Philosophy and philosophers are realties dial occupy an important position in both history and culture. They have often exercised a great influence on the development of culture as well as on so many different events in the histories of many Moons. They themselves however have grown out of so many diverse historical and cultural situations, often trying to explain the unanswered questions that occupied the minds and mouths of the peoples of whom they were a part. It is they who have sought to solve the problems of both individuals, societies and cultures in an intellectual way, thus producing the many different philosophical disciplines that occupy the chairs of philosophy faculties throughout the world.
While there is no doubt that philosophy is an activity that can classify a person as a 'philosopher', either in the sense of a profession or in the sense of a character type, there is likewise no doubt that philosophy can be understood from a Christian perspective. So also the life of the 'philosopher' as well as his philosophical activity can find their motivations in a life of prayer and grace and in the seeking to glorify God and in the try ing to do His Will. Thus philosophy can be conceived as a vocation as a way of life directed to God.
In the course of the centuries there have been many people who while acclaimed as saints, have also been recognized as philosophers and as important contributors to the philosophical heritage and development of human culture. These saints such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Edith Stein and so many more, not only attest to the importance of a Christian Philosophy, but they also have something to say with respect to the vocation to be a philosopher and the interrelation between the becoming, a saint and the being a philosopher. For them it was clear that it is not philosophy or the use of reason that makes a saint, for sanctity depends on the Grace and Kind ness of God and the human openness to receiving such. For them philosophizing, however. Is a way of allowing grace and the gifts of God to be efficacious in their lives and in the service of the Kingdom of God.
The Catholic Church presents to her members, in a very special way, one of her Saint-Philosophers; Saint Thomas of Aquino, a man that de serves both the veneration due to a saint and the honor due to an indisputably great philosopher. His philosophy and theology are certainly well known and are even often discussed and debated. His sanctity on the other hand, which is the greatest of his qualities and odes remains often unnoticed. It is concerning this, his sanctity, that I will continue the development of the theme of the Vocation to be a philosopher.
The Holiness of Saint Thomas has not only affected Christian intellectuals and leaders, but down through the centuries, also his sanctity has in a very different dynamic, affected and nourished so many millions of Catholics no matter what their states of life: the prayers that he wrote and above all the contribution that he made to Eucharistic Spirituality and the Liturgy, especially that of Corpus Christi, of which he is the com poser. Not only have these penetrated the centuries but through them the grace of God has certainly entered into so many hearts and souls. Here the thomistic holiness truly shines forth.
However, when we consider the approach of Saint Thomas to philosophizing, one can only be struck by the goodness and beauty of his soul. Thomas Aquinas lived in a time and in an ambient where philosophical debate was more than evident; questions were being asked to which solutions were being presented which not only seemed unreal but were in themselves a treat to Christian Faith. These solutions and threats entered into the intellectual circles of Christendom through the philosophies and ideas of some great Islamic minds, who themselves were similarly trying to explain metaphysically certain elements of their own faith, which even today evoke questions and debate concerning such things as the nature of Creation, of human freedom and of the immortally of the human soul etc. While men like Alkini and Averroes, in trying to explain the Koranic conception of the nature of Divine Activity upon the distinct human souls, ended up in denying human freedom, they not only posed a difficulty for the Muslim world but also for the Christian world. The use made of Aristotle and metaphysics by such Arab philosophers was to be found very attractive to the intellectual dimension of the new cultural atmosphere of Europe, which had seen in previous centuries such events as the birth of Universities, the Cluny reform or die new monastic school system of die Charlemagnian era. There is no question that these new and foreign philosophies were dangerous to the Christian Faith and theology. Following his great master. Saint Albert, Thomas of Aquinas provided not only one of the greatest responses, but he also provided a most exemplary way of responding, a way in which his sanctity shines brightly forth.
