Posts Tagged ‘St. Thomas Aquinas’

Feser: Five Proofs of the Existence of God

June 16, 2020

Five Proofs of the Existence of God
Edward Feser
(Ignatius, 2017)
330 p.

Arguments for the existence of God are of perennial interest, and over the centuries many different lines of reasoning have been proposed. You have your cosmological argument, your ontological argument, your argument from design, your argument from moral objectivity, your argument from Bach – a personal favourite of mine — and many others. As a group, they proceed from a variety of different premises, and, naturally, particular arguments are convincing only to those who accept the relevant premises.

Some of the arguments are probabilistic and lead to the conclusion that God’s existence is likely; arguments proceeding from observations of particular features of the world, such as the argument from design, are of this kind. But there is a class of arguments which are deductive in form and proceed from premises which are difficult to deny; these arguments claim to be demonstrations of God’s existence —  “proofs”, to use Feser’s word. In this book, Feser puts forward five arguments of this type and defends them against critique.


Before proceeding to outline the arguments in question, it might be worthwhile to clear the ground of a few possible misgivings. There are some who see arguments for God’s existence as quixotic, and this can be for different reasons. If God – an all-powerful, all-good, eternal being who created the universe – exists, wouldn’t it be obvious? Or, from a different point of view, doesn’t belief in God’s existence properly belong to faith, and so isn’t it pointless, or even an impiety, to try to prove it by reasoning? Or, from yet another line of approach, aren’t philosophical arguments like this futile? Haven’t people been arguing these questions for centuries with no clear winner?

To the first point, the Christian tradition denies that God’s existence is obvious, in the sense of self-evident. St Paul does say that His existence can be known from the things that have been made, but doesn’t spell out how, and the Catholic Church actually holds as a dogma that God’s existence can be soundly demonstrated, but doesn’t specify what the sound argument is. In consequence, the Church denies that belief in the existence of God is something necessarily held on faith;  rather, she contends that we can know God exists, and that this knowledge is part of the “preamble to faith” (even if, in practice, many people believe in God intuitively or on the authority of the Church). And as to the futility objection – well, the same could be said for many, or most, philosophical arguments. Either you have the taste for this sort of thing or you don’t.


The five arguments Feser presents are not original with him, but are drawn from the long tradition of philosophical reflection on this topic. He calls them the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof (from Plotinus), the Augustinian proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof (from Leibniz). It should be obvious, therefore, that these are not just the “five ways” of St Thomas Aquinas.

He devotes a chapter to each argument, and each chapter has a consistent structure. He begins with a discursive argument introducing the main premises, clarifying the relevant concepts, and giving the form of the argument which establishes the existence of some entity or reality X. He then considers what the nature of X is and why it is reasonable to describe this as “God”. In the next stage, he formalizes the argument into a set of specific logical steps (between 27 and 50, depending on the case) linking the premises to the conclusion (“So, God exists”), making the shape of the argument as clear as possible. Finally, he entertains and answers a variety of objections that have been raised against the argument over the centuries.

To attempt to describe the arguments in detail here would reproduce the book, so I’m not going to do that. But I will sketch the basic idea of each argument, and then focus on a few particular points that interested me.


The Aristotelian argument begins from the premise that change occurs, and argues that this cannot be intelligible unless there exists, here and now, an unchanging changer (or, in the slightly more technical Aristotelian language, an “unactualized actualizer”) to ground it all. The argument goes like this: a given object (say, my drink) can change in various ways: it can become warmer or cooler, spill on the table, be poured into another cup, be chemically transformed by interacting with other objects, and so on. It could not change in these ways unless the change was caused, and the cause must be something outside it. Now, this thing causing the change must itself be either changeable or unchangeable. If the former, then the argument repeats; if the latter, then we have arrived at some entity which is unchangeable but causes the changes in other things. It is crucial to the argument that this causal series is not a temporal one (not an “efficient cause” in the Aristotelian sense) but what Feser calls a “hierarchical” series, one existing here and now and operative simultaneously. For example, my drink is cooling down, and this is because of heat exchange, here and now, with the surrounding air. This heat exchange is just energy transfer between the molecules of my drink and the molecules of air, and this energy transfer occurs because, here and now, there is an electromagnetic force which exists and acts between the molecules when they become sufficiently close to one another. And this electromagnetic force is, here and now, a result of the electroweak quantum field filling space, and this quantum field fills space, here and now, because… well, we don’t know, but we do know that the quantum field itself is contingent, exists in space and time, which are themselves contingent realities, and that they must be grounded in some deeper reality. Down, down we go, and the argument contends that we cannot go on to infinity, but must ultimately arrive at some level of reality which can “cash out” this hierarchy of simultaneous causes or conditions for the cooling of my drink. This is the unchanging changer (or unactualized actualizer).

Why identify this “thing” (if it is a thing) with God?  There follows a set of arguments to unfold the nature of this unactualized actualizer, and these arguments are neat (in the sense of tidy and tight) and also neat (in the sense of interesting). Feser argues that this “thing” must be outside space and time, immaterial, unchangeable, good (in the sense of ontologically good – fully itself, all it can be – rather than morally good), omnipotent (because it has power to cause all changes or actualize all possible realities), intelligent (in the sense of containing in abstract form the patterns of all it actualizes), and one. The validity of these subsidiary arguments are to be evaluated separately from the argument for the mere existence of the unactualized actualizer, but enough has been said to justify the identification of this reality with what we normally call God.

Feser considers numerous objections to the argument, from Hume, Kant, Russell, quantum mechanics, and others, and defends his formulation of the argument against them.


