Though we can never reach a consensus determining who was the “world’s smartest man,” a significant number of scholars would vote for St. Thomas Aquinas. The “Angelic Doctor’s” genius lay not in his originality or creativity—both attributes he would have disdained—but in his unique ability to synthesize and persuasively explain the perennial truths of philosophy and theology, to effectively conjoin faith and reason. Commending him to the Church as her finest theologian a century ago, Pope Leo XIII said: “Because he had the utmost reverence for the Doctors of antiquity, he seems to have inherited in a way the intellect of all.” Still more, wrote Jacques Maritain: “St. Thomas cast his net upon the universe and carried off all things transformed into the life of the mind, towards the beatific vision.” To make accessible important aspects of Aquinas’ work, Kevin Vost recently published The One Minute Aquinas: The Doctor’s Quick Answers to Fundamental Questions (Manhester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, c. 2014). Designed to address “the questions that matter most,” he explores some of Aquinas’ positions (primarily found in his Summa Theologica), treating the nature of human nature (as evident in man’s hunger for happiness), the nature of God, and the person of Christ.
We naturally desire happiness. Exactly how to fully attain and enjoy it, however, perennially puzzles and eludes us! Many (indeed most) of the things we pursue—wealth, pleasure, status—wrongly promise to make us happy, and even the best and brightest of mortals generally die a bit discontent. To Aquinas this makes sense because we most deeply long for a joy impossible to attain on earth. At best we can only partially discover (through God’s grace and a virtuous life) what we will fully attain only in heaven (the beautific vision). Composed of body and soul, we are special creatures, unlike the rest of creation; so to attain our end (happiness) we must rightly order both our material and spiritual lives. Preeminently spiritual beings, created to share God’s eternal life, we must rightly respond to His initiatives and commands.
To do so requires that we comply with our divine design to live as free moral agents, to act responsibly, to do the things conducive to true happiness. “As the intellect seeks to know the true, the will seeks to obtain the good” (#678 Kindle). Thus we must be free, for as Thomas said, “‘Man has free will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain’” (#686). We choose to do right or wrong, to resist or surrender to sinful temptations, to demand instant gratifications or consider long-term goods—and in making such decisions we develop the habits that shape our character. Good habits—whether playing the piano, building muscles or interpreting Scripture—come through sustained repetition. “Good habits direct us toward good acts, and another word for a good habit is a virtue. . . . . As Aristotle wrote, ‘Virtue is that which makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise’” (#892). Thus we need to practice the cardinal virtues (prudence; fortitude; temperance; justice—all nicely discussed by Voss in short sections) in order to live well. Helping us do so is the Law. To Aquinas, “‘The light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law’” (#1229). This law is given specificity in Scripture and informs human laws insofar as they are truly good.
Yet we need more than the Law to guide us to eternal goodness. Thus the Grace of God grants those infused virtues (faith, hope, and love) that finally satisfy our hunger for happiness, enabling us to participate in the very life of God Himself. Responding by faith to His invitation, we find the forgiveness of sins and are born again. By faith we acknowledge the truth fully revealed to us in Christ and learn of Him as the Holy Spirit works within us, giving us understanding and strength to trust and follow God. Hope grants us the assurance that our future good, our eternal happiness, has been provided by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross and Resurrection from the grave. “Josef Pieper said hope captures ‘the very foundation of being in the world for the Christian: the concept of the status viatoris.’ A viator is ‘one on the way,’ and is translated as ‘wayfarer’ in the Summa Theologica” (#1588). The best of the infused virtues, of course, is charity—“the friendship of man for God” that “resides not in our passions, but in the will, and the will desires, seeks, and loves the good. Love in the sense of charity seeks the highest good—the attainment of union with God” (#1655). Amazingly, God has entered into our world and encourages us to establish a lasting friendship with Him. Just as loving our neighbors means doing good for them, as well as wishing them well, so too loving God means doing what pleases him, not simply feeling certain things about Him.
