"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 the first six parts of this work we studied what may be called the dogmatic portion of the Summa. In the seventh part we expounded the moral portions. Our exposition has shown how faithful the saint has remained to his initial announcement [1324] that dogmatic theology and moral theology are not two distinct branches of knowledge, but only two parts of one and the same branch of knowledge. Like God's knowledge from which it descends, theology is, pre-eminently and simultaneously, both speculative and practical, having throughout but one sole object: God revealed in His own inner life, God as source and goal of all creation.

This conception of theology is at war with what we may call Christian eclecticism. Hence we add here two articles, one, an exposition of the evils of eclecticism, the other devoted to the power of Thomism in remedying these evils.

Article One: Thomism And Eclecticism

This article reproduces substantially the important discourse of his eminence, J. M. R. Villeneuve, archbishop of Quebec, delivered May 24, 936, at the close of the Thomistic Convention in Ottawa, Canada. [1325].

Thomism is concerned primarily with principles and doctrinal order, wherein lie its unity and its power. Eclecticism, led by a false idea of fraternal charity, seeks to harmonize all systems of philosophy and theology. Especially after Pope Leo XIII the Church has repeatedly declared that she holds to Thomism; but eclecticism says equivalently: Very well, let us accept Thomism, but not be too explicit in contradicting doctrines opposed to Thomism. Let us cultivate harmony as much as possible.

This is to seek peace where there can be no peace. The fundamental principles of the doctrine of St. Thomas, they would say, are those accepted by all the philosophers in the Church. Those points on which the Angelic Doctor is not in accord with other masters, with Scotus, say, or with Suarez, are of secondary importance, or even at times useless subtleties, which it is wise to ignore, or at least to treat as mere matters of history. The Cardinal says:

In fact, the points of doctrine on which all Catholic philosophers, or nearly all, are in accord, are those defined by the Church as the preambles of faith. But all other points of Thomistic doctrine, viz.: real distinction of potency from act, of matter from form, of created essence from its existence, of substance from accidents, of person from nature—these, according to eclecticism, are not fundamental principles of the doctrine of St. Thomas. And they say the same of his doctrine that habits and acts are specifically proportioned to their formal objects. All these assertions, they say, are disputed among Catholic teachers, and hence are unimportant.

These points of doctrine, which eclecticism considers unimportant, are, on the contrary, says the Cardinal, the major pronouncements of Thomism as codified in the Twenty-four Theses. [1326] Without these principles thus codified, says the Cardinal of Quebec, Thomism would be a corpse. [1327] The importance of these Thomistic fundamentals is set in relief by a series of Suaresian counter-theses, published by the Ciencia Tomista. [1328].

In the following two paragraphs Cardinal Villeneuve signalizes the consequences of contemporary eclecticism.

Since the days of Leo XIII many authors have tried, not to agree with St. Thomas, but to get him to agree with themselves. Consequences the most opposite have been drawn from his writings. Hence incredible confusion about what he really taught. Hence a race of students to whom his doctrine is a heap of contradictories. What ignoble treatment for a man in whom, as Leo XIII wrote, human reason reached unsurpassable heights! Thence arose the opinion that all points of doctrine not unanimously accepted by Catholic philosophers are doubtful. The final conclusion was that, in order to give St. Thomas uncontradicted praise, he was allowed to have as his own only what all Catholics agree on, that is, the definitions of faith and the nearest safeguards of that faith. Now this process, which reduces Thomistic doctrine to a spineless mass of banalities, of unanalyzed and unorganized postulates, results in a traditionalism without substance or life, in a practical fideism, a lack of interest in questions of faith. Hence the lack of vigilant reaction against the most improbable novelties.

If we once grant that the criterion of truth, which ought to be intrinsic evidence deriving from first principles, lies instead in external acceptance by a majority, then we condemn reason to atrophy, to dullness, to self-abdication. Man learns to get along without mental exertion. He lives on a plane of neutral persuasion, led by public rumor. Reason is looked upon as incapable of finding the truth. We might be inclined to trace this abdication to a laudable humility. But, judged by its fruits, it engenders philosophic skepticism, conscious or unconscious, in an atmosphere ruled by mystic sentimentalism and hollow faith.

Eclecticism, we may add, entertains doubts about the classic proofs of God's existence, hardly allowing any argument to stand as proposed by St. Thomas.

