Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Lee Cole Begin A Study Of Thomas Aquinas
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HH: Time to take a break from things Russian, thinks political, things everything and journey with me back to the 13th Century. Now this has actually never been tried in radio history before, to talk about the 13th Century and the 21st Century, or the 20th Century for that matter. But in the hundred years of radio, there are always frontiers to cross over. And one of them is an in-depth study of the 13th Century, especially of Thomas Aquinas. And joining me in doing that, of course, it is the Hillsdale hour, the Hillsdale Dialogue. This is the last radio hour of the week. I always spend it with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one or more of his colleagues. This week and next, and who knows for how long, I’m joined by Professor Lee Cole, who is in his third year of teaching philosophy at Hillsdale College. He did his BA at Hillsdale. He got his Masters from Villanova. His dissertation is on Thomas Aquinas from Villanova. We’re not going to hold it against him. He doesn’t know anything about basketball, because he is a Wildcat. But he is in fact an Aquinas expert. And if you go to Rate My Professor, I find this hard to believe, Dr. Larry Arnn, your Hillsdale students actually love Professor Cole and his classes on Aquinas.
LA: Of course they do. What are you talking about?
HH: I approached this with no little fear and trepidation, as well you know. I’ve never been an Aquinas guy.
LA: Oh, come on. So first of all, Aquinas is much more common sense than Augustine, whom for some reason you were wild about.
HH: Well, Confessions is a fun book to read. Suma has never struck me in the same vein.
LA: Yeah, okay, well you haven’t read it right. But Lee and I are going to help you with that. I should tell you about Lee, by the way.
HH: Please do.
LA: When Lee was a student, his and how now-wife were signal people in our honors program, and the first weekend that I was president of Hillsdale College, they’re gathering back for school, and there’s a traffic accident. And I leave church hearing about it to discover that a bunch of our kids are hurt. And there are bloody kids everywhere. And then I hear that one of them had his head crushed under the edge of a…and I think my God, what kind of, what am I doing here? This is crazy. And this person who had his head crushed is Professor Cole. And two things develop from this. The first is his academic record is a lot better since he got his head crushed. But the second one is Kelly Heinz of the day, spent three weeks hardly getting any sleep, making sure all the wounded kids got their books and their homework assignments. And of course that’s when Lee Cole fell for her. And now they have 14 children or something. How many kids you got, Lee?
LC: It’s close. You’d have to take off the first one, so four.
LA: Four children.
LC: I could come home and there could be a fifth or a sixth. I never know.
HH: Professor Cole, you met your bride-to-be while you were recovering from this accident?
LC: I did. I think they call that, what, a Florence Nightingale syndrome or something like that?
HH: That is terrific. That’s wonderful. But what’s not wonderful is that you obviously have an Aquinas addiction. And I want you to start by telling people how that developed.
LC: Okay, I could do that. Now this is going to complicate your Augustinian-Thomistic narrative here, because my Aquinas addiction developed at Villanova University, which is the preeminent Augustinian university in North America.
LC: So I was there, and I was studying the history of philosophy. I was actually studying a lot of 19th and 20th Century figures – Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, people like that. And in the process, we finally hired a Thomist, which we should have done, I guess, years earlier. And having read enough Aristotle, I could approach Aquinas with a new appreciation. I’d studied a little Aquinas at Hillsdale College, but it wasn’t really until I studied Aristotle under the direction of Helen Lang in my first years in grad school. Then I could approach the Suma, and it really opened up for me. And I really took five medieval courses near the tail end of my graduate career, so I was making up for lost time, and I’ve spent the last, I’d say, six years thinking alongside Aquinas.
HH: Now I have to have you both help me at this point. I have got program directors across the country divided. They argue over this segment. Some love it, and some loathe it. They say the people who love it, and the fans who love it, can’t wait. They download it, they listen to it repeatedly. And those who hate it don’t give it a shot. So let’s talk to those who hate it. Why should they care about Thomas Aquinas, a monk from the 13th Century, born in Italy, did most of his work in Paris. We’ll cover his life in a little bit, but I’ll go to you, Lee Cole. Why ought even the most skeptical radio guy or gal believe that this is important?
LC: Well, I’d hope even in the business of radio, we wouldn’t be above caring about what’s true. And if you care about what’s true, Aquinas is as good of a resource as any at getting at that. Aquinas is an incredibly profound thinker who remains timeless insofar as he cares about what is real, and there’s a real breadth and depth and accessibility to his work that I think you find in very few other philosophers. And I agree that there’s something kind of immediately alienating when we approach his text, but I think you know, giving him a month or two, and with the proper guidance, the text sort of opens itself up for you, and then it becomes a sort of wonderful castle of treasures.
