Meditation XIX, Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274) – De veritate

Thomas Aquinas – Glass Stained Window

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

Born in Roccasecca in the Kingdom of Naples, Saint Thomas Aquinas would be hailed as one of the greatest medieval philosopher-theologians. At age 5, he was sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino and in his teens to the University of Naples. In 1242, he entered the Order of Preachers (The Dominican Order) and spent rest of his life studying and preaching. Aquinas developed and refined a vast intellectual system that has evolved into a centrepiece of Christian theology with an authority unrivalled by any other theologian.

His writings were numerous with a conservative estimate claiming that his output reached 8 million words by the age of 50. His work encompasses the fields of philosophical logic, metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, moral philosophy and the philosophy of religion. His most famous work was two Summae (Summations) of theology. The first, Summa contra Gentiles (On the Truth of the Catholic Faith against the Gentiles) was written for those seeking to convert others to the Catholic faith. The second of his most famous work, was the Summa Theologiae (Summations of Theology) which was left unfinished at his death.

Many of the works of Aquinas is an extension of Aristotle. It was his aim to show through his work that Aristotle’s system could be incorporated into Christianity. In the Summa Theologiae, we find many connections to Aristotle’s views on metaphysics, philosophy of mind and moral philosophy. One of the five ways that he used to proof the existence of God was similar to Aristotle’s first mover argument (found in his work Metaphysics). According to Aquinas, the fact that things move in this world shows us that there must be a first mover which is not moved by anything. God is therefore the absolute first cause and is not dependent of anything for anything. A God that knows everything knowable and is not affected by time in the way mortals are.

Quinque Viae (Five Ways)

1. The First Mover

Aquinas argues first from the fact that things move in this world to the conclusion that there must be a first mover which is not moved by anything and everyone thinks of this as God.

2. The First Efficient Cause

The fact that we find the world an order of efficient causes shows us that there must be some efficient cause which everyone calls God.

3. The Absolutely Necessary Being

The possibility of things both being and not being, both generated and destroyed shows us that there must exist something called God which is necessary outside itself that cannot be generated or destroyed.

4. The Maximum Item to Ground Certain Comparatives in Particular Goodness

We find in the gradation of things that some things are more good or true than others that show us that there must be something which we call God that is the cause of being, goodness and perfection in things.

5. The Intelligent Being by Whom All Natural Things are Directed

Nature acts without awareness for the sake of an end shows us that there must be an intelligent being, which we call God, by whom all natural things are directed to an end.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that the senses are the vehicle that transmit the Forms (see Plato’s Theory of Forms) by means of ‘images’ or ‘phantasms’ from external objects to the intellect. This philosophical position made others claim that he was an empiricist associated with the principle that ‘nothing is in the intellect without first being in the senses’ (nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu). Also like Aristotle, Aquinas maintains that the intellect is divided between the ‘possible intellect’ also known as the ‘passive intellect’ (nous pathetikos), and the ‘active intellect’ or ‘agent intellect’ (nous poietikos). The possible intellect is receptive of the form of things through mental processes. The active intellect on the other hand, abstracts or actualize the forms so that they become objects of intellectual apprehension.

Thomas Aquinas was however, not just an ardent follower of Aristotle. Motivated perhaps to defend the Christian doctrine of individual immortality, he argues that the agent intellect must remain an inseparable power of a unified soul which goes against other Aristotelian philosophers (Siger of Brabant, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina) that the active intellect is a distinct entity void of individuality. If other Aristotelian philosophers were right, individual immortality is impossible because the soul may not retain the full identity of the individual in question after death.

Besides that, Aquinas also argues that truth itself is universal but a matter of the individual intellect. He states a few ways in which the term ‘truth’ may be understood. The first is that the truth may be the mind’s grasp of the ‘essence’ of something. Second, the truth may be the mind’s joining of ideas of subjects and predicates in theory in a way that reflects the manner substances, properties, accidents, and their differences are joined in an independent reality. The truth can then be defined as the conformity of intellect and things. In addition to the conformity between intellect and thing, the truth may also be the conformity of words and things.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

Bibliography

  • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
  • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
  • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

“The things that we love tells us what we are.”

~ Thomas Aquinas

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