"If we must leave out of philosophy," the Cardinal continues, "all questions not admitted unanimously by Catholics, then we must omit the deepest and most important questions, we must leave out metaphysics itself, and with that we will have removed from St. Thomas the very marrow of his system, that wherein he outstrips common sense, that which his genius has discovered."

Further, we may add, with such a decapitated Thomism, we could no longer defend common sense itself. With Thomas Reid's Scotch School we would, after renouncing philosophy in favor of common sense, find ourselves unable to analyze that common sense, to anchor it in self-evident, necessary, and universal principles.

Does charity oblige us to sacrifice depth and exactness of thought to unity of spirit? No, replies the Cardinal; that which wounds charity is not truth nor the love of truth, but selfishness, individual and corporate. Genuine doctrinal harmony lies along the road to which the Church points when she says: Go to Thomas. Loyalty to Thomas, far from curtailing intellectual freedom, widens and deepens that freedom, gives it an unfailing springboard, firm and elastic, to soar ever higher out of error into truth. "You shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free." [1329].

Article Two: The Assimilative Power Of Thomism

A doctrine's assimilative power is in proportion to the elevation and universality of its principles. Here, then, we wish to show that Thomism can assimilate all the elements of truth to be found in the three principal tendencies which characterize contemporary philosophy. Let us begin with an outline of these three tendencies.

The first of these is agnosticism, either empiric agnosticism, in the wake of positivism, or idealist agnosticism, an offshoot of Kantianism. Here belongs the neo-positivism of Carnap, Wittgenstein, Rougier, and of the group called the Vienna Circle. [1330] In all these we find the re-edited Nominalism of Hume and Comte. Here belongs also the phenomenology of Husserl, which holds that the object of philosophy is the immediate datum of experience. All these philosophies are concerned, not with being, but with phenomena, to use the terms of Parmenides in pointing out the two roads which the human spirit can follow.

The second tendency is evolutionist in character. Like agnosticism, it appears in two forms: one idealist, in the wake of Hegel, represented by Gentile in Italy, by Leon Brunschvicg in France; the other empiric, in the creative evolution of Bergson, who, however, toward the end of life, turned again, like Blondel, in the direction of traditional philosophy, led by the power of an intellectual and spiritual life devoted to the search for the Absolute.

The third tendency is the metaphysical trend of the modern German school. It appears under three chief forms: voluntarism in Max Scheler; natural philosophy in Driesch, who leans on Aristotle; and ontology in Hartmann of Heidelberg, who gives a Platonic interpretation of Aristotle's metaphysics. The great problems of old, we see, compel attention still: the constitution of bodies, the essence of life, sensation, knowledge, freedom, and morality, the distinction between God and the world. And as the ancient problems reappear, so reappear the ancient antinomies, mechanism or dynamism, empiricism or intellectualism, monism or theism. Let us now see how Thomism assimilates, in transcendent unity, all that is true in these opposed theories.

1. The Generative Principle

In Thomism, which is simply a deepened form of perennial philosophy, we find again what is best in the thought of Aristotle, Plato, and Augustine. This philosophy, says Bergson, is nothing but the natural development of ordinary human intelligence. This philosophy, therefore, is open to all genuine progress in science. It is not, like Hegelianism, the huge a priori construction of one bewitching genius, but a temple that rests on a broad inductive base, centuries-old, but perpetually repaired by the most attentive study of all attainable fact, a study strikingly exemplified in the work of Albert the Great, the teacher of St. Thomas.

This inductive basis presupposed, Thomistic metaphysics continues through the ages to scrutinize the relations between intelligible being and becoming, the passage from potency to act, the various kinds of causes. By these two characteristics, one positive, the other intellectual, Thomism is deeply opposed to Kantianism and its offshoots. Thomism, because it remains in continual contact with facts, and because it simultaneously studies the laws of being, becoming, and causality, accepts all the genuine elements found in systems otherwise mutually contradictory. This power of absorption and assimilation is a criterion of its validity, both for thought and for life.

Here we introduce a profound remark of Leibnitz, though he himself only glimpsed its consequences. Speaking of the philosophia perennis, he says that philosophic systems are generally true in what they affirm, but false in what they deny. This remark, which has its roots in Aristotle and Aquinas, must be understood of genuine and constituent affirmations, not of negations disguised as affirmations. Thus materialism is true in its affirmation of matter, false in its denial of spirit. The reverse is true of idealism. Similarly, though Leibnitz did not see it fully, psychological determination is true in affirming that the intellect guides the free choice of the will, but false in denying genuine freedom of will. And the reverse is true of "Libertism," which dreams of a freedom unfettered by intellectual guidance.