HH: Breadth, depth and accessibility. I’ll give you two out of three.
LC: Yes, we might scare quote the last one a little bit.
HH: Yeah, that’s what I’m going to, Dr. Larry Arnn, you know that when we originally set up the outline for the Dialogues, I wanted to skip from the 4th Century to the 16th Century.
LA: Yeah, yeah, he thought, Hugh actually thought that the number four is followed by the number sixteen.
HH: Sixteen, and so…
LA: So let me take a stab at that, by the way.
LA: So two things in the news, right? One you just mentioned. At the closing ceremony at the Olympics, the head of the International Olympic Committee said in his speech, roughly, that Putin and Russia had proved in the last two weeks that they’re for peace and concord and unity and blah, blah, right?
LA: And the Olympics styles itself as a classical movement. And that is a hypocrisy that is beyond any estimating. And the whole thing, that the political cast of the thing, was nothing but self-serving. So first of all, freedom itself is belittled by free people, and people not free. The second thing is this week, according to AP, the Associated Press today, the president of the University of Iowa is apologizing, because she gave an interview to the college paper, and they’re worried about sexual assault. And she said that she hoped to get to a time when sexual assault could be eliminated. But human nature, being what it is, maybe she couldn’t get it completely eliminated. And now here’s the astonishing end of the story. There was outrage on the campus that she has mentioned human nature as if there is such a thing, and she has apologized and said she didn’t mean to cause anybody any hurt by mentioning such a conception.
LA: Now if you want to understand about nature, that is to say the nature under which it would be wrong to assault another human being sexually, and if there is no nature, then that is not wrong, then Thomas Aquinas is a timely subject.
HH: That is, I was going to bring up as an intro story as well Anderson Cooper’s reporting from the Yale Baby Lab, where they’re now discovering infants as young as three months old can distinguish between good and bad. And they’ve repeated this again and again, and by one year, it’s a no-brainer. And that would not surprise anyone who believes in the natural law, would it, Professor Cole?
LC: No, I don’t think so. I mean, Aquinas’ view on this is pretty sophisticated, because he has a strong conception of nurture, in addition to his conception of nature. But at the very basic level, he would say that we need principles of practical reasoning. And if there’s not some fundamental sense in which we can intuit right and wrong, then there’s really no starting point for moral inquiry. So at the very least, the principle of do good and avoid evil becomes apparent to us, and is a necessary condition for morality in the same way that the role of contradiction, you can’t have A and not A at the same time in the same place, as requirement of just having rational discourse.
HH: Now I also want to begin, this may take us through the break, Dr. Arnn. When we began talking about Thomas Aquinas, you said you’ve got to go off and read Chesterton’s Aquinas. And not only have I, I’ve fallen into this book. It is a wonderful book. You said it was an essay. It’s 600 pages on Kindle. But it is marvelous 600 pages, and so you tricked me. And I’m used to that now. But do you begin all of your students with Chesterton on Aquinas as a way of baiting the hook?
LA: Any time I talk to any student about Aquinas, and I don’t teach Aquinas here except in the course of teaching Aristotle, which I do. I always direct them to that. But Lee teaches courses on Aquinas. What do you do, Lee?
LC: I don’t actually use that text. I don’t discourage that people read it, and I think it’s a really fantastic text for capturing the spirit of Thomas Aquinas. I do have my students read introductory works on the side to give them a sense of Aquinas and his life. I usually assign a work by Fergus Carr, a very short introduction to Aquinas. He’s a Scottish Dominican, and that does the job, and has a little bit more historical detail than Chesterton’s. But Chesterton’s work is unmatched in terms of its rhetorical beauty. And it really, it’s loved by many an educated Thomist.
HH: When we come back, we’ll talk about both.
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HH: Lee Cole, when we went to break, you were talking about Fergus Carr, and I want to pause for a moment for those who find it easiest, and I am among them, to enter into any philosophy first through biography. What Chesterton said of Aquinas, which I wrote down as the one quote I would give, an acute observer said of Thomas Aquinas in his own time, “He could alone restore all philosophy if it had been burnt by fire.” That’s quite a statement. Is it, in your view, accurate?
