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Friday, July 21, 2017

0543: The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Fascicolo II, Volume 25 (2016), pp. 386-389.

Book review by O.J. Gonzalez
Stephen L. Brock, The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas: A Sketch, Eugene, Oregon, 2015, pp. xix + 195.

It is well known that Saint Thomas Aquinas manifests most clearly his own philosophical insights in contexts where he is explaining the content of revelation. As a consequence, these philosophical principles are uncovered only by extracting them from a massive amount of theological work. With The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas: A Sketch, Stephen Brock joins scholars like John Wippel (The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas) and Jan Aertsen (Nature and Creature) who have undertaken this task. Written as a general summary of Thomas’s philosophical thought, the book is wider in scope than those of Wippel and Aertsen which focused on metaphysics. Brock provides helpful summaries of Thomas’s teachings on logic, the philosophy of nature, moral philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, and natural theology to mention a few. While it may be just a sketch, the book is not a primer for beginners. Every chapter is packed with content and some even take up the interpretation of controversial issues. In general Brock draws directly from Aquinas’s writings, but his discussions seem to emphasize Aristotle’s influence on Saint Thomas.
The book opens with a chapter containing a brief biography of Saint Thomas Aquinas which is followed by chapters focusing on mobile being, living beings, human beings, purely spiritual beings, and ethics.
In Chapter One the author provides some historical context and sets the stage for the issues discussed in the rest of the book. Brock states unequivocally that Saint Thomas was above all a professional theologian (p. xviii). But in this chapter he also makes clear that Aquinas had a genuine interest in learning about the principles that govern the workings of physical reality and in cultivating the philosophical disciplines. Saint Thomas judges that philosophy is highly useful in theology, because the human mind is more easily led to that which is above reason by the knowledge of that which is most intelligible to us (p. 19). Thus for Aquinas, the goal of becoming proficient in the knowledge afforded by the natural sciences is ultimately intended only as an aid to a better vision of reality as whole and, especially, of non-physical reality (p. 24). Through metaphysical inquiry the human mind is capable of reaching valid knowledge of supra-sensible being. For Aquinas, Brock maintains, we know through the natural light of reason about the immaterial substances like angels and God only what we can infer about them from our understanding of sensible reality (pp. 93, 108).
Chapter Two, which deals with Aquinas’s understanding of mobile being, directs the reader’s attention towards the concept of nature. In a step by step explanation Brock explores the different senses of the term “natura” and claims that for Aquinas the most proper meaning of nature is a body’s substantial form (pp. 44-46). Substantial form is what functions in a composite as principle of generation, principle of motion, and principle of activity (p. 29). Here Brock’s explanation is particularly lucid and would be excellent reading for students taking a course on the philosophy of mobile being as understood by Aristotle and Saint Thomas.
The distinction between inanimate and animate things manifests the existence of a special kind of substantial form: the principle of life, the anima or soul. In Chapter Three on living beings, Brock outlines Thomas’s explanation of how substantial forms in general, and souls in particular—vegetative, sensitive and intellectual—can be said to transcend matter. At the most basic level, «every substantial form overcomes the divisibility of matter and makes a body an unqualified unity, a substance in act» (p. 77). But with the introduction of the principle of life there comes as well a gradual increase in the elevation of the substantial form over matter: «The intellectual soul stands at the peak of a whole hierarchy of forms, each higher one being less conditioned by matter. The senses have a qualified immateriality. Plant-souls are not tied to this matter» (p. 77). Through the analysis of the powers which are specific to each kind of soul, we are able to recognize different degrees of perfection in living beings. Brock concentrates on the cognitive powers, making extensive use of the principle that “cognition and materiality are inversely proportional.” In this discussion he provides an excellent explanation of how Aquinas conceived the activity of the senses to be in some degree immaterial. The chapter also discusses Aquinas’s understanding of how the human intellect can be a power possessing total immateriality and yet inhere in a substantial form that is meant to inform a body. Matter does condition the human intellect but in an extrinsic way, for, in order to understand something, the human intellect must abstract the forms from sensible phantasms (p. 78).
