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Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Lee Cole Continue In Their Study Of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica

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HH: It’s the last hour of radio of the week. That means it’s the Hillsdale Dialogue, which for many of you the highlight of your listening week, and I understand why. These last three weeks, we have been devoted to Thomas Aquinas with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and his colleague on the faculty there, Professor Lee Cole, who leads the young charges at Hillsdale into the Summa Theologica and the work of Thomas Aquinas. And this is the week in which we really press Professor Cole to tell us how he goes about…last week, he said 5% a semester is what he attempts to do. 5% of anything leaves 95% undone. And so how much at the end of their time at Hillsdale do you hope to have brought them to know of the Summa, Professor Cole, and where do you start them?

LC: Right, well, of course it can’t be my task to try to get them through the whole Summa in their time here, so first and foremost…

LA: Thomas himself died trying.

LC: That’s right. I mean, we want to, the Summa is perhaps the most comprehensive work on Christian theology ever written. And also, if we have a very narrow understanding of Christian theology, you will miss out on the fact that there are complicated discussions of the nature of the human soul and its relationship to the body, complex discussions of all the virtues, how human beings will, all of this is going on under the umbrella of sacred doctrine or theology. So my task is to focus on typically a kind of treatise from the Summa. So I teach a class, Aquinas On God. We just begin, and we read the first 26 or so questions of the Summa on God and His oneness. Or I teach another class on the treatise on human nature. So we’re really just focusing on the nature of the human being as composed of the body and soul, the powers of the human soul, how the human being understands. So that’s our focus for the semester. But I also want to give the students a sense of the whole, so often, the first day of class, I’ll give them a kind of synopsis of the Summa as a whole, because otherwise, the students will be left with a kind of distorted understanding. The Summa is just a collection of entries, 512 entries, and Dr. Arnn picked up on this last week. One of the great contributions of the Summa is it’s so well-organized. And I want them to see that organization. I want to see how it hangs together, because that’s really one of the principal achievements of the work, and even why Aquinas chose to compose the work in the first place.

HH: Far be it for me to give Joel Miller more to do, because he’s Larry Arnn’s editor, and thus he must flog weekly. But it seems to me that there is a book out there, the Summa and you, that’s probably built on that first lecture, Professor Cole. How do you, what do you tell them in that first lecture is the essence of Aquinas?

LC: Well, if we’re talking about the Summa itself, right, so Aquinas writes the Summa because he’s dissatisfied with the teaching texts at the time. He was trained reading Peter Lombard’s Sentences, and he had to comment on it for what would be considered today his doctoral work.

HH: And Peter Lombard being?

LC: He’s a 12th Century theologian, early 12th Century. So in the century prior to Aquinas, everybody had to go through Lombard’s Sentences, which is a consideration of Creation and God and Christ and so on. And it was based on the Bible, but extended commentary on the Bible. And there are a lot of interruptions in the work, and Aquinas’ Summa aims to streamline that and bring it together in a narrative way. So if we could just think very briefly about the basic movements of the Summa, we start with God, the procession of all creatures from God. We consider the human being as made in the image of God, so we consider the nature of man and human activity. Then we consider how human activity is directed towards God through the virtues and through law. And then finally in the third part, the culminating part, we see how human nature is reunited in friendship to God through Christ and through the working out of Christ in the Church.

HH: What does he want his beginner to understand most about the nature of God

LC: Well, I think Aquinas more than almost any other figure is just, I think, constantly hitting the mien, right? But we do have to understand where the students would be coming from in the 13th Century, and I do think there’s a way in which reading Aquinas, what they’re getting in Aquinas and what they might not be getting in other theologians, and this goes back to the Chesterton work, is a real sense of the importance of Creation, of human nature, and the way in which the incarnation and the humanity of Christ affirms the importance of Creation and human nature. There’s a reason why Aquinas will spend, I tell the students this. Aquinas says this book is about God, and yet he’ll go on for a thousand pages about the nature of human acts, how we make decisions…

LA: Yeah.

LC: …about the virtues, all because grace perfects nature and takes it up. So we need to reflect upon the nature of the human being so we can better understand how that human being is aimed at God.

LA: See, there’s a kind of a, this is like Aristotle, too. One thing that’s going on, and going on from the first query, is an assertion of a reality of which you are a part and which you can understand. One of the things that’s very powerful here is that Aquinas is locating us in relation to God, and explaining what kind of thing we are to be in that relation to the kind of thing God is, and so this kind of great, satisfying nature to the thing. Now it’s enormous puzzles, too, so you can’t be smug in your satisfaction. But it is a common sense approach to what you are and how you relate to your maker, the perfect being.