LC: Well, that is a very optimistic and provocative statement. And I think insofar as it could be true of anyone, it could be true of someone like an Aquinas and someone like and Aristotle. I mean, there are a few people in human history that have an almost unparalleled grasp of really all knowledge that’s available to them at that time. And that’s really, that’s become a kind of ideal that I don’t think we can realize anymore, because knowledge has grown so specialized. But that’s really one of Aquinas’ great contributions. I usually tell my students Aquinas is not the most creative thinker ever. He’s not the most novel thinker ever. But nonetheless, there’s something kind of creative about his ability to synthesize the traditions. So I think he’s best understood as a kind of custodian who’s able to bring together pagan philosophy, Jewish and Islamic reflection upon God, and then of course centrally, the Christian reflection upon God and upon nature. And he’s able to see their points of convergence precisely because he has such deep insight into the natural world, the human being and God about whom all of these conversations are taking place. So in that sense, Aquinas does have a kind of mastery over the whole, that’s really unsurpassed, I think, in any other thinker, even if you could find approximations.
HH: Now and for you, Dr. Arnn, I penciled out one quote as a provocation from Chesterton. “The saint is a medicine, because he is an antidote. Indeed, that is why the saint is often a martyr. He is mistaken for a poison, because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct, and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.” So my question to you is A) what does that mean referencing Aquinas, and B) who ought to that apply to today?
LA: Well, it’s like that story about the president from the University of Iowa. We actually believe today that nothing is true. Remember that statement reads both positively and negatively, right?
LA: And that our freedom is protected by that fact, because there’s nothing to restrain us from doing whatever we want, right? We think that today. And that means that we reject systematically the doctrine in the Declaration Of Independence, the laws of nature and of nature’s God. In 2006, in the book, Audacity of Hope, the following sentence occurs. “Implicit in the Constitution’s structure in the very idea of ordered liberty is a rejection of absolute truth,” right? Now as a statement about the Constitution of the United States written by James Madison, friend of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, with its laws of nature and of nature’s God, that’s raw foolishness.
LA: And contradiction, and in my opinion, also, dangerous.
HH: Well, there’s no place to stand. If Ukraine and Russia are engulfed in war this weekend, I mean, not merely saber rattling or a little conflagration, but I mean, engulfed in war, who’s to say Russia was wrong to begin it, I mean, if you don’t have a place to stand?
LA: They, in other words, it is a denial. Here’s Thomas Aquinas’ account of the human being. It’s like Aristotle’s account, except it’s Christian. And that’s a very important fact that we’ll have to talk about. His account is you have some capacity in you that is like the capacity of God. And that capacity lets you see things as they are, to see specifically the good in things, to know the good in things, and to long naturally for it. Now you don’t always do that good. And when you don’t, you’re embarrassed. What this modern doctrine does is it takes away the embarrassment. There isn’t anything that stands outside you that can know that judges what you do. And you know, the classic philosophers and the medieval philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, they’re very well aware that human beings are capable of great evil, and always, to some extent, are doing evil. But they don’t lose sight of the fact that the good can be known and point to God. And so this work that Aquinas does, it’s very powerful, because one of the things it does is it lays a foundation in reason for the operation of the faith. And you know, he didn’t lay that anew. That was there. God, we read Augustine, and Augustine says the Creator would not hate the faculty he gave us that makes us like Him. But that gets developed in Aquinas into a structure of understanding that’s just a moment, just huge.
HH: Now before we begin to move there by virtue of laying out the 13th Century, let me just ask about the president of the University of Iowa. Did anyone ask the president that if you are against sexual harassment, you cannot also be against the idea of human nature? Did anyone raise the problem?
LA: Yeah, well, remember this is, it would be foolish of me to insult the world of radio, but I’m replying to those people you say who don’t like this segment, because they think, I don’t know what they think. But this is a world that is deracinated way beyond any world popular culture. This is a world in this it’s a doctrine that there isn’t any truth, and that is thought to be the source of freedom.
LC: And this, Hugh, this is a contemporary problem, but it’s also a problem that dates back well before Thomas Aquinas.
HH: How so?
LC: I mean, this is kind of Greek philosophy 101 in that when I introduce my students to Plato, we start by considering a group of thinkers known as the sophists, and the sophists more or less, for the most part, I mean, not all of them, but many of them really think that justice, nature and so on are mere constructs. They’re conventions of society. Basically, human beings are innately selfish, we would like to take each other’s stuff and kill each other, but of course, we always find ourselves outnumbered, so we enter into a kind of political contract so that we don’t kill each other. And then we pay presidents and rulers and police officers to make sure we don’t kill one another. But at the end of the day, what counts as right and wrong is really what we just agree to as part of our political contract. And Plato provides the first most sort of comprehensive response to that, that there really is such a thing as the nature of things, and there really is such a thing as the good. And if there isn’t, it’s all might makes right. And that infects even the way we think about rhetoric, because rhetoric just becomes the most subtle form of the stronger preying upon the weaker.