The Neo-Platonic argument begins from the premise that things of our experience are composed of parts, and argues to the existence of a reality which is itself non-composite or, to use the philosophical word, simple. Plotinus called it “the One”. In a way similar to the previous argument, the claim is that whenever we have a composite entity we have a hierarchical series of simultaneous causes responsible for combining those parts here and now, and that this hierarchical series cannot go on to infinity but must terminate in something which (by the nature of the argument) is not itself composite.

This is not just an argument about patching together material bits to make a composite object, but is a philosophical argument that applies to metaphysical parts as well, such as (to invoke Aristotelian concepts) form and matter, if they exist.

In classical theism, simplicity is the hallmark divine characteristic. God has no parts because, if He did, the particular way in which they were disposed would require an explanation outside God, and God would depend for His existence on something prior to Himself (in which case that thing would be God). But something which is absolutely simple is one, immutable (because there is nothing about it that can change), eternal (because there is no cause prior to itself that can bring it into or out of existence), uncaused but itself acting causally on all things, and purely actual.


The Augustinian proof is quite different. It concerns the nature of abstract entities like numbers, propositions, and universals. From the premise that at least one abstract object exists, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that an intellect exists, and that the features of this intellect justify calling it the divine intellect. Feser begins by laying out a battery of arguments (10 of them) to support the premise that at least some abstract objects exist, and then argues that this implies the existence of a mind in which these objects exist. But this mind must not be contingent on any material reality (since the abstract objects are themselves independent of material reality). Since at least some abstract entities seem to have necessary truth (like mathematical propositions), they must exist in a mind that is not contingent but exists necessarily. And so, step by step, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that the intellect in which these abstract objects exist is omniscient (containing all possible true propositions), eternal, etc., and that therefore it can be reasonably identified with the divine intellect.


The Thomistic proof proceeds from the distinction between essence — what a thing is — and existence — that a thing is — and argues to the existence of an entity in which essence and existence are not distinct. The essence of this entity is to exist, or, rather, the essence of this entity is existence itself. As such, this entity exists necessarily and all other things exist by participation in it.

Essence and existence must be distinct in most things because we can know their essences without knowing whether they exist (ie. a unicorn), because they are contingent (which would not be possible if an essence automatically implied existence), and because (which requires separate argumentation) there can be only one thing in which essence and existence are not distinct, and yet we observe many things.

A thing can begin to exist only by the action of another, for a thing which does not yet exist cannot act on itself or anything else. But whatever causes a thing to exist must either have its existence from itself or from another. All contingent things have their existence from another, and those others must in turn derive their existence from others, and so on. This is another “hierarchical causal series”, happening here and now, not spread out temporally. But then nothing can exist unless this series of causes terminates in something which has its existence from itself, something that exists necessarily, the nature of which is simply to be. But this is a thing in which essence and existence are identified. Therefore the existence of any individual contingent being requires the existence of something that exists necessarily.

Like the other arguments in this book, this is a fully metaphysical argument. That essence and existence are one in God is the classic Christian position, derived from Scripture (“I AM WHO AM”) and fully flowering in the thought of Aquinas. He proceeded to argue that God, so conceived, must be one, the cause of the existence of all things at each moment, itself uncaused, and purely actual or fully realized.


The Rationalist proof, which is the one of most recent origin, is based on the principle of sufficient reason. It begins from the premise that everything has an explanation and argues to the existence of a necessary being. This is an interesting one because it requires fewer metaphysical commitments than some of the other arguments, and relies on an uncontroversial principle that underlies all rational inquiry whatever. (Of course, the principle becomes controversial if it seems to imply God’s existence!)

The form of this argument will be familiar to any parent whose children are fond of asking “Why?” to whatever reasons are given them. The PSR (as it is called for short) states that “there is an explanation for the existence of anything that does exist and for its having the attributes it has”. It does not require that we know the explanation, or that the explanation be a deterministic one (ie. quantum mechanical causes do not undermine it). Feser does a good job explaining the incoherent mess one gets into if the truth of the PSR is denied.

The existence of contingent things must have an explanation, given PSR. If this explanation is in terms of another contingently existing thing, then it too must have an explanation, and so on. But this series of contingent things itself requires an explanation, and this passing of the explanatory buck can only terminate in a non-contingent thing – that is, a necessary thing, the existence of which, by its nature, requires no explanation. Absent this necessary being, we can never provide a complete explanation for anything.

The argument then proceeds along lines growing increasingly familiar to conclude that this necessary being must be one, the cause of all things, purely actual, immaterial, etc., and so reasonably identified with God.


Again, I have done no more than sketch the arguments here. Feser unfolds them in considerable detail, and devotes many pages to answering objections. I hope that I have summarized them with adequate faithfulness, although it has now been several months since I finished the book.

I find these arguments very interesting. It is a well-known phenomenon that physicists make poor metaphysicists, and I fear I am no exception to that pattern. I feel shaky when handling philosophical concepts like possibility, necessity, potentiality, causation, and so forth. Are these concepts reliable? Do they refer to real things? Do I understand these things clearly enough to reason with them? Personally I don’t feel particularly confident when on this ground. I am wary of any argument which seems to require that I phrase things in a particular way, or use particular concepts rather than others, for fear that the argument is only working by a linguistic formula. But I recognize this wariness as potentially unjust, for does the framing of arguments in particular ways reflect anything other than its making use of the appropriate terms?


The worry that some of the metaphysical concepts used in the arguments might be merely conceptual, not corresponding to anything real, is, in its worst and most destructive form, the worm of nominalism eating the metaphysical apple. Feser recognizes that the nominalist habits common to much modern thought act as an acid on the structure of these (and other) philosophical arguments, so he devotes several pages to counterarguments against nominalism, and these arguments I found quite interesting.

