserts that...". One must not try to compensate for the lack of a good philosophical argument by an appeal to the holiness of an author.

2.3) The Theologico-Philosophical Hybrid Monster. The method of Theology is good in its proper field, but is worthless in Philosophy. Since Saint Thomas Aquinas is an excellent theologian on top of being an excellent philosopher, bad Thomists use that as a pretext to confuse both methods (something Saint Thomas doesn't do, on the contrary). One must not shoot down a philosophical hypothesis only with a decree of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Catholic orthodoxy watchdog).

2.4) Nostalgia of the past. Bad Thomists are often in love with an idealized past, and reject with hostility everything modern. This is even funnier if you consider that if Saint Thomas came back here and now, he would dive into science books with glee (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.), and jump on the books by our contemporary  philosophers to extract all the good from them, and refute their errors.

3) Arguments based on other people's opinions

3.1) Saint Thomas has produced disciples, and continues to do so. Of course, in theory you could be a good philosopher, while being ignored by all. But it is far more probable that if you are an excellent philosopher, some people are going to admire you, during your lifetime, and after your death. Moreover, your disciples will not feel forced to fix everything you have said!

3.2) The Church's Magisterium has Saint Thomas in high esteem. Of course, this argument doesn't have much strength for non-Catholics, but for Catholics, it's another clue. See among others "Saint Thomas Aquinas, Common Doctor of the Church".

4) Arguments based on the personal life of Saint Thomas

4.1) Saint Thomas dedicated his whole life to Philosophy and Theology. You can be a good part-time philosopher, but normally if you do it full-time you'll run the chance of being better.

4.2) Unpaid. Just like Socrates, the Father of Philosophy, Saint Thomas worked for free, for the love of wisdom.

4.3) Holy. We know by personal experience that "the moral virtues, whereby the passions are harnessed, are very important for the acquisition of science". But, as his name implies, Saint Thomas lived so well that he was canonized.

5) Arguments based on Saint Thomas' writing style

5.1) He doesn't put himself in the forefront. Saint Thomas rarely speaks of himself in his works. He is interested in truth, not his ego.

5.2) Serene tone of voice. Saint Thomas is neither arrogant nor subservient. Some bad Thomists of the first part of the twentieth century talk as if everything they said was the truth of the Gospel. Other more recent bad Thomists almost beg forgiveness when they assert truths (when they actually dare assert anything!). Saint Thomas asserts calmly, and he asserts because he has good reasons to do so, which he can show you. If he doesn't have good reasons, he doesn't assert, or explicitly mentions that his assertion is only probable.

5.3) No rhetoric. Bad philosophers often use the rhetorical trick which can be called: "The Emperor's New Cloths". They assert, then instead of proving their assertion, they throw sentences like: "This proof is so decisive that no loyal mind can escape from it", or "you would have to be stupid not to see this is true", etc. Saint Thomas knew how to defend himself verbally (he wrote some polemic texts), but apart from those works, he avoids rhetoric.

5.4) No empty words. Thinking about complex questions requires a lot of care. A clue that a philosopher is careful is that he avoids empty words. For example, he won't say "the air filter is the entity which prevents debris from entering the motor", but he'll say "the air filter is that which prevents...".

5.5) Simplicity. As opposed to many bad modern philosophers, Saint Thomas uses words that are as simple as possible to explain complex things. Some people say he speaks "dog Latin", because they don't understand he uses a technical language, not a poetic one. Imagine a technical writer for a lawnmower's maintenance manual who would write: "When the oxidizing inspirations are throttled by the undesirable accretions, swap the ancient papyrus bellows". What you need to say is: "When the air filter is clogged, change it".

5.6) Logical discourse. It's easy to say: "One must be logical when one writes", but it's not that easy! The more we study Logic (formal logic, material logic, induction, deduction, syllogisms, etc.), the more we realize that Saint Thomas Aquinas has a pretty strict discourse.

