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Thomism Cartoon

Since today is the Friday before the 4th of July weekend, I have decided to provide you dear reader, with some weekend reading material. As you no doubt would have read in an earlier post, I have come across a great booklet that provides a crash course, or for those with a parochial education, a refresher course, in Thomist philosophy written by Fr. Thomas Joseph White O.P. and titled THOMISM FOR THE NEW EVANGELIZATION. (see here) With respect to the above booklet, it is 25 pages in length. I will be republishing up to page 7 in this post.

The first reason behind the republication is to provide a better understanding of not only Thomism in general, but more importantly to demonstrate how Thomism explains the “interdisciplinary” nature of that which is around us, i.e. creation. Naturally, this “interdisciplinary” nature of the natural order itself is something that your humble blogger writes about continuously. Therefore, Thomist philosophy provides an excellent basis for understanding concepts like our very own LEX ARMATICUS or what we term the et Invisibilium.

Of even greater importance than for providing context to that which is written on this blog, this booklet provides a very concise definition of what constitutes REALITY. Please keep in mind that if one was to pinpoint where the post-conciliar ecclesiastical neo-modernist experiment went horribly wrong, and this hold for all the other wider neo-modernist experiments which we chronicle on this blog, from the economic crisis in Venezuela to the public health crisis of the aberro-sexual segment of the population inclusively, that ground zero of neo-modernist EPIC FAIL is their misunderstanding of REALITY. Or rather, the neo-modernist’s refusal to accept it. The problem that the neo-modernists have is that the ALTERNATIVE REALITY which they “create” and in which they attempt to function, is not aligned with that which we call OBJECTIVE REALITY, or that REALITY that exists in nature itself. REALITY that exists outside of the human mind and devoid of any cognitive bias produced by the human mind. The elimination of cognitive bias and the acceptance of OBJECTIVE REALITY would go a long way combating PHENOMENA which we observe on a regular basis, if not eliminating them completely. An example of just two of these PHENOMENA are: the Law of Unintended Consequences and Francis’ alter ego – the “god of surprises”.

I will end here, but please keep the above two points in mind when reading the below.


Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.

Thomistic Institute, Washington, D.C.

Our theme is the promise of Thomism. Aquinas is called the doctor communis or common doctor of Catholic theology for a reason. The universality and scope of his insight into reality has a perennial value. The applications of insight can differ, however, in every given age. What is the significance of Thomism in our own era? Why be a Thomist today? The answers presented here serve only as a thumbnail sketch, a little charter regarding the challenges of evangelization—the new evangelization in the Church today and why St. Thomas’s theology is so vital for this task. I am going to give six brief points as to why Thomism matters.

I remember talking to a young priest many years ago after we had done some evangelization in England for a weekend retreat, and he said to me, “You know it’s funny how much of the battle is in the mind.” What he meant was that we think the struggle for the Catholic faith is primarily in the heart—that conversion is in the heart. Of course, a lot of the battle is in the heart—to discover Christ, to give ourselves to God, to consent, to surrender, to trust, to love, to find peace; but it is also the case that half the battle is in the mind. And that means that actually, a lot of the message of the Church regarding human happiness is about the intellect—intellectual happiness. How does the intellect provide for our deepest happiness? By giving us ultimate perspective. If you know where your true good lies, you can love that good, and in loving that good, you can remain at peace, even in the midst of the storms of life. A lot of the ways in which we navigate life with a deeper, more spiritual joy and rootedness is through intellectual perspective, gaining the right perspective on things. Truth can be a source of enduring happiness and peace.

We live in an age where there is a profound antipathy to the Catholic faith in the public square and in the media, and for good reason. There is an innate recognition among the advocates of secularism that the Catholic religion is the single most serious adversary to a secular view of the world. They sense that the depth of Catholic teaching regarding human personhood, moral realism, the reality of God, and divine revelation all challenge the status quo at a deep level. Those who take on the Church do so in an attempt to banish one of the most serious enemies to a perennial secularism. Pope Francis helpfully emphasizes the idea of going out to where our adversaries live and challenging them with a different vision of the reality of Christianity than the one that they have in their minds. St. Thomas is very helpful in pursuing this goal—what Pope Benedict called intellectual charity—of finding where the knots are tied in the souls of our contemporaries and trying to untie them and help people find a deeper peace, perspective, serenity, and happiness in the heart and mind through the truth.

So I want to give little touchstones here—six touchstones—of where we who are all committed in some way to the evangelization of our culture can think about the truth not as a weapon but as a medicine for the healing of the human mind and heart.