One counterargument is that a nominalist cannot state his position without having recourse to universals. A nominalist may say that things do not share a common nature (because he believes there are no such things as natures) but are grouped together for convenience because they resemble one another in some way. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, this “resemblance” is itself a universal. And if the claim is that this resemblance, too, is merely a convention or name, then the question arises why particular “resemblances” are grouped together conceptually, since this can only be on the basis of some higher resemblance, and on and on. The nominalist is stuck in a vicious regress.

Another argument is that nominalism’s attempt to evade essences or natures in favour of mere names or words is a non-starter, since words are themselves universals. A nominalist says there is no such thing as blueness, but only things we call “blue” because they have a colour in common. But you say “blue” and I say “blue”; are we saying the same word or not? If we are, then we’re using a universal, and the nominalist has failed. As Feser sums up, “it is notoriously very difficult to defend nominalism in a way that doesn’t surreptitiously bring in through the back door a commitment to universals or other abstract objects, in which case the view is self-undermining.”


Having presented his five arguments and defended each of them, Feser still has several meaty chapters in reserve. He has already treated not only the existence but also the nature of the entity or reality of the thing each argument arrived at, and we have seen that these things shared certain properties in common. In this later chapter Feser draws these lines of argument together to argue that these five arguments do not exist in isolation from one another, but are drawn together by many connections and all converge on a single reality: God. He then systematically treats each of the principal divine attributes — unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility – and examines how each is supported by the arguments he has presented.

The argumentation in this section is sometimes quite subtle. Feser follows Aquinas in thinking that talk about God must for the most part proceed analogically – that is, words applied to God cannot be understood in exactly the same sense in which we apply them to contingent realities, nor are the meanings unrelated in the two cases, but there is an analogy between them. Feser devotes quite a lot of effort to carefully articulating what this means, distinguishing types of analogy, etc. As a result of reading this section I came tantalizingly close to finally achieving my long-time ambition to understand the “analogy of being”, but I ultimately failed.

The relationship between God and the world is the next major topic of discussion, and here Feser provides helpful overviews of divine conservation (that is, that God conserves the world in being here and now) and the relationship between miracles and laws of nature.

In the book’s final chapter he steps back to consider a huge variety of objections that are commonly raised against the kinds of arguments the book defends.  These range from the manifestly incompetent (“If everything has a cause, what caused God?”) to the thoughtful (“Don’t the arguments based on the impossibility of infinite regress merely establish a necessary condition for the existence of a contingent world rather than establishing the existence of a necessary being?”). There is a valuable section critiquing scientism (the doctrine that science alone can provide genuine knowledge) and a good discussion of the problem of divine hiddenness. Indeed, this chapter, which accounts for about 1/5 of the length of the book, is a treasure trove of arguments and counterarguments relevant to natural theology.


At the end of this long overview, it is worth summing up some of the general features of the arguments presented. They are all metaphysical arguments. Nothing has been said here about science, or about any particular finding of the sciences. Nothing in these “first cause” arguments says anything about whether the universe is small or large, finite or eternal. It is hard to see how any future scientific discovery could have any bearing on them. Nothing depends on probability, an expanding universe, or the complexity of biological structures. Each argument starts from a single thing that exists here and now: I outlined the Aristotelian argument using my drink as an example, and that same drink could have served equally well for the others (except perhaps the Augustinian, though two drinks would have served there). The arguments are based on very basic ideas: change occurs, things are composed of parts, abstract objects are real, things exist contingently, and there are explanations for things. If the arguments are sound, they establish the existence of God with certainty. They are quite delightful and intriguing arguments.


I have been looking for years for a book that would clearly and carefully state classic arguments for theism, and especially for a book that would treat the divine attributes philosophically. I’ve read a few, but this has been the best. It would make a fine textbook for use in seminaries or university courses on philosophical theology. The attention Feser devotes to rebuttals of common misunderstandings and objections is a valuable service (though I can imagine a typical reader will have to hunt patiently for the answer to his objection amid the wealth of material). The writing is clear and concise, and I can see myself returning readily to this volume when I want to revisit the arguments or clarify my thoughts. There is much more here than I was able to absorb on one reading.

The existence of God is more than a matter of merely academic interest. I am myself a Catholic, so I affirm the existence of God. I pray, try to act in ways consonant with my dignity as a child of God, and hope to one day see God face to face. I do not spend a great deal of time, as part of my daily routine, thinking about absolute simplicity, hierarchies of causes, perfect ontological goodness, and so forth. Yet it would be false to conclude that these philosophical arguments are somehow irrelevant to my religious life and devotion. The God whom they reveal to the mind is, to say the least, mysterious, behind and before, replete and bountiful, overflowing with power, closer to me than I am to myself, hidden but present within every aspect of my experience, the great fountainhead of being, in whom I live and move along with everything else. There is substance here for fruitful prayer and reflection.

Books briefly noted: ancient and medieval

January 31, 2020

Today, quick notes on a few books that crossed my bed-stand lately:

Making Medieval Manuscripts
Christopher de Hamel
(Bodleian, 2018)
176 p.

Here is a wonderful book for those with an interest in things medieval. I have quite a few books on or about medieval manuscripts — mostly coffee table books on illuminated manuscripts — but here is the first book I have seen devoted to explaining how those manuscripts were made. Christopher de Hamel is a Cambridge fellow with long experience working with these manuscripts, and recently won wide praise for his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, a great, thick book that I borrowed from the library but returned unread on account of its great thickness. The present volume, however, which is a re-working of his 1992 book Scribes and Illuminators, is invitingly thin and generously ornamented with pictures. It was a quick and fascinating read.