The first characteristic of his saintly approach was his wonderful openness; traces of truth are to be found m all things. Indeed this is what he did, he sought the elements of truth in die philosophers and philosophies to which he had to object. Not only did he acknowledge the elements of truth, but he also used the ideas and methods of these non Christian philosophers, who were clearly a threat to Christianity. Thus Thomas him self, with a holy freedom of soul, was courageous and adventurous enough to enter the philosophical battle ground of the time on the terms of die philosophers in question, be it Aristotle or Avicenna, Plato or AIfarabi. His own intellectual and spiritual maturity allowed him not only to make the good and true elements of these philosophers his own, building his own philosophical system and distinctions there upon, but he undoubtedly made a wonderful effort in sanctifying and christianizing the good and perfectible parts of the different philosophers which he en countered.
While Saint Thomas approached these philosophies as a Christian, looking for the reflection of God, the traces of truth, in other systems of thought, giving each individual philosopher the benefit by trying to develop particular ideas of each one in a way that can conform with Christian theology and Faith, he also showed his greatness as a philosopher in his ability to clarify and define on the one hand and then in his capacity to reason logically in a disciplined way on die other hand.
Down through the centuries there have been many scholars who have dedicated themselves to the deepening and application of their knowledge of the tangible fruits of the philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas. These scholars have come to be known as Thomists and a latter school as Neo-thomists. There is no doubt that these schools have been major contributors to the different theological and philosophical disciplines as conceived and taught within the Catholic Church.
At the same time, I feel that being a disciple of die Angelic Doctor means more than learning and penetrating his particular and clearly well developed system, something from which everybody is in fact certain to benefit from, be It from its logic or Intellectual discipline or be It from the depth of his examination and penetration of the problems with which he was confronted. Being a disciple of Saint Thomas means more. It means really learning from him; not so much his terminology or distinctions but rather learning about and being formed In his saintly attitude toward problems, philosophies and philosophers. In fact it is only when this happens that the problems and questions that are being forwarded in the world of today can find a satisfactory solution. The mere applying of the Thomistic system to the different present day situation runs up against major obstacles, all of which tend to hinder the bearing of abundant fruit.
Since the time and the world of Saint Thomas there have been so many changes, in fact radical changes. Besides the direct influences of different philosophies be it materialism, idealism, existentialism or deism, there have also been major events which have had phenomenal con sequences on the world of today and on the mentalities of so many different peoples: One need only think of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, of either the black death or the World Wars which devastated Europe, of the discoveries of new worlds and the French Revolution, or of the Industrialization of Europe and America or of the sexual revolution. Consequently not only has the Weltanschauung, of peoples changed but so also have their attitudes and ways of responding to different problems and difficulties. In fact even the type of thing that is considered a problem is no longer always the same: What was a problem in the thirteenth century is not necessarily going to be an issue or a question in the present-day world, while the problems of today often had no place in thirteenth century life or consciousness.
However, it is not only the mentally and Weltanschauung that has under gone a major change. Language too, has seen changes, first with regards to terminology, whereby different terms having the same vocal expression as before, have now a different meaning than they had centuries ago. But likewise, conceptual evaluation has seen changes, in so far as a twentieth century man conceives things intellectually in a way that differs greatly from how a thirteenth century man would have conceived the same thing. These changes are not only natural to evolving languages but it is also to be expected from the different developments in history and culture which in themselves have often called out for and produced new philosophical and psychological structures for the evaluating of things. Consequently it is quite difficult to use effectively the actual terminology found In any particular philosopher of die past to address the hodiernal needs of philosophical contribution. The challenge for the philosopher is to be sufficiently dynamic in his capacity to express his philosophical concepts using a terminology that is part of the living language. In this way, he will be understood and will be helpful to his contempories and to the society and culture of which he is a part.
