"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The doctrine of St Thomas proceeds from the fullness of his contemplation

In addition to all these considerations, we must finally say that the Angelic Doctor never cherished method for its own sake, but for the purpose of finding out the truth and transmitting it to posterity, especially divine truth to which he especially directed his attention. On the contrary, just as many hunters find greater delight in the sport of hunting than in the game they take, so some evidently have in mind the mode of demonstrating the truth rather than the actual discovery of the truth itself, even when they are investigating things most sublime, such as the infinite value of Christ's merits or the divine processions. This is a deformation of the theologian's profession, when he is not sufficiently contemplative. He then digresses too much and is too much given to argumentation.

Nevertheless, in the hours of study we must give careful consideration to the proper method, which, as we acquire the habit, we unconsciously make use of little by little, as is the case with a musician who is practicing to play on the guitar or the harp. Thus the greater facility gradually acquired in the use of the proper method disposes a person for a correct knowledge of the different parts of philosophy and theology, and by this very fact, for the contemplation of truth from which proceeds the living doctrine that illuminates the mind and inflames the heart. The Angelic Doctor says that doctrine and preaching must "proceed from the fullness of contemplation." (48) It was so when he taught. Just as only those musicians make good use of their method who, under the influence of a certain inspiration, fully penetrate the soul of a symphony, so St. Thomas employed his scientific method, inspired as it were from above, illuminated by the light of vivid faith and the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and this light absolutely transcends all systems and all knowledge acquired by human efforts. Thus only by this supernatural light does theology attain its end, and then we find verified in it the words of the Vatican Council: "Reason, indeed, enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift from God some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of mysteries. . . . But reason never becomes capable of apprehending mysteries as it does those truths which constitute its proper object. For in this mortal life we are pilgrims, not yet with God: we walk by faith and not by sight." (49)

Therefore St. Thomas, before he dictatcd or wrote or preached, used to recite this prayer:,"Ineffable Creator, who out of the treasures of Thy wisdom hast appointed three hierarchies of angels and set them in admirable order high above the heavens and hast disposed the diverse portions of the universe in such marvelous arrays, Thou who art called the true source of light and supereminent principle of wisdom, be pleased to cast a beam of Thy radiance upon the darkness of my mind and dispel from me the double darkness of sin and ignorance in which I have been born.

"Thou who makest eloquent the tongues of little children,(50) fashion my words and pour upon my lips the grace of Thy benediction. Grant me penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and facility in study, subtlety in interpretation, and abundant grace of expression.

"Order the beginning, direct the progress, and perfect the achievement of my work, Thou who art true God and man and livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen."

This prayer was heard; for in the holy Doctor's works on the logical method is to be seen the light of the gifts of the Holy Ghost as also the gratuitously given grace of the "word of wisdom," (51) as Pope Pius XI says.(52) Therefore, in a certain responsory in the office for the feast of St. Thomas, we read: "There is brevity of style, a pleasing eloquence, sublimity, clarity, and well-founded opinion."

There is sublimity, because the knowledge is derived from the highest of causes; there is clarity, because by the light of the highest principles he penetrates to the very source of the question; there is well-founded opinion, because "he assigns the cause why the thing is and cannot be otherwise than it is," according to the Aristotelian definition of knowledge.(53) This pleasing eloquence coupled with a brevity of style is the result of a, vivid and supernatural contemplation, by which the holy Doctor was conversant not only with the literal but also with the spiritual interpretation of Holy Scripture. He knew, to be sure, that, especially for the discussion of divine subjects, prayer and contemplation were no less necessary than laborious efforts in the pursuit of knowledge; and when difficulties arose, he did not pray less so as to give himself more time for study, but in preference to this he spent more time in prayer. This truth is of great importance for renewing the spirit of study in theology, so that it may be something vital and productive of its due effects. Concerning the holy Doctor's contemplation, Pope Pius XI wrote as follows: "The more readily to obtain these illuminations from above, he would often abstain from food, spend whole nights in prayerful vigil, and, surrendering to a holy impulse, would repeatedly lean his head against the tabernacle and would constantly turn his eyes with sorrow and love toward the image of Jesus crucified. To his friend St. Bonaventure he confided that whatever he knew he had for the most part learned from the book of the crucifix." (54) Christ indeed had said: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." (55) Of course, books give us the letter, but study without prayer and the interior life does not attain to the spiritual meaning.

Whoever considers the light of divine contemplation from which this great synthesis of St. Thomas proceeds cannot say that this doctrine is extreme intellectualism, devoid of reality and lifeless.

By an intellectual process, as befitting a science, and not according to the tenets of "sentimentalism," St. Thomas treats of God, our natural and supernatural states. But he never separates our intellectual life from the influence exerted upon it by the will or even by the sensitive faculties; for he shows to our complete satisfaction the mutual relations between the faculties. He says, indeed: "If therefore the intellect and the will be considered with regard to themselves, then the intellect is the higher power. . . . For the object of the intellect is simpler, and more absolute than the object of the will." (56) Being is prior to and more universal than good; thus the intellect is simpler and higher than the will which it directs. Yet the holy Doctor adds: "But relatively and by comparison with something else, we find that the will is sometimes higher than the intellect .:. thus the love of God (at least in this life) is better than the knowledge of God." (57) The reason is that the intellect draws to itself the thing understood even though this is superior to it, whereas the will is drawn to the thing. Thus charity is the most excellent of all the virtues.(58) St. Thomas also says: "Some are hearers that they may know, and these build upon intellect (only, and not upon charity); and this is building upon sand." (59)

This doctrine is not, indeed, extreme intellectualism. Concerning all these things St. Thomas speaks not oratorically but scientifically, as befitting his scope, which is the search not for the beauty that attracts as in poetic art, but for the truth, without which there cannot be any true goodness or beauty.

