A Springtime Harvest

It was a bitter cold day in March 717 years ago that Thomas Aquinas died among the Benedictines in the hills south of Rome, in his forty-ninth year. On the feast of St. Nicholas three months earlier he had stopped writing. After a vision of God, he felt contempt for what he had done—it seemed to him like “so much straw.”

To the consternation of his fellows, he suffered a break down and virtually withdrew from the normal functions of life. En route to the Council of Lyons, summoned by the pope, Thomas set out while ill but at last could go no more.

In the prime of his life he had seemed so healthy—he had walked back and forth twice from Naples to Paris; he had walked to and from Paris and Cologne, and back and forth in Italy between Naples, Rome, Orvieto, and Viterbo. A contemporary described him as tall, robust, his face the color of ripe wheat, balding—a huge and formidable German-Italian frame, described by his college classmates as “the ox.” He wrote so much, often by dictating to more than one secretary at once (how we envy him, or wonder what he might have done with word processors), that all the words he produced printed in a modern way would fill more volumes than the years of his life.

Yet, it is not the number of his words that fill us with awe; rather, it is the unparalleled achievement they represent in the intellectual history of the West. No one before or since has appeared in a moment of crisis and so profoundly mastered so many diverse traditions of thought, thought by the proponents of each to be incompatible with the others, and shown how each raised questions that could not be answered within the terms of its own traditions. His mind was so laser-like, nourished by daily absorption in prayer as it was, that it habitually “passed over” into each tradition in its best proponents and at its strongest points, and brought each to unprecedented clarity. Pursuing each tradition of reflection until it could go no further, he found a way to restate its starting places in a way that allowed him to carry it into new ground. In this way, he was without question the greatest—and most fairminded—student of other teachers of all time, and in a humble and limpid way, he showed himself the master of all who had gone before.

In three stunning studies produced in recent years, the noted contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has shown how the course of intellectual reflection in the 717 years since the death of Aquinas has fallen short of the achievements of Aquinas. In After Virtue (1981), in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), and in his Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990), MacIntyre has attempted to follow the path blazed by Aquinas by penetrating the most lively of contemporary philosophical traditions, to show how each falls short of its own stated aims (in its own terms), and how a fresh restatement of the tradition of Aquinas both saves the best of each and places each in a more successful framework.

However this ambitious project may finally be judged, MacIntyre’s work has already made two things clear. First, the modern post-Enlightenment project of grounding ethics within the bounds of reason alone (in several different construals of “reason”) has ended in a flight from reason to personal preference and social incoherence. This failure of the Enlightenment project is, indeed, so widely attested to that few will deny it. MacIntyre’s achievement has been to show how and why this project was bound to fail.

His second achievement has been to uncover what might seem at first like a new way out of this dead end. This is all the more impressive because, particularly in his Gifford Lectures, MacIntyre has dealt with the two most powerful currents in contemporary thought, the proud universal rationalism implicit in the project of the Gifford Lectures and explicit in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (and dominant in our universities) and the sustained debunking of this tradition rooted in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and today expressed with such triumphant complacency in deconstructionism. And yet MacIntyre himself is quick to point out that his method is not new. It is rooted, rather, in the dialectical method advanced so admirably by Thomas Aquinas from its Aristotelian and biblical (Augustinian) beginnings.

MacIntyre views the history of human reflection on human nature and destiny during the 717 tumultuous years since March 7, 1274, as a long and circuitous false turn whose fruits are intellectual abdication to private taste and preference. His aim is to restore the universities—and the public intellectual life of the West—to a richer, sounder, and more rigorously intellectualist method of enquiry. To go forward, MacIntyre suggests, we must again take up the intellectual habit of examining available intellectual traditions in their own terms, pressing them at their strongest points, and bringing to consciousness the questions they themselves raise but cannot answer.

In this great intellectual project, CRISIS would be glad to be an ally. We see at hand a great rebirth of interest in the tradition that the world—not least, our Catholic universities—have forgotten: the dialectical method of (let us call it) biblical realism, that community of raising ever further questions, whose origins in Aristotle Jonathan Lear has recently sketched in Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (1988), and whose roots in biblical reflection St. Augustine so powerfully articulated, as in one highly relevant area Graham Walker has charted in Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought: Current Problems, Augustinian Prospects (1990).

We note, as well, two magnificent new projects that once again have made the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas available for modern readers in modern literary form: Timothy McDermott’s Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (1989), published by Christian Classics, Westminster, Md., and Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa (1991), published by Ignatius Press. McDermott’s elegant English abridgement of the heart of each question of each treatise in the Summa, in one highly readable volume, is superbly crafted both for beginning students and for anyone seeking a useful way of grasping an overview of the entire project, digested into a graceful 600 pages. Having read widely in it, I strongly recommend it for classroom use and as a precious gift to special friends. I eagerly await my copy of Peter Kreeft’s related venture in 550 pages and in softcover, knowing well from his articles in these pages Kreeft’s sound judgment and clarity of prose.

March is ever a harbinger of spring—and this year of a deep and lasting intellectual spring, indeed.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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