St Thomas Aquinas as a Model of Happiness

A Sermon Preached at the Katholische Hochschule ITI on the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, Trumau, January 28th, 2023

I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me: And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her. (Wisdom 7:7-8)

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts that Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, travelled through the world and saw many things. On travelling through Asia Minor, he visited the fabulously wealthy king Croesus of Lydia. Croesus had his servants show off his many treasures to Solon. Then Croesus asked Solon who the happiest man whom Solon has seen in all his travels might be, expecting that Solon will say that none is happier than Croesus himself. Solon, however, answered that Tellus the Athenian was the happiest, for he lived at a time when his city prospered, he had excellent sons and grandsons, and he died at last a glorious death fighting for his city. Rather surprised, Croesus asks him who the second happiest of men might be, expecting to at least get the second prize. But Solon answers that two Argive athletes, the brothers Cleobis and Biton, were the next happiest. These two had achieved a great feat of strength that gave great honor to their mother, she prayed to the gods that they might receive the greatest gift that mortals can receive. The gods heard her prayer and granted her sons the gift of death. Solon explains to Croesus that we should call no man happy until he has reached his end (telos), because only then is he out of reach of the capricious cruelty of the jealous gods. Whoever is lucky enough to escape misfortunes in life, and to prosper and see his city and his relatives prosper, and then die before his blessings can be snatched away from him: this is a happy man.[1]

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Dubia and Initiating Processes

I am very grateful to the four cardinals who submitted dubia about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia to the Holy Father. With humility and reverence before the Vicar of Christ, and “supreme teacher of the faith,” they ask him to answer some specific questions about how Amoris Laetitia is consistent with previous teachings of the Church. As they note, uncertainty has been caused by conflicting interpretations, and they ask the Holy Father to bring clarity by responding definitely to their questions. Continue reading

Conference on the Common Good at Notre Dame

Some graduates students at Notre Dame are organizing a very promising conference: The Common Good as a Common Project. They have lined up Alasdair MacIntyre (!), Jean-Luc Marion, Jean Porter, and Emilie Tardivel-Schick as key-note speakers. They have released a call for papers, requesting abstracts of “both theoretical and applied papers that address key questions about the common good” to be submitted by November 15th (Feast of St. Leopold of Austria).

I am planning to attend myself, and to give a presentation, the abstract of which follows. Continue reading

St. Thomas on Job

Perhaps after finishing Gregory’s Moralia I shall read St. Thomas’s Commentary on Job. Jeremy Holmes has a splendid introduction to the new English translation at the Aquinas Institute for Sacred Doctrine. He makes an interesting point about the constraints that a commentary makes on its author, as opposed to a speculative work such as the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Everyone knows that the artist flourishes under constraint: the poet’s creativity is unlocked, not diminished, by a rigid sonnet structure; the architect’s brilliance emerges especially under the demands of an unusual terrain; the painter’s genius rises to the challenge of a fresco where ceiling and walls dictate the contours. The same is true of a theologian. It is one thing to compose a treatise on divine providence in the open spaces of unshackled speculative reason; it is quite another thing to teach about divine providence through respectful engagement with the complicated, pungent, and often obscure poetry of Job.

In St. Gregory’s case, “constraint” is perhaps not the right word, as he uses Job as an occasion to talk about everything. As Gregory explains, he sees what we might call “going off on tangents” as a duty of the commentator:

He who explains the word of God should imitate the behavior of a river. when a river flows in its bed and the side of the bed dips down, the river promptly turns its course to include the dip. When it has filled the lower level, the river returns to its normal course. the one who explains God’s word should act in like manner; whoever is explaining something and notices a chance occasion of edification close at hand should direct the waters of eloquence there, as though it were a dip at the side, and then when the lower ground has been inundated by instruction, he may return to his former discourse. (Moralia, Letter to Leander, 2)

We Have Seen His Glory: a Response to a Certain Philosophical Rejection of the Christian Faith

In a guest post on Artur Rosman’s blog last year, I wrote that I could no more abandon Catholicism than I could “kill my parents with my bare hands and eat their flesh.” But of course “let him who thinks he is standing see to it that he does not fall.” There is nothing absolutely impossible about my falling away from the Faith. Perseverance in the theological virtue of faith is an unmerited grace that can be lost.

