Friday, 17 December 2010

Was Aquinas a Thomist? or, the importance of reading primary texts...

Today I have been reading part of the Summa and thinking about natural law in particular. I came to the task with very particular ideas in mind - most significantly that Aquinas put a huge emphasis on natural law theology (which gave rise in turn to natural theology) and that his moral theology was steeped in this way of thinking too. But, part way through my reading I got caught up with self-doubt and questioning - the Aquinas I read was not at all akin to the Thomist I expected to encounter. It was a perplexing experience, which I am still dwelling on an hour or so after putting the text down (this is what good theology should do I think). The self doubt I am experiencing comes not because my expectations were frustrated, but for the more important reason that once upon a time (as an undergraduate) I briefly studied Aquinas. When I did I distinctly remember coming away with the impression that natural law was an almost central concept in Aquinas' thought, but today's work reveals that actually it adopts a relatively peripheral position in the Summa, being as it seems to be discussed in detail only here 1a2ae Q.90-97.

So, accepting that I did actually do 'some' work when I was an undergraduate, and applied myself to some reading, I have been wondering why I was left with what I now think was a misconception. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that clearly I did not pay enough attention to the primary literature. If I had done so, I would have found that Aquinas said some very interesting and particular things that may have put him at odds with the natural law tradition with which I have associated him. This is a valuable lesson to re-learn (I do persistently advocate reading primary texts to students I teach), and not merely for academic reasons (I am thinking here of the recent public furore surrounding Bishop Peter Broadbent, and what he is supposed to have said and not said about th Royal Family). In an interesting turn for me, the Aquinas I read seemed not a million miles away from the kind of graced nature that I think Barth subtly advoctaes in his concept of moral responsibility. That's not necessarily to say that Barth was a Thomist! The second reason, a point which I make tentatively, is that the secondary literature I read as an undergraduate - though Thomist - may not have been entirely in keeping with Thomas. I make this point tentatively because I struggle to remember who the great theologians were I happened to read at the time (no doubt the usual suspects were present, like Coppelstone), but my thoughts continue to wander in that direction. Could it be that certain forms of Thomist natural law (most prevelant in the Roman Catholic moral tradition) overstate the role of reason and natural perceptions here in a way that Aquinas himself does not? Certainly the experience of today was pleasurable in my discovery of what Aquinas actually said, though somewhat uncomfortable to admit that I should have known better already. So, I am left with the question - Was Aquinas a Thomist?

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