HH: Now I am going to put this inelegantly, but see if you can figure it out. If by diving into this, are you doing that which man is created to do? Is he setting that up to do it that way?

LA: Sure.

HH: Do you understand what I’m getting at, Professor Cole, that by doing it this way, you’re doing how you’re supposed to live?

LC: Well, to be clear, and we did mention this a couple of weeks ago, Aquinas doesn’t expect that every human being could have read his Summa.

HH: All right, then you beat me.

LC: But he’s also not, again, it’s a textbook for beginners, so he’s not writing it as some, I tell my students, this is not some sort of speculative theological masterpiece. Aquinas sat down and said there aren’t really, there isn’t an adequate theology textbook, I need to write an adequate textbook, right? If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it for yourself. So it is, I think if you’re a liberal arts student or an undergraduate who cares about higher things, you really should be engaging with the Summa in a serious way. And Aquinas accommodates how he’s doing this to our human nature. We start exactly where we are recognizing our humanity, recognizing the natural world, and we examine the structure of the world and how it intimates in its order and in its structure, how it intimates something higher than that. And then we also reflect the other direction on how God reaches out, right, discloses Himself to us, and reveals new things about Himself that we could have never known on our own. And He also secures our knowledge of the natural world. He reaffirms those claims that we come to when we reason rightly.

HH: But the objection, and the echo of Hitchens is often around this show because he was on it so often, would be that if you can’t get this, then you can’t get God, and that Aquinas’ complexity and the mountain that he represents, if people can’t get up, they can’t get to God. How would he respond to that?

LC: Yeah, he could certainly respond to that quite easily. And if you even read the first question of the Summa, you’d find that. So look, there are a few different ways of coming at God. On the one hand, we could say a philosopher could come to know God. They could practice natural theology – consider the nature of the world and then eventually come to realize that the world suggests that it rests upon a first cause who’s God. Now Aquinas would say that takes a long time, and very few people are fit to that task, right? We can also start from divine revelation through the gift of faith, and reflect upon what’s revealed to us in practice theology that way. But even not all of us are equipped to do that. Now it’s also the case that through God’s grace, and through the gift of faith, we can come to know things with conviction, right, that we did not deduce from our self from the natural world. Or through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we might become wise. Aquinas says, he has this really nice expression. One of the senses of wisdom is a kind of classical Greek sense. But there’s also wisdom in the sense of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We come to know God by experiencing Him, by suffering Him, by, in acts of prayer. And Aquinas says, and the context here is just fantastic, he said twice at Paris in a sermon, so he’s giving a sermon to the smartest people in the whole world, these theologians at Paris, and he says a little, old woman who comes after the time of Christ and has faith knows more about the real and living God than all of the pagan philosophers, including Aristotle implicitly here, who came before Christ.

HH: Wow.

LC: And that’s an astonishing claim.

HH: Do you believe that?

LC: I believe it, and I don’t think Aquinas was being flippant or exaggerating when he said that.

LA: Also…

HH: Do you believe that, Larry Arnn?

LA: Oh, sure. And also, that is in one way an Aristotelian kind of thing to say. I’m reading in the first query now where you get to the dessert. Is it time for a break?

HH: Yes, wait for dessert.

LA: Okay, I’ll read that when we come back.

— – – – –

HH: When we went to break, Larry Arnn, you were about to say in the first inquiry?

LA: Yeah, the point is when you get to the dessert, and Aquinas gives his answer to the disputation about whether anything except philosophy is required to be known, he says that there’s evidence, and that human reason can make a lot of it, especially those who are most refined at reasoning. And there’s another kind of evidence, and that’s the revelations of God. And those can be more widely known. Those constitute a kind of proof. And they unite with the evidence of the world around us. And so what he’s doing is he’s preserving the authority and witness of the natural world, which I think more modern philosophers like Karl Barth do not do so well, right?

HH: Now you’re going to have to unpack that. I miss a lot of what you just said in the last two sentences. Re-explain that.

LA: Well, you know, Cole’s a lot better radio guest than I, and by the way, Hugh, don’t be ruining my young professors by giving him the big head. So let me try again. And if I fail, he can do it. Yeah, the point is, in this query, Thomas says you can know a lot. Remember the dramatic nature of the first question. Do we need to know anything except philosophy?

HH: Right.