The fourth chapter on human beings centers on Aquinas’s account of human cognition. The author explains how the human intellect rises to some knowledge of supra-sensible being by making use of Aristotle’s observation that the things that are first and more knowable to us are not the same as those that are first and more knowable by nature or in themselves. This explains why Aquinas holds that the science of logic should be taught first, even though metaphysics is primary simply. Thus, because learning builds on previous knowledge, some knowledge must also precede the teaching of logic. Accordingly, Brock suggests that the first elements of knowledge that human beings understand are definitely metaphysical: «The ens that is the very first object of understanding coincides with the ens that is the subject of metaphysics» (p. 97, n. 62). In every human being, there is an understanding of the basic principles prior to being taught, and the role of the metaphysician is to “verify” the principles themselves. «Science presupposes unteachable knowledge, sheer understanding of certain things» (p. 95). From knowledge of the universality associated with common being, the mind of the metaphysician rises to the universality associated with God and the separate, immaterial beings. Both logic and metaphysics extend to everything, but the object of logic does not reside in the things themselves while the object of metaphysics does.
In Chapter Five Brock uses the notion of form to lead into the metaphysics of esse. In fact this chapter could be described as an ascent to God through the notion of form. «I would venture to say that, for Thomas, it is only this intellectual experience of form, as cause of being to matter—that is, substantial form—which gives us the possibility of framing some positive notion of immaterial reality» (p.  110). The analysis of form leads the author to conclude in a somewhat neo-Platonic way that the common notion of esse is not God’s esse and that esse commune occupies a mediating place between God and existing things. Brock indeed opposes strongly the identification of Aquinas’s esse commune with the divine form. But while doing so he still sees the need for ascribing to esse commune the mediating role. Here Brock seems to be in disagreement with Aertsen who (following Cornelio Fabro) holds that in the metaphysics of participation, even this element of mediation of esse commune is dropped. Reading Aquinas under the light of the Aristotelian contraction of ens universale into the diverse categories, Brock may not give sufficient attention to the other contraction of being postulated by Aquinas, namely, the contraction of being by participation. This other contraction is the contraction of the infinite fullness of being itself (ens per essentiam) into finite being (ens per participationem), a doctrine that Saint Thomas conveys in a particularly insightful way in this text of the Summa theologiae: «Being caused does not belong to being as such, therefore it is possible for us to find a being which is uncaused» (I, 44, 1, ad 1). It is significant in this regard that Cornelio Fabro is not cited in the book nor does he figure in Brock’s list of great Thomistic scholars.
The final chapter on ethics focuses mainly on the relationship between the practical and the speculative orders. Just as the first principles of the particular sciences are founded on and presuppose the general principles of metaphysics so do the first principles of the province of being that is considered in moral philosophy.
A recurring theme in Brock’s book is the thesis that in philosophical matters Aquinas’s way of thinking is Aristotle’s way of thinking. This is reminiscent of the late Thomist, Lawrence Dewan (1932-2015), who said about himself that he was much more inclined than his own teachers (Etienne Gilson and Joseph Owens) to stress the continuity of thought between Aristotle and Thomas. In this book, Brock affirms that «On many metaphysical themes I have found the writings of Lawrence Dewan, O.P. especially illuminating» (p. 91, n. 36). And according to Brock, Dewan’s treatment of the centrality of form in metaphysics almost amounts to a rediscovery.
Notwithstanding this tendency to interpret Saint Thomas in an Aristotelian key, Brock’s explanations are uniformly clear and helpful. Sifting out and distilling the philosophical principles from the theological works of Saint Thomas Aquinas is no easy task. Among other things it requires years of study, talent and hard work. Brock’s book represents a well organized and a well argued analysis of the most important notions and principles that guided the philosophical mind of Thomas Aquinas.
Orestes J. Gonzalez
Editor of Actus Essendi

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