An excerpt from REFLECTIONS AND MEDITATIONS ON THE TRUTH OF THINGS
“Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as
true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful. For
all that which is, down to the humblest form of existence, exhibits the
inseparable privileges of being, which is truth, goodness and beauty.”
—Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical
Experience: The MedievalExperiment: The
Cartesian Experiment; The Modern Experiment
“Ideology is the name for that kind of disorder which consists in
substituting for philosophical questions about what is given a set of
assertions about what is not given. What is not given includes the
historical future, particularly when one ‘inquires’ about it in order to
control the ‘destiny of mankind.’ What is given but not accessible to the
type of knowing suitable for things in this world is the divine reality, above
and beyond that of the cosmos and of human history. When speculation
of the mind begins to criticize being as such, when it aims not at
understanding the ‘constitution of being’ but at its control by the human
will, the result is not philosophy but ideology.”
—Gerhart Niemeyer, Within and Above
Ourselves: Essays in Political Analysis
“The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized
Non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be
very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time:
so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before
us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian
Eliot as a young intellectual progressive, even something of a dandy as suggested in his “Mr. Apollinax,: studies philosophy at Harvard, where his distant cousin Charles W. Eliot has been long President there, attempting reformulation of higher education in service to what he calls “The Religion of the Future.” But young Eliot will soon begin to have some misgivings about his journey up to that point, unable to maintain a “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” in such intellectual environs. There fades for him, he laments, “a lunar synthesis, summoned by his “Whispering lunar incantations” that only dissolve “the floors of memory.” In the issue, his “memory throws up high and dry/ A crowd of twisted things,” perhaps a “twisted branch” sand-washed on a sterile beach, or a sea shell, each signal of a once living creature. Or perhaps in memory an image of a “broken spring in a factory yard.”
On that beach one might summon a Prufrock who may fancy now that he has once heard (in an almost forgotten past) mermaids singing each to each, though never directly to him—then or now. There lies yet for Eliot (after Prufrock and Other Observations) a long journey yet to make, before discovering memory’s true use to the “self.” The “use of memory” is “For liberation—not less of love but expanding/ Of love beyond desire, and so liberation/ From the future as well as the past.” Such recognition is spoken in the last of his Quartets, Little Gidding, recognizing the possible expanding beyond self-love as arrested by fancy of mermaids calling in a world quite other than the one in which Prufrock finds himself. In Little Gidding, the voices of children are heard “in the apple-tree,” at last “half-heard, in the stillness/ Between two waves of the sea” —the past and the future. Such is Eliot’s personal counterpoint to his Prufrock when he has become at last enabled to see “place” truly “for the first time.” He at last understands, but does not comprehend, having journeyed from Prufrock’s now to his own now as recovered in Little Gidding (1942, with World War II underway and he fire warden in bombed London).
