Thomass Affiliations with the Aristotle of the Ethics

By way of concluding, I can restate the lesson in terminology with which I began. When we want to describe Thomas's affiliations with Aristotle, nothing is to be gained by talking about Thomas's "Aristotelianism." Aris-totelianism as a descriptive category owes much more to the prejudices of Enlightenment historiography than to the medieval texts in hand. The model of "critical" historiography, made famous by Jakob Brucker, proceeds by identifying the irreducible philosophic content within a position. This model ought to be clearly distinguished from ancient and medieval doxo-graphies by school. Thomas speaks frequently of "sects (sectae)" of philosophers, and he knows well the various doxographies in Aristotle and commentators on him. Sects are historical communities constituted by relations of students to teachers, by common practices of ways-of-life, by the tradition of certain texts. Schools are not "-isms." And so we betray Thomas's own understanding of the history of philosophy if we describe his relation to Aristotle as a relation to an "-ism." We betray it more ironically when we begin to speak of "Thomism."

An equally misleading description conceives Thomas as defending a set of Aristotelian doctrines or tenets by means of stipulated arguments. Thomas was famously willing to defend certain Aristotelian positions and to do so with some Aristotelian weapons. The defenses follow from his readings in Aristotle; they do not precede them as a declaration of allegiance. To subscribe to a fixed set of tenets beforehand would undo dialectic. It would render impossible the very procedures through which Thomas engages Aristotle. Thomas holds as a principle of disputative exegesis that salient points ought to be read back into the vocabularies and other contexts from which they emerge, but that does not mean that he thinks of an author's teaching as a bulky register of claims to which you subscribe entirely or not at all. Thomas feels free sometimes to revise particular teachings from Aristotle - if need be, quite profoundly - and always to sharpen them for application in a particular dialectic. They are not so much solid units to be transported whole as sources or occasions for invention.

Would we get at Thomas's relation to Aristotle more adequately by describing it as Thomas adopting or adapting Aristotelian vocabularies? Thomas learns from Aristotle a powerful and supple set of interlocking terminologies through which to talk about so many parts of the world. Thomas takes over large portions of these terminologies, as he takes over Aristotle's concern for the ranges of meaning in philosophic argument, for deduction from deep grammar, and so on. Still we have to add immediately that Thomas does this with other writers as well. There is a plurality of philosophic vocabularies in Thomas and they are constellated differently around different topics. Thomas treats the Aristotelian vocabularies as one voice in a variable hierarchy of traditions of philosophic speech. It may be the privileged voice in some cases, but it is never the only one, nor the only one to be privileged. Its juxtaposition with other voices, other vocabularies, modifies it in various ways. Thomas reads the Ethics in part to appropriate and modify Aristotelian discourses, but the appropriations and modifications are made in view of a hierarchy that extends beyond them.

A more attractive description interprets Thomas's successive readings of the Ethics as his appropriating larger and larger sets of heuristic schemata from Aristotle. By "heuristic schemata" I mean those marvelously useful patterns of distinction in which Aristotle is so rich: act/potency, form/ matter, mean/extreme, intellectual/moral. Thomas's successive readings of the Ethics are so many ways of deploying and combining these schemata. He begins, first, with discrete schemata on small points together with those schemata needed in wide, analogous application at a goodly level of abstraction. Next Thomas takes a whole set of schemata, connected to one another by the progress of the Aristotelian Ethics read straight through. Then, finally, he puts these schemata together with others from diverse authors when composing the Summa. This description is correct and admirable, not least because it invites us to understand in more detail how Thomas analogizes Aristotle's schemata. Still it does not capture the central feature of Thomas's successive readings — namely, the progressive engagement with the structure of the Ethics.

There is one further step. The least misleading description narrates Thomas's progressive engagement with Aristotle's textual pedagogy. Many lasting texts in ethics propose exemplary pedagogies. They set forth — promise, prophesy, conduct — a pattern of education for readers' souls. Aristotle's Ethics is exemplary in just this way. It served ethical pedagogy most importantly by tracing a pedagogy of its own along which a reader can be brought to convictions about how to live. The whole of the Ethics provokes for Thomas a larger question about pedagogy in morals — and with it a question of whether there ought not to be a more encompassing textual pattern than Aristotle's for the formation of souls. The most serious response to the pedagogy of the Ethics is to propose a pedagogy in which the Ethics itself is preserved as a preliminary teaching.