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HH: Professor Cole, I’d like you, if you could, to set up the start of the 13th Century, keeping in mind that we have Steelers fans, Wolverines and Trojans listening, and they will think that the 13th Century are the 1300s. In fact, the 13th Century begins in 1200. What’s the lay of the land? The timeline, you begin with an optimistic thing, the charter of the University of Paris. And so somebody somewhere thinks something is worth learning in 1200.
LC: Yeah, it’s a really interesting time in the West. It’s actually the case, it helps to back up just a little bit. When a number of people from the Jewish and Islamic world were traveling to Europe, even in the 12th Century, they came back and reported that Europe was basically what they would call a kind of latrine compared to what they were used to in the Middle East and North Africa. And what ended up happened when delegates were sent in the 13th Century, suddenly they were astonished by what had arisen in those hundred years. And there are reports of people from the Middle East sending emissaries to Paris and coming back and saying there are tens of thousands of men devoted to the highest things. And the princes of Europe at the time were devoting their wealth to chiefly, in some sense, useless ends, high ends that were not merely utilitarian. That is the study of wisdom and the praise of God. And so what they found is academics and priests basically being paid to investigate the highest things. And this is astonishing to them. So for a variety of reasons in those hundred years from the 12th to the 13th Century, we find this great cultural flourishing. And the medieval university really just sort of represents that cultural flourishing. And this is the world that Thomas Aquinas enters into.
HH: Why was Aristotle prohibited at Paris among those who were pursuing the highest things? Why were they against Aristotle?
LC: Right, well, in some sense, part of this was they wanted Aristotle to be vetted. And he had to kind of go through a testing period. And it’s very complicated, because Aristotle is being rediscovered in the West after he had been lost for almost a millennium, and he’s being rediscovered in Spain through contact with the Islamic world around the year 1200, more or less. And the situation is sort of tricky, because for about a hundred years, the West had been becoming increasingly aware of Aristotle, but through Islamic thinkers who’d been commenting upon Aristotle. So there was a kind of, there’s a bit of a distorted understanding of what Aristotle actually thought. So there’s a little bit of a prejudice against him. And then when he came on the scene, there was a kind of conservative position taken. That is we need our experts to try to figure out what Aristotle himself actually said before we just start teaching him to thousands and thousands of students. And we don’t even know if we’re teaching him, because we’re still trying to figure out what he thought.
HH: Interesting. It’s also a period of crusades. It’s a century of crusades, Larry Arnn, which are of course very controversial to even discuss. George W. Bush got in trouble for using the term crusade, although Dwight Eisenhower used it in his autobiography, Crusade in Europe. But it is a period of periodic adventuring against the Islamic rulers in Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s actually lost forever to the West in this century, 1244, until Israel is reborn in 1948.
LA: That’s right. And so there’s, the event of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, of the Islamics from Spain, that’s coming much later than this time. And so the contact and the conflict between the Islamic world and the Christian world is very intense, and doesn’t peak for 300 years, Lee, something like that? So the fall of Constantinople is 1452, if I remember right. The last siege of Vienna might have been in the 16th Century.
HH: But Jerusalem is lost in 1244, correct?
LA: That’s right. So this big conflict is going on, and Lee’s point is the provenance of these works, the source of these works, is an enemy with whom they’re at war, religious war. And so it doesn’t matter that al-Farabi and the Arab scholars who recovered these works are not Islamic fundamentalist. They’re thinkers, and they’re brilliant. That has to all be sorted out. What does this mean? It’s been lost for a long time.
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HH: But I am just a mere lawyer, Professor Cole, just a mere lawyer, and I often remind Dr. Arnn that he often refers to facts not in evidence. And so we have to go back and put some facts into evidence. He just referred to the recovery of Aristotle by Islamic scholars. To what operation is he referring, for the Steelers fans out there?
LC: Well, as a lawyer, there’s a place for you in the Kingdom as well. So Aristotle’s works are lost in late antiquity to the West. But they’re actually preserved within Byzantium, and then from Byzantium, they’re inherited by the Islamic world.
HH: But what do you mean by lost? I mean, physically what happens to them?
LC: Right, well, it’s not completely clear what happens to all of them. I mean, it’s a suggestion not to smoke in libraries or something like that. I mean, the library fire of Alexandria probably had something to do with this. Basically, there were not Aristotelian works in circulation in the West through much of the Middle Ages until the 12th Century. Now to be clear, not every single one of Aristotle’s works were lost. We had a few of his logical works, but there weren’t many manuscripts that were available, and they were kind of tucked away, and people weren’t really reading them. And Aristotle exerted a bit of an influence through figured like Boethius, but we didn’t have primary copies of the Metaphysics, of the Physics, of the Nicomachean Ethics, of the Politics, all of those great works that we associate with Aristotle.