Hamel starts at the beginning — with dead sheep — and explains the process by which parchment was made from the skins. He gives the recipes for medieval ink, and talks about the process of planning the layout of books, as well as the arduous task of actually writing or copying them. We learn a little about the economics of book production. The central section of the book is devoted to the art of illumination: how drawings were planned, how pigments were made, the order in which pictures were coloured, the process by which gold leaf was produced and laid onto the page. Finally he describes how pages were sewn together and bound into codices. The book gives one a renewed appreciation not only for the beauty of the finished books, but also simply for the many volumes which we have inherited from ancient and medieval times, each one of which was produced with great labour. Hamel writing is clear and genial, and his obvious affection for his subject is evident. The book is handsomely produced on glossy paper and filled, as already mentioned, with beautiful and instructive pictures.


Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts
Pamela Porter
(British Library, 2000)
128 p.

While I would stop short of claiming to have a positive desire to fight in a medieval war, I think it is still legitimate to point out that a certain romance attaches to the figure of the medieval warrior: the armour, the banners, the tents, the parlays, the horses, the valour, and the heraldry must, in justice, be considered alongside the spear in the torso and the arrow in the eye for a fully rounded picture. This little book provides a brief overview of the conditions and tactics of medieval warfare. We learn about knights and the chivalric tradition, military training, weapons and armour, siege tactics, battle formations, and, in the later middle ages, technological advances such as gun-powdered weapons that sufficiently altered military affairs that a new age of warfare could be said to have begun.

But only, by my estimate, one-quarter of the book is text. The rest is filled out with manuscript illuminations depicting one or another aspect of warfare, and these pictures are the principal attraction of the book, for they are wonderful — all the more so after reading Hamel’s book above and having, therefore, a fresh appreciation for the difficulty with which those illuminations were made. A preponderance of the pictures appear to have been taken from English and French manuscripts — at least, it is very often that the two armies depicted are the English and the French — which makes sense given that they were curated from the British Library’s collection. Although the book is not large (just 6 inches on a side, roughly) the reproductions are of high quality and the colours are vivid. Recommended to students of military history and lovers of medieval art.


Practical Theology
Spiritual Direction from St Thomas Aquinas
Peter Kreeft
(Ignatius, 2014)
400 p.

Kreeft had a good idea: highlight within St Thomas’ voluminous writings a set of topics that could be of interest to ordinary (non-philosopher) Christians, add commentary to explain or elaborate Thomas’ points, and then staple them all together. The book includes over 350 of these topics, typically one per page. They range from broadly pastoral topics (“Why God doesn’t give us enough grace to overcome sin”) to moral reflections (“How unbelief is a sin”; “Why wealth can’t make you happy”) to catechesis (“What the Eucharist signifies”). There is plenty of philosophy too (“Knowing God by analogy”; “The importance of reason in morality”). Each treatment is short enough that the book could serve as a kind of daily devotional reader, and this was how I approached it. St Thomas’ writings are incredibly rich, seeming sometimes to be a reservoir for the accumulated wisdom of our whole religious and cultural tradition, and Kreeft’s selections are judicious, even if the treatments are sometimes cursory.


Ancient Warfare
A Very Short Introduction
Harry Sidebottom
(Oxford, 2004)
165 p.

By ‘ancient’ is meant, for the most part, Greco-Roman. Sidebottom casts quite a wide net for a short book: war in ancient art, war as a metaphor and conceptual framework in ancient society, motives and justifications for war, and techniques for waging war. He includes an interesting though brief discussion of the development of our just war tradition: Greeks made limited contributions, but Cicero in his Republic specified basic conditions for commencing a war, while some Stoics (Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom) denied that any war could be just, even when fought in self-defence. Soldiery was frowned on by early Christians, not only because soldiers were the pointy-end of the Imperial stick wielded against them, but because soldiers were obligated to uphold the cult of the Emperor; it is telling that in early Christianity the image of the spiritual athlete predominates over that of the spiritual soldier.

The most interesting chapter to me was on the conditions of ancient warfare “on the ground”: what soldiers wore and carried, how they fought in formation, how commands were given, the basic shape of naval warfare, the techniques of siege warfare. Least interesting were the author’s occasional nods at matters in academic vogue (“war was strongly gendered in classical antiquity”). The book as a whole advances an argument about the nature of “the Western way of war”; generally I think that brief, introductory volumes meant for beginners are poor venues for proposing pet theories, but perhaps the publisher thought differently.

Felix Thomas

January 28, 2020

A very happy Feast of the Angelic Doctor to all!

Felix Thomas, Doctor Ecclesiæ,
lumen mundi, splendor Italiæ,
candens virgo flore munditiæ,
bina gaudet corona gloriæ.

Blessed Thomas, Doctor of the Church,
light of the World, splendour of Italy,
a virgin shining in the flower of his purity,
rejoices in his twofold crown of glory.

Lecture night: mercy and Malick

April 8, 2018

John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, speaks in this lecture on mercy in Malick’s The Tree of Life. He brings that great film into conversation with Augustine’s Confessions, and illustrates the lecture with several excerpts. It’s an excellent lecture, recommended to admirers of the film.

Pieper: The Silence of Goethe

August 28, 2017

The Silence of Goethe
Josef Pieper
(St Augustine’s Press, 2009)
xii + 67 p.

Some time ago I noted the origins of this little book: Pieper, finding himself confined in a German POW camp, but with access to the complete works of Goethe, passed the time by reading the volumes in their entirety. This in itself was remarkable, but perhaps even more striking was that he then put pen to paper to write about the silence of Goethe.

