Aquinas: Doctrinal Characteristics of Scholasticism

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice de Wulf, Edited and Adapted for the web by Jonathan Dolhenty

XIX.  Doctrinal Characteristics of Scholasticism

A. Moderation and the sense of limit

After this brief and elementary survey of the principal philosophical doctrines of Aquinas, we are in a position to discern certain characteristics of a systematic nature, which become evident everywhere. Two of these characteristics strike the student at once: moderation and the sense of limit; coherence and interdependence.

The sense of measure and of equilibrium appears throughout, because Scholasticism completes the naturalism of Aristotle with the aid of the idealism of Plato and St. Augustine. Thus it brings together what is best in Greek philosophy, tempers one element by another, and adapts the whole to the mentality of the Western races.

The reader will easily recognize that this moderation was to be found in the first doctrine of which we treated, the theory of knowledge, which is a combination of spiritualism and sensationalism. The abstract idea is grasped in the sensation, and the one completes the other. The moderate realism of the Schoolmen is a via media between naive realism and phenomenalism. Their theory of the union of soul and body places man in an intermediate position between the purely spiritual and the purely material. The limitation of actuality by potentiality and of form by matter gives us a moderate or mitigated dynamism; for the active or dynamic principle (form) expands into a passive and a quantitative element (matter), and thus we have a correction of the doctrine of pure energy. We find the same moderation in Ethics, in which intellectual happiness does not exclude the reasonable satisfaction of the body, and duty is harmonized with pleasure. The same appears in social philosophy where the individual good is harmonized with the well-being of the whole. In logic deductive and inductive methods assist each other and we could multiply similar examples. Its sense of measure makes scholasticism an eminently human philosophy.

Once can say that a sense of proportion in all things is one of the characteristics of the neo-Latin and Anglo-Celtic civilization of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and that it is one of the finest heritages which these centuries have passed on to modern times.

There is another reason for the great spread of thomism in the west, namely its doctrinal cohesion.

B. Doctrinal Coherence

Without doctrinal coherence, no philosophy could be vigorous or satisfy the human mind which seeks always for order and unity.

From this point of view, the difference which exists between the Schoolmen and certain modern philosophers is striking. Kant, for example, introduces in his philosophy compartments separated by tight walls. Science has nothing to do with moral conduct; private conduct and external legal relations are regulated by different principles. Or again, a man like Taine does not concern himself with the bearings of his theory of reality upon his moral duties. Similarly, a great many of our contemporaries split their lives into two parts — just as the Greek sceptics declared that certainty was impossible of attainment, in theory, and yet in practice acted as if they possessed certainty. Many men declare themselves unable to prove the existence of God, and nevertheless regard his existence as a postulate, necessary for action.

Nothing is more painful than these internal disruptions, which lead one to say that what is true and valuable in one context ceases to be so in another. And nothing is more opposed to the spirit of Thomism. Here we are face to face with a system or a doctrinal whole, in which everything is necessary for the rest. Truth, for Thomas, cannot contradict truth; and a doctrine, once established in one department, has validity in all others.

We have met in the course of this small work several instances of this coherence. Logic is closely bound to the psychological thesis of abstraction. Solutions of social problems rest upon the value of the personality. The theories of actuality and potentiality, of causality and of teleology, of essence and existence saturate the whole system. Everywhere we detect the metaphysics, which sustains all [1].

Among the doctrines on which systematic coherence depends, there are three which are of fundamental importance. They resemble the pointed form which is found everywhere, in every corner and feature of a Gothic cathedral. We refer to the intellectualism of the Schoolmen, to their emphasis of the value of human personality, and to the central place of God.

This intellectualism, of which Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus are the chief representatives, proclaims the supremacy of reason. To know is the noblest of the activities of a conscious being, — whether it be God, a limited spirit like an angel, or man. We apprehend reality by means of abstractions; and though such a mode of knowing is poor and restricted, nevertheless it is man’s privilege, and raises him above the mere animal kingdom. If one looks back over the preceding essays, he will find that the theory of abstract concepts extends throughout thomistic philosophy. If the abstract character of concepts were denied the process of judgment would become inexplicable; the possibility of science or general laws would be cut off; human liberty would become an illusion; moral ideals which rest upon the knowledge and love of God would vanish from life; even social life would change its character, for the entire system of Government is necessary only as a means to moral happiness.

The second fundamental doctrine is the value of personality. It declares each man to be an autonomous being, possessing his own body and his own soul, an agent with his own intelligence, will, and powers of action. Substantial or natural equality of men, the right to individual happiness, the protection of the person from the state, the mission of the state with reference to the individual, personal survival, — all are applications of the individualism which we wish to emphasize. Thomas has a profound aversion for anything resembling sacrifice of personal dignity and self-reliance. Man is no exception to the general metaphysical rule that only individual substances exist or can exist; and God Himself, who created the world, is an Individual.

Finally, is it necessary to remark that God is found everywhere in the system? All the doctrines converge towards Him, as the radii of a circle converge towards the center. The God which Aquinas describes is not a deus ex machina, a pure product of reason, a metaphysical storehouse for Platonic Ideas. He is Infinite Life, and it is the divine life which gives a meaning to human life. For, God presents himself to man as the sole object worthy of his knowledge and love. An immutable and eternal relation exists between God and human nature (lex aeterna): and man, in recognizing the bonds which attach him to God, knows by this very act in what way he must direct his conduct to reach God. Family life, cooperation of the individuals in the social group, natural religion are means which aid the ascent of the human soul toward the Infinite. For the philosophers of the thirteenth century life is worth living, and all humanity moves forward toward happiness.

C. Philosophy and Catholic Theology

No one has emphasized the distinction between reason and faith to a greater extent than Thomas (XVI, D). The one is not the other. But reason leads to faith, philosophy to theology. If Christian revelation is an historical fact — and no one doubted it in the West, at that time — philosophy reaches its culmination in theology. The life of the Christian appears as a more complete approach to God, the Being before whom all others are as if they were not. What Christian faith promises is a blessed vision, in which God reveals Himself to the soul, no longer in the pale images of the world of sense, but as He is.

Thus at once, the meaning of individual ethics and social philosophy changes. Life becomes a pilgrimage (via) toward our true fatherland (patria): duty done through the love of Christ takes on a higher value; the purely human ideal vanishes before the ideal of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount; social life is illuminated by the love of the other souls redeemed by Christ. Art itself becomes a symbol of the divine, and for Francis of Assisi, for Giotto, for the master builders of cathedrals, as well as for Dante, it appears as a way which leads the living generations toward heavenly immortality.


  1. The reading of two or three articles of the two Summae of Thomas is sufficient to show that the subject therein treated is continually referred to and harmonized with other subjects, and given its proper place in the system as a whole.

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.