"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

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


In this work we are incorporating the article on Thomism which we wrote for the Dictionnaire de theologie catholique. To that article we add: first, occasional clarifications; secondly, at the end, a hundred pages on the objective bases of the Thomistic synthesis, chiefly philosophic pages, which were not called for in a dictionary of theology.

Contradictory views, intellectual and spiritual, of St. Thomas have been handed down to us. The Averroists reproached him as but half-Aristotelian; the Augustinians saw in him an innovator too much attached to the spirit, principles, and method of Aristotle. This second judgment reappeared, sharply accented, in Luther, [1] and again, some years ago, in the Modernists, who maintained that St. Thomas, a Christian Aristotelian, was rather Aristotelian than Christian.

In other words, some scholars saw in the work of St. Thomas "a naturalization of revealed truth," [2] a depreciation of Christian faith, faith losing its sublimity, by a kind of rationalism, by exaggeration of the power and rights of reason. Now this rationalization of faith is indeed found in Leibnitz. [3] It is certainly not to be found in St. Thomas.

But these contrary judgments, however inadmissible, serve by contrast to set in relief the true physiognomy of the master, whom the Church has canonized and entitled Doctor Communis.

His whole life, all his intelligence, all his forces, were bent to the service of the Christian faith, both in his doctrinal battles and in the serenity of contemplation. Justification of this statement appears in the way he conceived his vocation as teacher. You find therein an ascending gradation which arouses admiration.

1. Whereas on the one hand he fully recognizes all that is excellent, from the philosophical standpoint, in the teaching and method of Aristotle, he shows, on the other hand, against the Averroists, that reason can prove nothing against the faith. This latter task he accomplished by demonstrating against them from philosophy itself, that God's creative act is free, that creation need not be ab aeterno, that man's will is free, that the human soul is characterized by personal immortality.

2. In opposition to the Augustinians, who, repeating their master by rote, were in large measure unfaithful to that master, he carefully distinguishes reason from faith, but, far from separating these two, he rather unites them. [4].

3. He shows that philosophy deserves to be studied, both for its own sake, and also to establish, by arguments drawn simply from reason, that the praeambula fidei are attainable by the natural force of human intelligence.

4. As regards the purposes of theology, which he calls "sacred doctrine," he shows, first, that it is not to be studied merely for personal piety or for works of edification or to comment on Holy Scripture or to assemble patristic compilations or, finally, to explain the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Theology must rather, he goes on to show, be studied as a branch of knowledge, which establishes scientifically a system of doctrine with objectivity and universal validity, a synthesis that harmonizes supernatural truths with the truths of the natural order. Theology is thus conceived as a science, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, a science of the truths of faith. [5].

5. This position granted, it follows that reason must subserve faith in its work of analyzing the concepts and deepening the understanding of revealed truths, of showing that many of these truths are subordinated to the articles of faith which are primary, and of deducing the consequences contained virtually in the truths made known by revelation.

6. Nor does faith by thus employing reason lose aught of its supernatural character. Just the contrary. For St. Thomas, faith is an infused virtue, essentially supernatural by its proper object and formal motive, a virtue which, by an act that is simple and infallible, far above all apologetic reasoning, makes us adhere to God revealing and revealed. [6]. Infused faith, therefore, is superior not only to the highest philosophy, but also to the most enlightened theology, since theology can never be more than an explanatory and deductive commentary on faith.

7. Further, this conception of theology does not in any way lower Christian faith from its elevation. For, as the saint teaches, the source of theology is contemplation, [7] that is, infused faith, vivified, not only by charity, but also by the gifts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, gifts which make faith penetrating and pleasant of taste. Thus theology reaches a most fruitful understanding of revealed mysteries, by finding analogies in truths which we know naturally, and also by tracing the intertwining of these mysteries with one another and with the last end of our life. [8].

Such is the conception formed by St. Thomas on his vocation as Catholic doctor and particularly as theologian. And his sanctity, added to the power of his genius, enabled him to reply fully to his providential calling.

In his doctrinal controversies carried on exclusively in defense of the faith, he was always humble, patient, and magnanimous, courageous indeed, but always prudent. Trust in God led him to unite prayer to study. William de Tocco, his biographer, writes of him: "Whenever he was to study, to undertake a solemn disputation, to teach, write, or dictate, he began by retiring to pray in secret, weeping as he prayed, to obtain understanding of the divine mysteries. And he returned with the light he had prayed for." [9].

The same biographer [10] gives two striking examples. While writing his commentary on Isaias, the saint came to a passage which he did not understand. For several days he prayed and fasted for light. Then he was supernaturally enlightened. To his confrere, Reginald, he revealed the extraordinary manner in which this light came to him, namely, by the apostles Peter and Paul. This account was confirmed by one of the witnesses in the saint's canonization process.

A second example is reported. [11] In the friary at Naples, when the saint was writing of the passion and the resurrection of Christ, [12] he was seen, while praying before a crucifix in the church, to be lifted up from the floor. Then it was that he heard the words: "Thomas, thou hast written well of Me."

Daily, after celebrating Mass, he assisted at a second, where often he was the humble server. To solve difficulties, he would pray before the tabernacle. He never, we might say, went out of the cloister, he slept little, passed much of the night in prayer. When, at compline during Lent, he listened to the antiphon: "Midst in life we are in death," [13] he could not restrain his tears. Prayer gave him light and inspiration when he wrote the Office of the Blessed Sacrament. William de Tocco tells us also that the saint was often seen in ecstasy, and that, one day, while he was dictating a long article of the Trinity, he did not notice that the candle in his hand had gone so low that it was burning his fingers. [14].

Toward the end of his life he was favored with an intellectual vision, so sublime and so simple that he was unable to continue dictating the treatise on Penance which he had commenced. He told his faithful companion that he was dying as a simple religious, a grace he had prayed the Lord to grant him. His last words were given to a commentary on the Canticle of Canticles.

Let these traits suffice to show that St. Thomas reached the heights of contemplation, and that in his own life he exemplified his own teaching on the source of theology: theology pouring forth "from the fullness of contemplation." [15] This truth the Church recognizes by calling him Doctor Communis and by commending his teaching in numerous encyclicals, especially by the Aeterni Patris of Leo XIII.

The present work is an exposition of the Thomistic synthesis, an exposition devoted to the principles often formulated by the saint himself. We do not undertake to prove historically that all the doctrinal points in question are found explicitly in the works of St. Thomas himself, but we will indicate the chief references to his works. And our main task will be to set in relief the certitude and universality of the principles which underlie the structure and coherence of Thomistic doctrine.

First, then, we will note the chief works that expound this Thomistic synthesis, and likewise point out the most faithful and most penetrating among the saint's commentators. There will follow a philosophic introduction, to underline that metaphysical synthesis which is presupposed by Thomistic theology. Then we will emphasize the essential points in this doctrine by noting their force in the three treatises, De Deo uno, De Verbo incarnato, De gratia. Finally we will note briefly their importance in the other parts of theology.

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