As for Eliot’s here and now as always under siege, he has begun along the way to hear voices of companionable pilgrims, in a manner of hearing quite other than as heard long ago at Harvard or in Boston and London cultures. One of those companionable voices presently will be Josef Pieper, himself under fire in Nazi Germany from “allied” assaults as Eliot walks the burning night streets of London. Pieper is reading St. Thomas, as had Eliot in the mid- and late 1920s after his Waste Land and “Hollow Men.” Both are maturing spiritually, the one through philosophy out of St. Thomas in Nazi Germany, the other largely through poetry in secular London. Both decry, and will decry to their ends in what each believes a new beginning, the turnings from the way evident among the academic, political, social intelligentsia. In that recognition Eliot has long since abandoned “formal” (i.e., academic) philosophy as a “profession.” In poetry he seeks (though not recognizing himself seeking) an escape from that dead end in the Modernist embrace of logical positivism as the only acceptable “philosophy.” Such his circumstances, so like our own that he yet serves us well as surrogate reflector of our own “selves” in the first decade of the new millennium. He responds in an understanding of St. Augustine and St. Thomas and of his favored poet Dante Alighieri, they echoing the possible to us as homo viator. Eliot’s, too, are questions posed in wonder as recovered from his old indifference, whose virtue he once declared as ennui. He initiates his return to ground zero, speaking willy-nilly to us as to him in a still point, recovering old awe in consequence of perceptions of things actual, of a loved thing as a something perceived that is not the “self.” How arresting to reason: by knowing a something as both actual and other is to rediscover to that knowing “self” its own “self” as actual. In that instant of knowing is a certification of the existence of a knowing receiver of limited truth, despite Descartes’ confusions bequeathed us that so radically affect Western philosophy. We have forgotten St. Augustine’s old refutation of the “Academics” as skeptics of existence, argued long before Descartes. Those “Academics” asked St. Augustine, “What if you are deceived?”1 “If I am deceived,” St. Augustine declares, “I exist.” That is to say, even the idea of illusion in intellect is a proof of the actuality of the existential nature of the knowing subject, my “self.” And so St. Augustine declares (in his City of God, XI, 26): “Without any delusive representation of images or phantasma, I am certain that I am, that I know, and that I delight in this. On none of these points do I fear the argument of the skeptics of the Academy who say: What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am.”
St. Augustine began that great work The City of God late in life, turned fifty-nine. He worked on it for a decade and a half. But the “Cartesian” problem of certainty as to whether the thinker himself actually existed he had long since engaged. Indeed, he wrote his Against the Academicians the year before he was baptized by St. Ambrose. In it he breaks with the skeptics of the “New Academy” of his day who took departure from Zeno the Stoic, to whom he had been briefly drawn when he abandoned a decade’s adherence to Manichaeanism. He turns from the “new Academics” through Neo-Platonism, becoming drawn to St. Ambrose, who baptized him Easter day of 387, Augustine by then having parted form the skeptics in his arguments rejecting the “Academics” as prelude to his Easter day commitment.
We recall that journey of St. Augustine as suggestive of correspondences in the journey T. S. Eliot makes out of his own “academic” skepticism, encouraged in him at Harvard. He remarks his recognition of this turning in retrospect, in that late “Introduction” to Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Eliot then in his sixties. In the long view he has gained since an undergraduate at Harvard, he remarks the derailing of philosophy from theology which had affected at last his own turning from the Modernist philosophy in which the principle certitude rested in a faith in the autonomous authority of finite reason. Though in his late “Introduction” he does not engage Descartes directly, nor remind us of his discovery of a spiritual kinship with St. Augustine, we may recall his uncertain Prufrock. And we recall as well those lines in his Waste Land that echo by allusion St. Augustine’s Confessions: “To Carthage then I came....Burning burning burning burning....O Lord Thou pluckest me out....burning....”
With our reflection on St. Augustine’s argument which will be rationalized further by St. Thomas, there may begin for the intellectual soul a measuring of the reality of things through reason. In that turning is implied (though often ignored) a collateral measuring of the perceiving “self” as stirred by the wonder that anything should be. The partial truth perceived of a thing experienced (partial in that the intellectual soul as finite in its given nature is inadequate to an absolute comprehension) certifies to the “self” something true of its own nature, though a limited self-knowledge. For by the very nature of the intellectual soul the truth of things actual are incepted though but partially and willy-nilly from experiencing actual things through the senses. St. Thomas argues the point: by perception we respond to the essence of things as resonating to us out of their essences through the “accidents” of—the particularities of—things perceived.
Particularities speak to intellect limited truths, those particularities which St. Thomas calls inherent accidents of the essential nature of a thing. His use of accidents in this respect does not connote randomness but rather actualities of a thing perceived as spectacles of its discrete nature as a thing actual. We tend to the contrary to associate accident in Thomas’ sense as but spectacles concluded a randomness of things perceived in confluence, in a fragmented “accidental” world of coincidences unresolved save by analytical logic.