St. Thomas excludes the particular from knowledge in the strict sense, since nothing is knowable except by way of abstraction from individualized matter. He certainly affirms that "the knowledge of singulars does not pertain to the perfection of the intellective soul in speculative knowledge"; but he adds immediately that "it pertains to the perfection of the same in practical knowledge," (60) namely, of prudence and the gift of counsel. It pertains also to either external or internal experience, which the Angelic Doctor certainly did not despise. He even asserts that the just person can have by the gift of wisdom "a quasi-experimental knowledge" (61) of the presence of God in the soul and of the mysteries of salvation, according to the following text of St. Paul: "For the Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God." (62) He gives this testimony "through the effect of filial love which God produces in us." (63)

The holy Doctor possessed this mystic experience in the highest degree, and it certainly influenced the construction of his theological synthesis, but, as it were, from on high, by conforming and elucidating his faith. But knowledge in the strict sense, whether philosophical or theological, which is acquired by study, is essentially distinct from any individual experience whatever, even the most sublime, and is concerned only with universals either in predication or being or causation."(64)

But the universal in predication is fundamentally in individual things, and expresses what is necessary and negatively eternal in them, namely, what is true not only here and now, but always. It is (Greek: to ti en einai): the being what is was intended to be.(65) Therefore the holy Doctor says: "So far as universals taken as logical entities are concerned, so far as they are the cause of knowledge and demonstration, they are more truly beings than particulars are, because the former are incorruptible, whereas the latter are not. But as regards natural subsistence, particulars are more truly beings, because they are called first and principal substances." (66) Thus reality is preserved absolutely intact.

Hence in scientific knowledge, and rightly so, St. Thomas reduces all things to universal principles that are fundamental, necessary, and perpetual laws not only of the mind but of being, and of being whether natural or supernatural.

Thus his method is of great help in remedying the defects of modern philosophy, in which the distinction between the internal senses and the intellect, between nature and grace, gradually disappeared. With the elimination of ontological validity from the first principles of reason there is nothing firm and stable left in the speculative order and a fortiori in the practical order.(67)

The Theological Summa of St. Thomas, constructed as it is according to the above-mentioned method, since it avoids the opposite extremes of rationalism and fideism, is a work that is both truly scientific and always elucidated by the light of supernatural revelation. It is, therefore, truly a classical and perennial work, not indeed of extreme intellectualism, but of "sacred theology" that has been raised to the status of a true science notwithstanding the obscurity of faith. It constitutes a really organic body of doctrine, and is truly a single science, though subordinated to God's knowledge and to that which the blessed have of Him, and bears, as it were, the stamp (in us) of the divine science,(68) considering all things under the formality of God as author of grace and as the ultimate end.

Index Top


48. Ibid., IIa IIae, q. 188, a.6.

49 Deniz., 1796; II Cor. 5:7.

50. Wis. 10: 21.

51. 1 Cor. 12: 8.

52. Cf. Encyclical Studiorum ducem.

53. Post. Anal. Bk. I, chap. 2.

54. Encyclical Studiorum ducem.

55. John 6: 64.

56. Summa theol., Ia, q. 82, a. 3.

57. Ibid.

58. lbid., IIa IIae, q. 23, a.6.

59. Com. in Matt., 7: 26.

60. Summa theol., IIIa, q.11i, a. 1 ad 3um.

61 Cf. I Sent. d. 14, q.2, a.2 ad 3um; Summa theol., la, q.43, a.3; IIa IIaC, q.45, a. 2.

62. Rom. 8: i6.

63 Cf. St. Thomas, Com. on Rom. 8: i6.

64 Summa theol., Ia, q, 1, a.2 ad 2um; IIa IIae, q.45, a.2.

65. Cf. Aristotle's Metaphysics, 1041, a.27. On the etymology of Aristotle's description of essence, Dr. Coffey remarks (Onology, p. 75, no. 1), "that the expression (Gk: to ti en einai) is not easy to explain. He presumes that the phrase (Gk: to einai) supposes a dative understood, such as: (Gk: to anthropo einai) ("the being proper to man"). To the question (Gk: ti estin to anthropo einai) ( "What is the being proper to man?"), the answer is: that which gives the definition of man, that which explains what he is: (Gk: ti en). Is the imperfect (Gk ti en) an archaic form for the present, (Gk ti esti); or is it a deliberate suggestion of the profound doctrine that the essence is ideal, or possible, that it is anterior to its actual, physical realization? Commentators are not agreed. Cf. Matthias Kappes, Aristoteles Lexicon, p. 25; Mercier, Ontologie, p. 30." Father Clarke, S.J. (Logic, p. 5, no. 2) remarks: "Quidditas is the somewhat barbarous but very expressive equivalent of the Aristotelian phrase (Gk: to ti en einai). The essence or quiddity of a thing consists in its corresponding to the pattern after which it was fashioned. Hence (Gk ti en) means, what is its nature? What
was it intended to be by the Creator? And therefore (Gk:to ti en einai) means the being what it was intended to be by its Creator." Father Garrigou-Lagrange seems to incline to this latter view. (Tr.)

66. Com. on Post. Anal., Bk. I, lect. 37.


"Though the path is plain and smooth for people of good will, those who walk it will not travel far, and will do so only with difficulty if they do not have good feet, courage, and tenacity of spirit. "

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

* * *

"Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God."

Thomas Kempis

* * *

"To do God's will -- this was the goal upon which the saints constantly fixed their gaze. They were fully persuaded that in this consists the entire perfection of the soul. "

St Alphonsus de Liguori

* * *