The Place Of Thomism In Mediaeval Philosophy


I. Introduction 

Some years ago I made a circuit of the French Cathedrals under the guidance of a friend who is an archaeologist. “We shall visit first,” said he, “the cathedral of Amiens, for it is the prototype of many other churches, and it is easier there than elsewhere to study the vaulting, pointing, pillars, buttresses, and all the other elements which enter into the grammar of Gothic architecture. After Amiens, we shall visit in turn Beauvais, Rheims, Paris, Laon, and Chartres. But, in doing so, we shall constantly refer back to what we have seen at Amiens, in order to point our resemblances or differences.”

This wise procedure, to the happy results of which I can testify, can be applied with equal advantage in the study of the scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century, a system of though contemporaneous and intimately connected with the great productions of Gothic architecture. And just as in order to understand the structural methods of the mediaeval architects it is well to take some one building as a type or model, so also, in the study of the system of ideas known as scholastic philosophy, we could not adopt a better pedagogic method than the consideration of the typical expression of the system, as presented to us by Thomas Aquinas in the years about 1260-70. This procedure will enable those who wish to examine, by way of comparison, the solutions to the same problems given by Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, and others.

There is another consideration which explains why, in our brief outline of scholastic philosophy, we treat principally of Thomism. The scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century is a common and impersonal patrimony which is the product of many generations; and this patrimonial character — a trait which is found also in the architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, legal studies, and the theology of this period — enables us thus to condense into the study of one single giant of thought that which really belongs to the whole period in question. Aquinas is the most striking representative of this common philosophy (sententia communis). He is the complement of the past even more than the beginning of a new trend of thought. He was not the discoverer of all the doctrines which go to make up his philosophical system. As a matter of fact, he introduced comparatively few new ideas; but no one has rivaled him in coordinating doctrines borrowed from his predecessors and in systematizing the philosophical notions of the world and of human life. He embodied in philosophy the unifying tendencies which were evident everywhere in the civilization of the thirteenth century. Aquinas belonged to an epoch of great ideas and great achievements, when men fancied that they had at last realized a permanent and durable civilization — in fact, a position of stable equilibrium, completely satisfying St. Augustine’s definition of peace: Pax est tranquillitas ordinis. Peace is the tranquillity of order.

The pedagogical aim which we have before us in this little work forces us to limit ourselves to the consideration of the great and central doctrines of Thomism, and to leave aside the innumerable applications of those doctrines which may be found scattered up and down the extensive works of Thomas Aquinas. Nor shall we be able to deal with the relations between Thomism and the civilization with which it was contemporaneous.

There is yet another point to which we must call attention: We are concerned only with scholastic Philosophy, and not, with scholastic Theology, or with Catholic dogma. It is no doubt true that there were close relations between scholastic Philosophy and Theology in the thirteenth century. Philosophy derived its inspiration from Theology in a certain sense; for it was planted in a civilization of which religion was a powerful element. But this philosophy is religious only in the sense in which one can apply the term to art, politics, and domestic, social and economic institutions generally. The philosophical work of Thomas Aquinas forms with his theological work a diptych, of which the two wings complete or rather supplement each other, yet each retains its own independent significance. The same is true of the Divine Comedy of Dante; it is at once an artistic poem which “heaven and earth combine to form,” and a religious book “which aims at delivering mortals from their state of misery and conducting them to eternal happiness.” Again, the same applies to a Gothic cathedral, which is an artistic marvel and also a house of prayer. It is quite possible to leave aside the religious connections of scholastic philosophy with Catholicism and consider its religious problems only in so far as they enter into a conception of the world and of human life, based upon pure reason.

Only a conscientious study of the Aquinas of history can enable a person to judge to what extent the philosophical doctrines of Thomism retain their value today. It alone can give us the means of sifting the theories which are true and alive from those which are false or superannuated. By this means we shall be able to distinguish those doctrines which had a meaning for the Middle Ages only, and are entirely bound up with a bygone civilization, from those other doctrines which can be transplanted into our own times and continue to satisfy that need of the ideal which exists forever in the human soul.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

The System of Thomas Aquinas by Maurice de Wulf edited for the Internet by Jonathan Dolhenty Ph.D. The original copyright of the work by Maurice de Wulf is held in the Public Domain, as edited Copyright © 1992 – 2014 Jonathan Dolhenty and The Moral Liberal.