Two Cheers for Thomas Aquinas

by David Tracy

David Tracy is Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor of Catholic Studies at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 6, 1974, pp. 260-262. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The ideal that Aquinas set up for a Christian theology is one that remains as correct in its rigorous demands as it was when first formulated. Thomas Aquinas was a first-rank thinker whose witness to the Christian faith endures, and in addition an authentic saint whose sanctity was sufficiently human to forbid sentimentalizing him.

Seven hundred years ago, on March 7, 1274, Friar Thomas Aquinas, aged 49, died on his way to the Council of Lyons. His death, then unexpected, is still unexplained. The sole fact that seems historically secure is that, following the four years of well-nigh incredibly productive intellectual work of his second professional stay at the University of Paris, Thomas underwent an intense personal experience on December 6, 1273, which caused him to cease writing forever. That experience may have been a stroke, some form of physical or nervous breakdown, or a mystical experience. (In his important new study Friar Thomas d’Aquino, Father James A. Weisheipl rather puzzlingly suggests that it was a combination of all three.) Whatever its explanation, the fact is that Thomas never wrote again. When his several admirers asked him why, he replied, "I cannot, for all that I have written seems like straw to me.

Perhaps only in that now legendary remark near the end of his life does one begin to sense the real, indeed moving humanity of this still strangely distant, seemingly untouchable thinker. For future generations his person became as lost in his work as, for his contemporaries, Thomas himself was lost in his own abstractions, even in close social situations or in the midst of extraordinary historical conflicts.


Anniversaries are useful if but to make us rethink the achievement and the limitations of the hero or heroine of the day. Yet there remains something curiously impersonal about the anniversary of Thomas Aquinas. When we celebrate an anniversary of a Socrates or an Augustine, a Luther or a Newman, a Schleiermacher or a Kierkegaard, the person is at least as much in view as the work. With Thomas the exact opposite is the case. The anniversary must celebrate his work and forego all but a brief glimpse of his person. That glimpse proves attractive, to be sure, but it is as blurred and vague as the thought is stark in the clarity of its structure and its main doctrines. Thomas seems to force even our psychological age to take him on his own terms: examine the thought, you cannot really reach the personality of the thinker.

So it happens that the anniversary of Thomas Aquinas becomes the occasion to re-examine his work. We are fortunate that the 700th anniversary occurs in 1974, not in 1954 or 1964. Had it come in 1954, the world would probably have been treated by Catholic philosophers and theologians to the predictable and now embarrassing explosions of praise for the towering, indeed the "perennial" achievement of the Angelic Doctor, the Common Master, the almost "once and for all" Saint Thomas Aquinas. Has Einstein spoken? Fine, but really -- if you look hard and long enough -- it’s all there in Aquinas; if not in the Summa Theologiae, then surely in one of the commentaries on Aristotle. Are you looking for an aesthetic or political theory which, with a few minor modifications, may be applicable to the modern situation? Fine, read Thomas. If still unsatisfied, read Jacques Maritain or Étienne Gilson. Do you want an adequate contemporary theology? Master the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. If still in doubt, if you really must, then read one of those dubiously Thomist but clearly modern "transcendental" Thomists: Joseph Marshal, the early Karl Rahner or the early Bernard Lonergan.

Had the 700th anniversary come in 1964, at the height of Vatican II enthusiasm, it would, I fear, have occasioned explosions at least as unfortunate. The "old guard," to be sure, would have rushed their fulsome articles to press. But then they would have been greeted by their fellow Catholics with, at best, embarrassment or silence; at worst, with fury. What need have we for Thomas Aquinas? We are now both biblical and modern; and on both grounds we reject this medieval Aristotle, this static and hierarchical view, this dubious rendition of faith and reason, this impossible and oppressive ideological system. Why, even the New York Times has reported that the refrain, "Should old Aquinas be forgot" can now be heard in the corridors and coffee shops of the new conciliar Vatican. Save for an occasional and then unpopular access of nostalgia, the 1964 theme seemed to be that Thomas should be forgotten as quickly if not as quietly as possible.

A historical reputation, of course, does not change quite so rapidly. This year we shall surely hear yet again from both our not-so-mythical "1954" and "1964" groups. The first will simply praise Thomas with all the "perennial" fervor of the true believer, the second will try once again to bury him. But the rest of the celebrants, one hopes, will take a different course. They will examine Thomist thought for its possible contributions to today’s discussions. They will expect to find neither a saving system nor a beached whale. They will expect and they will find a system of thought which still retains its power to aid and to challenge our more usual modes of thinking. These latter-day celebrants will include most contemporary Catholic and Protestant theologians and several contemporary secular philosophers.


It may be useful to cite two exemplary witnesses to the continuing importance of a critically appreciative approach to the work of Thomas Aquinas. The first witness, Professor Anthony Kenny of Oxford, is the editor of a collection of essays on Thomas’s thought as examined by analytical philosophers. In introducing this collection (a volume in the important series "Modern Studies in Philosophy" [Doubleday Anchor, 1969]) Professor Kenny makes these surely sensible comments:

As a philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas is both overvalued and undervalued. He is overvalued by those who regard him as a unique source of philosophic truth, whose ideas can only be adapted and never superseded by later thought and discovery. He is undervalued by those who think of him as being, outside theology, no more than an erratic commentator on Aristotle.