The temptation for us as intellectual finite creature becomes to dissociate particularities from the essential nature of the thing perceived, endangering thereby reason’s responsible but limited stewardship of things as actual in themselves. It is a dissociation exacerbated by our intellectual process, especially in its “Modernist” mode as serving an intent to power over being, as Eric Voegelin argues in his Science, Politics & Gnosticism. At its extreme, this dissociation leads ultimately to the denial of grace to the nature of a thing, a dogma of self-sufficiency made programmatic in the interest of manipulating (through its accidents) the nature of the thing. The final end of a thing is thus to be determined by intellectual intent, to the convenience of the perceiving intellect. Such becomes a false art, a perversion of stewardship as the responsibility of the intellectual soul. And thus in intellect itself is obscured as inconvenient the fundamental ground to intellectual knowing in the essence of a thing, the spectacles instead abstracted from that grounding in being, which reality (being) was once understood through the speculative intellect as allowing us recognitions of the orders of nature as depending from that grounding in being. Reason is misled by will, disjoining being itself from the Cause of being, a strategy necessary to the separation of theology from philosophy. Descartes’ obfuscations through the doubt he holds sacred, which becomes the disorienting inheritance we have from him which trickles down into the “popular spirit” in our “economy” of pragmatism. We know (in limited ways) nevertheless truths spoken of the essence of a thing to the intellectual soul through its particularities, and we do so by our very given nature as intellectual creatures, perceived in that we are incarnate creatures. That knowing is of a communal sharing in being within the confluence of things local to perceptions, broadening for us as a creation depending from being as the universal ground to the mystery of existence itself. We respond as intellectual souls despite our possible willfulness in refusal of moments in wonder at the marvel of experience itself as registered in and registering self-awareness. We declare, “I am,” as if self-created ex nihilo.
In a brief respite to Western culture, insofar as it had survived World War II, Eliot and Pieper look back, along with many others who become concerned as they observe danger in our increasingly euphoric intellectual conclusion of victory in the recent violence of World War II. We seem (as intellectual creatures) to have been lured to a manner of self-righteousness in intellectual responses to that victory over the “Axis of Evil.” It began to seem to us as if we were issuing upon some recovered Eden, to be certified by that victory—a presumption especially affecting our progeny, who would become the now notorious “Baby Boomers.” Thus Pieper’s sentence, borrowed from St. Thomas to a moment in the 1950s, warns us of shadows in intellect itself, even as we seemed to be emerging into a sunlit “new” world of our own making. His was a foreboding of a pending new war, more subtle in nature than that war of machines from which we had emerged victorious through superior technologies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And indeed initially in the 1960s, those spectacles were disturbing prospects of a new Eden in what we now call the “Cold War.” Cultural spectacles began to portend a new war, which however proved in the issue an old spiritual war in disguise, that oldest and continuing war in recorded history lacking immediate spectacular destructions such as the shock of “the Bomb,” but always ticking away in that inner man we so fondly call the “self.”
The fuse to a spiritual bomb in intellect itself had long been smoldering toward ignition in the soul. What some of these prophets like Pieper or Eliot detected was that the smoldering was increasingly fed by decaying volatile gases within Western culture itself, gradually eroding the intellectual soul from con-union in community, toward possible new explosions more destructive within the discrete intellectual soul itself by its separation of “thought” and “feeling.” Eliot had earlier imagined in his concern as poet and literary critic a “dissociation of sensibilities”—a separation of “thought” and “feeling” as he put it, but in his concern was limited to a “literary” weakness he inherited. As he would conclude, reading St. Thomas and rereading The Divine Comedy, the most terrible destruction in that separation was not so much a failure in our poetry or even the horror of a world threatening its own destruction precipitated in spectacles of conflict between the U.S.S.R. and the United States, but the destruction of the particular intellectual soul in a spiritual suicide, following upon its increasingly studied abandonment of sacred tradition as orienting it on its way as this intellectual soul incarnate.
