Friday, January 28, 2011
Festa Dies, Doctor Angelicus
The Dominican friar from Italy was born in 1225 at his family's castle near Aquino. His life-- spent in service to God through his study of sacred and natural truths-- came to an abrupt end in 1274 when he was en route to the Second Council of Lyon. Most who would even dare to read the literary and cultural forays on this site no doubt are familiar with the life and virtues of St. Thomas, as such, it seems rather trite for me to go about offering a biography when Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. has done a finer job than I could ever do.
I suppose then that my task here is to take the great legacy of the Doctor Communis and move forward with it--both in terms of progressing individually in intellect and virtue, and in advancing the greater common good through knowledge of the truth. Culturally speaking, St. Thomas's philosophy is more than a mere source for metaphysical discussions that have no apparent practical import; rather, his thought is a source of metaphysical principles that help to order the mind and society. The axiom "good theory begets good practise" comes to mind here. Though we shouldn't be quick to judge any particular set of principles solely on the practical import it has. For example, it would be quite incorrect (and hasty) to assert that because person x is a murderer, and person x studied scholastic philosophy that scholastic philosophy leads to the generation of murderers. There are undoubtedly many facets involved in the generation of a murderer, but we would be false in thinking that scholastic philosophy is necessarily the tipping point.
Good theory is in itself good-- and should be valued precisely because of its goodness. A holy monk or nun who does God's work by contemplation and prayer with each passing day and night does just as much good work as someone assisting the poor by acts of corporeal service. Both are different, yet both are good in themselves. St. Thomas, while known for his practical philosophy (ius naturale, amongst others), is highly regarded for his metaphysical philosophy, which was perhaps largely the result of reconciling St. Augustine's theological system with Aristotle's system of natural philosophy.
Like I said, many reasons to celebrate today.
From a more practical side, however, St. Thomas offers some of the most inspiring thought on the virtues-- in essence his psychological treatises-- which never cease to occupy much of my thought, especially when I consider how I acted in any given moment and how I need to change or do better. Virtues, as Aristotle said, are habits. Indeed, when we look at how we act, we can not but help noticing that the good people in our lives are those who often times make it seem easy to be good. When you think of that Uncle or Grandmother who always seems to be above everything, and always charitable and hopeful, it seems like being good is as easy as simply willing it. To some extent it is that easy, but we know after reading the Nicomachean Ethics that being good-- or having an excellence about us-- is the repetition of a particular action in tandem with seeing others do the same. Goodness and virtue can be in born, but for most of us they are the products of hard work, careful introspection...and much criticism.
For the import of culture-- one of the essential matrices-- St. Thomas acts as an underpinning to the co-existence and complementarity between faith and reason. St. Thomas finds the healthy agreement that exists between a reasonable faith and a believing reason. Étienne Gilson discussed this fitting together of two supposedly improbable puzzle pieces in his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. While Gilson poses the wide variety of responses to the question of how reason and revelation work together, from Tertullian to St. Bonaventure and Averroes, we are presented ultimately with the figure of St. Thomas who acts as the foundation to a proper understanding of the interrelation between faith and reason.
Given our contemporaries' fixation on the animosity between the two, St. Thomas is a wonderful source for guidance on the purely Catholic view that reason without faith is hopeless, and faith without reason is dead. When we abstract faith and act as though reason is an enemy, we are taking away from ourselves an angle and a lens through which we can more clearly see our religion and experience the God Who from the beginning endowed us with the precious ability to think and abstract-- to ponder, wonder, feel, express, and ultimately love.
St. Thomas should be a paragon for our vision of the world: as a place full of wonder and mystery; as an unfolding before our eyes of the Love of God Who not only gave His only Son for our redemption, but the beauty of the cosmos for our enjoyment, for our virtue-- one another for manifestations of His Love-- and all that is for the exhilaration of simple joy that comes from knowing the truth of things.