To please God we must first know Who He Is! To this subject Aquinas devoted himself wholeheartedly. While yet a six-year old child he is reputed to have asked “Who is God?” and for the next 42 years he constantly sought to answer his question. By nature we have a vague awareness of a Supreme Being of some sort, though this innate awareness easily slides into denial or forgetfulness. We can, however, by careful thinking come to certainty regarding His existence. Thus Aquinas set forth, at the beginning of the Summa, five famous ways to “prove” or “argue for” God’s existence. Beyond this simple fact, we need Him to reveal Himself (primarily in Scripture) regarding his attributes, though we can reason cogently when deciding various things regarding the Great I Am who is Three-in-One.
Until quite recently, natural scientists and philosophers took the universe to be eternal. By taking the Bible as his foundation, however, Aquinas declared it to be created. Matter began to be as God spoke it into being. Citing Dionysius, who said all things were divinely caused, Thomas said: “God’s ability to create belongs to his being or essence, which is common to the three Persons of the Trinity. God causes things by his intellect and will, as when a craftsman works through an idea or ‘word’ in his mind to craft something that he loves. So too did God the Father make creatures through the Word, who is his Son, and through his Love, which is the Holy Spirit. The Trinity, then, created creation” (#3054). He created simply because He is Good and sought to share His goodness with His creatures. So, as Augustine said, “the trace of the Trinity appears in creatures” and guides the studious mind toward the Creator.
The Second Person of the Trinity, Christ Jesus, most fully revealed God to us, and Aquinas labored to fully grasp His nature and work. With the memorable simplicity characteristic of him, he said of our Lord: “Being born, He became our friend. At supper, He became our food. Dying, He was our ransom’s price. And, reigning, is our eternal good” (#3432). “God became incarnate as the most fitting way to restore our corrupted sinful human nature so that many good things would follow, including the building up of our faith, since we could hear God Himself speak; our hope, since Christ’s presence shows us God’s love for us; our charity, so that we would desire to love God in return for his presence among us; and our well-doing, since God himself served as our example; and indeed, ‘the full participation of the Divinity, which is the bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed on us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says . . . God was made man that man might be made God’” (#3467).
Summing up his commendation of Aquinas, Vost cites the 14th century Pope John XXII, who declared, in Doctoris Angelici: “He enlightened the Church more than all the other Doctors together; a man can derive more profit from his books in one year than from a lifetime spent pondering the philosophy of others” (#4321). Anyone desiring to do so will find in Kevin Vost a most helpful tutor.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For many years Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has published a stream of books designed to explain and defend the Christian Faith. One of his most recent and best works is titled Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas—358 Ways Your Mind Can Help You Become a Saint (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2014). Kreeft believes (as did C.S. Lewis) that the best devotional materials are written by the Church’s most serious and incisive theologians (who appeal to the mind) rather than entertaining communicators (who try to touch the emotions). Thus an article from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica will be more valuable than the latest “spiritual” entry in Oprah Winfrey’s book club! Though resembling Kevin Vost’s One Minute Aquinas in intent, Kreeft’s work differs in its organization and approach—citing the saint more extensively and giving greater depth to his presentation.
Consequently, Kreeft explains: “In a lifetime of browsing through Aquinas, my amazement has continually increased not only at his theoretical, philosophical brilliance and sanity but equally at his personal, practical wisdom, his ‘existential bite’. Yet this second dimension of St. Thomas has usually been eclipsed by the other. I wrote this book to help bring the sun out from its eclipse.” So, he continues: “Here are 358 pieces of wisdom from St. Thomas’ masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain ‘the one thing needful’, the summum bonum or ‘greatest good’, the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life, which has many names but which is the same reality. Three of its names are ‘being a saint’, ‘beatitude’ (supreme happiness) and ‘union with God’. That was my principle for choosing which passages to use: do they help you to attain your ultimate end, i.e., sanctity, happiness, union with God?” (#330).