The University Today

A first point concerns the crisis of the university: Never in the history of the world have so many people spent so much money to study in such elite institutions only to finish with so little plausible understanding of the meaning of their existence. The crisis of the university is really very striking, and it is indicative of a deeper crisis in our culture. What do we see in contemporary academic culture? We see a tendency towards intense personal specialization and away from overarching synthesis, toward empirical and historical study (positivism) and away from value laden judgments that risk incurring the ire of politically correct censors. There is intense publication ambition, in view of tenure and grant bequests. We see a supermarket ideal of education as geared toward students’ varied interests, and away from a structured program of integral formation. What ensues is an individualism that obtains on many levels—teacher, student, subject, methodology—that colors the whole education. It’s like a buffet of every expertise on offer from the leading expert, but there’s rarely a mediating discourse or common philosophy that allows you to bring into unity all the various forms of learning. Consider a typical first semester: A class on anthropology; a class on Spanish literature; a class on calculus; a class on biology; and perhaps the philosophy of John Locke. And how is it all united? No one ever tells you. And at the end of four years, did anyone ever seek to tell you? Not usually! So you end up with an education of fragments. And it is extraordinarily expensive! And it leaves you existentially disoriented!

There are some predominant, overarching theories of meaning that are commonplace, either unstated or stated. One is the philosophy of secular political liberalism à la John Rawls; one is a kind of postmodern idea that we can’t really come to any deep unifying discourse about reality; and one is a kind of scientism that thinks that understanding the physical universe through physics, chemistry, and biology is the only true way to access reality. None of these is fully compatible with either of the others, and most people hold intuitively to some kind of unstable mix of the three. In helpful contrast to this disorientation, St. Thomas thinks that we have a differentiated and unified understanding of reality. The mind approaches reality, you might say, at different levels of being. This is a very technical idea. I am going to try to make it simple. It’s called the Degrees of Knowledge, a Thomistic concept made popular by the late twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Maritain.

St. Thomas thinks that we can selectively look at reality on deeper and deeper speculative levels. An initial level would entail studying quantity alone—abstracting from everything except the quantity of things. He says that that is where you get the science of mathematics and, from a use of mathematics applied to physical beings, the observational sciences. What this gives you is an accurate, predictable description of the quantitatively physical aspect of reality. Then there is the deeper science that looks at natures: philosophy of nature. This is the science where you ask basic philosophical questions about natural kinds (essences) and the causes and the capacities of things. What makes a living thing different from a non-living thing? What is matter? What about time, motion, and change? How do we explain these? Finally, there is a deeper level where you start to study the very existence of things: metaphysics. What does it mean to say that a given reality exists?

What are goodness and beauty? Does truth come uniquely from our minds projecting onto reality, or is the state of reality outside our minds the objective measure of the truth of what we think? Ultimately that is where theology comes in. God appears on the horizon of human philosophy as a question about ultimate causes. Why do we live in a world of beings that are all interdependent and varied in their qualities and duration of existence? Does there have to be something more? If so, what can we say about God, philosophically speaking?

So there’s this depth perception of reality, and you can look at it at different levels: mathematically, modern scientifically, philosophically, and metaphysically, that is, looking at the very gift of being and starting to think theologically about the giver of being—God.

From this, St. Thomas develops a broader theory about all the different disciplines: math, observational sciences, philosophy, theology, the arts, ethics, politics, and literature. One of the strengths of St. Thomas’s view, which is applicable in a very contemporary way, is that he shows you how different scientific forms of understanding (broadly speaking) help you penetrate reality at different levels. There is particular expertise, but there is also a deeper unity present in our knowledge of things. So, there’s a way that the mathematician should be able to speak to the philosopher or the poet. And there’s a way that the philosopher or the poet should be able to speak to the theologian. And ultimately, truth is one because the intellect is made for being. All that exists—all that is real—can be known even if it is known in different ways.

This may seem like a trivial point, but I think that the Thomistic tradition understands well the unity and integrity of human knowledge and avoids all temptations to theological totalitarianism. By theological totalitarianism, I mean the idea that because one believes in ultimate things about God, he or she should be able to railroad all the lesser disciplines and force them into narrow straitjackets of intellectual presuppositions. St. Thomas notes that even in the natural order, the philosopher can’t replace the mathematician or the observational scientist, but also the converse: the modern scientist cannot replace the philosopher. Each discipline has its own irreducible dignity. The theologian simply can’t replace the philosopher or the mathematician or the scientist. So this religious view of the intellectual life is cosmopolitan and open to all disciplines of learning, but it is also integrated. For Aquinas, all learning is united by a common goal—the pursuit of the truth about reality, considered under various aspects. When people see the intellectual nuance of the Thomist tradition on this point, it becomes intellectually interesting and even liberating. It also becomes more dangerous to secular liberalism, which is increasingly trapped in a factional, fragmented view of education.

If you come out of the modern university system, you know this is a problem on some visceral level. Thomism is a remedy.