Aquinas: Speaking from silence?

Thomas Aquinas

In his fine new book on Aquinas, Denys Turner writes with insight: 'Theology matters only because – and when – there is more to life than theology, and when that "more" shows its presence within the theology that is done.'

- Matthew Levering, The Tablet

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press)

This book is both an erudite introduction to Aquinas’ thought and an urgent epistle written by a master scholar at the end of his teaching career, to his fellow professors at elite Western universities. It is the latter aspect that makes the former even more worth exploring.

In his brief introduction, Turner contrasts Aquinas’s ‘deadpan’ style, his willed transparency to the objects of his enquiry, to that of "academics who love to scintillate; they will make anyone (but themselves) pay the price of a particularly fine scintillation, though the effect is, like lightning, of a flash of excessive brilliance draining the world of colour, followed by a darkness all the deeper as a result."

Aquinas wants us to see the natural world, the human person, Christ, and God: and he shows us how university teaching can serve this task. Indeed, one of Aquinas’ main achievements was establishing theology as a true university discipline. In the Summa Theologiae, says Turner, Aquinas makes theology ‘into a “subject” that may be distinguished methodologically from other subjects; he re-conceives theology as a teachable, examinable, portable, intellectual skill.’

Yet, theology’s place in the university has not been effectively sustained in elite modern universities. Employing Aquinas, Turner shows why this situation must be changed. His main argument is that Aquinas is a much better "materialist" than those who currently reign in elite universities. Aquinas holds to a strong account of body-soul unity: the person is wholly animal and wholly rational. Turner shows that Aquinas’ view is far superior to the "philosophically myopic materialisms of our own time", which cannot account for human rationality.

As Turner explains: 'the judgment that the computer keyboard I am writing on now is material cannot itself be a material act, just in the same way that seeing something red cannot be a red act of seeing.'

Turner’s comparison of Aquinas and Locke on conceptual abstraction is itself worth the price of the book. He makes clear that our analytic and synthetic power depends on 'the intellect’s not possessing any of the characteristics of its own objects, just as in its own particular domain the act of seeing must be colourless if it is to have the power to distinguish colours.'

Likewise, Turner examines Aquinas’ proofs for God’s existence and here again he warns against our 'provinciality of mind' and 'reductivist mentality.'

He shows with some care that Aquinas’ argument to God from contingency and necessity (the ‘third way’), which has been dismissed by modern philosophers for falling into the Quantifier Shift fallacy, in fact grants that there could be an infinite number of contingent things existing without beginning or end. But 'the existence of such a contingent totality depends upon the existence of some being not itself contingent … For if there were nothing but that contingent totality, then that totality as such must at some time not have existed, and so could not now exist.'

Full review in The Tablet:

Review on Catholic Book Review:]\

Review on The Christian Century:

Review on Commonweal:

Wikipedia on Thomas Aquinas:

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