Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Aquinas (1225-1274) and Aristotle.

This will be a very incomplete babbling regarding the assertion that Aquinas subordinated Christian theology to the pre-Christian, pagan philosopher Aristotle's teachings.  I have read a smattering of the writings of Aquinas and a good deal of Aristotle, and other philosophers that Aquinas would have studied, but am not a doctoral student on these issues.  What I really would prefer to do is to touch on some of the areas that would need to be thoroughly understood in order to make such a judgment.  Before going on I will highlight the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which has an article on this subject as well as Cambridge Collections Online. The Stanford link makes the complexities clearer.

The problem in analyzing whether the theology and philosophy of Aquinas derive from Aristotle is that we must first make a list of subjects touched upon by both, and we also need to know what was distinctly Aristotle and/or Aquinas, and what is belonging to someone else.  This in itself would probably be a lifetime undertaking.  At the same time, we must begin by acknowledging that both authors can be extremely difficult to read, so that even an intelligent philosopher might delude herself into thinking she had a clear understanding.

As I look at Aristotle, I see a vast ocean of opinions on every conceivable subject, but the first thing that stands out is how he analyzes a subject:  He usually begins by citing various prevalent opinions, makes some remarks on their pros and cons, and then then proceeds to provide a logical analysis.  Anyone who bothers to read someone like Anselm (1033-1109) will see that logical analysis was going along quite fine before Aquinas learned how to read Aristotle, so what really stands out as distinctively Aristotelian is the enumeration of opinions on the subject. This pattern proceeded for a few centuries and wasn't really discarded until the modern era.  The usual explanation is that the multiplication of published information and opinions simply made it impractical to cite all the previous sources, so some filter was required.  Note that this is purely a pragmatic reason based on resources:  We would include the information if the time needed to compile, print and read such material had not become prohibitive, but for the most part, Aristotle's intention lived on.  There was a time during the Inquisition when certain opinions would be censored for fear of the potential political disruption, however, this was a temporary intermission.  Modern political correctness is what really brought the end to this part of Aristotle's philosophy.  Since the 19th century, prevailing but conflicting opinions are routinely censored not simply to save time, but because modernists cannot bear to even hear the notions uttered.  Even worse, the compete misrepresentation of opinions has become the norm in much of academia.  In any case, all responsible scholars are Aristotelians if we set doing a competent literature review before addressing a topic as a key point of distinction.

Getting into the details, there is the claim that the cosmology of Aquinas derives from Aristotle.  The important thing here is to enumerate both the similarities AND the differences.  So let me pick a text from Aquinas commenting on Aristotle's notion of a first cause and matter:

"Therefore whatever is the cause of things considered as beings, must be the cause of things, not only according as they are "such" by accidental forms, nor according as they are "these" by substantial forms, but also according to all that belongs to their being at all in any way. And thus it is necessary to say that also primary matter is created by the universal cause of things." - Summa Tholigica, The procession of Creatures from God, and of the First Cause of all Things.

In the earlier part of this passage, Aquinas has invoked Aristotle's notion of forms, while Aristotle asserts that there is a "first cause" which is God.  This latter claim I didn't need to learn from Aristotle since it occurs in the Bible.  Anyway, the key difference between Aquinas and Aristotle is that Aquinas asserts that matter can be created out of notion.  As I read Aristotle's works (On The Heavens, Physics and Metaphysics), it seems that Aristotle believes that matter is eternal, but there was a "first cause", i.e. God, which set the matter into motion.  On this topic, Aquinas also quotes Plato, Augustine and Dionysius.  The discussion is clearly influenced by Aristotle, and Aquinas agrees on one major point (that God is the first cause) and disagrees on another major point (whether or not matter is eternal).

What jumps out is that Aquinas is following the methods of Aristotle, but it seems to me that when it comes to reaching a conclusion, Aquinas is his own man.

A tangent dispute is whether or not Aquinas knew Greek which has various implications, but I will not jump into that at the moment until I learn more.

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