5.7) Well-structured books. "It is proper to the wise person to set things in order", and the books of Saint Thomas shine forth with order. Whether it's from the general to the specific, the essential to the accessory, the cause to the effects, etc., there is always order in what he says. Another clue is the ease with which the table of contents of many of his books can be memorized (at least partially).

5.8) A question-centric approach. To have an open mind, you've got to "open" some questions!

5.9) The quest for the cause. Before solving a question, Saint Thomas asked "But Why?", and probably more than once. This can be seen for example in the usual flow of articles in the Summa Theologica, since he starts with principles, and often first principles.

6) Arguments based on the philosophical positions of Saint Thomas

Strictly speaking, I can't present here true arguments based on the philosophical positions of Saint Thomas Aquinas, since I'd need several thousand pages, many years of study, and skills I just don't have. To have the evidence of the high quality of Saint Thomas' positions, you need to study the History of Philosophy in order to observe up to what point it's easy to totally mess up. Then you have to study the works of Saint Thomas to observe up to what point he is a good philosopher because he avoids those pitfalls. What follows is therefore only a few of my impressions, following some investigations.

6.1) Superior point of view. As Sébastien L. says: "Other philosophers insist all, to various degrees, on a specific region of being, and hence have only a partial view of reality. Saint Thomas' philosophy embraces being itself, and can thus know reality in all its depth and diversity."

6.2) The Thomistic vocabulary is rich, clear and relatively popular. Bad philosophers have the nasty habit of inventing their own private little language. Of course, an innovative philosopher will need to invent a few new words to talk about his discoveries, but by and large, the terminological pandemonium of philosophers is entirely unnecessary. The Thomistic technical vocabulary is rich, its terms are clearly defined, and it's perhaps the oldest as well as the most common in Philosophy.

6.3) Consistency with common sense. Thomism is not based on raw common sense (as opposed to the Scottish School with Thomas Reid), but his conclusions are consistent with the purified notions of common sense. Compare that with some bad philosophers who, after a long and obscure line of thought, conclude that reality doesn't exist, or some other baloney.

6.4) Balanced positions. When studying the History of Philosophy, one realizes that often (always?) truth is somewhere between and above extreme positions. Saint Thomas has a knack for avoiding extremes, but he also avoids dumb mixtures of contradictory positions, because he rises to a position which reconciles the partial truths in each position.

6.5) Logic. These days, there is much confusion concerning the value and the place to be assigned to the various sciences. Saint Thomas distinguishes the various sciences, assigns to them their place in the hierarchy of knowledge, and presents several rules to proceed in the sciences.

6.6) Ontology. The main positions on being compose what you could call the framework of Thomism. You can think of the basic division of being into pure act, or a mixture of act and potency, or the analogy of being, or the distinctions between essence and existence, substance and accidents, matter and form. It's hard to summarize in one sentence the immense importance of this robust and consistent ontology. Well, you can always go see the mess that occurs in other philosophical systems which don't embrace this ontology!

6.7) Criteriology. Given the current state of Philosophy, it seems difficult to give too much importance to a good criteriology (that part of Philosophy which seeks to answer the question: "Can we know if we possess truth?"). The slightest mistake in this area, and the mind sinks into skepticism, or dogmatism, or another fundamental error, dragging down with it all of Philosophy. Even if Saint Thomas didn't directly write about this topic, some of his best disciples (Cardinal Mercier, Maritain, Tonquédec, Thonnard, etc.) have given a balanced solution to this problem, by using Thomistic principles.

6.8) Ethics. Here again there is much confusion these days. Some deny human free will, other grant to human conscience God-like powers to create good and evil, etc. Saint Thomas on the other hand builds on the rock of the Philosophy of Nature and Theodicy, and presents Ethics which are balanced yet firm, respectful of human nature and of facts, and oriented toward true happiness.

Etc., etc...

7) Conclusion

I absolutely don't swear by Saint Thomas Aquinas! (I swear by God, and only when necessary). On the other hand, given the current state of my philosophical investigations, Saint Thomas appears to be the best guide.

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