To say the conclusion of the two stories in that way is to suggest that the fault lies once again with Thomas's readers. Is the fault only in Thomas's readers? Might there also be faults of authority in Thomas's writing? Is it a fault, for example, that he does not better protect his texts against authoritative misappropriation?
One way of handling these sharp questions is to set them aside as not pertinent to the encounter between a contemporary reader and this medieval text. If the Summa really is a "Christian classic," in David Tracy's sense, then what does a long history of misinterpretation matter? Why can't the text be appreciated, be loved, in the intimate space of encounter with an individual reader?28 I think that it can be - and I would be happy to give personal testimony to that effect. I knew almost nothing about Thomism or its history when I first started to read Thomas Aquinas (somewhat after the age of six). I fell in love with the text. Could I then ignore a long tradition of institutional misreading on a plea of infatuation? Or, rather, as I began to move out of infatuation into more sober study, and began inevitably to encounter other readers of Thomas, didn't I have to wonder whether the claims on my love were entirely honorable? Might not I have succumbed to whatever it is in the text that also summons the police? Might not my having fallen in love with a text so liable to institutional misappropriation reveal something about me?
Formulated in this way, the questions may still betray infatuation or its aftermath. They show the lover's wish to have the beloved author either
28 David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), e.g., pp. 111-112, 115-116, 163-164.
exonerated from any fault or clearly blamed for any disappointment. We should be suspicious of the choice between immunity and blame. There is an obvious sense in which a written text is defenseless against misreadings — as the Platonic Socrates warns Phaedrus: "Once a thing is committed to writing it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers."29 The reception of Plato's own texts is a fine illustration of the danger. His ironic dialogues have long been read as if they were treatises, and Plato himself — who nowhere speaks in the dialogues — is routinely assigned some of the opinions expressed in them. Infatuation encourages readers to insist that an author should either write a text that can resist all misreading or take the blame for being misread. It is more helpful — and more sober — to conceive the decision to write as a moral decision in the face of risks of misreading — especially by those in power. The sharp question for Thomas is whether he has thought sufficiently about the risks of writing an integral Christian doctrine that embeds moral teaching within the creed. More exactly, what evidence do Thomas's texts provide of caution before the risk of violent misreading?
The case looks difficult. Certain rhetorical features of Thomas's authorship seem to make his texts particularly vulnerable to misuse. Some of them are admittedly features of thirteenth-century university theology: the impersonal voice of the stereotyped procedural phrases, the abstraction of technical terminology, the omnivorous appetite for opinions plucked out of context, and the almost legal use of textual precedents. We might try to excuse these features in Thomas's texts as limits scripted into the genres available to him. Unfortunately, other rhetorical features are more properly Thomas's own. He is remarkable among "Scholastic" authors for the evenness of his voice and the muting of controversial opinions. The extraordinary simplicity of his diction further encourages the belief that he is easy to translate, to replicate. For the most part, his arguments are both simplified and compressed. Thomas typically seeks to reduce complications or controversies rather than to increase them. So the texts seem effortless and incontrovertible, perfectly general, and endlessly reproducible.
Indeed, we could map distinctive features in Thomas onto passages from Aeterni patris and from there onto some surviving species of neo-Thomism. Pope Leo and his counselors were not ignorant of the letter of the texts. Thomas's rhetorical equanimity and impersonality encourage the supposition that he speaks what is absolutely evident to common sense — that he is the
29 Plato, Phaedrus 275e, to which compare his seventh Letter, 341e.
supreme codifier of common sense. This first illusion produces intolerant neo-Thomisms, neo-Thomisms for which any disagreement is a sign of the opponent's stupidity or malice. The transparency and compactness of Thomas's arguments encourage the illusion that he speaks with the voice of reason itself — that he is somehow universally persuasive across all centuries and cultures. This second illusion produces unhistorical and anti-pedagogical neo-Thomisms. Finally, the comprehensiveness of Thomas's teaching in the Summa of Theology (or Against the Gentiles) encourages the illusion that he is the ultimate encyclopedia. (In fact, the genius of both works is how much Thomas manages to leave out.) This third illusion produces all those encapsulated neo-Thomisms that are incurious of everything outside.