But this remark, applied eclectically by Leibnitz, holds good likewise from the higher viewpoint of Aristotle and Aquinas. Each successive system affirms some element of reality even while it often denies another element of reality. This denial, then, as Hegel said, provokes a counter-denial, before the mind has reached a higher synthesis.

We hold, then, that Aristotelian-Thomistic thought, far from being an immature a priori construction, remains always on the alert for every aspect of reality, eager not to limit that reality which dominates our ever-growing sense experience, external and internal, but eager also not to limit our intelligence, intuitive in its principles, discursive in its conclusions. Thus, while it rests on common sense, it rises far above common sense, by its discovery of the natural subordination in which sense knowledge stands to intellect. The common sense of Thomas Reid does not build a foundation for Thomas Aquinas.

This traditional philosophy differs further from eclecticism because, not content to limit itself to choosing, without a directive principle, what seems most plausible in various systems, it begins rather with a superior principle that illumines from on high the great problems of all times. This principle, itself derived from that of contradiction and causality, is the distinction of potency from act, a distinction without which, as Aristotle says and Thomas reaffirms, it is impossible to answer both Heraclitus, who defends universal evolution, and Parmenides, who defends a changeless monism.

Potency distinct from act explains the process of becoming, the passage from one form to another, the passage from seed to plant, from potentiality to actuality. This process presupposes an agent that prepossesses the perfection in question, and a directing intelligence toward the perfection to be realized. The process of becoming is essentially subordinated to the being which is its goal. Becoming is not, as Descartes would have it, a mere local movement defined by its points of rest, but a function of being in its passage from potency to act.

The process of becoming therefore presupposes four sources: matter as passive potency, as capacity proportioned to the perfection it is to receive; act in three fashions, first in the actualizing agent, secondly in the form which terminates becoming, thirdly in the purpose toward which the form tends.

Finite beings are conceived as composed of potency and act, of matter and form, and, more generally, of real essence and existence, essence limiting the existence which actualizes it, as matter limits its actualizing form. Then, preceding all beings composed and limited, must be pure act, if it is true that actuality is more perfect than potentiality, that actual perfection is something higher than mere capacity to receive perfection, that what is something more than what as yet is not. This is a most fundamental tenet of Thomism. At the summit of all reality we must find, not the endless evolutionary process of Heraclitus or Hegel, but pure actuality, being itself, truth itself, goodness itself, unlimited by matter, or essence, or any receiving capacity whatever. This doctrine on the supreme reality, called by Aristotle the self-existing and self-comprehending act of understanding, [1331] contained also in Plato's thought, is fortified and elevated by the revealed truth of the freedom of God's creative act, revealed, it is true, but still attainable by reason, hence not a mystery essentially supernatural like the Trinity.

Let us now see the assimilative power of this generative principle on ascending philosophical levels: in cosmology, in anthropology, in criteriology, in ethics, in natural theology. By way of general remark, let us note that Thomistic assimilation is due to the Thomistic method of research. In meeting any great problem Thomism begins by recalling extreme solutions that are mutually contradictory. Next it notes eclectic solutions which fluctuate between those extremes. Lastly, it rises to a higher synthesis which incorporates all the elements of reality found in its successive surveys of positions which remain extreme. This ultimate metaphysical synthesis it is which Thomism offers as substructure of the faith.

1. Cosmology

Mechanism affirms the existence of local motion, of extension in three dimensions, often of atoms, but denies sense qualities, natural activity and finality. Hence it cannot well explain weight, resistance, heat, electricity, affinity, cohesion, and so on. Dynamism, on the contrary, affirming sense qualities, natural activity, and finality, reduces everything to mere force, denying any extension properly so called, and denying also the principle that activity presupposes being. Now the doctrine of matter and form accepts all that is positive in these two extreme conceptions. By two principles, distinct but intimately united, it explains both extension and force. Extension has its source in matter, which is common to all bodies, capable of receiving the specific form, the essential structure, of iron, say, or gold, or hydrogen, or oxygen. And the doctrine of specific form explains, far better than does Plato's idea or the monad of Leibnitz, all the natural qualities, characteristics, and specific activities of bodies, in full harmony with the principle that specific activity presupposes specific being.