HH: But the Arabs did?
LC: But the Arabs did, and they preserved them. And they were quite culturally advanced in the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Centuries. So in a sense, the works kind of migrated into Byzantium. They held onto them. The Muslims received them from the East. And then the West seems to receive them again kind of on the other end in Spain, in Spain around the year 1200. And then we have this period, of course, of 50 or 60 years where these Aristotelian works are starting to trickle in. And at first, what we’re getting is commentaries upon Aristotle by great Islamic thinkers like Averroes and Avicenna and so on. And then we start getting translations of Aristotle from Arabic, sometimes from Arabic into Spanish into Latin. And then eventually, the West starts getting Greek copies. So in the middle of the 13th Century, in the 1250s and 60s, we’re starting to get Greek copies of Aristotle and then retranslating it into Latin based on those better copies.
HH: Then let me do my job, which is, to which I’m naturally fitted, which is to ask the dumb, basic question. How come Arabs were willing to take Aristotle on face value, translate him, cherish him and comment on him, and yet when he arrives back in the West roundabout, the Church is hostile to him?
LC: Hugh, I had a student ask me this exact same question five hours ago in my medieval philosophy class.
HH: See, I know what my job is.
LA: Wait, by the way, Lee, was it a freshman?
LC: I think it was a sophomore.
HH: It was probably a visiting high school student.
LC: It’s a sophomore, but he’s also in seventh semester Latin, so not your typical sophomore. Well, so I think that that’s not quite the best way of putting it, because on the surface, we might think the Islamic world was much more friendly to Aristotle, because they had him for hundreds of years before we did. But really, it really has more to do with the fact that we just didn’t have the texts. So is it the case that we went through decades and decades where we were struggling to know what to do with Aristotle. And that’s not a struggle that ever went away. That struggle boils to the surface. I mean, it comes out even in the Reformation again. But the Islamic world struggled with Aristotle as well. So even though Avicenna considers himself the new Aristotle in the 10th and the beginning of the 11th Century, and he loves Aristotle, it’s not, Aristotle had already existed in his culture for a couple of centuries, and his adoption of Aristotle was itself met with some criticism by the likes of al-Ghazali and other Islamic thinkers. So Islam went through many of the same struggles that the West did in trying to figure out whether Aristotelian philosophy was compatible with a scriptural notion of the world, whether that be the Koran or the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
HH: And Larry Arnn, in the three minutes we have, we’ll be back to this next week. I want to do two things. I want to know why that struggle is obvious to someone. Why would that be a problem? And then number two, back to Professor Cole before we go forward, how do you want people to prepare for next week? So President Arnn and then Professor Cole.
LA: Okay, you want me to do that now?
LA: Okay, well first of all, about that struggle, it’s obvious, at least in regard to Islam. Mohammad was a conqueror, a general and a ruler. And the question is, does that, those facts and what he wrote indicate that there’s a kind of regime with a kind of law to be set up? And if there is such a regime, what is to be the status of other sources of knowledge? In this respect, Mohammad, a prophet, is very different from Jesus, who’s regarded as a prophet by the Islamics. Well, Islam had a big fight about that, and the question is, and Farabi and Avicenna and those people, they’re very wise men, and some of them were centered in Baghdad, and they represented a strain in Islam that is like the strain that supported Thomas Aquinas and Christianity. And over time, that strain has not prevailed, yet, you might say. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in the future. And so they’re going through that, right? Is it sacrilege to think? Is it blasphemy to claim knowledge apart from the revelation of God in scripture and through His prophets? They’re fighting about that, right?
HH: Well said. Now we have one minute. Professor Cole, what do you want people to read for next week?
LC: Well, if you want to get started in Aquinas, I think reading the Chesterton text that you alluded to, the Dumb Ox, is a great way into Aquinas to, as I said, capture his spirit. And if you can deal with what the luxuriousness of Chesterton’s prose and just sort of bathe in it, that’ll be an enjoyable experience. You could start reading the Suma, although I do, even though I said Aquinas has an accessibility as far as philosophers go, I do think that reading Aquinas first hand does require a bit of guidance. So that’s tricky. And the Fergus Carr book that I mentioned earlier, which is very accessible, you can get it for nine or ten dollars. This isn’t a plug, but a very short introduction to Thomas Aquinas is for the most part quite good and quite insightful. So that’s another guide.
HH: We’ll pick up there next week. Thank you, Professor Cole, Dr. Arnn.
End of interview.