As we may have said once or twice in the past, one of our favorite blog postings to write is the one that we don’t have to write. The second most favorite is the one that we can lift from something else we’ve written, tailor it a bit to fit circumstances, and post it. Third is where we answer a question. Today we have the last.
Last week, we got a question on FaceBook:
Can I ask a great favor? You mention Thomist and Thomism a bit. Please describe in some format what exactly Thomism is? Many of us are not philosophical. I mean I heard of Thomas Aquinas mainly from the late Evangelical Pastor Ravi Zacharias. But, that was on occasion and many years ago. Now that I am Orthodox, [I see that] Orthodox thought on Aquinas can vary from ummm to outright dismissive. I understand you are trying to get the Roman Catholic faithful to get better understanding but, for us non Roman Catholics it can be a struggle.
We’re trying to reach not just Catholics, but everyone interested in basic natural law theory, including pagans, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, you name it. We just happen to know more about things from the Catholic perspective. So here goes.
To oversimplify more than a bit, Thomism is the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, which is essentially that of Aristotle with corrections. It’s a bit much to say that Aquinas “baptized” Aristotle as some do. What Aquinas did was adjust Aristotle’s thought to conform more closely to the Christian understanding of reality, especially as seen in natural law.
Since Aristotle based his philosophy on reason (as did Aquinas), the first principle of reason is of paramount importance. This can be stated in two ways, one “positive” and the other “negative”:
• Positive: That which is true is as true and is true in the same way as everything else that is true.
• Negative: Nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.
As Aquinas begins the Summa Theologica, and which was declared infallibly true during the First Vatican Council, what this means ultimately is that neither faith nor reason can contradict each other. If they appear to do so, there is an error either in your faith or your reason that must be corrected and resolved. Thus, while faith remains above reason, it cannot go against reason, any more than what is discerned by reason (assuming it is correct) cannot contradict faith.
Consequently, and absolutely speaking, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law written in the heart of all human beings may be known by the force and light of human reason alone. We can therefore accept what we are taught by faith concerning natural law as long as we acknowledge the primacy of reason in matters pertaining to natural law; we cannot go by a new interpretation based not on reason, but on someone’s faith in something they accept as God’s Will.
Now comes a difficulty for many people. What the Catholic Church teaches is that knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law can be proved by human reason . . . not that it has been.
That’s right. Proof of God’s existence and of the natural law is a matter of science, not faith or morals. The only thing the Church teaches infallibly about proof of God’s existence is that it can be done, not that any particular proof is correct.
For the record, we happen to think that Aquinas’s five proofs of God’s existence are proof enough, but Mortimer Adler didn’t think so. That’s fine. You can still be a Catholic or anything else you want and not accept any particular proof, as long as you admit that it is susceptible to proof.
What can help in understanding Aquinas is G.K. Chesterton’s book on Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933). Chesterton doesn’t teach you Thomism, but an understanding of how to understand Thomism, if that makes sense. That’s why Étienne Gilson said it was the best book on Aquinas ever written . . . which may be a bit of hyperbole, but it gets the point across. As we note in the video on Chesterton, his goal was to counter the new things of socialism, modernism, and esotericism, and his major works after he became Catholic were all directed to that end.