Synthesizing Knowledge with Thomas Aquinas for Better Learning, Teaching, and Long-term Flourishing (Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Continued)

 “St Thomas (Aquinas) loved books and lived on books… When asked for what he thanked God most, he answered simply, ‘I have understood every page I ever read’.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas

Due to a few time-sensitive projects, I’ll limit my post to some quick notes on Aquinas in terms of his common sense attitude about drawing together disparate sources as an approach to knowledge and epistemology–much of which serves as a healthy example for our time. 

As in previous posts, I’m slowly working through angles on the “Rational Way of Knowing” (or epistemology), and I’m getting closer to wrapping up that area. Again, I note that many great thinkers could perspectivally relate to other angles (e.g. Socrates was rational, somewhat intuitive, very personal, and suspicious of those hucksters of knowledge, the Sophists.) 

Living from the years A.D. 1225 to 1274, Aquinas was a highly focused and productive scholar. Encyclopædia Britannica notes this about Aquinas:

“St. Thomas Aquinas was the greatest of the Scholastic philosophers. He produced a comprehensive synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy that influenced Roman Catholic doctrine for centuries and was adopted as the official philosophy of the church in 1917. Thomism later became an important school of thought even within secular philosophy.

“Thomism” is a commonly used name for Aquinas’ approach to philosophy. It’s interesting that he is a deeply Catholic theologian and philosopher who also appeals to secular thinkers. A large part of his appeal may relate to his deep study and synthesis of Aristotle’s thinking. I often hear both Aristotle and Aquinas referred to as “common sense philosophers,” meaning that they both believed people can get much reliable knowledge from sensory inputs. Likewise, both philosophers have often been referred to as “moderate realists,” meaning that they believe our minds can significantly access reality. The notion of being a moderate realist runs contrary to at least two other approaches to knowing: idealism, which tends to assert that we can only know the ideas in our own mind and not the world beyond, and some forms of skepticism, which assert that we can’t really know much of anything.

In his best known work the Summa Theologica (or Summa Theologiae or just the Summa), Aquinas developed a systematic, analytic evaluation of topics focused on Christian theology. His work significantly connected to discussing (or charitably disputing) to what extent Aristotle and other non-Christian thinkers could be compatible or antithetical with thought. His model works to reconcile but not compromise the integrity of faith and reason.

Essentially, Aquinas believes that people typically have access to general knowledge through sense perception (and through efforts to learn, of course) as a general gift from God. However, Aquinas distinguishes spiritual knowledge as available to people only through God’s special gifting of grace. In contrast to earlier Christian thinkers like Augustine, who tended to treat non-Christian philosophy antithetically, Aquinas commended some elements of non-Christian thought.

Side note: In terms of historical patterns of rational thought, many commentators argue that most philosophers after Aquinas basically lose the power of common sense and become overly focused on subjective thought or some similar misdirection. Along the lines of a popular saying, we might notice in our time that common sense isn’t that common. For me, C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Poison of Subjectivism” shows one way to think about some potentially unbalanced epistemology since Aquinas’ time. (The related CSLewisDoodle may also help one appreciate Lewis’ thoughts on this subject.)

Aquinas is an impressively systematic and comprehensive thinker–for his times and, perhaps, for ours. (Some claim that Aquinas has relevance to most disciplines, ranging from biology, neuroscience, social science, and even quantum physics.)

I can’t help but wonder if we modern folk would benefit from imitating Aquinas and taking more time to think systematically through some of the disparate elements of our life in order to seek coherency and interconnectedness, while still maintaining a commitment to lifeviews that we think best describe truth, goodness, and other aspects of reality.

I had hoped to discuss and model his Charitable approach to disputations about various topics, but that will have to wait for next time. Mainly, I’ll explore a few ways that the method of thought and discourse used in the structure of Aquinas’ Summa might be practically adapted for the classroom and for elements of educational leadership.

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Do you think faith and reason can complement each other in various fields of study? How so? 
  2. Do you believe that human reasoning can be enjoyable and practical?
  3. What discussion topics are hard to be fair and charitable about? (for you or for others) What makes it so difficult? 
  4. What topics and contexts are best suited to more objective approaches to knowledge? What topics and contexts are better approached more subjectively?

For Further Study and Reflection:

The Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas

A Summa of the Summa, by Thomas Aquinas and Peter Kreeft (A Catholic scholar and apologies, Kreeft provides a tour through selections from Aquinas’ writings.) 

St. Thomas Aquinas, by G.K. Chesterton (A great, short biography of Aquinas by a witty author)

Aquinas: A Guide for the Perplexed , by  Peter S. Eardley (Chapters are organized by branches of philosophy.) 

A Guide for the Perplexed, by E. F. Schumacher (An economist who develops “a map for living” and is significantly influenced by Aquinas) 

Summa Philosophica, by Peter Kreeft (Kreeft imitates Aquinas’ approach for modern questions about philosophy and theology.)

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