LA: And most of what he writes, by the way, is about philosophy in his life. And it can do a very great deal. But he’s saying, and one of the reasons that it can do a very great deal is that the natural world is available to us. The things that are in it that really are and have a being, we can see them, because they are true. And also, you find out if they are true, they are also good. And by the way, the highest of them that are true and good are also beautiful. And we can see that, because God gave us a soul capable of witnessing that. That’s Aristotle. And then what Thomas comes along and says, in addition is that God has revealed Himself to us, now most powerfully of all by the incarnation. And so we can see much more. But that does not destroy our knowledge of the natural world. And so in this first query, in his first answer, he puts all of that together in microcosm that is repeated and played out and expanded through 1.8 million words. And in my opinion, that’s a beautiful and a reassuring achievement, and a corrective to the tendency of modern philosophy to think you can’t know anything.

HH: But then let me ask Professor Cole the most famous anecdote of Thomas. I’ve used it, other people have used it who do not know anything about Thomas, is at the end, he stopped and said it’s all straw.

LC: That’s correct. That’s, see, there’s some possibility that he didn’t say that. That was legend. But there’s strong, strong probability that he did, that he told his personal secretary, Reginald, that. And now that, of course, that saying can be a cause of anxiety, of course, if you like Aquinas, or it can be a cause of affirmation if you dislike Aquinas. But it’s really important to understand that statement in context. So Aquinas, he said this in December of 1273, and he dies in 1274. And he says it after coming back from Mass. This is fascinating. He was saying Mass in his favorite chapel of St. Nicholas, and it’s the feast day of St. Nicholas, the wonder worker, and Aquinas has some sort of mystical vision, apparently, while he’s saying Mass on the morning of December 6th, and he comes back and his secretary is getting ready to work for the day, and Thomas is basically a workaholic, and he’s getting ready to write. And Aquinas dispenses with all of his materials for writing. And Reginald’s confused and says look, we have to get to finishing the Summa, and Aquinas says compared to what I have seen, everything I’ve written seems but straw. Now in some ways, this might seem as a renunciation of what he’d done. He’d realized that it was useless. But I think that’s a sort of hasty and kind of naïve reading of what he’s saying. What Aquinas is saying is compared to this vision, if he had some sort of mystical vision, compared to my vision of the infinite God, everything that I’ve said about God in words falls far short of that. But Aquinas affirmed this constantly in his writing. He has such a strong sense of divine transcendence that he was constantly saying this throughout his life. And this is just the realization of what he’d been, what he had reasoned towards. And now he sees it, and he finds himself incapable of carrying on his scholarly duties in a normal way anymore. Now it’s important to recognize, too, that he was asked on occasion to dictate and to provide certain theological reflections, which he continued to do. He wasn’t renouncing the practice of theology. He just said in his own life, he knew his time was coming to an end, essentially.

HH: Well, I am in the latter camp. I think it’s an amazing affirmation. I think of it as sort of when someone gets the Hubble, and they look out and they see and they say oh, my gosh, I had no idea, or you read Bill Bryson on the immensity of space, someone who can popularize this vastness, it doesn’t mean you don’t look through the Hubble. It just means you know you’re never going to see everything.

LC: That’s right.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Now in terms of when the 1.8 million words are done, does he change the course of the Christian Church in a way that is good, bad? Or does he simply reveal the way it is? Do you get what I’m getting at?

LC: Yeah, I think he lays the seeds for a good sort of change. There’s a way in which you can see Aquinas as a sort of revolutionary figure, and there’s something kind of revolutionary about his writing relative to the other options on the table. But in another way of thinking about him is really defending the truth at a very precarious time. So we might have this image of the 13th Century, oh, it’s Christendom, and we’re all getting along, and we’re all Catholic and so on. This is a very dicey political time with the reintroduction of Aristotle. We’re on the verge of a deep intellectual crisis. And Aquinas is there, right, to kind of shore things up. Look, we can accommodate Aristotle to Christianity, or take what’s right from Aristotle, integrate it into Christianity, and faith and reason do not need to contradict one another. The God of reason is the God of revelation. Reason and faith are not equivalent, but they’re reconcilable and compatible. So Aquinas sort of comes in and rights the ship, and helps us avert a kind of catastrophe. And his works are so rich that I think they keep giving, and they’re a starting point for theological reflection even to this day, which is why at the end of the 19th Century, Leo XIII says look, if we’re going to confront modern philosophy and secularism, you’ve got to start by reading Aquinas and work from there.

— – – – –

HH: So Larry Arnn, the line separating what you can know by reason and what you have to accept by faith, how does Aquinas lay those out? And are you happy with that division?