Pieper in the chapter which he closes with the Thomas’ sentence admonishing knowledge of how the truth of things stands, first says that “the very moment anyone engaged in philosophizing abandons the guidance of sacred tradition...he loses sight of his true subject, the real world and its structure of meaning.” By that loss, he will then begin to talk about “philosophy and philosophers,” not of the proper end to such talk: namely, an accommodation to the truth of things as an intellectual soul incarnate. That is, Pieper adds, he becomes occupied “industriously with the opinions of other people.” That sentence Pieper chooses to sum his argument was written by Thomas in rejection of Thomas’ fellow scholastic, Siger of Brabant, who (along with others among the scholastics Thomas knows) distorts reason’s attempts to accommodate thought to reality. Thought begins to take precedence over truth, failing to speak truths known to intellect by experiences of things actual in themselves as experienced here and now. Thomas’ argument may be understood as an explication of St. Augustine’s witness to his own epiphany as he turns form his professed Manichaeanism and then from the self indulgent skeptics of the “New Academy.” He recalls in his Confessions a moment of arrest to his reason by a disturbing question about his own response to things in their actualities. He demands that those things speak truth to him. Why, given that he now loves his God above all else, does he still also “love a certain light, a certain voice, a certain odor, a certain food, a certain embrace?” It is the question he puts to “all the things that stand around the doors of my flesh.” They must tell him “something” of his God, by their own relation to God. Their response? He hears all those things cry out of one accord: “He made us!”
There comes an understanding to him through his reason: “My question was the gaze I turned on them; the answer was their beauty.” Not a beauty speaking their perfection, given what we may call the “going-on-ness” of things in their becoming out of their limited being toward worldly ends, but a speaking to the intellectual soul of the Cause whereby those things are at all. Things in their becoming are a present reality to the intellectual soul through perceptions, entering intellect by a grace through his “flesh” and speaking an Absolute Thing as their Cause. Alas, that is a Transcendent Reality beyond any comprehensive name at the command of the finite intellectual creature. For if a comprehensive name were possible to that finite intellect, the perceiving intellectual soul would thereby be so transcendent itself as to replace that Thing Comprehending all creation, God. How inadequate, even if to a pious intellectual creature, to name that mystery pervasive of creation by such a term as God or Absolute Omnipotence and Omniscience. But how easily may follow a presumption of a comprehension by naming. That self may presume itself the only knowing cause of the thing perceived, in a willful disjunction from the realities of things as actual, things reduced thereby from dependence in Cause. That is a presumption effecting in the intellectual soul its illusion of autonomous transcendence of all things, whereby the “self” becomes the only absolute that is worthy of its own love.
Alas, the sad consequences to culture closer home to us than Siger of Brabant. There began to fizzle in the academy in our own “New Academy” in the decade after the end of World War II, the 1950s, eruptions of intellect toward “self-love” as the highest virtue. It grows in a special challenge to the academy from within the society upon which it depends and to which the “New Academy” caters in relativisms. How are we to “process” the sudden flood of new students—how certify them on an efficient, cost-effective, assembly line as it were? Surely we must abandon that “leisure” which Pieper defends as necessary to our cultural survival as community, that old academy lacking pragmatic sufficiency to the present circumstances. And so we began substituting talking and writing about philosophy and philosophers, poets and poetry—as if their witness were but lingering residual history to be codified in museums called libraries, thereby exorcised from responsibilities to intellectual stewardship by intellectual purifications, and as thus dislocated from the truth of things subsumed by a “pure reason.” We must become less and less concerned for the truth of things as other than ideas residual in that history, too long held by intellect in reverence in a popularly vague term, “tradition.” Tradition must be concluded by pure reason no longer vital to a progressive social order.
