Let me begin by sketching three formal contours of Thomas' thought.
First, Thomas is concerned with both logic and metaphysics. His basic approach is to seek clarity of thought and speech by making distinctions that help our thought and speech conform to the order inherent in things. He combines minute analysis of how we use words with deep metaphysical speculation in a way not usually found in modern philosophy. This combination arises from Thomas' overriding concern to find the clearest way in which to convey the content of the Christian tradition, which he does by way of making distinctions and ordering those distinctions in terms of a comprehensive vision of reality.
Second, Thomas' thought is traditioned: he thinks as a participant in the give and take of a living tradition (see MacIntyre 1991). While modern thought is distinguished in part by its desire to find an indubitable starting point from which to begin, Thomas approaches thought as a participant in a complex conversation that is already underway. The quaestio format, which is at the heart of the Summa Theologiae (hereafter ST), as well as other texts, presents the living voice of the tradition in the arguments and counter-arguments with which the quaestio begins.
Third, Thomas' thought is scriptural. The tradition to which Thomas belongs is a conversation initiated by God with humanity, as recorded in the Bible. The fundamental contours of Thomas' thought are not, as sometimes thought, Aristotelian, but biblical. It is true that Thomas freely employs the treasures of philosophy (Platonic as well as Aristotelian) in order to enrich the Christian tradition. But it is the voice of scripture that predominates (see ST 1.1.8 ad 2), both in posing questions and in answering them. The philosophical tradition is both plundered for its riches and transformed into something that would seem quite odd to either Plato or Aristotle.
In order to see how these formal contours function in practice, let us look at a specific text, since Thomas, as a magister sacra pagina (a teacher of the sacred page), was above all an interpreter of texts. This minor text represents one of the random questions (quaestiones quodlibitales) with which Thomas dealt on a regular basis in his role as a teacher. In addition to displaying the formal contours of his thought, it can also serve as an introduction to some of the possibilities and problems of Thomas' thought for today. A clear problem raised by this particular text is that, to modern sensibilities, Thomas' treatment of "woman" as an example of "sensual causality" is at best patronizing and at worst overtly sexist. This alerts us to at least one important point in reading Thomas today. Thomas' identification of woman with "sensuality" and man with "intellect" indicates that he, like all of us, is a product of his culture. In this case, he has imbibed certain notions that make "woman" a natural metonym for "sexual attraction." This raises some difficult questions, to which I will return toward the end of this essay, about how social and political power can shape our perception of the natural order of things. A key question, therefore, is whether Thomas' fundamental point that truth is stronger than kings can be used to critique some of his own cultural assumptions.
Quodlibital Question 12.14.1: Whether truth is stronger than wine, a king, or a woman.
Obj. 1: It seems that wine is strongest, since it can change the greatest of men.
Obj. 2: It seems a king is strongest, since he compels a person to that which is most difficult, i.e. to that which exposes him to mortal danger.
Obj. 3: It seems that woman is strongest, since she dominates even a king.
Against this: 3 Esdras 4: 35: "truth is stronger."
I reply: This is a question posed by the youths in Esdras, which they were required to solve. It must be observed, therefore, that if we consider these four (namely, wine, a king, a woman and truth) according to themselves, they are not comparable because they are not of the same genus. However, if they be considered in relation to some effect, they concur in one regard and may thus be compared. Further, this effect in which they concur and according to which they can be compared is the changing of the human heart. Therefore, whichever among them brings about the greatest change in the human heart would seem to be the strongest.
It must be observed that change in human beings sometimes concerns the body and sometimes the soul [animale], and this latter change can be in two ways: regarding the senses and regarding the intellect. Furthermore, the intellect is also two-fold: practical and speculative.
Among those things, however, that pertain to natural change according to bodily disposition, the best is wine, which makes people talkative by drunkenness. Among those things that pertain to change in the appetite of the senses, the best is pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, and thus woman is stronger. Likewise in practical matters and human affairs that we can accomplish, the king has the greatest power. In speculative matters the highest and most powerful thing is truth.
Now bodily powers are subordinate to animal powers, animal powers to intellectual powers, and practical intellectual powers to speculative ones. Therefore, simply speaking, truth is most worthy and excellent and strong.
As he begins his reply, Thomas takes four candidates for "strongest" and, with logical rigor, points out the difficulty of comparing them if we simply take them as what they are in themselves. However, he goes on to say that they are all causes of change in the human heart and thus may be compared on that level. Thomas therefore locates them within the context of his understanding of human beings, observing that human beings are both bodily and spiritual (or, as he puts it here, "animal" - from anima or "soul"); that our spiritual natures consist in our capacity for sensation, which we share with other animals, and our capacity for thought, which distinguishes us from other animals; and that our capacity for thought can be further divided into thought oriented toward action (practical reason) and thought oriented toward knowledge (speculative reason).