So far I have mentioned some features of Thomas's rhetoric that would argue his lack of sufficient care for the risks of writing. What can we put against them in the scales? When we look for evidence of caution about the risks of philosophical or theological teaching through writing, we often look at two clusters of textual devices. A first cluster includes irony, deliberate obscurity, and deliberate self-contradiction.30 A second cluster contains the devices of writing in multiple voices, in symbols and metaphors, or in parables, allegories, and fables. Thomas does not seem to employ the techniques of either cluster. He defends metaphors and other poetic devices in the Christian Scriptures. Indeed, he argues that "the hiddenness of figures" is useful not only for the exercise of inquiry, but also for protecting holy things from the mockery of unbelievers.31 But Thomas goes on from this first Question in the Summa to write of holy things in strikingly unadorned language. Again, Thomas recognizes that Plato writes indirectly, and so may not actually believe the tenets to which Aristotle objects. But then Thomas argues that readers can only engage the arguments on the surface of the Platonic texts.32 While Thomas knows the devices of esoteric and figural writing, and sometimes commends them, he does not employ them.
Thomas relied not so much on esoteric or figural devices in the texts as on institutional safeguards around them. He could write in unprotected prose because he counted on the protections of the communities for which he wrote — chiefly the Dominican houses of study, but also the universities. In the thirteenth century, these were indeed communities with innumerable
30 Compare Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), perhaps especially pp. 24—37.
31 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol. 1.1.9 ad 2; compare Contra gent. 1.8, on the usefulness of gathering "true likenesses (verisimilitudines)"for exercising human minds. I will come back to the text from the Contra gent. in chapter 5.
32 Thomas Aquinas, Sent. De caelo 1.22, reporting the disagreement between Simplicius and Alexander.
walls around them, both literal and figurative. Thomas's texts were composed to be copied, taught, applied, and extended in communities closed to many classes of outsiders. The insiders, in their turn, were supposed to be formed in specific ways: by previous education, but also by liturgical practice, shared profession of faith, and vows or other forms of clerical discipline. So we might argue on behalf of Thomas's care as a writer that he entrusted unprotected writings to the protections of closed communities. In the next breath, we would have to admit that it was precisely those closed communities, beginning with the Dominicans, who erased Thomas's textual choices by rewriting them according to the changing dispositions of institutional power.
Faced with this embarrassing contrast, we might go in one of several ways. We could plead institutional prerogative and argue that since Thomas wrote within and for the Dominicans, the order could use him as it wished. Or we could construe Thomas's confidence in the community to which he committed his texts as a sacramental or incarnational act, as a trust in the power of the divine to work through failing flesh.
Each of these possibilities has something in it, but each gives up too quickly on Thomas's authorship. The fact that the texts were rewritten relentlessly can become evidence in favor of Thomas's care in writing. The texts had to be rewritten in order to be made into successive figures of authority. As originally written, the major texts were not useful to authoritative constructions. This is at least partly because Thomas has provided, on every page, devices for preventing the excesses of authority. The devices are a micro-dialectic in which competing claims of authority are put into pedagogical sequences that encourage an ongoing learning without the promise of a conclusion. It is an irony that such a dialectical author should have been made into so undialectical an authority. It is also a testimony to Thomas's authorship that making him into an authority of another kind required rewriting his texts - until his authority had increased to such a point that his texts could sound undialectical, because his least utterance sounded final. The long history of rewriting that I have sketched may be the best evidence for Thomas's success as a deliberate writer. So we might turn back upon the wish announced in my first sentence - the wish to read Thomas without encountering the police who are also reading him. Perhaps we might feel some gratitude even for the police, so far as their ceaseless appropriation of Thomas, their aggressive rewriting, makes us wonder what in Thomas's texts requires that they rewrite.
