It’s been said that, “[s]ome men are born posthumously.” Of no one is this more true than of Aristotle — who hasn’t been born even yet.
Aristotle’s logic, his gift-wrapping of the method of reason for all of humanity, was eventually reborn in Europe because it was uniquely useful. Its usefulness, and that of Aristotle’s broader philosophy, fascinated a series of scholars. The two most important were Ibn Rushd, an Islamic philosopher born in what is now Spain, and Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher and theologian in the history of the Catholic church.
Rushd and other Islamic philosophers had to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy convincing the established authorities of their faith that philosophy was not heresy. They never quite succeeded. As a result, Islamic philosophy receded from its high tide with Rushd’s death, and the tide is still — far — out. Aquinas, for a complex of reasons, had more success. He had so much success, in fact, that his thinking became the standard philosophy and theology underpinning Catholicism.
In an earlier post, I said, “the history of Western civilization has sometimes been understood as the story of the conflict and cooperation between Athens (Greek philosophy) and Jerusalem (Christianity).” Thomas Aquinas is the single most important point of synthesis between Athens and Jerusalem.
ButÂ Aquinas was unoriginal. He habitually referred to Aristotle as “The Philosopher,” because for him, there was no one else: Aristotle was the beginning, middle, and end of philosophy. What Aquinas added to Western thought was not novel philosophy, but a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy with Catholic belief.
Aquinas would almost certainly have failed in this task — as reason and faith go together like ice cream and ground-up glass — but for the fact that he was a world-shaking genius. Incredibly, almost absurdly good at what he did, Aquinas managed to find what many learned Catholics, to this day, consider a “golden mean” between reason and faith.
In essence, Aquinas argued that reason was supreme and that faith was secondary; in any (apparent) conflict between the two, reason must prevail. To me, this is a remarkable view for a lone scholar-monk to have promulgated in the faith-dominated milieu of 13th-Century Italy. The most striking example of Aquinas’s deference to reason (and, by extension, to Aristotle), which I have at hand, is his argument for the independence of inviolability of the individual conscience.
In his Summa Theologica, his most famous work of philosophy and theology, Aquinas considers the question of whether one is bound to follow one’s conscience, even in cases when, in fact, conscience is directing a wrong action. For example, suppose I believe I should vote for Hillary Clinton, because I believe that her stances on the issues would make for better policies than those of Trump. Further suppose that, due to factors I had not considered, my analysis is flawed, and Hillary Clinton’s policies would, in fact, lead to some disastrous and evil result. Aquinas argues that I should follow my conscience; in other words, I should follow my best reasoning and understanding of what action I should take, even though I am wrong. (Keeping in mind: at the time, I don’t know that I am wrong.) (The opposing view would be that if some authority (for example, Thomas Fuller, blogger) told me I should not vote for Hillary because she’s an apocalypse in a pantsuit, then if the authority were legitimate, it would be moral for me to follow the authority, and thereby act against the dictates of my own conscience.) What’s especially interesting about Aquinas’s argument is that it survived and thrived in an intellectual environment which placed great value on authority.
Catholics are very big on authority. Their claim to supremacy among Christian faiths is based on the notion that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, that the popes have been his successors in this office, and that Peter was hand-picked by Jesus to be his vicar, or stand-in, on earth. To the Catholic mind, then, to reject the authority of the pope is substantively indistinguishable from rejecting the authority of God himself.
In effect, Aquinas declared: the supreme authority each of us must follow at all times is our own conscience. And for Aquinas, this meant: our own reasoning. Even if it turned out that a person’s conscience directed her to act against God’s will, it would make no difference. God, argued Aquinas, would prefer that she use the tool he gave her, a reasoning mind, rather than blindly follow authorities she cannot know are more right than our own judgments.
Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelian reason and Catholic faith marks the exact moment of Aristotle’s rebirth in the West. It is no coincidence at all that the Renaissance followed. And this is the moment when Western civilization, that unstable emulsion of reason and faith, truly came into its own. It was a remarkable moment in human history, not least because it was paradoxical.
On a surface reading, it seems that reason and faith must be locked in perpetual conflict, because both reason and faith claim to be means to knowledge. And if there are two distinct means to know, then there might come points where the conclusions arrived at by the former means conflict with the conclusions arrived at by the latter. And if the two means of knowledge conflict, if both are equally valid, how can the conflict ever be resolved? Aquinas resolves the paradox by giving supremacy to reason (in practice) and to faith (in theory). And since we live in practice, not in theory, this means: Aquinas gave supremacy to reason, full stop.
In most other systems of faith, I don’t believe this synthesis could have lasted. But Christianity had, from its inception, been focused on the salvation of the individual soul. Consequently, the theory — that, in practice, the individual conscience must be the supreme authority in every life — makes sense.
Now there is some music in this. Aristotle first arguedÂ that the senses were the root of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. But where are the senses? Does the polis have eyes? I do not mean to ask figuratively, in metaphor or synecdoche, but literally: Does the polis have eyes? Does the polis have ears? Hands? A mind? Reason? No.
Individuals have senses; individuals have sense; and, Aquinas added, individuals have conscience.
The triad has two notes, now; it’s incomplete: epistemological independence from Aristotle, an unstable moral independence from Aquinas. In the next installment, or perhaps the one after, we will hear the chord sound for the first time in human history, if still imperfectly.