The greatest difficulty facing a fruitful application of the actual philosophy of Saint Thomas in present times concerns probably the most radical changes in the philosophical mind since the time of Saint Thomas: the place of God in the world of the philosopher. For the Scholastics and all their predecessors as also for the Arab philosophers, the existence of God was a reality, something that was taken for granted and was never doubted. The philosophy of the Scholastics was rooted within this type of a culture, where God was as real as everything else. The questions of the scholastics were never attempts to overcome disbelief in God but were attempts to clarify diverse misconceptions concerning God, they were not trying to undo doubt but rather ignorance as regards the nature of the world and of God. Thus Saint Thomas did not have five proofs that demonstrated that God really does east, rather he had five ways off showing how we know that God exists.
Three centuries after Saint Thomas the cultural attitude regarding God began to change. Atheism really began to be born for the first time in human history, whereby the existence of God was denied and the classical ways of understanding and demonstrating the existence of God were placed in a crisis. Philosophy began to change, with philosophers such as Descartes with his universal criticism, and Kant with his radically different conception of epistemology and metaphysics which prepared the way for the Godless philosophies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereby the world is conceived as totally independent of any reference to God.
This transition can not be forgotten about, for it is the major point of crisis of any Christian philosophy such as that of Saint Thomas which can not be separated in any way whatsoever from the reality of God. Thomism therefore finds itself in a world which is working on a totally different dynamic and which is founded upon radically different premises. Thus if God does not exist Thomistic as other scholastic philosophies have absolutely no value. Likewise if the acceptance of the east- once of God is held in suspension the method of Saint Thomas can not work nor be applied efficaciously. Accordingly, It seems that Thomism Is limited by these three points: the change In world cultures and Weltanschauungen, the change In terminology and the mode of conception and finally the radical change concerning the foundation and structure of philosophy. While Thomism might find itself limited, the spirit of Saint Thomas is certainly not limited by these changes. The challenge for Catholic philosophers today is to al low themselves to be affected by this spirit.
In order to be a true disciple of Saint Thomas there is no doubt that one must be deeply rooted in one's faith and spiritual life, thus being motivated out of love for God so as to philosophize, and to explain and defend the Faith whenever this be a necessity. Secondly, in order to under stand and penetrate the meaning of the actual philosophy that the hand of Saint Thomas produced, there is no doubt that one must clearly under stand the Sitz im Leben of Saint Thomas, understanding his times, the philosophical debates, and in a very special way, the motivations and developments behind the Arab philosophers and their disciples with whom Saint Thomas was chiefly contending.
The philosopher of today is consequently faced with serious challenges: On the one hand he is invited to speak and explain his ideas using a terminology of today and of the culture in which he finds himself. The second point on which a Christian philosopher should confront himself is with respect to the real questions that the people of today are asking and the real problems which the world of today is having to deal with. Thus, one demand that is being made on Christian philosophers is to pro duce a philosophical structure adapted to the world in which they find themselves, and to accordingly provide explanations and answers that come from a deep and committed Christian stand point. Finally, the ex ample of Saint Thomas challenges us to be open to using the many and the different philosophers which our century has inherited from history, be it Aristotle or Plato, Saint Thomas himself or Saint Bonaventure, or be it Kant or Hegel, Marx or Proud, Sartre or Heidegger. Accordingly the Christian philosopher is faced with the difficult task of understanding what these different and often non-Christian philosophers are trying to say and expound upon. He is challenged to provide true Christian answers to the problems that these philosophers seek to answer, using these very philosophers themselves and their philosophical structures in the process. He is challenged to discern the values and the limits of philosophers and to Christianize them in so far as this might be possible.
In concluding, it can only be said again that to be a Christian philosopher Is Indeed a vocation that needs the grace and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It Is a vocation to work for the lip-building of the Kingdom of God and the safeguarding of our the Christian Faith and way of life. It is a vocation that requires great maturity, depth of spirit and Intellect, as also, openness, humility and above all a deep holiness manifested In a love for the things of God and for the traces of truth that are to be found In all things. Saint Thomas Is beyond any doubt an example of Sanctity and a model for philosophers. He is indeed a witness to the importance of Christian Philosophy and the vocation to it.
Return to philosophy and culture
or to Church-Unity Internet Center