I’ve pretty much given my life this year to reading Thomas Aquinas. You can tell I’m not a Thomist, or even very sympathetic, because I haven’t prostrated myself before his memory with a long, overly-dramatic title, like “The Blessed Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas”. He is, of course, those things to the Catholic tradition as Pope Leo XIII made him the exemplar of philosophical and theological teaching. Of course Aquinas is very important to Western (philosophical) theology in general, as well, and is often taught in broadly secular philosophy of religion courses. The question I’ve had while reading him, however, is why am I reading him? Or, more precisely, why would anyone read Thomas Aquinas unless they were already sympathetic to his project?
The answer to this isn’t entirely obscure (though, perhaps, my reason for asking it remains so for now). I’m reading Aquinas because when I recently read him for a course I didn’t find what I expected to find. This lead me to read some more and to find some lines of thought that I think are helpful for thinking about the congruent problems in philosophy of nature and philosophy of religion. There is also a heuristic reason I’m using Aquinas in this project; he stands as a kind of crystal for ideological statements about the power of certain forms of thought, specifically Catholic metaphysics and politics. By challenging this reading through a perverse cross-breeding of Spinoza I hope to challenge, maybe even destroy, two equally annoying ideological positions – what can be called the debate between ideologues of transcendence/analogy and ideologues of immanence/naturalism. The success of this project is far from guaranteed and I find myself coming constantly to my own ideological register, always unsure of whether or not I’ve surpassed it.
That is why I am reading Aquinas, but why would anyone else read him? While most courses overemphasize the natural theology or purely philosophical (i.e. without revelation) nature of Aquinas’ thought, it would be a mistake, and not merely an anachronistic one, to completely go the other way and claim him to be a theologian on par with Karl Barth. Simply put he is part of the history of philosophy and is important for understanding the development of Western thought. But is there any reason to read him in any depth outside of purely historical reasons? Stated otherwise, does his thought work? Does it demonstrate anything? Or is it hopelessly dependent on outdated science? Even theologically I wonder if it works in the dogmatic register. I’m not convinced that Aquinas has a particular Christian understanding of God as he often lapses into speaking about God as if God were only the Father, that the incarnation is a sort of secondary quality of God, but then always back tracks and affirms the creedal dogmatics. Still, I remain unconvinced that he isn’t here just going through the motions of affirming the Christian God, while if he was faithful to his own system he may find himself to be a bit more heterodox.
Now, this seems clear to me when I read him, but I also recognize that I’m reading him with a project in mind and that I’m looking for the cracks in his system rather than for its consistency. But I wonder if people read Aquinas, or really whomever, with the plan of making sure they answer all the questions that need to be answered. I wonder if anyone would read Aquinas if they didn’t already have some sympathy for him, or rather for what he is supposed to be. Do we read these figures to assure ourselves of our faith and belief in what we know they stand for? And, if so, why? After all, we don’t need Aquinas or Deleuze to say things we can say with our own arguments. Why not simply make the argument? Do we really have to first make a decision, say to be Catholic, and then work out its truth from there? Or can we refuse the decision and let the truth come without then falling into the infinite deferral of liberal thought?
I can’t say for certain yet if I regret giving my life this year to Aquinas. I’m not sure if my leap of faith has failed or if I simply never took one in the first place.