Thomas Aquinas died on 7 March 1274, and ascended to heaven. Forty-nine years later he became a saint; and in 1879 Pope Leo XIII pronounced that Aquinas’s work was ‘the only true philosophy’.
Thomas Aquinas thus made a break with the great philosophical tradition of getting things wrong. This sets him apart from all other philosophers (and perhaps even from philosophy itself). Indeed, there would seem to be nothing more to say on the matter. Unless, that is, you happen to believe that our thinking has made some advances since the era of the Children’s Crusade and the chastity belt.
Being the subject of many a sickly hagiography, filled with winsome anecdotes and unquestioning acceptance of much metaphysical twaddle, has done little for Aquinas’s philosophical reputation. All we see is a shadowy figure amongst the incense clouds of theology. It is difficult to discern the finest philosophical mind in Europe for a thousand years (since St. Augustine). Yet Aquinas is unquestionably of this stature.
In order to appreciate Thomas Aquinas it is necessary to distinguish, as far as possible, between his theology and his philosophy. The former is absolutely correct on all counts, and beyond question. (Anyone who doubts this courts instant excommunication and the prospect of an afterlife in a third-world-style region devoid of modern domestic conveniences.) Philosophy, on the other hand, is something whose truth is open to question. This is what makes philosophy what it is.
Even in Aquinas’s time there was an implicit difference between theology and philosophy. Both conducted their arguments in a similar fashion – by deduction, reason, logic, and so forth. But in theology such knowledge was based upon the revealed truth of faith. The first principles of theology were supported by a belief in God. Philosophy, on the other hand, required no such belief. It began from first principles which were allegedly ‘self-evident’. These relied upon our apprehension of the world around us and the use of reason alone.
In practice, of course, theology and philosophy often overlapped – especially in the religion-dominated civilisation of the medieval era. Such a state of affairs may appear quaint in these godless times, but in fact our thinking is reduced to an uncannily similar state. Modern philosophy merely papers over the divide between theological and philosophical thinking. Even to philosophise, we must start with a belief in something – basic assumptions, which remain beyond our ability to prove by reason. For example, a belief in the coherence and consistency of the world, without which there could be no scientific laws.
But surely this is just quibbling? Isn’t this what ‘self-evident’ means? It’s obvious the world is coherent, even if we have no way of proving it. Not so. Modern quantum mechanics, which deals with the behavior of subatomic particles, has neither coherence nor causality. This is of course science, and it is possible that we will soon come up with some overall theory (a theory of everything, say) which will overcome such apparent inconsistencies. But this is not the point. Under present conditions a belief in the ultimate consistency of the world is no more justifiable than a belief in God. In fact, this remains true under any conditions.
We see our age as the greatest in human history (a delusion shared by many previous ages). Ours is a time of seemingly unending originality, yet such protean dynamism is not a necessary characteristic of great eras. Amongst the most long-lasting and stable civilisations, upon which vast intellectual and material resources were lavished, were those in China and medieval Europe. Here stasis was achieved, and with it a stability that enabled the development of structured thought and intellectual embellishment to an unparalleled degree. Dante’s Divine Comedy was perhaps the finest poetic construction humanity has yet produced, and the certainties it embodied were part and parcel of the medieval age.
The vast gothic cathedrals of western Europe were arguably the first great collective monuments of humanity. They incorporated the disparate talents of their builders; and not since ancient Greece had works of such magnificence been produced without the goad of tyranny. The medieval age also produced its own collective monument of the intellect. Truly a mammoth of thought, this was the largely static, cumulative philosophy of Scholasticism. And the acknowledged maestro of Scholastic philosophy was Thomas Aquinas.