Aquinas is overrated

5 min • July 9, 2023

Every Catholic who learns anything about their religion is introduced to St. Thomas Acquinas at some point, usually through his book Summa Theologica, a 5-volume apologetic work covering an unusually large number of topics in great intellectual depth.

But Aquinas’ reasoning and philosophical style is by no means definitive or authoritative to all Catholics. As individual Catholics, we’re free to reject his reasoning and conclusions whenever it doesn’t make sense to us, in order to keep our intellectual integrity.

The nature of philosophy is that it takes an abundance of life experiences and sifts through them with logic to discover the general principles that seem to run life. Theology could be considered to be philosophy with divinely revealed truths added to the mix.

Or rather, philosophy requires a set of proposed axioms about the fundamentals of reality that we don’t absolutely know for sure, and in the case of theological philosophy, many of these are supplied by divine revelation.

But the very fact that philosophy depends on a common life experience, is exactly what relegates it to subjective verification by individuals. Naturally, people who lived in the same time and culture of Augustine are going to be more likely to agree with his reasoning.

As medieval Christendom had a socioeconomic reality, cultural flavor, and ethical sentiment far different than our own, Aquinas and his cohorts would have received very different fundamental axioms about life than we have, as starting points for his reasoning.

The argument could be made that certain moral realities are universally and objectively true, an argument ironically made by subjective moralists to say that medieval Christendom had certain ideas of justice completely and objectively wrong.

But this can be accounted for, whether to moral subjectivists or philosophical absolutists, by uniting the concept of our easily corruptible nature, to our modern psychological understanding of the maleability of the mind.

Not that Aquinas was less morally upright than we are, but that, given the historical circumstances of his reasoning, he was as morally upright as he could determine from the mere facts of life that surrounded his entire subjective life experience.

Because Aquinas had thoroughly read the works of Aristotle, understood his reasoning style, and shared a relatively similar cultural perspective, he was able to marry Aristotelian reasoning to Catholic doctrine very closely.

But Catholic doctrine itself is actually a very small set of facts. The entirety of what a Catholic must believe is so small that it fits in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, originated a few decades ago to explain our core doctrine in complete but summary form.

Thus, one could take any other competing philosophy, such as Confucianism or some variants of Buddhism, and unite them as closely and thoroughly as Aquinas did with Aristotelianism, and come up with a brand new form of Catholic theology.

That’s one of the reasons the Catholic Church officially has the impartial attitude towards Aquinas’ philosophy that it does, in all its writings and offiical documents. Because it’s just one philosophy style of many.

The Church Fathers each had their own flavor of philosophy. St. Justin Martyr’s is very different (and much simpler) than St. Augustine’s or St. Jerome’s. The Fathers were not free of philosophical reasoning, just as much as an object can’t be free of a shape.

And we can each have our own Christian philosophies too. There’s no need to formalize or systematize them, to name them, or to create a dogma around them. As long as it helps us to understand and live life better, it has done its job.

Legend has it that near the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas received a special revelation from God, after which he ceased writing. We’re not told what he saw, but clearly it had a powerful impact on him. Maybe he was shown the distant future, and the many alternative philosophies that we would form.

All Articles