Writing Secrets in a Summa of Theology

In the prologue to his Summa, Thomas promises to teach simply and clearly, as a teacher should when addressing novice readers. The promise has been applied to his whole corpus. Traditions of reception sometimes imagine him the most accessible of authors. They presume that his authorship is motivated entirely by a desire to make things clear.1 So Thomas has been praised over the centuries for the simplicity of his style, the clarity of his organization, and the moderation of his views on controversial subjects.2 He becomes both the angelic doctor and the common doctor - a translucent intelligence open to all, neither subtle nor seraphic.

Many features in the imaginary portrait are good likenesses. Thomas's Latin is generally unadorned and uncomplicated. His favorite stylistic devices are rhythmic rather than lexical or ornamental. His most remarkable achievements of composition are structures for sorting textual traditions. His views often fall somewhere between extremes known to us from the thirteenth century - though they were not so regularly in the middle as later Thomists have made out. Still these virtues of Thomas's teaching do not of themselves imply that his authorship intended to provide easy access for all. Nor does the imaginary portrait explain how Thomas could have kept faith with authoritative traditions, both theological and philosophical, that urge

1 For a recent specimen of this presumption, see Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 19-20.

2 See, for example, Erasmus's praise of Aquinas at the beginning of the Methodus, as in his Opera omnia 5 (Leiden, 1704; rptd. London: Gregg Press, 1962), col. 78E. Aidan Nichols praises the style more suitably for its flexibility and range: it can switch "from the most austere metaphysical analysis to some extravagant metaphor taken from a Greek Father or a Caro-lingian monk." See Aidan Nichols, Discovering Aquinas: An Introduction to His Life, Work, and Influence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. viii.

caution or concealment in teaching about the most important things. To say this differently: if the portrait were a good likeness, then Thomas flouted ancient and important precepts about teaching the divine. He must have flouted them, because he was not ignorant of them.

Thomas shows his familiarity with the traditions in many places. In his incomplete commentary, for example, Thomas explicates a part of Boethius's proemium to On the Trinity. Boethius announces that he will write to be understood only by his select recipient.

Wherever I have cast my glance beyond you, it has met in part with sluggish indolence, in part with shrewd envy, so that anyone who throws these matters before such monsters of men, to be trampled underfoot rather than appreciated, would seem to bring dishonor to divine inquiries. Therefore I adopt a concise style, and what I have taken from the innermost studies of philosophy (ex intimis sumpta philosophiae disciplinis) I veil with the significations of new words, so that they may speak only to me and to you, if you should ever turn your eyes to them.3

Thomas comments on the letter of the passage in two ways. First, he explains each phrase in the manner of a continuous gloss. So he provides synonyms for Boethius's archaic locutions and explains that the "monsters of men" are so called because they carry a bestial heart inside a human body.4 Then, second, Thomas supplements Boethius's text by supplying authoritative citations (to Matthew 7:6, to Horace) and by noting that the "innermost studies of philosophy" are those most distant from matter.5 Thomas not only paraphrases Boethius, he seems to endorse and to amplify him.

Thomas does all of this in a work undertaken to present Boethius for a wider audience. His exposition of Boethius's proemium is built around two accessus patterns, two heuristic schemes used by exegetes to open up a text. In a typical Scholastic preface or accessus, as I have noted, the medieval exegete asked a number of questions about the work to be studied. These included questions about its intention, utility, order, authenticity, title, and position in the hierarchy of studies.6 More succinctly, the exegete could give

3 Text as in Super De Trin.

4 Super De Trin. expositio proemii.

5 Super De Trin. expositio proemii, Matthew 7.6, Horace De arte poetica 25ff

6 See Richard William Hunt, "The Introductions to the 'Artes' in the Twelfth Century," in Studia mediaevalia in honorem ... R. J. Martin (Bruges: "De Tempel," [1948]), 85—112, especially "Type C," pp. 94—97. Greek antecedents to the medieval philosophic prefaces are considered in Edwin Quain, "The Medieval accessus ad auctores," Traditio 3 (1945): 215—264, especially pp. 243—256, with a summary chart on p. 250.

an account of the book's matter, intention, order, and mode.7 Aquinas himself used exactly such abbreviated patterns to begin his commentaries on Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations.8 A modified and expanded accessus opens expositions of Aristotle. Because he was adept at teaching, Thomas did not find it necessary to provide such schematic introductions to his own major works, though echoes of an accessus may be heard in them. The opening of the commentary on Boethius recalls, by its form, Thomas's other labors of philosophical and theological manifestation. His affirmation of the need for esoteric writing appears to be contradicted by the very genre in which he makes it. He admires brevity and obscurity in a work designed to expand the brief and to elucidate the obscure. How to make sense of this? How to reimagine Thomas's authorship so that there is room in it for a tension between the hidden and the manifest?

The questions are not trivial, and it is not easy to find satisfying answers for them. To ignore them altogether only repeats the difficulty without addressing it. We might begin by noticing that the passage from Thomas on Boethius adduces authorities from two different orders when it asserts the need for caution in teaching. The first order is that of the pagan philosophers and poets. Boethius speaks, as is his habit, from behind the mask of Greek philosophy, and so Thomas adds a reference to Horace. The second order is that of Christian revelation and its handing down. Boethius does allude implicitly to Matthew, after all - "to be trampled underfoot rather than appreciated" - and so Thomas supplies the explicit citation. These two orders of authority represent two sets of motives for esoteric teaching. Thomas regards the motives differently, so I will treat them in sequence, separately: pagan philosophical motives, Christian theological motives. I will then try to acquit Thomas of the charge of having failed to take these motives seriously enough in his own writings, which seem so clear, so simple, and so public. In the course of all three parts, I hope to gain some ground on the question, how far Thomas might appropriately be called an "esoteric" writer.

The term deserves a moment's reflection at the beginning. Etymologi-cally, exoteric discourses are intended for public consumption, for those outside, and so must deploy devices of misdirection and mendacity when they come near secret teachings. Esoteric discourses, being addressed only to those already inside, can speak of secrets plainly. This distinction often presumes that esoteric discourse will be unwritten. Any discourse committed

7 See Robert of Melun's pattern as in Hunt, "Introductions,"p. 96.

8 Post. Isaiam prol., auctor, modus, materia; Super Ieremiam prol., auctor, materia, modus, utilitas; Super Threnosprol., auctor, modus, utilitas, materia.

to writing is potentially public, and so an esoteric discourse put into writing becomes something more dangerous than a simple exoteric discourse. As esoteric, it must tell secrets; as written, hence public, it must keep them. "Esoteric writing" or "esotericism" in writing is shorthand for this challenge. The challenge varies, of course, with the secrets to be kept and the "public" to be kept out. The devices borrowed or invented by esoteric writers vary even more. If Thomas is an esoteric writer, it may be by means of very particular devices. The choices in his writing may differ strikingly from those in other medieval texts.9

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