This book seeks to bring us into contact with Aquinas himself. Kreeft provides some explanation and commentary, but it’s all designed to help us rightly understand St. Thomas. The 358 selections follow the order of the Summa, but it’s easy to peruse the table of contents and go immediately to subjects that look interesting. Thus I’ll just lift out a few of the entries to illustrate the worth of Kreeft’s compendium. Given that life is a journey—and journeys must end somewhere—it’s important to realize that “Our end is to know God—not just to know about Him but to know Him. ‘This is eternal life: to know Thee, the one true God’ (Jn 17:3) (#397). To know Him requires theology—studying God—the “queen of the sciences” to Medieval thinkers such as Aquinas.
Theology means thinking about God, and Aquinas insists there is a very human as well as divine dimension to this process. We have minds uniquely capable of reasoning. Thus we can discern God’s presence in all things. “God is in all things,” Aquinas insisted; “not indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and touch it by its power; hence . . . the thing moved and the mover must be joined together. Now since God is very being by His own essence, created being must be His proper effect, as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect (being, existence) in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being, as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things . . . Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly” (#737).
The great Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson condensed Aquinas’ explication to a “great syllogism: (1) Being is innermost in each thing. (2) God is very being, by His own essence. (3) Therefore God is in all things, and innermostly” (#782). This highly important point leads Kreeft to rejoice, for if God is truly present in all things—and if sanctity comes through “practicing the presence of God—we may begin to experience a bit of heavenly joy, see a bit of the beatific vision when we will finally “see Him as He is.” By delighting in the manifest presence of the Creator in His creation, we may experience some of the transcendent joy of beauty here and now. If God is everywhere and we manage to clearly see creation’s splendor, “the whole world will light up like a stained glass window when the rising sun (the rising Son!) suddenly shines on it, all the colors bursting into life with one and the same light” (#756). By carefully attending to all that is—the snowflakes on a pine bough, the ripples on a stream, the colors of a sunset—we learn to “love God in everything because you can find God in every thing” (#1093).
By nature we humans seek answers to various “why” questions. The greatest of “whys” focuses on the definitive, the final reason for things—what physicists today label a “grand theory of everything” that explains it all. To Kreeft, our compulsion to know shows that God has planted, deep in our being, a “desire to know the ultimate explanation for everything, which is in the mind that designed everything, the Author of the story we are all in. For we desire to know all that can be known about all that is. (We also desire to attain and enjoy all the good that is and all the beauty that is, but we first have to know it in order to appreciate and enjoy it.) (#816). Both Aristotle and Aquinas and C.S. Lewis took it for granted that “nature makes nothing in vain.” So, Kreeft says, “All natural desires correspond to real beings that can satisfy them: hunger, thirst, eros, tiredness, loneliness, boredom, ugliness, injustice, and pain point to food, drink, sex, rest, friends, interest, beauty, justice and pleasure” (#822). Surely this desire we have to know the Ultimate Source of all validates its Reality! What we know about God is much like knowing and artist through his works. “God is an artist, not a scientist; he designed and created the world, which is first of all the product of his art and then becomes the object of our science. Therefore all human science—in all senses of ‘science’, ancient (broad) and modern (narrow)—is really an appreciation of the divine art” (#989).
Though many modern thinkers insist that “chance and necessity” explain all that happens, we often hear folks say (often in the face of some misfortune) that “everything has a reason.” In truth, according to Aquinas, everything does, indeed, have a purpose—and that gives real meaning to life. In an ordered universe, where everything changes in accord with various causes, there are evident ends towards which things move. Calves become cattle, not mountain goats. Heated water dissolves into oxygen and hydrogen, not nitrogen and helium. “Therefore our human lives, which include conscious purposes, fit into this purpose-filled universe” (#2034). The world is intelligently designed and we can understand it. Things move purposively. We too, if we fit in to this designed order, move to our proper end if we accept God’s will. “Being sane and being saintly are ultimately the same thing: conforming our thoughts and our lives to the nature of reality, which is ultimately God, His nature and His designs” (#2040). Thus “‘Life’s greatest secret is incredibly simple. It is just repeating two magic syllables each day to God: the same syllables you said in your wedding vow: ‘I do’” (#2108).
