The Heroic Thomas Aquinas

In the very beginning of the Summa theologiae, Thomas explains what it means to be a theologian. He does this in one quaestio, ten articles; the whole presentation takes only seven pages in the edition I use. I predict that someday you will read it. It may not occur until you are old and find you have a desperate need of what is taught there. It may occur during some vacation, when you have time on your hands and would like to spend it pleasantly. If this turns out to be the way, you will be blessed indeed; for the quaestio is supremely beautiful, in its content, in the language in which the content is clothed, and in the order according to which the content is disposed for your consideration. 

One thing you will find in that quaestio is the well-known observation that philosophy is a handmaid to theology. You will not find as a corollary the claim that theology is the queen of the sciences. However, it is not a mistake to so honor theology. Aquinas does claim in Quaestio 1 that theology is nobler in every respect than every other science, and explains why this is so. It is a thought-provoking consideration. We observe that in the modern world a very great quantity of time and resources are devoted to advancing and preserving certain highly valuable sciences; I might mention medicine and physics as two examples. We ought also to observe that a far smaller quantity of time and resources are devoted to advancing and preserving theology; and we ought to ask why this has come to be. Someone might say, for instance, that medicine is clearly highly valuable because it saves lives and prevents suffering, and it does so in ways that medicine alone can accomplish; we would all be comparably wretched and fearful if by some calamity we were to be globally deprived of the science of medicine. And that is a very strong argument for the high esteem in which medical science is held. I hope you are already constructing the fitting response in your mind; I hope you know full well that saving a life in the temporal sense, though indeed a great work of mercy, cannot be compared in its significance with saving a life in the eternal sense. And I hope you know full well that suffering of the sort that we bring to the doctor is a very light matter indeed compared with the kind of suffering that theological science can prevent, and in fact can heal once it has already begun to take root and spread in the soul. 

Seeing theology in this light tells you something right away about the character of St. Thomas and about his lifelong dedication to theological labor. There was for St. Thomas an urgency about the theological task comparable to the urgency one feels in the emergency room or in the operating room; healing measures simply must be undertaken, and must be undertaken now, lest real people come to very real and irreparable harm. And there was for St. Thomas a gentleness about the theological task comparable to the gentleness shown by a rehabilitation nurse; even those who are not in immediate danger of destruction may nonetheless be comforted, helped, relieved of unnecessary suffering; and theological science, properly applied, relieves suffering over and over, suffering of many different kinds; indeed there are kinds of suffering that can be relieved in no other way. 

So if you think of theology as a monarch, a queen, think of her as a conquering queen who averts the unspeakable danger of destruction from without for her people whom she loves. And if you think of all the other sciences as handmaids to theology, think of them as nurses who move constantly from patient to patient, touching and healing wherever there is pain or need, under the wise supervision of the head nurse, theology. In that way you will come to understand St. Thomas as a warrior who, like his fellow Dominicans, went directly to where the battle was raging most fiercely, and took up the weapons most suited to his skill, and refused to lay them down as long as there was a foe threatening destruction. And you will also come to understand St. Thomas as a quiet, patient man of the rehabilitation wing, ready with comfort and sustenance wherever a single soul was in need or pain, and willing to stay by the bedside long into the night if he could still be of use.  That St. Thomas did both of these things at the same time, without haste but without relaxation, is one of the remarkable things about his temperament and about his charism. 

Another thing you will find in the first Quaestio of the Summa is that there are two ways of knowing. There is the student’s way of knowing, which is acquired by attention, labor, and diligence; and there is the hero’s way of knowing, which is innate to the hero and comes instantly at any need, seemingly without effort. 

We are all acquainted intimately with the first way of knowing, for we are here to be students and to share the fruits of study; long before final exam time we are used to facing the inescapable fact that there is no other way to understand than to go and learn. The second way of knowing is far more mysterious. I liken it to the marvelous way in which our parents, when we are young, just know what needs to be done; say what needs to be said; prevent us from making bad mistakes before we know we are about to do so; prepare for us a way of life and show us how to live it before we know that there are choices to be made about a way of life. At least this is what my parents were like when I was young.  They just knew things. And they knew what was worth knowing, and what could be ignored as trivial. 

St. Thomas tells us, interestingly, that theological science is the step-by-step, laborious, student’s way of knowing, not the connatural, heroic, parental way of knowing. This is perhaps one reason why the method used by St. Thomas is called the scholastic method; not just because it happened to be used in the schools, but because it is the method most effective in guiding a student from simple observations to more subtle ones, from acquaintance to familiarity and eventually to understanding and knowledge.  

How we would all like to have the heroic mode of knowledge, especially of theological truth. How sweet it would be simply to be with God, and instantly to know His mind and will on any matter related to our happiness or the happiness of our neighbor. We can and indeed ought devoutly to desire such knowledge.  But we may not count on it coming to us. While we are waiting for it, we must steadily pay attention to the next lesson in our lesson plan, not forgetting the ones we were supposed to already know, but also not rushing ahead to the ones for which we are not ready. So St. Thomas conducted his daily studies; so he conducted himself in the classroom and lecture hall; and so he conducted himself in his writing, moving carefully from the more elementary to the more subtle issues of the subject matter before him. At least, so he conducted himself until, near the end of his life, he had a vision of the love of God which made all his previous work seem of no more value than straw. What that vision was we do not know with precision; but I like to think that in that moment St. Thomas was graced with the heroic knowledge of the good parent, that from that point on he just knew what was important and how to pass it on to others. He stopped teaching and writing; but he did not stop ministering to our deepest needs. He began to do so as an intercessor, an intermediary of actual grace; and so he still does now. 

Karl Cooper teaches Theology at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. Learn more about the Theology Program

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