At a crucial point on this way to the profound transformation of the ends of education itself, in pursuit of an “American Spirit,” John W. Draper had published a hundred years earlier his Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America, in 1865. In it he declares that “all political institutions...should tend to the improvement and organization of National Intellect.” It is therefore the scientist who must supplant the clergy he declares, the scientist to be paramount in directing trained technicians to effect a reconstitution of society, but under the firm direction of established lords of the “National Intellect.” Therefore “centralization is an inevitable issue in the life” of the United States as it is to be reconstituted. Meanwhile, “If the people will open their eyes, they will see that it is few who govern,” and come to accept “the domination of a central intelligence.” George M. Fredrickson alerts us to this defense of a new “National Intelligence,” to be governed in Draper’s vision by what emerges as the philosophy of logical positivism. Frederickson’s work is The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union, published in 1965, a hundred years after Draper’s work. In it Frederickson raises incisive questions about the consequences of that “inner civil war” of the victorious “Northern” intellectuals, after 1865, rising to public acclaim out of the Southern defeat as a “New Academy,” as St. Augustine might call it. There rises, for instance, the necessity of a quest for a “moral Equivalent of War” since the late “unpleasantness” with the South is over, and “soldiers” defending “National Intellect” must be recruited and trained. It is pursued by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in an intellectual debate with William James in the 1870s. In relation to that minor intellectual civil war between the two, the Harvard College intellectual environs settled upon athletics as one helpful means of training civil soldiers for a continuing civil war to establish a “National Intelligence,” with ironies too multiple to list in relation to the Academy and its Professional Athletics.
What is curious about Fredrickson’s engagements of these Northern intellectuals, largely associated with Harvard College, is that he does not include in his concern Charles W. Eliot, who becomes President of Harvard in the 1860s. President Eliot sets about a program of reconstituting higher education in service to Draper’s ideas. What Eliot anticipates, as he argues to Harvard Divinity students in the summer of 1909 on his retirement from his long labors, is what he calls a “Religion of the Future,” one which will “not be propitiatory, sacrificial, or expiatory,” requiring therefore a rejection of Christianity in pursuit of a secular religion to be established through scientific specializations. It will be a “religion” which is no longer given to “worship, express or implied, of dead ancestors, teachers or rulers.” Nor will that religion of the future have as its “primary object” “the personal welfare or safety of the individual in this world or the other” but only “service to others” in a worship of “the common good.” And so, a hundred years after Draper, after a “world wide” civil war within Western culture (World War II), the consequence is the elevation of the positivistic scientist over the philosopher, though he may go in robes of a secular religion worshipping the “self” as autonomous over creation, as if a philosopher.
How were we in the wake of World War II to handle within the academy the sudden flood of those eager and naïve recruits pursuing education toward becoming technicians (of whom I was one)? There were still some lingering habits of an old “tradition,” that of the “liberal arts.” But even that residual presence might be adapted to the crises in educational circumstances, even in literature as a lingering academic discipline, becoming intent on specialization. How does this idea measure up against that idea? Or is this poet X influenced by this poet Y? So long as unhampered by a conclusion into philosophical or theological questions, how convenient to a pragmatic address to explosive social circumstances. Fill in the blank, demonstrate by quotations (in more ambitious undertakings) from each poet—in juxtapositions like unto a cross-idea puzzle. Not that such exercises as these are absolutely in error. For they may indeed be possible points of departure in seeking the truth of things. For St. Thomas does not say we should avoid what men have said (intellectual “tradition”), but that to simply know what men have said is not the end of knowing. Departures, not ends, in the quest for understanding the truths spoken by things in themselves as witnessed by a tradition of persons witnessing along the way with signs to us. Otherwise, codification by process, as if lab-exercises, become increasingly only partially correct and fraught with danger as encouraging abandonment of a commitment to the end sought—to know the truth of things. But that end becomes less and less the proper consideration governing the academy, which itself first separates theology from philosophy and then reduces philosophy toward limited convenience to positivistic science.