An example of such a possibility is the anonymous author of the blog Entirely Uselesswho was a Catholic from a milieu similar to my own, but has through philosophical reflections come to the conclusion that the Catholic faith (and indeed “religion in general” [whatever that might mean]) is not true. In a recent post he makes some personal remarks on his path. I want to say at the outset that I think our anonymous friend is entirely sincere in his thinking. Philosophy is a difficult enterprise for embodied intellects, and the sources of error are numerous. I do not think that he is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons,” and I am sorry that such insults have been thrown at him. I even find something to admire in the courage with which he has followed the logic of his positions even though they have led to “serious negative consequences for [his] social and personal life,” since he is now seen by many of his friends and relatives as a traitor.

I do, however, want to question one claim that he makes by applying it to my own case. Entirely Useless quotes Gregory Dawes about a ‘ministerial’ use of reason, in which philosophical arguments are used to assist the faith, but are considered a priori not to be able to threaten the truths of the faith. In a previous post he had quoted Dawes at greater length to argue that such a use of reason is unserious:

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology. There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.

Now, there are two points that I would like to make about this. The first has to do with what exactly it means for philosophy to be the handmaid of theology. I certainly hold that she is, but in a slightly different sense from the one expounded by Dawes. Dawes (apparently following a certain interpretation of Luther) thinks that it means that reason an sich is to be the servant of an irrational (or at any rate non-rational) interior testimony of the Spirit. But I would see it rather as unaided reason serving reason aided by grace. The difference may seem to be small, but I think it is actually quite great. On my account faith is a strengthening of the intellectual faculty in us, allowing us to come to some truth that we could not attain without such strengthening (even though the attainment lacks something of the perfection of knowledge in the strict sense). I do not see anything contrary to the dignity of reason for its natural use to be subordinated to its supernatural use.

The second point that I would make would be on Dawes’s claim that to do philosophy seriously one must follow arguments wherever they lead. In a certain sense this is obviously true. But in another sense it is false. As the author of Entirely Useless very well knows, philosophical argument ought to proceed from what is more known to what is less known. It ought to unfold and explain what is contained in our first common conceptions of reality that are the most certain, but at the same time the most vague and confused of the things we know. It ought not to explain them away by means of more distinct, but less certain, secondary conceptions. Thus, for example, Aristotle in the Physics certainly takes the arguments of Melissus and Parmenides on the unity and immobility of being seriously in the sense that he carefully examines their evidence, and tries to see what led them to think thus. But he does not take them seriously in Dawes’s sense. That is, he is not open to being persuaded by their conclusion. And the reason is that the reality of plurality and motion in the world is more known to us than any of the abstract premises from which Parmenides and Melissus are working. There is nothing unserious about Aristotle’s approach. On the contrary there would be something unserious about approaching the question with an agnostic attitude toward the reality of plurality and motion. Similarly, there is something profoundly unserious about Descartes’s project of universal doubt, because it effectively takes certain abstract secondary conceptions as being more known to us than our common experience of the sensible world.

But what about the Christian faith? In one sense the Christian faith is certainly not “more known” than the truths that we know by natural reason. Indeed, in the strict sense of Aristotelian ἐπιστήμη it is not knowledge at all. Nevertheless, it has a property of ἐπιστήμη namely certitude. Whence comes this certitude? Entirely Useless has a great many posts on two kinds of evidence for the Faith: 1) preambles of the faith, that is demonstrations from natural reason for the existence and attributes of God, and 2) external signs of the credibility of Christian revelation, such as miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, consistency throughout the ages etc. Now both of these kinds of evidence are important. The preambles help us to understand the contents of Faith, and have also led certain persons to embrace the Faith (Edward Feser, for instance, was led to his conversion by a consideration of the preambula). External signs of credibility are also important— many persons have been converted or strengthened in their faith by witnessing miracles, for example. But neither of these is the primary source of the certitude of the faith for those who believe.

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal. It enables us to “see His glory.”