Silence was a theme that attracted Pieper; another of his books, and a rather good one, is The Silence of St Thomas (the subject of which is, once again, one of the most prolific authors in history). But whereas in that case Pieper focused on what Thomas’ silence — that is, the topics he did not write about, or that he thought could not be written about — told us about his metaphysics and his theology, in this book on Goethe the themes are more modest, the silences of Goethe, like his words, not being as pregnant as those of St Thomas.

In this book Pieper reflects on what Goethe said about the relevance of silence, and of reticence more generally, to a well-lived life. It takes the form of a series of brief reflections on passages gleaned from Goethe’s works.

One of the themes that emerges is that silence is necessary for the health and flourishing of an inner life, for it is a hidden source from which one draws strength:

“What is best is the deep stillness in which, against the world, I live and grow, and gain what it cannot take from me by fire and sword.”


“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides.”

This reminds me of something I once read in St John of the Cross in which he counselled his readers “never to reveal to another what God is doing in your inmost heart”, for by such revelations one risks distorting or destroying that delicate reality. And Goethe, too, seems to have felt that one should be circumspect about the highest things, lest one speak of them inadequately. Writes Pieper, “Even with his closest and dearest friends he remained silent about the most exalted things.” His friends noted that he became silent when talk turned to divine matters, saying, “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.”

Part of what Goethe understood by silence was public silence — that is, staying out of the public eye. “You live properly only if you live a hidden life.” Again, there is a certain irony here inasmuch as Goethe was forever putting his books before the public, and he was one of the best-known men in Europe, but his books were not himself, were not about himself, and so retained a kind of reticence. But it seems he enjoyed the contrast he cultivated between private reserve and public persona: “This is then the great charm of the otherwise questionable life of an author: that one is silent with one’s friends and at the same time prepared a great conversation with them which reaches out to every part of the world.”

He also maintained a prudent silence because he thought that the public did not, by and large, deserve to know his thoughts on various matters, being too preoccupied with gossip and sensation. This might be thought contemptuous, but Pieper defends him by drawing on St Thomas, who, in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, said of the magnanimous man that “in his attitude to the throng he uses irony” and that he is rightly contemptuous of mean-spiritedness. “Such contempt is as little at odds with humility as it is at odds with truth, since no one’s just claim to honor is being injured.”

In the deepest sense, Goethe saw silence is a preparation for listening, for perceiving and receiving reality more clearly and fully. Says Pieper, “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. It is meant, in the Goethean “maxim”, to “deny myself as much as possible and to take up the object into myself as purely as it is possible to do”.” Pieper comments that “It is here that Goethe represents what, since Pythagoras, may be considered the silence tradition of the West”. There is a kind of hope implicit in this silence, since it waits in expectation of something true and good.

The second half of this (already very brief) volume consists of short excerpts from Goethe’s letters. Some of these continue the theme of silence, but others wander further afield. Since they present no clearly unified picture, I’ll conclude by simply quoting a few of those that struck me most forcefully.


“For we really ought not to speak of what we will do, of what we are doing, nor of what we have done.”

“A person who is used to silence remains silent.”

“What a person must do allows him to show what he is inwardly like. Anyone can live arbitrarily.”

“We can do no more than build a stack of wood and dry it properly. Then it will catch fire at the right time and we ourselves will be astonished by it.”

“If I had nothing to say except what people want to hear, I would be completely silent.”

“There are three kinds of reader: one who enjoys without making a judgment, a third who judges without enjoyment, and, in the middle, one who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. This middle one reproduces a work of art anew.”

“An individual has to give an account of himself. No one comes to his aid.”

“To see people and things exactly as they are and to say exactly what is on our mind — this is the right thing. We should not and cannot do more.”

McGunn on the Summa Theologiae

July 25, 2016

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
A Biography
Bernard McGunn
(Princeton, 2014)
272 p.

The idea of writing a “biography” of a book is an odd but interesting one. Books, like persons, originate in a particular time and place, have a particular character and range of interests, and exert a certain influence in the world. Unlike the life of an individual person, the life of a great book continues over many generations, and the book has the potential to become a permanent cultural possession.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is an especially daunting book. The edition I own runs to about 3000 double-columned pages in small type, and though I have often entertained the idea of reading through it in a systematic way — it is structured in such a way as to accommodate brief, step-by-step encounters — yet to this point I have done little more than dabble. Probably I’ve spent more time reading about the Summa than reading the thing itself.

mcgunn-summaMcGunn discusses Thomas’ life and the circumstances under which the Summa was written. He talks about Thomas’ motives in undertaking such a massive effort and about the readers for whom it was written. He discusses several important questions relevant to our understanding of the Summa as a whole, such as Thomas’ understanding of the nature of theology, and of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Although many books on Thomas and the Summa focus on Thomas’ contributions to philosophy — his epistemology, his metaphysics, his ethics — it is fair to say that McGunn is at least and possibly more interested in his contributions to theology. This is fitting; the Summa is a book of theology.

A middle section of the book gives a superb overview of the structure of the Summa, outlining the content of its various parts. Embedded in the pages of the Summa are a variety of focused investigations of specific topics: law, ethics, creation, sacraments, Christ, and so on. McGunn helps us to see how these pieces fit together into the overall logical structure of the work.