Aquinas is, I believe, one of the dozen greatest philosophers of the western world.. His philosophy of nature has been antiquated, in great part, by the swift progress, of natural science since the Renaissance. His philosophy of logic has been in many respects improved upon by the work of logicians and mathematicians in the last hundred years. But his metaphysics, his philosophical theology, his philosophy of mind and his moral philosophy entitle him to rank with Plato and Aristotle, with Descartes and Leibniz, with Locke and Hume and Kant.

The essays themselves make clear that their editor’s critically appreciative view of Thomas Aquinas represents something like an emerging consensus on his significance in the secular philosophical community. Happily, the same consensus also seems to be forming in the Roman Catholic philosophical and theological communities. Although several witnesses to this development could be cited, a single representative may suffice. Indeed, this witness, Thomas Gilby, O.P., is highly qualified to speak since he is the editor of the major effort in Thomist interpretation in the English-speaking world: the new translation of and valuable commentary on the Summa Theologiae undertaken by the English Blackfriar Dominicans at Cambridge. Father Gilby’s comments focus on the dangers for Catholic theology itself of canonizing the thought of its admittedly greatest exponent, Thomas Aquinas:

There have been times when his followers have been like poor Bazaine who immobilized his field-army behind the fortifications of Metz. For here is a body of thought which is more versatile, therefore more authentically itself, when working as a minority and not a majority movement, or when not being paraded under anti-Modernist drill-sergeants with their manuals of standardized mechanization [Summa Theologiae -- Vol. I, The Existence of God: Part One: Questions 1-13 (Doubleday Image) , pp. 11-12].


Perhaps at least the outlines of what I hope is an emerging consensus on the significance of Thomas’s thought today are evident in these quotations. Still, a more personal statement of some of the major components of that significance may not be out of order here. In my view, the ideal that Aquinas set up for a Christian theology -- an ideal which asked for an attempt at a systematic understanding of the relationships between secular philosophical self-understanding and the principal meanings of the Christian tradition -- is one that remains as correct in its rigorous demands as it was when first formulated. As Thomas’s own contemporaries recognized (sometimes in horror) , it is an ideal that belongs in what later became known as the attempts at a "liberal" or "modern" theology. Thomas’s own systematic exposition of that ideal’s fulfillment is, for most of us, clearly inadequate to the needs of our century. Even so, Thomas’s thought is surely more than a historical curiosity in the manner of the system of a John Scotus Erigena.

And therein lies the paradox. It seems that Aquinas’s Gothic cathedral has become less a place for worshipful silence and security and more a quarry for modern Catholic and Protestant theologians. To some, for example, his specific analyses of moral acts and habits (the "virtues") remain an invaluable resource for contemporary ethical reflection once these are rescued from their place in the neo-Platonic structure of the Summa. To others, his analysis of how metaphysical reasoning, qua metaphysical (his doctrine of the separatio) , is distinct from yet allied to scientific and mathematical thought still endures. For Thomas’s position remains a classical formulation of the true character of all properly metaphysical thought. To still others, Thomas’s sensitivity to the demands of both grace and nature, both God and man, both faith and reason, manifests that awareness of the "whole" which, whatever the limitations of his own formulations for all these realities, any adequate Christian theology must maintain. The alternatives then and now are an all-too-pure fideism or a finally arrogant and arid rationalism,


Perhaps 1974 is the right year to examine Aquinas again. For the dominant note of that anti-ideological and antiromantic spirit which apparently characterizes our more clearheaded contemporaries may strike a chord of thankful recognition of this remote thinker. His anniversary, therefore, prompts us to give two cheers for "old Aquinas": one for the person who, however hidden behind the work, seems still both intellectually courageous and authentically religious; a second for the work itself -- for the way it sets up an ideal and a demand which endure, and for the way it provides a resource of specific analyses which only a fool would treat patronizingly. We withhold a third cheer -- partly because at the present cultural moment it seems inappropriate to give three full cheers for anyone or anything, partly because we remember too well recent history’s oppressive misuses of Thomas’s thought.

Happily, Thomas Aquinas’s person and thought will probably survive the ‘70s’ inability to give that third cheer, just as he recently survived the Hallelujah chorus of the ‘40s and ‘50s and the Bronx jeers of the ‘60s. His thought has, indeed, survived many perils: the condemnations in Paris and Oxford only three years after his death; the long and frequent periods of utter neglect; and, perhaps above all, the equally frequent periods of ideological misuse of his work by too many of his admirers. To survive your enemies is a minor triumph, to survive your disciples a major one. Yet when all is said and done, Thomas will survive. For he was in fact a first-rank thinker whose witness to the Christian faith endures, and in addition an authentic saint whose sanctity was sufficiently human to forbid sentimentalizing him. He himself, I think, would not be surprised by the somewhat muted tone of this tribute from one of his latter-day admirers.