Many neo-Thomisms reject this last description for assigning Aristotle too small a role. I attribute the rejection not to piety towards a particular Greek philosopher, but to a desire for a Thomistic philosophy, and especially a Thomistic ethics, independent of revelation. The desire was avowed in Aeterni patris, but it can be found for several centuries before that encyclical in some "Thomistic" attempts to resist, coopt, or outdo modern episte-mologies. Many neo-Thomisms have dreamed of an apodictic and autonomous philosophy more beholden to Cartesian or neo-Kantian curricula than to Thomas — or, for that matter, to Aristotle. (The Aristotle in neo-Thomisms little resembles other Aristotles, and he speaks Latin much more fluently than Greek.) Since no significant part of Thomas's corpus fits within post-Cartesian philosophy except for the expositions of Aristotle, and since only Aristotle among Thomas's philosophic authorities figures prominently in modern canons, the Aristotelian expositions must then be designated Thomas's contribution to philosophy.

This project ends by claiming that Thomas is an original philosopher because he adheres so closely to Aristotle. Something so baffling must be explained by a fundamental mistake: it is the unhappy result of forcing modern notions of a discrete, secular philosophy onto a medieval corpus written from quite other notions.111 The baffling claim also betrays a recognizably modern notion of religious authority. Neo-Thomist accounts of a Thomas who secures the autonomy of philosophy just by repeating Aristotle unwittingly disclose the churchly authority underneath too many philosophical neo-Thomisms. Since the nineteenth century, Neo-Thomism has named, among other things, the desire to safeguard reason by retrieving old texts at papal behest — and, a bit later, under the surveillance of the bureaucracy of anti-Modernism. In such a climate, claims for the autonomy of Thomistic philosophy or the philosophic genius of Thomas must sound

111 If we wanted to apply "philosophy" to Thomas's corpus with something like a median modern sense, we would, as John Milbank argues, end up having to concede its inseparability from theology. See the second chapter in Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). Milbank argues that the paired contrasts reason/faith and philosophical theology/sacra doctrina are at most "distinct [but unbounded] phases within a single gnoseological extension exhibiting the same qualities throughout" (p. 21). Reason occurs in varying intensities wherever there is faith, as philosophical theology must be present whenever sacra doctrina is being expounded. The remark is true to Aquinas's use of philosophical reasons, but not to his use of the terms "philosophia" or "philosophus." My own argument has tried to follow him in the use of those terms.

like echoes of other campaigns. Thomas's "Aristotelianism" means Thomas's availability for recent ecclesiastical projects of intellectual security. "Aristotle" means reason, and "Thomas" means the church making use of reason. The first thing lost in that allegory are the texts through which a mendicant theologian writes out his ongoing dialectical engagement with a longtime student of Plato.

Neo-Thomism's relation to Thomas should be contrasted with Thomas's relation to Aristotle. Thomas is certainly more candid about retrieving Aristotle into a new hierarchy of sciences. He never pretends to be producing a copy of Aristotle's philosophic project. He never identifies himself as a "Peripatetic," much less a proponent of "neo-Aristotelianism" (the very form of the term would have puzzled him). For Thomas, Aristotle is not a unique or perennial authority. Aristotle is a pagan author whose texts can be brought into helpful constellation with other authorities. Thomas does not regard Aristotle as a block of doctrine to be carried in whole. He treats Aristotle instead as the teacher behind a set of pedagogical texts. The unity of the teaching is just the dialectical congruence that thoughtful reading can perform. For all of these reasons, Thomas is not tempted to misleading imitation of Aristotle. Because he does not construct Aristotle as a perennial authority to be put on whole, he is not tempted to make Aristotle into a mask of authority through which to speak his own projects. If only Thomas had been so fortunate in all his readers.

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