The last half of the present book is devoted to the “biography” — that is, the history of the book and its reception after it was completed (or, in the case of the Summa, not completed). Initially Thomas’ Summa faced serious obstacles, mostly on account of his decision to couch his thought in Aristotelian terms, which were viewed with suspicion in some quarters, and certain of Thomas’ propositions were condemned by some ecclesiastical authorities. But the Dominicans took a special pride in Thomas’ accomplishments, and adopted the Summa for educational purposes from an early date. By the sixteenth century Thomas’ star had risen high enough for Luther to designate the Catholic Church as “the Thomistic church” (and, with his usual perspicacity, he identified St Thomas as “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel”). The rumour (repeated by Pope Leo XIII) that the Summa was on the altar next the Bible at the Council of Trent McGunn says is false, but Thomas did continue to accumulate honours: in 1567 Pope St Pius V named him a Doctor of the Church — the first person to be so honoured since the patristic period — and toward the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Thomas as their official theologian; several of the most important commentaries on the Summa were written by Jesuits (viz. Suarez). But with the passing of time the Summa eventually fell on hard times. The work itself was eclipsed in the scholarly mind by commentaries upon it, and these eventually grew so weighty and dry that they became, in the early modern period, objects of scorn. The rise of modern philosophy occurred without the Summa being a point of reference (except perhaps for Descartes, at second or third hand). McGunn says, incredibly, that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wanted to read it, he couldn’t find a copy.

These declining fortunes were reversed by the election of a Thomist to the papacy in the latter-half of the nineteenth-century. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he praised St Thomas as the Christian philosopher par excellence and recommended not only his example but also his particular ideas as of special and enduring value to the Church. From this point, Catholic intellectuals began to engage with the thought of St Thomas again in an especially intense way. Intense, but far from uniform. The hope of Leo XIII that Thomism could provide a united front with which the Church could contend against the manifold errors of the modern world was not realized, for there turned out to be not just Thomism, but Thomisms, and an interesting section of the book traces these different schools over the course of the twentieth century. There were those who saw Thomism as a kind of trans-historical philosophical vantage point, such as Garrigou-Lagrange. There were those who sought, on the contrary, to understand St Thomas and his contributions in historical context while retaining an interest in his modern relevance (Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain). And there were others who sought to put Thomas into conversation with modern philosophy (Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner). These names are all familiar — I am especially fond of Gilson — but it is helpful to see them placed on a map.

Vatican II, inadvertently or not, brought about a decline in the centrality of St Thomas for Catholic thought. It is tempting to see this as another instance of the oft-repeated pattern whereby the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness, allowed her treasures to fall into neglect. I don’t think it healthy that the Church’s intellectual life be identified strongly with one particular framework, but of all possible frameworks which could maintain a lively presence in the Church’s intellectual life, that of St Thomas is a rich and worthy one. In Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II taught that the Church has no official philosophy, but recommended St Thomas as an exemplar of Catholic intellectual life.


I read the book at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it very much. McGunn is not himself a Thomist, so he brings an outsider’s perspective, which might be advantageous in some respects. Of course, nobody is free of prejudices, and some of his do come through, not all of which were appealing to me. I got the general feeling that McGunn doesn’t love Thomas quite as much as he ought to. But overall I did find it a worthwhile and interesting book.

The cover of the book, shown above, reproduces Filippo Lippi’s The Dispute of St Thomas, which one can see in the Cappella Carafa at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a chapel which I have visited every time I’ve been to the Eternal City and which is dear to my heart.


This volume is part of an ongoing series issued by Princeton University Press of “biographies” of great religious books. Other entries in the series include the Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and books from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition too, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I expect many of those would be worthwhile too.

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Pieper: On Justice

August 30, 2013

On Justice
Josef Pieper
(Notre Dame, 1966) [1955]
74 p.

This small book belongs to a series which Josef Pieper wrote on each of the cardinal and theological virtues. In it, as in the others, his purpose was not to make an original contribution to the subject, but rather to summarize  central claims of the Western tradition of moral philosophy. As always, Pieper’s lodestone is St. Thomas Aquinas (himself so often a superb reference for classical and medieval sources), but he does not neglect the modern period.

Stated briefly, justice is “the notion that each man is to be given what is his due”. As such, justice is dependent on a prior determination of what is or is not due to a person, and, even more basically, on the notion that something can be due to a person, that a person can have a “right” to something which another is obligated to respect. The tradition states that a thing can be due to a person either by convention (due to legal agreements, promises, and so on) or naturally (that is, independent of any particular legal body or political system). The idea of a “natural right” underlies the contemporary discussion about human rights in international affairs.

One to whom something is due must be the sort of thing that can claim a right. It makes little sense, for instance, to speak of a moral obligation to a stone or a flower. This implies that we cannot fruitfully speak about justice without a concept of human nature. Our tradition’s principal concept of the human person Pieper summarizes as “a spiritual being, a whole unto itself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own perfection” and it is “created a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion.” There is perhaps some ambiguity here as to whether personhood derives principally from our origin (as creatures) or our nature. Pieper seems to argue that our nature makes us capable of claiming rights and of thereby entering the orbit of justice, but our origin, deriving ultimately from a source outside the human community, places limits on the scope of rights derived from convention or authority and provides an opening for natural rights. He quotes Kant: “We have a divine Sovereign, and his divine gift to man is man’s right.”

If justice is to give what is due, then to be just means “to owe something and to pay the debt”. The stress on action here — pay the debt — is appropriate, for justice resides in an external act, not in an intention or disposition. In this, it differs from several other classical virtues, notably temperance and prudence. One may intend to be just, but unless one follows through with the act of justice, one cannot actually be said to be just. Justice is, in this sense, a “public virtue”. Pieper remarks that in the sphere of justice, people rightly regard one another objectively, almost as strangers. And there is a reverse side to the public character of justice: “every external act belongs to the field of justice”.

According to our moral tradition justice is a virtue of higher rank than fortitude or temperance, and this for two principal reasons: first, because it has a wider scope, ordering not only individual lives but also the life of communities, and, second, because while fortitude and temperance are virtues related to the body, having to do with mastering appetites and desires and so forth, justice is spiritual in nature. Moreover, it is quite possible to imagine being very “moral”, in the sense of being self-controlled and courageous, while nonetheless being unjust. (Such, Pieper notes, is the traditional character of the Anti-Christ.) So justice is an essential element in the conduct of a truly moral life.