Now if we recall our young in revolt in the 1960s, we in retrospect might consider whether their revolt is in part at least occasioned by their intuitive, not rational, recognition of having been starved intellectually, through various species of one-upmanship in the name of specialized progress, a dogma presented in condescending (by self-righteous intellectualisms) to expert knowing divorced from understanding. We are more advanced than our unprogressive fathers, some of whom were like the “monks of old” (as Flannery O’Connor’s Mr. Shiftlet in her “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” says) slept in their coffins. Such progress in the issue will be justified to the public spirit by stirring its feelings as more important than its own reason, they content to leave “thinking” to their betters. There grows thereby a dogma of knowing as reserved to specialization and thereby contributing to a revolution centering in the academy in its losing sight of the end proper to our knowing: that proper devotion to the truth of things. The new dogma becomes universal: “Everybody has a right to his own opinion,” or so the public spirit is encouraged to declare. That declaration becomes a political banner, regardless of the truth of things, but also contradictorily justified by specialization—by a faith in “expert” authority as transcendent of social realities. How quietly St. Thomas yet observes to those with ears to hear, from within the loud and louder cultural upheaval in the academy of the 1960s. “The purpose of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.”
In valuing that quietly spoken truth, we must once more make a careful distinction lest we be misunderstood. Thomas does not declare that we should be indifferent to what others have thought, whether they be philosophers or poets or scientists. Thomas’ incisive arguments against Siger of Brabant, and against the heretical Averroists in general, demonstrate just how thoroughly he knows what they have said.2 His arguments are concerned to recover the purpose implicit to our human witness, through our most various arts of making, much of it his own inheritance from those surviving monuments in philosophy or poetry that still stand in present witness to us as bequeathed the living who honor the dead. The recovery of reality in discovering how the truth of things stands is cumulative, though never comprehensive of truth, as Thomas is also careful to remind us often. For Thomas as philosopher—as a lover of wisdom toward an accord of the intellectual soul to creation—would have us gain in recognition of the truth of things beyond what even he could know as this finite intellectual creature remembered as Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas’ concern is that the intellectual soul may nevertheless become distracted from the true ends to be properly sought with our gifts as intellectual creatures, to each according to the limits whereby he is this person and no other. He knows that both his and our capacity to recognition of the truth of things is limited. He knows as well that whatever our particular gifts, they must be governed by prudential humility in recognition of our finitude as intellectual soul incarnate. How interesting in this context, Josef Pieper’s observation about St. Thomas as philosopher. “Thomas did not establish any definite, fixed terms which he planned to use in a consistent manner. On the contrary, he was fond of employing several synonymous expressions side by side. We find that he employs no less than ten different phrases to express the concept of relation. Contrariwise, the word forma has ten different meanings as Thomas used it....Thomas was convinced that an absolutely adequate name, completely and exhaustively defining a given subject or situation so that no alternatives are excluded and that name alone can be employed, simply cannot exist.” It cannot, since finite intellect is never omniscient. We need here to remember then, that shortly after St. Thomas, William of Occam introduces Nominalism into Western philosophy in an attempt at an absolute certainty to dominance of intellect through its authority in limiting things by name, Nominalism an instrument in a conquest of being, preparing the way for that radical doubt about any knowing that so haunts Descartes, a doubt that will be fought out in 18th century intellectual civil wars of the Enlightenment in attempts to certify intellect itself as autonomous, as by intent omniscient over being.
We may understand, but are never comprehensive, in knowing things. For comprehension is an absolute denied us by our very nature, since as intellectual creature we exist and can only exist by the grace of limit. Without that limit in being as this intellectual soul incarnate, indeed, we would not be at all. And always the gnawing question, a grace to intellect itself stirring wonder out of awe. Why this somethingness perceived rather than that strange shadow in intellect itself, haunting our experiences of self-evident somethingnesses known. Whence that shadow of idea called nothingness? How astonishing then to realize that nonexistence, which seems so alluring a prospect to some intellectual souls in their desperations, is necessarily consequent to and therefore of itself alone an impossible concept without existence as actual and prior to any concept, necessary even to that shadow idea nothingness. Nonexistence then is but a shadow of doubt cast by fallen intellect upon the actual, through those actualities as finite intellectual creature. We but see things as through a glass darkly, though with an abiding desire for a fullness of vision beyond finite intellectual light. That stirs in us the marvelous mystery of being, stirring reason to its wonder and to a pursuit within the limits of finite knowing as this person—as this intellectual creature seeking fulfillment of its given limits.