Speaking for myself, my certitude rests on having “seen,” that glory. That is— on an encounter with the witness that is of such a kind as of itself to make His witness entirely credible. I know that the author of Entirely Useless has never been much of a disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I disagree with Balthasar on many things myself. But Balthasar’s theological aesthetics seem to me to be quite true and profound on this point (even if sometimes slightly overstated). In vol. 1 of The Glory of the Lord Balthasar refers to a line from the Christmas Preface:

For through the mystery [or sacrament] of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in Him God made visible, we may be caught up [rapiamur] through Him in love of things invisible.

To see the glory of Christ is to be moved by that light to love the invisible realities of God, and to believe in them with an overwhelming certitude. Such certitude exceeds the natural power of reason, but it is not therefore irrational, it is the pinnacle of reason in this earthly life, and the faint inchoatio of the eternal vision of God in beatitude.

The glory of Christ is “visible” not only to those who saw Him in His earthly life, but also to those who encounter Him in His Church, through the written testimony of scripture, and even more through the unwritten reflection of His glory in the life, preaching, and sacraments of the Church.

You have not seen him but you love him, and now, not seeing him but believing in him, rejoice, with a joy which is inexpressible and glorious, as you win what is the end of faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have watched and our hands have felt, concern­ing the word of life; and the life was revealed, and we have seen and attest and announce to you the life ever­lasting which was with the Father and was revealed to us; what we have seen and heard we announce to you also, so that you also may share it with us; and our sharing is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. And we write you this so that your joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

It is no longer because of your talk that we be­lieve; we ourselves have heard, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world. (John 4:42)

Looking at my own life, I can see how easy it would be to consider my approach to these questions “unserious;” as determined not by the evidence, but by my loyalty to my community, as tainted by what I called “confirmation bias.” But to me (as I tried to explain in my Cosmos The In Lost piece), the opposite seems evident. It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the Faith. Presumably the author of Entirely Useless will disagree. But perhaps we can at least agree on this much: neither of us is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons.”

St. Thomas on Hebrews in Norcia

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We do not live in a golden age of scholastic theology, but there are some signs of hope. One of the signs of hope is certainly the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies in Norcia (the birth place of St Benedict). The Center really follows St. Thomas as seeing the task of theology in the unfolding of the meaning of Sacred Scripture. This year they will be holding a summer session on St Thomas’s Commentary on Hebrews this year. My friend Peter Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College is going to be one of those leading the discussions. I urge my readers to consider attending.

Purity and Intelligible Light

Today being the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on the new calendar, I have been thinking about the peculiar clarity that marks his theological work. The clarity seems to come partly from a sort of purity: a complete concentration on the object without any personal tint, like pure water that gives a clear reflection. Some find this “impersonal” character of St. Thomas’s writings boring, but I find a peculiar beauty in it. Perhaps it is not quite right to call it “impersonal,” I think St. Thomas’s judgement is not based merely on “detached” reasoning, but also on a deeply personal connaturality with the divine mysteries. Recall his own account of connaturality:

Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality. (IIaIIae, Q 45, A2, c)

It is notable that St. Thomas gives the example of a chaste man as one who can judge from connaturality. Chastity, in the sense of the virtue of purity seems to have had a particular importance to his own life. As Michael Waldstein (my father) argues:

St.Thomas seems to have had a particular love for temperance, and within temperance for purity, as a virtue of compelling beauty. If St. Francis had a preferential love for poverty, St.Thomas had one for purity.And so he advances the thesis that honestas is part of temperance in the sense of attaching particularly to this one virtue. To see St.Thomas’s complete understanding of purity, one must also consider what he says about the religious vow of chastity, as an aspect of the holocaust of love which defines religious life. “Religious life . . . is a kind of whole burnt offering (holocaust) by which someone totally offers himself and all things that are his to God.” Clearly, here we are in contact with the heart of St. Thomas’s own sanctity translated into thought. (p. 429)

I think their is a real connection between the purity of St. Thomas’s heart with regard to sensual pleasure, and the purity of his thought. To a person formed by moral virtue the sensible world is clear reflection of the glory of the Creator, but to the person drawn by disordered passion toward the sensible good this clarity is darkened. And that darkening is particularly evident in disordered love of the most intense pleasure, which nature has (very wisely) given to the act which brings forth new life. As St. Thomas says in his treatment of the daughters of lust:

When the lower powers are strongly moved towards their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in their acts. Now the effect of the vice of lust is that the lower appetite, namely the concupiscible, is most vehemently intent on its object, to wit, the object of pleasure, on account of the vehemence of the pleasure. Consequently the higher powers, namely the reason and the will, are most grievously disordered by lust. (IIaIIae, Q 153, A 5, c)

One can see the effect of St. Thomas’s purity more clearly by contrasting him with another theologian: Peter Abelard. In The Story of My Misfortunes, Abelard notes that great theologians have been especially strong in chastity, but that he began to lose this virtue:

But prosperity always puffs up the foolish and worldly comfort enervates the soul, rendering it an easy prey to carnal temptations. Thus I who by this time had come to regard myself as the only philosopher remaining in the whole world, and had ceased to fear any further disturbance of my peace, began to loosen the rein on my desires, although hitherto I had always lived in the utmost continence. And the greater progress I made in my lecturing on philosophy or theology, the more I departed alike from the practice of the philosophers and the spirit of the divines in the uncleanness of my life. For it is well known, methinks, that philosophers, and still more those who have devoted their lives to arousing the love of sacred study, have been strong above all else in the beauty of chastity. Thus did it come to pass that while I was utterly absorbed in pride and sensuality, divine grace, the cure for both diseases, was forced upon me, even though I, forsooth would fain have shunned it. First was I punished for my sensuality, and then for my pride. For my sensuality I lost those things whereby I practiced it… (c. V)

He then goes on to describe his affair with Heloise, and then describes its effects on his intellectual life:

In measure as this passionate rapture absorbed me more and more, I devoted ever less time to philosophy and to the work of the school. Indeed it became loathsome to me to go to the school or to linger there; the labour, moreover, was very burdensome, since my nights were vigils of love and my days of study. My lecturing became utterly careless and lukewarm; I did nothing because of inspiration, but everything merely as a matter of habit. I had become nothing more than a reciter of my former discoveries… (c. VI)

Now if one compares the superficiality and clever sophism of Abelard’s Scito Teipsum with the luminous profundity of St. Thomas, it is hard not to think that part of the cause lies in the one lacking purity and the other possessing it.

St Thomas and St Agnes


Today being the feast of St Agnes, I remembered Fr. Romanus Cessario O.P. mentioning that St Thomas Aquinas carried a relic of the virgin martyr at his breast. I looked it up, and found that he also once sponsored a meal for his students on her feast:

One of Aquinas’s early biographers tells us that he also kept relics of St. Agnes on his person: “reliquias dicte sancte, quas ad pectus suspensas ex deuotione portabat.” In other words, Aquinas piously wore the relics of St.Agnes at his breast. On one occasion we know that St.Thomas used these relics to obtain the intercession of the young saint in order to cure his sick socius or priest-companion, Friar Reginald of Piperno.When St. Agnes’s mediation was discovered to have been successful, and Reginald’s health had improved, Aquinas spontaneously promised to sponsor a special meal for his students on every twenty-first of January. This cure took place in 1272, and thus it happened, as a contemporary chronicler observes, that Aquinas was able to fulfill his votive promise only once— namely, in the winter of 1273. (“Circa res . . . aliquid fit,” p. 74)

Mrs. Grantly and Natura Pura


Certain theology students, who only know of Cardinal Cajetan through reading a little Henri de Lubac, like to accuse that eminent commentator of giving a “two storey” account of the relation of nature and grace. I suppose they think that on the Cajetanian account nature and grace relate somewhat the way they do in the heart of Mrs. Grantly in Trollope’s Barsetshire novels:

In her heart of hearts Mrs. Grantly hated Mrs. Proudie—that is, with that sort of hatred one Christian lady allows herself to feel towards another. Of course Mrs. Grantly forgave Mrs. Proudie all her offences, and wished her well, and was at peace with her, in the Christian sense of the word, as with all other women. But under this forbearance and meekness, and perhaps, we may say, wholly unconnected with it, there was certainly a current of antagonistic feeling which, in the ordinary unconsidered language of every day, men and women do call hatred. (Framley Parsonagech. XVII)