St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.

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12 thoughts on “St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police”

  1. The truth of “our every desire lying before God” is something it can be difficult to come to terms with, particularly if those desires are unholy, rather than holy.

    The post on mindfulness was timely as is the comment urging us to always measure what and how we think before we jump in feet first. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve responded in haste and repented at leisure.

    Before the internet we could retract and apologise and hopefully it would be ok, but the internet takes that option away as our words will be there for ever, we can delete as much as we like, but they hang there, somewhere in the ether to be recovered and used against us – as many find to their cost.

    The old adage ‘think before you speak’ is truer now than it ever was.

  2. Thank God for Thomas Aquinas. In the first page of my theology folders is written the word ‘STRAW’ on an otherwise blank page. I use it as an aide-mémoire, not designed to belittle the study of theology but to place it, and me in context.

  3. And there, again, there’s Mgr Knox–“There will always be a tendency, more marked in transitional times, for Christians to demand a faith free from the trammels of theology, the processes, star-led and camel-borne, of the human reason. But an unintellectual salvation means an unsaved intellect.”

      • No, I will confess, I haven’t, there’s a lot of it. I realise that his thoughts might have been influenced by culture and context.

        His dialogue, reasoning woman’s existence in the creation, appears to me to be worlds away from Jesus’ teaching that Mary had chosen the right thing in sitting at His feet.

        I can only imagine that what Jesus had to say that was worthy of women’s ears was far removed from an exploration of her supposed defectiveness.

        This (below) is especially difficult for me, hence I began, ‘It seems’ as I was airing on the side of caution, …….perhaps I have misinterpreted his discourse ?

        “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power..”
        Aquinas, Thomas. 13th Century.

  4. Well, I have studied Aquinas, and would point out that ever wrote a treatise on the nature of women , nor did he devote significant sections of his works to that subject.
    Indeed there are hundreds of references, but they are scattered through his works, as they relate to his larger views.
    Quoting one excerpt, and out of context, without regards to the further content of the Summa does not a philosophy make.

    To quote:

    ” St. Thomas is concerned neither with praising nor condemning woman; his writings are philosophical treatises, not pastoral enjoinders. For him woman is another part of reality to be scientifically investigated in order to discover her nature and her relation to the rest of reality.” (Kristin M. Popik, Ph.D Philosophy, St.Thomas University, Rome)

    In addition, Aquinas drew heavily on the philosophy of Aristotle, and as such was familiar with Aristotle’s “femina est mas occasionatus formula” as well as the teachings of the Church of the day.
    Despite that, he postulated that “woman is both equal to man in nature but also inferior; in their relationship she is subject to man but subject as his equal.” This philosophy is clearly not the same as that displayed by the Church of his day.
    If you want to understand Aquinas, you need to read and study all his works, as a related whole.

  5. Hi Harold,

    The quote came from “Question 92, The production of women. ” I believe his bias is not reflective of Jesus’ love for women and His desire to have them taught alongside His other disciples.

  6. I still think that you might find it instructive/interesting to read the entire Summa, and looking at it for what it is, a philosophic treatise on the theology of the day, a logical exercise. The Shorter Summa might be a good start in looking at the works of Aquinas.
    Taking one question from it does not represent the entire thing. Nor does interpreting it in the light of current mores and standards, do the philosophical merit of the Summa justice.

  7. The desires to live and to procreate are counted by Thomas among those basic (natural) human values on which all human values are based. According to Thomas, all human tendencies are geared towards real human goods. In this case, the human nature in question is marriage, the total gift of oneself to another that ensures a family for children and a future for mankind.

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