Thomas Aquinas the Platonist

For many of those who give St Thomas a place of pride, it is not only the angelic doctor himself, but also a particular interpretation of him, that is held in esteem.

It is not enough to admire and learn from Thomas Aquinas, for these folks. Instead, we must learn from him as interpreted by a particular tradition of thinkers. Any thoughts about St Thomas that stray out of those lines must be lopped off, and quick.

The party line is that Thomas Aquinas is the Christian Aristotle. He’s the consummate, quintessential Aristotelian, on this account, and all he ever really did was to explain Aristotle more clearly than Aristotle ever explained himself, and to show how Aristotle’s thought was compatible with Christian faith. Anything else he seemed to be doing or trying to do is just window dressing, a distraction from that authentic core. Well, maybe there was a tiny bit of Augustine mixed in there inspiring some of his thoughts, but that’s really it. Nothing more.

In the “Aquinas as pure Aristotle” model, there is incompatibility projected backward and forward from the mind of St Thomas. He rescued philosophy in the first place from the irrational, body-hating clutches of the platonisms that preceded him, and he also gave us the armaments to defend against the strands of modern thought that were soon to begin grasping at the mind of the West.

This account is especially attractive to some good-natured religious folk who are interested in philosophy but are tempted by easy, prepackaged answers and so prevented from thinking more deeply.

I was among their number for a time, and I still have a great appreciation for the sorts of people who see things this way. If I were to sit down and have a detailed conversation with one of them on this subject, though, it probably would not be so full of agreement, once they learned what I think.

So then, what do I think? What is the problem with the above portrayal of St Thomas?

First, a brief word about Thomism and modern philosophers. There is nothing these self-assured people like to do more than to compare St Thomas to someone like Descartes (or rather, a terribly misshapen caricature of Descartes), in order to show how the one was right about everything and the other wrong.

In spite of the myriad of things I want to criticize about such an approach, I will limit myself to a single thing: it is not how St Thomas himself approached major thinkers. “It’s all wrong! Everything is stupid because it’s different than what I learned. Let’s see if I can find any plausible reason to say why it’s bad. Look, after he said that stuff then the whole world went downhill, and doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?” Those are the sorts of things St Thomas never said. He wasn’t afraid to disagree with a thinker, but he always expended much more effort understanding and learning from and explaining those thinkers than he did smirking at them. And thank goodness for that! The truly Thomistic thing to do with Descartes is to seek to understand him as well as possible, to find as much agreement and overlap as possible between his views and one’s own, and to learn from him everything that can possibly be learned, to gain any insights that it is possible to gain, and then at the end of all that to consider whether or not there might be a few very specific points in his thought that seem to be unacceptable for some particular reason.

And this leads nicely into what I was saying about Platonism. The person who thinks St Thomas has nothing in common with historic Platonism must either know very little about St Thomas or very little about Platonism (or, likely, very little about either).

It’s true that he did sometimes disagree with the Platonists, just as he sometimes differed with Aristotle, and yet his own philosophical project has a distinctively Platonic shape. (Indeed, it’s not at all clear that even Aristotle himself differed from Platonic thinking nearly so much as is often assumed today.) If we are determined to see Thomism and Platonism as opponents, then our attempt to read either will end up warped, distorted, unfaithful.

If we want to understand St Thomas well, we have to be open to all the glorious agreements between his thoughts and those of the Platonists who came before him.

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