Matter, being a purely receptive capacity, while it is not yet substance, is still a substantial element, meant to blend with form into a natural unity, not accidental but essential.

This doctrine explains too how extension can be mathematically, not actually, divisible into infinity. Extension cannot be composed of indivisible points, which would be all identical if they were in contact, and if not in contact would be discontinuous. Hence the parts of extension must be themselves extended, capable indeed of mathematical division but not of physical.

Mechanism tries in vain to reduce plant life to physico-chemical developments of a vegetative germ, which produces, here a grain of corn, and there an oak, or from an egg brings forth a bird, a fish, or a snake. Must there not be, asks Claude Bernard, some force that guides evolution? In the germ, in the embryo, if it is to evolve into definite and determined structure, there must be a vital and specifying principle, which Aristotle called the vegetative soul of the plant and the sense soul of the animal. This doctrine assimilates, without eclecticism, all that is positive in mechanism and dynamism even while it rejects their negations.

2. Anthropology

Man is by nature a unified whole, one, not accidentally but per se and essentially. He is not two complete substances accidentally juxtaposed. Matter in the human composite is actualized by one sole specific and substantial form, which is the radical principle of life, vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual. This would be impossible if one and the same soul were the proximate principle of all man's actions, but it is possible if the soul has a hierarchy of faculties. Here, again, we have an application, not eclectic, but spontaneous and daring, of the distinction between potency and act. The essence of the soul is proportioned to the existence which actualizes it, and each faculty is proportioned to its own act. The soul, therefore, cannot act without its faculties, can understand only by its intellect, and will only by its will.

Here Leibnitz and Descartes represent extremes. Leibnitz, misunderstanding the Aristotelian term dynamis, which may be either passive or active, puts the principle of mere force and power in the place of potency and act. Descartes, at the opposite extreme, sees in the mental activity of thought the sole principle of philosophizing about man. Leibnitz neglects to reduce force, and Descartes neglects to reduce thought, to functions of being.

Man's intellect, to go further, since it attains universal and necessary truth, is not limited by material conditions and material organs. Hence man's soul, the source of his intellect, is independent of matter, and hence survives the corruption of the human organism.

3. Criteriology

The extremes here are empiricism and intellectualism. Thomism accepts both the inductive method of empiricism and the deductive method of intellectualism. But Thomism insists further that the first principles from which deduction proceeds are not mere subjective laws of the mind but objective laws of reality. Without, say, the principle of contradiction, the principle of Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") may be a mere subjective illusion. Perhaps, since one contradictory (I think) does not objectively exclude its opposite (I do not think): perhaps thinking is not essentially distinct from non-thinking. Perhaps, further, thought is buried in the subconscious, its beginning unknown and its end. Perhaps, again, "I am" and "I am not" are both true. Perhaps, finally, the word "I" stands for a mere transient process, unsupported by any individual permanent and thinking subject.

But if, on the contrary, the objective reality of the sense world is the first object of the human intellect, then, by reflection on the source of its act, the intellect grasps its own existence with absolute certitude, knows itself in an objectively existing faculty, capable of penetrating through sense phenomena into the nature and characteristics of the objective world. It sees then its own immeasurable heights above, say the imagination, which however rich it may be and fertile, can never grasp the "why" of any motion, of a clock, for example.

By this same line of thought we distinguish further the will, illumined by intellect, from sense appetite, guided by sense knowledge. As the object of the intellect is objective and universal truth, so the object of the will is objective and universal good.

4. Freedom and morality

By normal development of the distinction between potency and act Thomism rises above the psychological determinism of Leibnitz and the freedom of equilibrium conceived by Scotus, Suarez, Descartes, and certain moderns, Secretan, for example, and J. Lequier. Thomas admits the positive point of psychological determinism, namely, that intelligence guides man's act of choice, but he goes on to show that it depends on the will itself whether the intellect's practical judgment shall or shall not terminate deliberation. [1332] Why? Because, granted that the intellect has to propose its object to the will, it is the will which moves the intellect to deliberate, and this deliberation can end only when the will freely accepts what the intellect proposes. Intellect and will are inseparably related.