LA: Well, the answer to the second question is yes, it’s profound. Okay, you have to picture a world in which marvels are available to us to see, and they are provided by God, and the capacity to see them and grasp them is provided by God, and in which there’s been a tremendous revelation, and intervention by God into nature, an appearance by God in a natural form, a created form. And so these two things happened, and Thomas Aquinas is unwilling to lose the wonder or the benefit of either of them. And so there’s a vast structure which however, by the way, is broken down into discreet, individual parts, each of one which can be read, and each one of which is a microcosm of the whole in which he explains how you can benefit from both of these things, and they are not contradictory of each other. So you know, there’s, I mean, if you just look at what’s going on in the world right now, Hugh, I mean, last week, it’s in the AP, the president of the University of Iowa is being, she’s had a meeting with the board and done her perp walk because she said that she didn’t think she could completely eliminate sexual assault, although she was going to try, because of human nature. And so there’s an enormous eruption of objection at the idea of human nature being responsible for any evil in the world, or that she didn’t really mean to try very hard, because human nature makes it inevitable. Well, the truth is on a college campus, if you can’t say human nature anymore, that is the very subject you’re to study.

HH: There’s an even more glaring example, and I love Duke University, and God bless Duke University, but they cannot bring themselves to articulate why their students ought not to be engaged in the production of pornography to pay their way through school. I watched a half hour on CNN where no one could answer the question.

LA: Yeah, you know, those orthodox Jewish boys a few years ago at Yale who didn’t want to live in the dormitories because there were lewd pictures and free condoms scattered all over the place, and the dean from Yale is on 60 Minutes, and I can remember him saying Yale is a student experience, and the dormitories are a crucial part of it, and each person has to have that experience. Well, I happen to believe that, but our dormitories are not like that.

HH: Yeah.

LA: You know, and so goodness gracious, you know, and we live in a time when it is doubted whether we can know by either reason and faith any standard of good behavior or comportment.

HH: Right.

LA: And so where are going to recover that? And this is one of the great places.

HH: Now I have to ask the objection from the other side, and I’ll go to Professor Cole on this. The third part, treatise on the incarnation, treatise on life, death, the resurrection of Christ, treatise on the Sacraments, there is so much time spent into answering each of the questions of the nature of the Sacraments and why to engage in them, and why they are offered. And that simple woman of faith would answer why not simply go and receive the Sacraments? Why spend your time writing as opposed to receiving grace?

LC: Right, well, I think in some ways, that assumes a kind of homogenized understanding of human beings. And I think again, to use, to refer back to a couple of episodes ago, we have to operate with a sort of Pauline conception of the variety of gifts and a variety of human beings. So what Aquinas never wants to do, and this responds in some ways to Hitchens’ worry. Aquinas never wants to say his point of access to God is the same point of access that all of us should seek. So not all of us have, all of us are equal in our dignity, but we don’t all have the same intellectual capacities. And what’s really important in Aquinas is that you can find fulfillment in a variety of ways depending on your capacities. So your question earlier about whether Aquinas, is it a positive thing for the Church or a negative thing for the Church, one way or another, if Aquinas was not there, or someone was not there to think seriously about the notion of nature introduced by Aristotle, or the human being, somebody’s going to be thinking about those things. And we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can separate what we believe by being Christians, and what we think about science, because eventually, we’ll wake up in the morning and realize we believe incompatible things. And Aquinas says we, somebody has to be thinking about those things at all times, and be showing the faithful how they’re compatible with one another.

— – – – – –

HH: So the chapter on the assault of demons deep into the book, Lee Cole, modern readers will look at that and they’ll say that’s, you know, that’s an Al Pacino movie, what is that all about? And how do you tell your students to read these sorts of things. C.S. Lewis said it’s not too good to think too much about this, not too good not to think about it at all.

LC: Yeah, yeah, well, I’ve never taught a section on demons. Now your question, I think, though, could give rise to some interesting reflections. I had a professor in graduate school who said the great thing about Aquinas is he’s just not scared to think about anything, right? And it goes back to Dr. Arnn’s point that truth, goodness, being are all the same thing. Now Aquinas had a certain degree of virtue where he could think even about evil itself, insofar as evil is thinkable, without loss of his own sort of moral equilibrium, which again, not everyone’s capable of doing that. But he could write a 500 page work called De Malo, the disputed questions on evil covering sin, the Devil, vice and so on, and it’s just shocking that such a holy person could have such deep insights into when human nature goes right, and when human nature goes wrong.

HH: Interesting.

LC: And in all of this, here, I’m not completely sure if I’m remembering correctly, but I believe it’s Voltaire, and he seems like someone who’d say this. He says he couldn’t stand to read Aquinas, because the pages reeked of chastity. He could tell they were written by someone of such purity of mind that he found it disgusting.

