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Reading Great Books: Aquinas, History, And Pluralism

April 24, 2007

I make it a point to always be reading for enjoyment outside of history. I love history, of course, but one is compelled to try and be well-rounded. For my outside reading, I try to have books of philosophy, fiction, and biography in progress. Generally I have 4-5 books going at once.

Right now I’m reading Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica, Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. Menand’s work is a rare instance where work and pleasure are at one, for me at least. Tale of Two Cities is my bedtime reading: the rate of reading for it is about 5-10 pages a day. I know a lot of folks read that either in high school or college, but for some reason it was never assigned to me.

On deck for pleasure and work reading are George Weigel’s A Witness to Hope, Tobias George Smallett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Lawrence Cremin’s American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980, and Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities. I’m also looking forward, at some point, to continuing my reading of the Aubrey/Maturin series. I think book 11 is up next.

For “work” I’m reading David J. Blacker’s Democratic Education Stretched Thin: How Complexity Challenges a Liberal Ideal. I hope to be able to write a review of Blacker’s book for the USIH weblog next month.

I think it’s clear that I have a fetish for large, somewhat overwhelming books, as well as those with some stamp of greatness on them. For better or for worse, I seem to have an “older is better” philosophy of selection.

This brings me back to Aquinas. I’ve been reading his Summa Theologica on and off for years. I first read a paperback, abbreviated version of some Summa questions, from larger work’s Part I, back in the mid-1990s. I also took a class at Loyola that dealt exclusively with the Summa Contra Gentiles around 2000-01. I resumed reading the Summa Theologica, however, about three years ago. Ideally I would like to read a few articles under each question each day. That goal is rarely met.

Today, however, I was able to read two articles, one of which contained a few points of interest to today’s readers. One passage in the relevant article dealt with knowledge and history, and another passage – to my great surprise – implicitly addressed multiculturalism.

Here is the relevant article’s “Utrum,” or opening question: “Does God know things other than Himself by proper [particular] knowledge?”

Of course you can see, from a Christian point of view, why the answer to this is important. Does the God of Abraham, that terrible, thunderous, distant, judgmental God really acknowledge the existence of particular, unique, human beings? If the answer is NO, then – for Christians – their God moves to the plane of watchmaker, and their religion toward Deism. Of course, then, Aquinas’ answer to the Utrum will be in the affirmative.

But buried in his answer to this question are two larger, philosophical principles that one can bring forward to today. [Aside: This is the case with all of Aquinas’ questions that, on the surface, deal with “God’s existence.” Almost all of them contain important points relevant to the practice of the philosophy. It’s one of the secrets to reading the Summa.]

The first point, applicable to history, reads as follows: “To know a thing in general and not in particular is to have an imperfect knowledge of it. Hence our intellect, when it is reduced from potency to act, acquires first a universal and confused knowledge of things, before it has a proper [particular] knowledge of them, as proceeding from the imperfect to the perfect, as is clear from [Aristotle’s] Physics.” [Summa, I.14.6]

If we can temporarily put aside our ignorance of Aquinas and other medieval philosophers’ use of the metaphysical principles of “potency” and “act,” we can still take something away from this passage.

The quote above demonstrates a kind of philosophical realism inherent in Aquinas’ thinking. His realism points to one’s knowledge being incomplete if it has no connection to particulars. History, however, helps one make those particular connections. History helps one’s knowledge move from generalities (even “universals”), imperfect on their own, to a complete knowledge that is replete with particular instances. If our knowledge is limited to universals and generalities, then our state of knowing is “confused.”

This remarkable passage also points to Aquinas’ evident belief of the inadequacy of only deductive or a priori thinking. To be truly knowledgeable, one must be able to work from the ground up, inductively, from particulars to generalities. The point is that particularities (history’s strength) matter to Aquinas. Real knowledge is a compromise between principles and facts.

As historians and teachers, we can impress upon students (and other historians) that even a philosopher as abstract as Aquinas believed that knowledge depends on real facts. In order to work with generalizations or generalities, we need to be able to instantiate those principles with particulars either from the present or the past. If we can’t, due to limited time and money, be everywhere today, we can work to find – through reading – instances for our universal principles from the past. In sum, Aquinas helps give us justification in searching the past and reading histories! If we do this, we can complete our knowledge, moving it from the realm of imperfect to perfect.

I also found the following passage of interest in Aquinas’ Summa [I.14.6]: “Now not only what is common to creatures – namely being – belongs to their perfection, but also what makes them distinguished from each other.”

Here again, in the Christian context, Aquinas is making a case that our uniqueness is in concert with our differences and perfection.

But in general principles today, this is clearly multiculturalism. Aquinas laid down a general principle, in the context of discussing God’s ability to know humans by their particulars, that our perfection lies both in our commonalities AND our unique distinctions.

If anyone says that Christianity should emphasize a nation-state’s common culture over celebrating differences, tell her or him that one of the most eminent Christian philosophers of all time, Saint Thomas Aquinas, says otherwise. We must balance both.

Or, if an educational proponent of the great books says that common culture matters more than multiculturalism, then tell her or him that one of the authors in Britannica’s Great Books set, Thomas Aquinas, says that our perfection lies in both our particular differences and our commonalities. You might say that Aquinas believed in a form of pluralism!

Good stuff – and all from taking a few minutes each day to read great books while thinking about history and philosophy. – TL


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    silly question for you…. a dear friend has recently encouraged me to start reading the Summa, and while I've gone ahead and ordered it from Amazon, I must say I feel a bit intimidated, as though I've just ordered an elephant for dinner and I'm not sure which end to start at.

    any suggestions, thoughts, etc for someone who is a computer programmer by training, and neither a philosopher nor a theologian?


  2. Anonymous permalink

    Thank you, sir!

    I dived into the deep end of the pool – I bought the entire 5 volume (paperback) set by the Dominican Fathers! (For a 51 year old computer programmer about to start an M.Ed in Counseling, I'm pretty gutsy!)

    For historical context, the chapter on Aquinas in David Bell's “Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology” (Cistercian Publications)
    is very good – although Bell's primary concern is theological rather than philosophical.

    Skimming sounds like a good idea! Also… can you suggest specific titles of Jacques Maritain – seem to be a bunch out there on Amazon!

    Aristotle sure makes for some dense reading! Not nearly so easy as Plato!

    Thank you again for your time and trouble!!!


  3. Anon,

    Again, I applaud your ambition: I think everyone should give Aquinas a fair shake, both aided and unaided.

    It can be a tough go. I've made my reading of him a long-term project. With that, I'm fine with reading just a few questions a day, depending on my motivation and distraction level. I find that even a little regular contact with Aquinas makes me a more analytical thinker and a better critical reader.

    What follows is a list of Maritain titles, in rank order, that I see as helpful. They give a flavor of what it's like to apply Aquinas today. Maritain generally wrote in French (as far as I know), so the works are all in translation. I've read #1 and parts of #2 (in other works), but not #3 (recommended by reputation). Some of these are rare or expensive, so you might want to try a library:

    #1 – Introduction to Philosophy (1st ed. in mid-1930s);
    #2 – A collected works published by Notre Dame Press. This contains “Integral Humanism” and “Freedom in the Modern World,” two important Maritain works; and
    #3 – Man And The State.

    Sometimes when reading philosophy even a single aid can be helpful. In my experience, Ted Honderich's Oxford Companion to Philosophy has been useful. This work is not perfect, but it's often a solid introduction to larger topics in the field. You might be able to find an older, paperback first edition at a used bookstore (that's what I have).

    – TL


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