What then is free will? Free will, in God, in angel, and in man, is indifference, both of judgment and of choice, in the presence of any object which, however good otherwise, is in some way unattractive. God, when seen face to face, is in every way attractive, and draws our love infallibly and invincibly. But even God is in some way unattractive as long as we must know Him abstractly, as long as we feel His commandments to be a burden.

Why is the will thus free and indifferent in the presence of an object in any way unattractive? Because the will's adequate object is unlimited and universal good. Hence even the moral law does not necessitate the will. I see the better road, I approve it speculatively, but I follow, in fact and by choice, the worse road.

Thomism, further, admits fully the morality governed by duty and the longing for happiness. Why? Because the object of the will, as opposed to sense appetite, is the good proposed by reason. Hence the will, being essentially proportioned to rational good, is under obligation to will that good, since otherwise it acts against its own constitution, created by the author of its nature as preparation for possessing Himself, the Sovereign Good. Always, we see, the same principle: potency is naturally proportioned to the act for which the creature was created.

5. Natural theology

That which is, is more than that which can be, more than that which is on the road to be. This principle led Aristotle and Aquinas to find, at the summit of all reality, pure act, understanding of understanding, sovereign good. But Aquinas rises above Aristotle and Leibnitz, for whom the world is a necessary consequence of God. St. Thomas shows, on the contrary, the reason why we must say with revelation that God is sovereignly free, to create or not to create, to create in time rather than from eternity. The reason lies in God's infinite plentitude of being, truth, and goodness, which creatures can do nothing to increase. After creation, there are more beings, it is true, but not more being, not more perfection, wisdom, or love. "God is none the greater for having created the universe." God alone, He who is, can say, not merely "I have being, truth, and life," but rather "I am being itself, truth itself, life itself."

Hence the supreme truth of Christian philosophy is this: In God alone is essence identified with existence. The creature is only a capability to exist, it is created and preserved by Him who is. Further, the creature, not being its own existence, is not its own action, and cannot pass from potency to act, either in the order of nature or in that of grace, except by divine causality.

We have thus shown how Thomism is an elevated synthesis, which, while it rejects unfounded denials, assimilates the positive tendencies of current philosophical and theological conceptions. This synthesis recognizes that reality itself is incomparably more rich than our ideas of that reality. In a word, Thomism is characterized by a sense of mystery, [1333] which is the source of contemplation. God's truth, beauty, and holiness are continually recognized as transcending all philosophy, theology, and mysticism, as uncreated richness to be attained only by the beatific vision, and even under that vision, however clearly understood, as something which only God Himself can comprehend in all its infinite fullness. Thomism thus keeps ever awake our natural, conditional, and inefficacious desire to see God as He is. Thus we grow in appreciation of the gifts of grace and charity, which move us, efficaciously, to desire and to merit the divine vision.

This power of assimilation is therefore a genuine criterion whereby to appraise the validity and scope of Thomism, from the lowest material elements up to God's own inner life. Economy demands that any system have one mother-idea, as radiating center. The mother-idea of Thomism is that of God as pure act, in whom alone is essence identified with existence. This principle, the keystone of Christian philosophy, enables us to explain, as far as can be done here below, what revelation teaches of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the unity of existence in the three divine persons, the unity of existence in Christ. [1334] It explains likewise the mystery of grace. All that is good in our free acts comes from God as first cause, just as it comes from us as second causes. And when we freely obey, when we accept rather than resist grace, all that is good in that act comes from the source of all good. Nothing escapes that divine and universal cause, who without violence actualizes human freedom, just as connaturally as He actualizes the tree to bloom and bear fruit.

Let Thomism then be judged by its principles, necessary and universal, all subordinated to one keystone principle, not a restricted principle as is that of human freedom, but by the uncreated principle of Him who is, on whom everything depends, in the order of being and activity, in the order of grace and of nature. This is the system which, in the judgment of the Church, most nearly approaches the ideal of theology, the supreme branch of knowledge.

Eighth Part: Developments and Confirmations

To develop and confirm the synthesis so far expounded, we add five supplementary chapters:

1. The Twenty-four Thomistic Theses.

2. The Principle of Contradiction.

3. Truth and Pragmatism.

4. Ontological Personality.

5. Grace, Efficacious and Sufficient.

The first chapter is a summary of the Thomistic synthesis. The second and third chapters deal with the objective foundations of this synthesis. The fourth treats a question, much controverted and very important, in the treatise on the Trinity and in that on the Incarnation. The fifth deals with the opposition between Thomism and Molinism.

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