As we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican Doctor of the Church, it seems appropriate to reflect on his teaching, in which in particular we recognise his sanctity. First of all, we can marvel at the sheer quantity of writings he left: suffice it to say they occupy several shelves in the library here at Blackfriars! The amount of works St Thomas wrote, and the range of them, gives us a sense of his passion for exploring what we can know about God and for passing on his insights and discoveries to others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the many questions he considers is, in effect, what is the point of all this talking about God? Why do we need doctrine? How is knowing things about God useful?
The answer, which could be seen as a theme running through the whole structure of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, is that the fulfilment of human beings is to be found in something not just beyond ourselves but beyond what we could work out for ourselves: to discover it, and so to attain it, we need not only the conclusions we could come to on our own, but also the truths which God has revealed. In this already we see the amazing fact at the heart not only of doing theology but of our human life itself: God, the Creator of all that exists, is not some remote object for us to consider from afar, but has drawn close to us, revealed himself to us, and in that shown his love for us. In this we find that the purpose of human life, the fulfilment which we need God’s revelation to understand, is nothing other than seeing and knowing God as he really is, in what we call the beatific vision. Thus, in seeking to know God, not only do we learn what he has revealed about our ultimate fulfilment, but already by his grace we have a foretaste of that fulfilment.
All this is amazing enough in itself: as we read the Bible and explore, with the great theologians such as St Thomas, the many implications of what God has revealed, we discover many wondrous truths about God and his love for mankind; and yet, as St Thomas reminds us in the words he spoke after the mystical vision he had at the end of his life, all that he wrote is ‘as straw’ compared with the splendour of the reality which awaits us in the blessed life to which God calls us all.
Saint Augustine of Hippo is an important forebear of the Dominican tradition in which some of us stand. His Rule remains part of the Constitutions to this day, and his influence suffuses the great theologians and spiritual writers of Dominicanism. Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican. So, far from being the rupture with Augustinianism that is often asserted, his thought is wholly within it, and indeed utterly incomprehensible apart from it. Other attempts to affirm the Augustinian vision of all knowledge as divine illumination are not necessarily in opposition to Thomism; rather, under the Magisterium (its own point of reference and correction), it provides their point of reference and correction.
This applies to the entire rational and empirical systems, since, at least in the context of those who devised these systems in Early Modern Europe, the very belief in the possibility of true knowledge by rational or empirical means - indeed, of true knowledge at all - is Augustinian, and indeed Thomist. John Paul the Great, in Fides et Ratio commended at once Thomism in paragraphs 43 and 44, and the works of Newman, Rosmini, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Russians of various stripes alongside Maritain and Gilson in paragraph 74, not to mention engagement with Indian and other non-Western philosophies in paragraph 73.
Alas that Chesterton defines Aquinas against the Christianised Neoplatonism of the Augustinian illuminist tradition, rather than recognising Thomism’s Christianised Aristotelianism as nevertheless belonging within, and greatly enriching, that tradition. Had Chesterton done this, then he would have been quite astonishingly prescient in this as in so many other areas. However, what Chesterton writes about Thomism as the definitive philosophical articulation of the world-view that he shares is of course entirely correct. In Saint Thomas Aquinas (1933), he sets out that “the primary or fundamental Part” of Thomism “or indeed the Catholic Philosophy” is “the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.” Precisely so.
Ora pro nobis.