Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait 
by Denys Turner.
Yale, 300 pp., £18.99, May 2013, 978 0 300 18855 4
Show More
Show More

Born around 1225 near the small southern Italian town of Aquino, Thomas Aquinas attended the University of Naples, and while in the city entered the Dominican Order. He then went north to pursue his studies under Albert the Great, also a Dominican, in Paris and Cologne. He was appointed lecturer and then professor at the University of Paris, but returned to Naples to organise the Dominican house of studies there. He died in 1274 en route to Rome to take part in the Second Council of Lyon, having struck his head on a low tree branch, and was canonised some fifty years later.

The placid course of Aquinas’s life belies the magnificence of his achievement. This taciturn friar, of whose inconspicuous personality we know very little, is ranked among the greatest of theologians, next only to St Paul and St Augustine. Of his publications, the centrepiece is the dauntingly hefty Summa Theologiae. In its dry, brisk, low-key manner, this formidable compendium of theology, metaphysics, ethics and psychology ranges from Thomas’s celebrated demonstrations of the existence of God to the moral life, Christ and the sacraments. Today, the Summa forms much of the intellectual foundation of the Roman Catholic Church, though in his own day it enjoyed no such privileged status. It simply represented one of several medieval scholastic schools, and at times was fiercely controversial. To the dismay of some traditional scholars, Aquinas was convinced that the thought of the pagan Aristotle offered the most philosophically resourceful means of expounding the Christian faith, and it is for this mighty synthesis above all that he has earned his place among the philosophical immortals. The conflict over Aristotle raged with particular ferocity at the University of Paris, where many of Aquinas’s colleagues adhered to the doctrines of Augustine and Neo-Platonism, and considered Aristotle’s thought incompatible with Christianity. What Aquinas is arguing, then, is fighting talk, though one would never guess it from his unruffled, understated style.

Like Marx, Aquinas got into hot water with the authorities for being a materialist. It was not that he held the boring view that there is nothing but matter. His materialism was not some kind of brutal reductionism, any more than Marx’s was. On the contrary, as Denys Turner points out in this superb study, he understood that ‘there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist.’ His criticism of the materialists with whom he was acquainted was not that they were bad on the subject of mind or spirit, but that they weren’t very good on the subject of matter.

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas. The question ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ would to his mind involve a category mistake, as though one were to ask how close to the left armpit one’s envy was located. For Aquinas, the soul is everywhere in the body precisely because it is what he calls, after Aristotle, the ‘form’ of it, meaning the way in which it is uniquely organised to be expressive of meaning. The soul is not some sort of thing, but the distinctive way in which a particular piece of matter is alive. It is quite as visible as a club foot. To claim that a spider has a different sort of soul from a human being is in Thomas’s view simply to say that it has a different form of life. What distinguishes an animal body from a hat or a hosepipe is the fact that it is signifying, communicative, self-transformative stuff, in contrast to the meaninglessly dumb matter of so much contemporary materialism. It is, in Turner’s phrase, ‘matter articulate’.

Modern-day materialists, Turner complains, talk about matter, but unlike Thomas they cannot hear matter talking. Rather as language is material stuff that signifies, so in Thomas’s view is the body, which is best seen not as an object but as a signifier. Behind this belief lay a theology of the incarnate Word, and of the eucharist in particular, in which that Word is present in the workaday stuff of bread and wine in something like the way that meaning is present in a verbal sign. If Aquinas found it hard to overlook the body, it was perhaps because he himself constituted a sizeable chunk of matter, though not a particularly articulate one. He was overweight, and legend has it that a piece of his table had to be cut out to accommodate his girth. He was also notoriously laconic – a ‘dumb ox’, as his brethren baptised him.

It follows from Aquinas’s teaching that there is no such thing as a dead body. A corpse is merely the remains of a body, a mass of material from which meaning has haemorrhaged away, not the genuine article. It is simply part of the damage inflicted by a Cartesian legacy that when we moderns hear the phrase ‘the body in the library’, the last thing that comes to mind is an assiduous reader. Thomas was clear that if something doesn’t involve my body, it doesn’t involve me. I may not be physically present to you on the phone, in the sense of sharing the same material space, but I am bodily present to you all the same. Christianity concerns the transfiguration of the body, not the immortality of the soul. Aquinas certainly believed in disembodied souls, but he did not consider that one’s soul was oneself. He would not have thought that the disembodied soul of Amy Winehouse was Amy Winehouse. Human identity, he thought, is an animal identity. As Turner argues, he thought, unlike the Platonists, that ‘we are wholly animal, animal from top to toe.’ Those who protest that this leaves out an invisible extra called the soul have simply failed to grasp the peculiarly creative nature of this animality.

Human rationality for Thomas is a distinctively animal rationality. Roughly speaking, we have the kinds of mind we do because of the sorts of body we have. Our thought, for example, is discursive, unfolding in time as it does because our sense-experience is like that too. The role of abstract concepts, he taught, was to thicken and enrich our experience, not to thin it out. Marx argues exactly the same case in the Grundrisse. Aquinas also thought that metaphor was the mode of language best suited to human animals because of its concrete, sensory character. Though he is often accused of bloodless scholastic rationalism, he is in some ways closer to the empiricists. The mind’s natural object, he insisted, is not God, the self or ideas but material things. Any knowledge we have of God has to start here, and in particular with that pathetic failure of a material object known as Jesus. (In a splendid flourish, Turner writes of Jesus as ‘extra-judicially executed on the majority recommendation of a corrupt committee of very religious people’.)

Not that the phrase ‘knowledge of God’ would have struck Aquinas as unproblematic. He would have readily concurred with Dennett and Dawkins that when we speak of God we do not really know what we are talking about. (Of Dawkins, Turner tartly observes that there is ‘scarcely a proposition of Thomas’s theology that [he] is able to formulate accurately enough to succeed in accurately denying’.) All language about God for Aquinas is metaphorical, hit and miss, running up constantly against the limits of the sayable. Christians claim, for example, that God is one and not many; but as with any other piece of God-speak this cannot be taken literally. God is not in Aquinas’s view some kind of being, principle, entity or individual who could be reckoned up with other such entities. He is not even some kind of person, in the sense that Piers Morgan is arguably a person. God and the universe do not make two. Whatever other errors believers may commit, not being able to count is not one of them. They do not hold that there is one more object in the world than there actually is. God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world, but the ground of possibility of anything whatsoever. If we were to fall out of his hands we would lapse into nothingness; and faith is the trust that however obnoxious we are to each other, he will not let us slip through his fingers.

The idea that God sustains everything in being by his love is known as the doctrine of Creation. Whatever the new atheists may imagine, it has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. In fact, Aquinas himself thought it perfectly reasonable to hold with Aristotle that the world never got started at all, but existed from all eternity. He was not of this opinion himself, since the Book of Genesis seemed to rule it out, but he saw nothing inherently implausible about it. The doctrine of Creation is not bogus science, as old-fashioned 19th-century rationalists like Dawkins assume. As Turner argues, it is really about the extreme fragility of things. Aquinas believes that everything that exists is contingent, in the sense that there is absolutely no necessity for it. God made the world out of love, not need. Its being is purely gratuitous, which is to say a matter of grace and gift. Like a modernist work of art, or like someone contemplating his own mortality, the world is shot through with a sense of nothingness, one that springs from the mind-warping awareness that it might just as well never have been. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. Aquinas does not think we can get a grip on it as a whole precisely because we cannot get a grip on its opposite, nothingness; but he does think it reasonable to ask why there is something rather than nothing, as some philosophers do not. And since he thinks that the answer to this question is God, this, Turner argues, is the reason he holds that the existence of God, while being in no sense self-evident, can be rationally demonstrated.

He has, then, a typically Catholic belief in the power of reason, as against a Protestant scepticism of the intellect as darkened and corrupt. But though without reason we perish, and though reason goes a long way down, it does not go all the way down for Thomas, any more than it does for Marx or Freud. In the end, what sustains reason is faith, which is a kind of love. Not even Dawkins would bother to roll into his laboratory without certain underlying beliefs and commitments. And that this was the way Aquinas saw the matter was dramatically illustrated at the very end of his life. Something happened to Thomas on 6 December 1273. We do not know whether he had a vision, or a nervous breakdown, or both. But after a lifetime of almost superhuman productivity (at one point his output while writing his Summa Theologiae was equivalent to two or three average-length novels per month), he put down his pen. He is reputed to have told his secretary that he could write no more after what he had seen that day, ‘for all that I have written is but straw.’ There followed three months of silence, then death.

The Summa was by then seven-eighths complete, and if Aquinas deliberately refrained from finishing it, this must, as Turner points out, have demanded the most extraordinary discipline and self-sacrifice. For all his humility, he must have known that the work was a masterpiece. It is, as this study remarks, a ‘cogently worked through universe of thought’ that puts its author on a level with Homer, Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. Turner sees a theological meaning in its incompleteness. Like the world in Thomas’s understanding of it, this finest of all works of theology is shot through with silence. Turner makes much of what one might call the anonymity of Aquinas, the fact that he effaces himself in his deadpan, meticulous, unfussy writing so as not to allow personality to obtrude between the reader and the truth. Paul and Augustine weave themselves into their every word, and Meister Eckhart is in Turner’s phrase ‘a fizzing show-off’, but Aquinas is ‘the almost wholly invisible saint’, a master of the disappearing act, whose inconspicuousness is itself a form of holiness. If his texts appear authorless, if he refuses to scintillate, it is because, as he once observed, it is better to cast light for others than to shine for oneself. In this sense, it may be fitting that the Summa finally lapses into silence, since it has been so tight-lipped all along. If it presses reason as far as it can go, it is so that, as in the Kantian sublime, it may illuminate by negation what lies beyond its limits.

