Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Historical Tidbit: My Explanation of Aquinas

I give this to my humanities students to explain Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas’ philosophical work, as shown in the lengthy book Summa Theologica, is very complicated but is often attributed with making the change in the intellectual world from the medieval way of thinking to the modern way of thinking. We have to understand that up to this time there was a generally Platonic, dualistic view of the world. Spiritual things (heaven, Bible, prayer, asceticism) were good, and physical things (the body, government, secular learning) were, not so much bad, as potentially anti-good—that is, they could get in the way of the spiritual, which is what really mattered. Beyond that, Aquinas’ philosophical school was called Scholasticism; it involved epistemology (how we know truth and learn it) and influenced education for centuries and theology until the 16th century and John Calvin.

As the text (Cunningham and Reich, Culture and Values) says on p. 228: “For Aquinas, reason finds truth when it sees evidence of truth. The mind judges something true when it has observed a sufficient number of facts to compel it to make that judgment.” (This in itself is revolutionary, since faith was considered the preferable way to learn and process the world.) “The mind gives assent to truth on the basis of evidence. Aquinas was convinced that there was a sufficient amount of observable (physical) evidence in the world to conclude the existence of God. He proposed five arguments in support of such a position . . Thus for Aquinas there is an organic relationship between reason and revelation.” As p. 232 says, “’Nothing comes to the mind except through the senses’ is a basic axiom for Aquinas.”

In proposing that physical evidence pointed to the existence of God (which is actually argued in Romans 1 by Paul), and in other arguments he makes in Summa, Aquinas is now saying that the physical world is good, not bad or potentially anti-good; he is thereby dismissing dualism. In a practical way he is saying to his contemporaries, “You want to serve God with your spirit. But your spirit is in a body. When you pray, you kneel, you use your mouth, your voice—your body is part of the process. When you read the Bible, you are using your eyes, etc. Instead of seeing a split between the physical and spiritual, you should see the holism of the two.” In so doing, he has validated the physical world, its study, and its goodness, and has banished the dualistic idea that the physical world and the body are somehow “bad” or “evil.”

The text states he derived his ideas from Aristotle. If you go back to the lecture on the Greeks, you will remember the distinction between Plato and Aristotle. Plato didn’t deny the existence of the physical world, but said it was less than the spiritual (the real Real), just a shadow, and we needed to be freed from the physical world to know “true truth,” or the “real Real,” so to speak. Aristotle said no, the Reality (the form) is in the material object; they are unified. So Augustine, from around 400 CE, is considered Platonic (although that is not entirely accurate), and Aquinas is considered Aristotelian.

Aristotle also proposed a sort of chain of being from the rock up to the angels; so did Aquinas. Notice, too, that Aquinas and Aristotle both wrote on many different subject areas. “That a person would speak on psychology, physics, politics, theology, and philosophy with equal authority would strike us as presumptuous, just as any building decorated with symbols from the classics, astrology, the Bible and scenes from everyday life would now be considered a hodgepodge. Such was not the case in the 13th century, because it was assumed that everything ultimately pointed to God” (p. 230).

Furthermore, you should read the section on Francis of Assisi for your own enjoyment; I will not ask anything about him on the tests, but the authors do make a case for his historical importance. Neither will I test you on Dante, but you should understand that he wrote The Divine Comedy (using the traditional idea of comedy as a work with a happy ending) and that it performs the same function in literature that Aquinas did in philosophy and the cathedral did in architecture: to include, complexly and almost encyclopedically, all that is the medieval period within one work, and to use the physical world to point to God.

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