How deeply learned, then, is Aquinas in those not yet dead to philosophical and literary witnesses of his own pursuit of the truth of things that he inherits, those witnesses by past intellectual “fathers” of their own experiences of the actual—both Pagan and Hebrew and Christian witnesses. Most especially he believes himself indebted to Aristotle, to whom he refers emphatically as “the Philosopher,” as if there were few if any others to whom that limited name might properly be given. For St. Thomas, Artistotle is unquestionably a part of that “sacred tradition” of witnesses who are concerned for the truth of things which speak to the intellectual creature man through his experiences of things actual, wherever and whenever.
St. Thomas is aware of his intellectual fathers, then, as intellectual souls incarnate, to whom he is indebted as a philosopher in his quest for metaphysical vision. They prove very present to him by their witness in their made things, signposts to us in what otherwise might seem a bare intellectual waste land. And even we reading them (if we dare) find that they speak to our common concern to know the truth of things, a concern—a native desire in man as intellectual creature—to understand universal truths to steady us on our way. They seem suddenly very close to us, though centuries dead in history’s terse and abbreviated accountancy. A desire stirred by experiences as an intellectual soul incarnate in discovering that what men have said is very often present witness to use of their quest for the truth of things, the quest which is to be emulated—in whatever place or time we find ourselves. However seemingly distant to a reader their words in whatever his own place or time, such witness yet abounds, to be sorted for truths as our inherited “tradition.” St. Thomas supposes that out of this common desire there may be established a common understanding of, though not a comprehension of, the mystery of being itself toward an eventual contentment as this intellectual soul incarnate, despite man’s nature as fallen in Original Sin. The desire to know remains common, regardless of our dangerous willfulness in knowing which tempts presumption of comprehension. For willfulness tempts intellect to self-satisfaction in knowing, as if that were the end. That is largely a limit to the reach of Aristotle, though a considerable reach by “the philosopher,” as St. Thomas recognized. St. Thomas understands that knowing is a means but not the final end. It is a beginning toward fulfillment of limits as this intellectual soul incarnate, a perfection of limits in being this person and no other.
To know is not for St. Thomas the final end, but the point of repeated departures in continuing quest of the truth of things known, though never comprehended by finite intellect. For him comprehension is the province of Omniscience. In us, he holds, is nevertheless a grace inherent to our given nature: the desire for a fulfillment of our limits whereby we are this person and no other. We are both actual, that is to say, and in a potentiality to that fulfillment through grace. To know, therefore, opens to the intellectual creature on its way a larger prospect beyond its own illusions of comprehension. For such is an illusion tempting to presumptions that we may transform being itself, perhaps even reconstitute essence, as if our autonomous prerogative by a transcendence self-induced, escaping by will all limits to absolute freedom from limit. That is the Grand Illusion, worshipped tellingly by Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov and celebrated by Ivan in his “poem” he calls “The Grand Inquisitor.” As intellectual creatures—or so St. Thomas would remind us—we know and become as intellectual creatures toward an understanding of the limits of our knowing, which Ivan (an intellectual disciple of the Enlightenment) must deny. The sequence of that becoming is not from knowing to understanding to comprehension Thomas would warn us. It is rather from knowing to understanding to a wisdom governed by prudential humility, in an accord with our limits as this person and no other, limits measured to us by the truth of things though in error we presume ourselves the measure of truth.
1. On the philosophical inadequacy of Descartes’ “academic” doubt as in that celebrated phrase cogito ergo sum, see Etienne Gilson’s Methodical Realism, an extended refutation of Descartes.
2. Siger of Brabant is Thomas’ antagonist as philosopher in Thomas’ crucial arguments. On Being and Essence and On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists.