Disappearing Acts

Terry Eagleton

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

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’.

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