Pieper identifies three basic forms of justice: reciprocal (the justice one person owes another), distributive (the justice a community owes to individual persons), and legal (the justice individual persons owe to the community). Perhaps because of the post-war context in which he was writing, with the threat of totalitarian governments a matter of constant concern, he focuses most of his discussion on distibutive justice, which is concerned with what the social whole (not specifically the government, note) owes the individual.

We might be tempted to suppose that distributive justice is more or less served in society today by a government-supported welfare system, but Pieper makes a few pointed remarks that call this identification into question. First, he anticipates some comments which Pope Benedict XVI made in Spe Salvi when he states that the nature of distributive justice is endangered when one’s relationship to the community is conceived in impersonal terms, when we think of a “welfare system” operated by bureaucrats rather than a network of personal relationships with a human face. And a second doubt is raised by consideration of the nature of the “communal goods” with which distributive justice is concerned; we are apt to think this means money and other tangible goods, and it does (“food, clothing, shelter, means of communication, care of the sick, education”), but is means more too: “the bonum commune extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means” to include the full measure of the human good, spiritual as well as material. It includes knowledge of truth and moral guidance, for instance. If we are looking for a model of what Pieper means I believe that we might advantageously look to the Church rather than to civil society; there, at least, one sees the attempt to minister to the full dignity and capacity of the human person.

An oddity about distributive justice is that it cannot be enforced, for the obligated party is ultimately the authority itself:

Since institutional precautions and controls could entirely prevent the abuse of power only by precluding any form of effective authority, there is nothing and no one that can restrain the man of power from doing injustice — if not his own sense of justice. In the affairs of this world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just.

This provides a good reason to hold those in authority to high moral standards, and the greater the authority the higher the standard.

The closing sections of the book take up a rich theme: the limits of justice. There are, of course, some debts which are not paid, some obligations which are not met in this life. A secular account of justice must concede that the reign of justice is only partial and incomplete, for sometimes injustice carries the day. A religious account — or at least a Christian account — extends the reign of justice so that it is ultimately triumphant: those injustices which appear to triumph in this life are themselves judged by the ultimate justice of God.

Yet in addition to debts which, for one reason or another, are not paid, there are some debts which cannot be paid, some obligations which, by their very nature, cannot be met, and these mark out additional limits on the domain of justice. Such limits are especially evident in a person’s relationship to God, for each person receives his or her very being from God, and no repayment can ever be adequate to this gift.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” This must not be taken to be merely an edifying thought. It is a very precise description of man’s condition in the face of God. Before any subsequent claim is made by men, indeed even before the mere possibility of a human claim arises, comes the fact that man has been made a gift by God (of his being) such that his nature cannot ever “make it good,” discharge it, “deserve” it, or return it again. Man can never say to God: “We are even.”

And divine justice must be understood in another way as well, for if justice means “to owe something and to pay the debt”, then God cannot, in this sense, be called just, for he owes nothing. Unfortunately Pieper does not elaborate on this question of what it means to say that God is just — only, as above, that his justice is allied to mercy.

Pieper argues that the practice of religious sacrifice is rooted in this same basic inability to give adequate thanks for the gift of being. No human effort can ever overcome the debt. When Hector pours his wine on the ground to honour the gods, or when a priest offers an unblemished lamb to the altar, or when a pilgrim sets out in a spirit of humble trust in God, the very extravagance of the act highlights its inadequacy:

Helplessness and impotency prompt this extravagance; because it is impossible to do what “properly” ought to be done, an effort beyond the bounds of reason, as it were, tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

Religious sacrifice is thus seen, from this perspective, to be rooted in justice. (I am aware of other accounts of the nature and significance of religious sacrifice, but this is one which I have not considered before.) The same is true of piety, and for much the same reason: St. Thomas says that “It is not possible to make to one’s parents an equal return of what one owes to them; and thus piety is annexed to justice.”


This is a very good book. It is potent and concentrated, as Pieper’s books usually are.

I close with a few aphorisms lifted from the text, several of which are paraphrases or quotations from St. Thomas:


Thomas, via Seneca: “A person who wants to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and an ungrateful person.” (ST, II, II, 106, 4)

Thomas: “Creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone’s due.”

“The common good requires every individual to be good.”

St. Thomas: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.”

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2013

January 28, 2013


I like to do something to honour the feast of St. Thomas every year (2012, 2011, 2010, 2009). This year the day has snuck up on me, so I’ll simply use what I have at hand. I have been reading — or trying to read, really — Etienne Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers, in which St. Thomas’ metaphysics of being has a starring role. Here is a passage I highlighted:

This is a cardinal point in the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. To posit substance as the proper receiver of existence (proprium susceptivum ejus quod est esse) is not to posit it as a “container” into which existence has but to flow in order to make it be. So long as there is no existence, there is no receptacle to receive it. Existence is here fulfilling an entirely different function. As we have already described it, the substance is “that which” exists, and it is quod est in virtue of its form. Form then is ultimate act in the order of substantiality. In other words, there is no form of the form. Consequently, should we have to ascribe “to be” or “is” to a form, it could not be considered as a form of that form. No point could be more clearly stated than is this one in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.

My emphases. Maybe I am just not getting enough sleep these days, but I’ll give a special prize to anyone who can state this a little more clearly.

In the meantime, here is something edifying: my friend Adam Hincks, S.J. has posted a short reflection on the principal lessons he learned from a recent course he took on Thomistic metaphysics: What I Learned from St. Thomas Aquinas.