HH: Now I’ve got to tell you what that reminds me of is I’m coming up on the weeks in Con Law where I have to teach the 1st Amendment and the obscenity cases. And I always tell my students don’t go and investigate the primary sources, you’ll be injured. And it’s not a good, it’s a hard thing to teach, because they will be injured by that if they go and investigate the primary sources. The Supreme Court watching the stag movies in the basement has also just appalled me that they had to do that or go through that exercise. But he could do it and emerge untouched, you’re saying.

LC: Right, now but to be clear, we have to make a distinction here. Aquinas would say look, we can reflect upon the way in which pornography presents a real affront to human dignity. You don’t actually have to look at pornography, right? You don’t have to do investigative journalism and see instances of the particular in the flesh, so to speak, to actually reflect upon at its heart why pornography is problematic.

HH: There’s an argument about that, actually, that you really can’t understand why it’s so evil without understanding it, and that rages…

LA: By the way, I’m reading the query right now on the demons…

HH: Yeah.

LA: It’s pretty good.

HH: Oh, it is. Two things must be considered in the assault of the demons – the assault itself and the ordering thereof. And it’s fascinating stuff. Larry Arnn, since you are our Aristotelian, there was the Politics. How does Aquinas think we ought best to be organized as a government?

LA: Just like Aristotle. He doesn’t quite, I mean, he knows everything there is to know about politics except the things that were invented in the American Revolution, in my opinion.

HH: Oh.

LA: And his idea, you know, Aristotle’s idea about politics is if you’re going to practically organize politics, the aim is justice, and you want a balance in the political community so it will have stability. And that means, really, mixing the powers among the various major groups in the nation, in the city. What the founders found, of America found, was a way to get that while basing all of the authority on the great body of the people, that is to way without an aristocratic class. So in my opinion, there’s an innovation there that the classics would have admired, and Thomas would have admired. Thomas is very much for freedom of religion, right? He’s, you know, you find the good sense of Aristotle brought into the Christian world, into this realm, as in so many others.

HH: I will conclude these four weeks by recommending that you film Professor Cole’s class and make it available. I think there’s a huge demand for doing Aquinas the right way. I think Augustine is fairly accessible and people can read it and get it, but have you ever done that, Professor Cole, taught to a general audience?

LC: Well, I did give a lecture a few weeks ago precisely, I gave, this shows that I’m a professor, I spoke for an entire hour on that expression that you brought up, that Aquinas deemed all of his works to be straw. And that was to a sort of general audience, although largely students. I will say, Hugh, on the note of taping my lectures, I have had, I had a parent insist on sitting in on my class, my medieval class, the other day, we were studying Islamic philosophy, because he heard me on the radio on your show. So someone out there is listening with at least half attention to our reflections on 13th Century theology.

HH: Oh, I think many people are, and they have to get over the Stephen Colbert factor, they have to get over being afraid, and then the hours are supposed to lead to many hours, and many hours to the actual reading. And Dr. Arnn, Hillsdale is actually innovating wildly in this, and I don’t know what you’re doing next semester, but I suspect that Aquinas would be a bestseller on the video side of www.hillsdale.edu.

LA: Okay, well, I’ll give two responses to that. First is our plan is to introduce the whole core curriculum of Hillsdale College, and we have great plans for Professor Cole. And the second thing is, Hugh, you should probably let me run the college.

HH: (laughing) But it’s so easy to do from a radio stool.

LA: (laughing)

HH: This is actually very magical.

LA: Yeah, it’s perfect.

HH: It’s just perfect. It’s the best way to run a college. Dr. Larry Arnn, Hillsdale president, thank you. www.hillsdale.edu. And thank you, Professor Cole, four long weeks with a radio guy, and I appreciate your patience. And as we come to the conclusion of this, after the Summa, what else ought people to read?

LC: Well, if you’ve made it through, after you’ve read some of the Summa, I would say you should read more of the Summa.

LA: My favorite is the Summa Contra Gentiles.

LC: Yeah, the Summa Contra Gentiles might be the next place to go. That’s his second-most famous work. That’s going to be a little bit more rigorous philosophically, if you can believe it. It’s a little tougher sledding.

HH: (laughing)

LC: On the other hand, here’s another…now it can get worse than that. I will say this, Hugh, another place to go is find Aquinas’ prayers. Read Aquinas’ prayers, and get to know his spiritual life.

HH: Now that I can go for. But that sounded to me like and when you want to take on Everest without a Sherpa, throw away the oxygen and go for it. But Dr. Larry Arnn, Professor Lee Cole, thanks to you both very, very much.

End of interview.

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