By saying “I do” to God I commit to a loving relationship to be finally consummated in heaven, where we expect to experience the ultimate joy of the Beatific Vision. Aquinas said: “‘Our Lord said (Jn 17:3): This is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God. Now eternal life is the last end. . . . Therefore man’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, which is an act of the intellect’” (#2404). Still more: “‘It is written (1 Jn 3:2): When He shall appear we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is. Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the divine essence’” (#2417). Thankfully, we taste a bit of the joy and happiness we crave while still on earth. But ultimately we can only be truly happy in Heaven. If we look for a heaven-on-earth we’ll be forever depressed. But if we think of this world as a training ground for what’s to come we can enjoy some of our trials in view of what’s awaiting us.
Making our way to heaven involves making ethical decisions, and Aquinas gives us a nicely-nuanced understanding of how we should live well. He explains, for example, why an act is good only if its intent, its means to the end, and its ends are good. Unlike the Kantians, who focus only on intent (do your duty without concern for the consequences) and easily become legalists, or Utilitarians, who consider only the consequences (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) and easily become insensitive to motivations and individual differences, or the Relativists (who respond empathetically to each situation and easily dispense with self-evident norms), Thomas insisted we consider all relevant factors when making decisions. His synoptic vision, insisting we patiently consider all that makes decisions wise and good, truly distinguishes him as a moral thinker.
Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, we make decisions that help make us who we are. Even small choices, in their composite, really matter. Inasmuch as we choose to do good, properly in accord with reason, we become better persons. There are no “neutral” acts to Thomas! Fortunately, many of our choices to do what’s reasonable are quite simple—eating, resting, speaking to colleagues, waiting in line, dressing appropriately, speaking politely. As long as we have the right end (the divinely appointed end) in view, fixing breakfast for children or driving to school or smiling at a sales clerk qualify as ethical acts. This is true, Kreeft says, “Especially if you offered up all your prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of each day this morning. God counts that. You may forget the covenant you made with Him this morning, but He doesn’t” (#2873). We certainly fail at times, and sin is undeniably evident in our world. But “St. Thomas is a great optimist. There is far, far more good than evil in life, just as there is far, far more joy than suffering. The glass isn’t half full, it’s 95% full” (#2880). Thus to him, “Ethics is about good and evil. Everything human, if it’s not evil, is good. Ethics is therefore not like an umbrella and boots; it’s like food. It’s not about a checklist, a postscript; it’s about everything” (#2887).
Doing what’s reasonable aligns us with the Natural Law embedded within our being. Thus to “‘scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God’” (#2898). Inasmuch as the Natural Law stands rooted in God’s Eternal Law, “‘the natural law of reason is a participation in the eternal law of God’. That means more than ‘an image of’ or ‘an effect of’. It means real sharing, real presence. That is why to disobey reason is to disobey God. Reason is His voice, His interior prophet, in our souls. We call that prophet conscience. (St. Thomas used two terms for it: ‘synderesis’ was the awareness of its reality and truth and authority and rules, and ‘conscience was the application of it. We use ‘conscience for both.)” (#2898).
So our conscience is sacred! Following our true nature, reasoning rightly, means we reject the “if it feels good do it” mantra. “Feelings come and feelings go,” said Luther, “and feelings are deceiving.” Making ethical decisions can never be a matter of following our feelings! “Do you want to meet God,” Kreeft wonders? “Do you want to touch Him? Do you want to hear Him speaking to you? Do you want to know His will for you? Do you want to have a ‘religious experience’? You do this every time your conscience speaks. Seeking mystical experiences instead is a diversion and an excuse for neglecting this hourly, humdrum meeting with the divine will than confronts us, usually in an uncomfortable way. That’s why we look for something else. Do you want to be a mystic? Conscience is mystical enough. Do you want to meet Absolute Authority? Listen to your conscience. Do you want God to come closer to you? No you don’t; He is already too close for comfort in your conscience.” In sum: Ordinary conscience is sacred because it is the very voice of God speaking in your moral reason” (#2952).