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Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?

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By DONALD DeMARCO

The legacy of St. Thomas must deal with two prejudices: that he is old; that he is Medieval. These are prejudices and therefore without a valid basis. We continue to celebrate his feast day, which is January 28. His original feast day was March 7, the day he was canonized. However, since this date commonly falls within the period of Lent, it was deemed appropriate to move it to January 28, the date of the translation of his relics to the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France.
Why should the legacy of St. Thomas never be forgotten? For one good reason, he never made any concessions to what we now call “political correctness.” He was a true philosopher in the sense that he kept his mind focused on being, what is, and was not distracted by what happened to be in vogue at the time. Therefore, he was open-minded in the best sense, always focused on reality and not ideology.
If he had been unduly influenced by the climate of his times, he might have been a Pelagian, believing that everything was good and evil did not exist. Or he might have been a Manichaean, holding that everything is evil and nothing is good.
But Aquinas did not completely reject these two heresies for he saw that what God created was good and what man did was sometimes evil. He was extraordinarily gifted in integrating antithetic principles. He was supremely modest in his approach to things and fiercely audacious when it came to holding on to truths that he discovered. He was never victimized by the various heresies that were fashionable in his time.
What G.K. Chesterton said about the Catholic Church equally applies to St. Thomas: “To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate; the wild truth reeling but erect.”
The thought of St. Thomas Aquinas continues to thunder through the ages. And it is brilliantly assisted by the likes of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Garrigou-Lagrange, Josef Pieper, Fulton Sheen, Peter Kreeft, and many others. At the heart of his thought is a simplicity that appeals to common sense without compromising truth. And what is truth? It is simply an unalloyed reporting of that which is. It is discovered, not invented, it is perennial, not evanescent, and practical, not an abstraction.
Philosophy, for the Angelic Doctor, is the love of wisdom. Thus, philosophy begins with an act of love that honors reality by knowing it and not distorting it. Wisdom is the proper ordering of things so that they maintain the order in which God created them. Therefore, philosophy and theology represent a seamless, though complementary tapestry. Aquinas could not have been a great philosopher if his intellectual prowess was not accompanied by his theological faith.
What is man? In simplest terms, he is a being who is, knows, does, and makes. Because he is, he stands outside of nothingness from which he is infinitely removed. Existence, consequently, is the “perfection of perfections.” We can rejoice and thank God for the fact that we exist, something that we had no part in creating. God is the One Being whose very essence is to exist, to be.
Because man knows he is able to assimilate in his mind various truths of reality. His mind is attuned to reality so that what he knows gives him an intimate place in the cosmos and a utility that has practical import.
Unlike Plato’s prisoners who spend their lives in a dark cave, man is a being who shares the light of God. Because man does, he has moral obligations. By choosing what is good he is able to journey along the road to perfection. What man does with his life determines whether or not he will become more Godlike and a more complete human being.
Because he makes gives him a practical role to play both in the various fields of the fine arts as well as other works that spring from his hand.
It is upon these four anthropological truths than Aquinas builds his metaphysics, epistemology, morality, and his notion of art.
Aquinas, needless to say, did not watch television nor did he read the secular newspapers or frequent the cinema. As he once remarked, he restricted most of his study to Scripture and nature, two sources of knowledge that cannot lie. And yet he fully understood the powerful and negative influence the surrounding Media can have on a person.
“There is much sinning,” he wrote in his Summa Theologiae, “because of natural desires….But the stimuli of desire which man’s cunning has devised are something else, and for the sake of these sins one sins very much.”
What could be a wiser observation for the children of our present Aphrodisiac Society?
“The greatest kindness one can render to any man,” he stated, “consists in leading him to truth.”
By implication, he is reminding us that we should prefer to be saved through criticism, rather than ruined by praise. The saintly Aquinas knew how easily we can be ensnared by pride. It takes a person of humility to understand the dangers of pride. The proud man remains in the dark.
We should not forget Aquinas because more than any other person in the history of the Catholic Church he best combines saintliness with philosophical and theological brilliance. He has written much from which we can profit greatly.
As Pope Leo XIII has said of Aquinas in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, “Reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those she obtained from Thomas.”
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest book, Apostles of the Culture of Life, is posted on amazon.com.)

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