Saward: The Beauty of Holiness

March 12, 2012

The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism
John Saward
(Ignatius, 1997)
200 p.

The inability of so much modern thought to deal adequately with aesthetics has long served me as a motive for skepticism about its adequacy in general. When the early modern philosophers stripped the world of beauty, stuffing whatever glory and splendour we might encounter into our skulls, rendering it (according to taste) a private judgment or chemical frisson, they entered upon a metaphysical landscape from which, unless I am mistaken, few of the leading modern thinkers have returned. Speaking for myself, I have not been able to follow with any confidence; my efforts to think ‘rightly’ about such matters have all ended in failure. Beauty is real, it seems to me, and it is important to a life well-lived, much as goodness and truth are. A famous passage from von Balthasar resonates with me:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Encouraged by such statements, I have tried, in my typically middling way, to be open and attentive to beauty. Since modernity has not been able to provide a theoretical ground for this practice, I have naturally sought intellectual foundations elsewhere. Beauty was taken more seriously by ancient and medieval thinkers. John Saward, in the process of developing a theological understanding of aesthetics, nicely illustrates the contrast by comparing the views of pre-eminent representatives of the medieval and modern traditions:

St. Thomas regards beauty as a property of being, a feature of reality, whereas the Enlightenment makes it a colourful subjective ‘value’ pasted over the penny-plain objective ‘fact’. For Kant, to say that the San Marco altarpiece is beautiful is merely to voice one’s feeling of pleasure at seeing the San Marco altarpiece; nothing in the painting corresponds to the judgement. By contrast, for Thomas, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved; it is loved because it is beautiful. Our minds through our senses perceive the beauty of Angelico’s altarpiece; they do not produce it. Beauty is not read into works of art, God’s and men’s; it radiates out of them. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, it ‘keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are’.

That, I think, sums up the difference rather nicely, and also (I trust) conveys the attractiveness of the Thomist view. It is evident that Thomas’ understanding of beauty requires a vastly different, and far richer, metaphysics than modernity has typically been willing, or able, to sustain.

The purpose of John Saward’s book is, in part, to present the pre-modern (and, more specifically, Thomist) philosophy of beauty, and to unfold its many intimate connections to theology. Understood theologically, beauty — like everything else that is good — ultimately has its source in God, and Saward’s special theme, as the title of his book indicates, is to explore how the beauty of God shines forth in two particular ways: through holy lives and through sacred art. In doing so he picks up on something which Pope Benedict, then still a Cardinal, once said:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, the beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and hence truth — is at home.

(This quotation actually serves as epigraph to Saward’s book, suggesting that it may have been the seed from which the book itself has grown.)

In developing this theme of beauty in Christian lives and art, Saward turns, naturally enough, to one of those in whom both aspects were manifest: Beato Angelico. A significant part of the book is devoted to a close study of his San Marco altarpiece, not from an art historical perspective, but in order to unpack the many ways in which the painting illustrates the Catholic tradition’s theological understanding of beauty and holiness.

Holiness and beauty are united in an exemplary, if not quite preeminent, way in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has greater moral beauty than any other created being, and, in agreement with Saward’s motivating concept, Christian tradition has piously put her at the center of its artistic tradition, portraying her as lovely to behold, ‘the most beautiful lady’. Her beauty illuminates all that it touches. Saward devotes a good deal of attention to this fact, tracing Our Lady’s influence upon our music, architecture, and literature, and exploring the theological reasons for it.

In the final section of the book Saward turns to the special class of saints who lost their lives for the faith. He argues that persecution and martyrdom in the Church have frequently called forth beautiful art, citing, for instance, the cases of Robert Southwell and William Byrd in the wake of Edmund Campion’s martyrdom, or Bernanos’ Dialogues of the Carmelites after the French Revolution. Conversely, Saward observes that very often persecution and heresy are combined with iconoclasm, an assault on the faithful and on Church teaching being paired with an assault on her art. This was so during the English Reformation, in Calvin’s Geneva, in the French Revolution, and, more recently, in Communist nations. That such things occur together is not surprising, for Christian art is an expression of Christian thought and devotion, and it is an arguable point whether such iconclasm constitutes an assault on beauty per se. Yet the spectacle of someone defacing art of such great beauty is unseemly, at the very least, and, contends Saward, is fruitfully suggestive of a deeper conflict.

The Holiness of Beauty is a rewarding read, with considerably more in it than I, at any rate, was able to glean on one reading. It comes bedecked with laudatory blurbs from the likes of Aidan Nichols, Stratford Caldecott, Thomas Howard, and even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. If you like those authors, you will probably like this as well. The writing is quite dense, but not overly scholarly, and is frequently beautiful. On numerous occasions I paused, at length, over an arresting thought or elegant turn of phrase, and it occurred to me that certain sections of the book might well serve as fodder for lectio divina. The theology is, as far as I could detect, thoroughly orthodox. Part of me wishes that the theological material was not couched so thoroughly in Thomist language — surely a theme as foundational as this could be expressed in other ways — and all of me wishes that I had understood the theological basics more clearly than I did, but these are minor complaints. It is a good book.


Some quotations:

‘When sundered from beauty, truth becomes a correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight.’

‘Christ is beautiful, and he comes to restore us to beauty.’

‘The creature intent on glorifying itself resents the Creator who humbled himself.’

‘The man who would venerate the holy icons must gaze with the loving attention of a child, not the peering curiosity of the connoisseur.’

‘Positivism, materialism, atheism — these are the great deadly enemies of art, for they blind a man to the wealth and wonder of being. It was from all such rude reductions of reality that William Blake asked to be delivered when he prayed, ‘May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep’.’

‘Every true love has the inner form of a vow.’ (Balthasar)