Having made these distinctions, we can see that the human heart can be moved in various ways. Wine can affect us on a physical level, by means of a chemical reaction, turning an otherwise taciturn person into a talkative one. A beautiful woman (or man) affects us not simply on the level of a physical change, but through sensation, specifically pleasurable sensation. Both a king and the truth act on the level of thought, but in distinct ways. A king can command the will to move us to perform some action, but he cannot command the mind to move to assent to something. Only the truth can do that. So there are different kinds of causes of human action and consequently different kinds of human actions: those of the body, those of the senses, those of the will, and those of speculative reason. These distinctions are crucial to the articulation of Thomas' overarching vision of reality (what we might call his "metaphysics"). Thomas claims not only that we can distinguish different kinds of causes of change in the human heart, but that these kinds have a proper ordering, one to another.
This ordering is implicit in his initial description of the different kinds of changes. The most basic (or "lowest") kind of change is that which human beings share in common with all existing things: change though physical or material causes. Change brought about by things that act through the senses is distinctive to sensate beings (i.e. animals), but again is not distinctively human. Thus, the less distinctive causes of action are lower than or "subordinate to" (ordered below) more distinctive causes of action.
But what about the two kinds of causes of action that are equally distinctive of human beings: those that act upon practical reason and those that act upon speculative reason? How are these ordered in relation to each other? The practical intellect and the speculative intellect are not two different powers of reason so much as the application of reason in two different ways: in the former case about the good that is to be pursued (i.e. what we should do) and in the latter case about the truth that is known (i.e. what is the case). And these distinct objects turn out not to be so distinct, since "truth and good include one another; for truth is something good, otherwise it would not be desirable; and good is something true, otherwise it would not be intelligible" (ST 1.79.11 ad 2). Yet a difference remains: practical reason is reasoning about the good that is the cause of human action, whereas speculative reason reaches beyond the human to God, the cause of all that is, and thus of all truth (ST2-2.47.2 ad 1). Therefore causes that operate through the practical intellect are subordinate to those that operate through the speculative intellect. We might say that it is easier to cause behavior than belief. Thus, "truth is stronger" because the hierarchy of causes exemplified by wine, woman, king, and truth corresponds to the ontological hierarchy of inanimate beings, animate beings, intellectual beings, and God, who is the act of existing itself (esse ipse subsistens).
So far, so logical and metaphysical. But what about tradition and scripture? Some have taken the question to be a student's joke, posed to baffle the professor, and perhaps it was (though it is not a particularly funny one). More importantly, however, the question is rooted in the text of scripture, specifically the deuterocanonical book of 3 Esdras, in which three young Jewish servants of the Persian King Darius debate this question before their master. Darius' predecessor, Cyrus, had defeated the Babylonians, who had 50 years before destroyed Jerusalem and taken many of its people off into exile. Cyrus had allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, but many had remained in Babylon, where they had established themselves. At this time the temple in Jerusalem remains in ruins because Darius has yet to fulfill the vow he made to rebuild it.
The first of the three servants argues that wine is strongest, not least because "it makes equal the mind of the king and the orphan, of the slave and the free, of the poor and the rich" (3 Esdras 3: 19). The second young man, more inclined to flattery than wit, argues that the king is stronger, since "all his people and his armies obey him" (4: 10). The third defends the proposition that "women are strongest, but truth is victor over all things" (3: 12). This young man is Zerub-babel, the grandson of King Jehoiachin, who was the last king of Judah before the exile in Babylon. Zerubbabel is not interested in impressing Darius with wit or flattery. He argues that women are stronger than wine, since they give birth to the men who plant the vineyards, and also stronger than kings, pointing to Darius' own fawning behavior with his concubine, Apame, who would "take the crown from the king's head and put it on her own, and slap the king with her left hand" (4: 30).
Then Zerubbabel abruptly shifts gears, announcing that "truth is great, and stronger than all things" (4: 35). What justifies this shift? Zerubbabel's mockery of the king and his concubine points to their pettiness and makes ridiculous their claims to importance. Zerubbabel continues, speaking of truth as a woman (perhaps echoing the figure of "lady wisdom" in the book of Proverbs), a woman who is in striking contrast to Darius' concubine: "with her there is no partiality or preference, but she does what is righteous instead of anything that is unrighteous or wicked" (4: 39). The implicit appeal to Darius is that he pursue the powerful and righteous lady truth, rather than the fickle and untrustworthy Apame. But the punchline to Zerubbabel's encomium to truth comes at the end: "To her belong the strength and the kingship and the power and the majesty of all the ages. Blessed be the God of truth" (4: 40). In this final turn, Zerubbabel makes it clear that to dedicate oneself to the pursuit of truth is to dedicate oneself to the God of Israel.
Darius is won over, smitten by Zerubbabel's portrayal of lady truth. He says, "Ask what you wish," and Zerubbabel replies "I pray therefore that you fulfil the vow whose fulfilment you vowed to the King of heaven with your own lips" (4: 43-6). Darius, confronted with truth, a power greater than his own power as king, agrees to Zerubbabel's request that he rebuild the temple.
Relocating Thomas' discussion in its biblical source helps us see that, though he employs the tools of philosophy, his answer to the question is saturated with biblical understandings of the relationship between power and truth, and the subordination of earthly rulers to God's eternal law. In the story of Zerubbabel we see displayed a fundamental narrative pattern that repeats itself throughout the Old and New Testaments, a pattern that is central to Thomas' thoughts on political order and that is summed up in the verse that Thomas quotes in his quodlibital question: "Truth is stronger."
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