Do we have, then, finally, a happy answer to the sharp questions about Thomas's responsibility for his misappropriation? Can we resolve and so dismiss the questions by replying that Thomas wrote well enough to require that he be thoroughly rewritten before becoming an authority? We can say this and still not resolve the questions. The sharp questions posed at the beginning are not principally about compositional responsibility. They are rather more about what I can only call the drama of textual authority. We can marvel at Thomas's thoughtful authorship and still be forced to admit that something in the texts draws the police. Let me describe the attractant as an interlacing of hybris and trauma, of impossible ambition and inconsolable betrayal.
The impossible ambition is to think that you could write moral theology, for example, without attracting the police - as observers and as imitators. You cannot write a persuasive moral text without giving grounds for violent misappropriation, because in attempting to reform character or community you necessarily energize the sources for character-building and communityformation. Language capable of teaching religious life is language capable of imposing tyranny - or managing behavior comprehensively. The means of persuasion, once disclosed, can be abused by those in authority, can be adapted by the police. The more persuasively you write moral theology, the more you invite the police. To consider writing theology is to imagine an ultimate power in language. Such language must be imagined, and then it must be rejected as both tyranny and idolatry.
Inconsolable betrayal follows. Once the police move in, there are many betrayals. For example, the pedagogy of a text is betrayed, in ways we have seen, when its author, title, or principal claims are invoked as floating authorities for quite alien purposes. But I have in mind another betrayal -and one that seems inconsolable, in the way trauma does: it is the betrayal of the reader who has trusted the pedagogy of a text only to find that it is in the hands of the police. For such a reader, the very words of the text may become saturated not only with the sense of deception, but with violent police acts. Imagine someone tortured in Argentina by those who appealed to what Thomas's Summa says about self-defense or political stability. Imagine what is fused for that person into the Summa's text.
The overly neat distinction between textual authority and the chronicle of particular crimes now collapses. When it does, particular readers, whole communities of readers, may find it impossible to hear the text without recalling - indeed, reliving - certain crimes. I do not regard this as an accidental feature in textual traditions of religious instruction. While it cannot be blamed on a text's structure or author, this sort of violence is something that cannot be denied in a text's reception, its rhetorical afterlife. Indeed, it can take over the text's rhetorical afterlife if it affixes itself by traumatic juxtaposition to the text itself - to the text and not just to its readers, so far as the rhetorical force of a teaching text actually takes place in its serious readers. When readers today are taught by a medieval text, they participate in a curious simultaneity that also opens the text to its reception, for good or ill. If we want to admire the ways in which traditions of commentary or elaboration enrich classic texts, we must also recognize and deplore ways in which traditions of institutional appropriation deform them.
Sharp questions about Thomas. We cannot duck them or dismiss them. We cannot resolve them with happily ingenious answers. We have to hear them — and in their sharpest form. The question is not, could Thomas have written better? (Yes, probably, but he wrote well enough to require the police to rewrite him.) Nor is the question, do Thomas's texts contain something that attracts the police? (Yes, necessarily, because he is trying to write persuasively about the claims of divinity on human lives.) The sharpest question is, have so many betrayals been fused into Thomas's texts that the only readers willing to persist with him are the police? I want to answer, "no," but I see that the answer cannot be given once and for all, because it must be given in the presence of the police — and their victims.
My provisional "no" will be spelled out in what follows as a way of reading Thomas that attends to the practice of writing after and before authority. Some of the more outrageous claims I have already made will be substantiated. Other claims will be added — with their evidence. Fuller answers will be considered and analyzed. Throughout the book, I read Thomas against many of his rewriters as a teacher of the dangers of power in appropriating philosophy and composing theology.
Was this article helpful?