If Aquinas laid down his pen deliberately, there is a sense in which he chose poverty of spirit over intellectual achievement. Both are characteristically Dominican virtues. It is important to understand that he was a friar, not a monk. Monks like Cistercians and Benedictines live a life of prayer and labour in seclusion from the world, and their monasteries are meant to be enclaves of order, peace and stability. Rooted in a single spot, monks aim for economic self-sufficiency by farming, running fee-paying schools, manufacturing exotic liqueurs and the like. Friars like Dominicans and Franciscans, by contrast, live hand to mouth, on the hoof, as mendicants dependent on the charity of the common people. Like monks, they live in community, but unlike them they pursue their mission out on the streets. Friars are urban types, while monks are mostly rural. Their original aim was to liberate theology from the cloisters and colleges so it could become what this book calls ‘a multi-tasking practice in the streets’. Dominicans in particular combine preaching and poverty, in the manner of Jesus himself. They need to be free of possessions, as well as to be celibate (and thus unburdened by domestic duties), in order to be footloose, flexible and available to all comers. Unlike US televangelists, they also need to make it clear to those they serve that there is nothing in it for them.

None of this earned the Dominicans of Thomas’s day a reputable image. They were seen often enough as parasites and vagabonds, ‘gangs of self-promoting tramps’ as Turner bluntly puts it, who thought the world owed them a living. Whereas Jesuits are establishment figures, Dominicans are the intellectual mavericks of the church. In our own time they have been Jungians, Marxists, hippies, pacifists and radical Wittgensteinians. As writers, talkers, teachers, preachers and public intellectuals, their special form of holiness is exercised through the word.

Aquinas, a member of the minor Italian aristocracy, was destined by his family for the Benedictine order, but shocked them by becoming a Dominican instead. It would have been a little like Prince Harry signing up for the Socialist Workers Party. A band of his brothers forcibly retrieved him from the Dominicans and placed him under house arrest for a year in the family castle. With touching fraternal solicitude, they also tried to subvert his decision to become a friar by sending a naked prostitute into his room, not the most effective tactic for a man who declared contemplation the greatest of all pleasures. Thomas finally got his way, and wrote the Summa as a kind of teaching resource for his Dominican brethren. In Turner’s words, it was ‘the one scrip that mendicant preachers must carry with them; it is a poor man’s theology, the poor Christ as theology’. As for Marx, theory was in the service of practice.

It is Aquinas above all who gave shape to what might be called a characteristic Catholic vision of reality. For this way of seeing, how things are is not just how we say they are. On the contrary, the world is rich and intricate in its own right, thickly layered and significantly structured, and even the Almighty must acknowledge this fact. He might well have created a cosmos in which there was no chocolate mousse or Bruce Willis; but since he did not, he must bow to the logic of his own creation, rather than decide in some capricious, prima-donna-like manner that penguins can pole vault or that Cape Town lies in the northern hemisphere. Even so, it is the human mind which in Thomas’s view brings things to fruition, so that to speak of them is to make them more fully what they already are. Individuals also bring each other to fruition, in the sense that their being is relational all the way down. At the centre of Thomas’s moral vision is the idea of friendship. It is this kind of love, not the erotic or Romantic sort, that is the best image of the unfathomable love of God, who calls men and women to be his friends rather than his servants. Aquinas, for whom human life is communal to its roots, would not have understood modern individualism. Nor would he have made much sense of the liberal prejudice that power, authority, systems, doctrines and institutions are inherently oppressive.

From a Thomist standpoint, all being is benign. It is good in principle that there are hairdryers and tarantulas around the place. Evil is a kind of non-being. In men and women, it is the defective form of existence of those who have never really got the hang of being human. Human beings are sorely in need of redemption, as anyone who takes the trouble to read the newspapers can testify; but that redemption is not rudely foisted on them against the grain of their desires. On the contrary, their natures are hospitable to such deep-seated transformation, and yearn eagerly for it even when they are not entirely aware that they do. The moral life involves cutting through one dense swathe of false consciousness and pious self-deception after another in order to discover what it is we really, fundamentally desire.

It follows from Aquinas’s view of being that the good life is a flourishing, richly abundant one. The more a thing is itself, the finer it becomes. The saints are those who are supremely successful at the exacting task of being human, the George Bests and Jacqueline du Prés of the moral sphere. Morality is not primarily a question of duty and obligation (Turner points out that the Thomist moral lexicon contains scarcely any such terms), but of happiness or well-being. Why we should want to be happy is in Thomas’s view the very prototype of a silly question.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences