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Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Lee Cole Continue Their Study of Thomas Aquinas

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HH: It’s the last hour of the radio week. That means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of his colleagues on the Hillsdale faculty. Last week and this week, and who knows for how many weeks into the future, Lee Cole is that colleague. Professor Cole in his third year of teaching philosophy at Hillsdale College, he graduated from the college in 2004. He got his Masters from Villanova University in 2007, working on his dissertation still on Thomas Aquinas, and a very highly-rated professor at, even though he teaches primarily Aquinas and many other things, of course, at Hillsdale. Last week, we began on the Dumb Ox, St. Thomas Aquinas, and I got through four lines of the 13th Century timeline that Professor Cole provided to me, since I am myself a little bit slow. So I’m going to pick up the pace this week and try at least to get us to the Suma. Dr. Arnn and Professor Cole, let’s pick up where I left off. We were talking about the re-importation of Aristotle via the Islamic world into the West. And the Roman Catholic Church is sort of reorganizing in the early 13th Century, around 1215. What is going on at the same time the Magna Carts’s being written by the British nobles, Professor Cole?

LC: Well, I think as we said last time, what we have is the emergence of the university in the Middle Ages, and we also have an interesting movement called the rise of the Mendicant orders, which is really one of the most formative movements in the whole of the medieval period. So there are certain demographic shifts going on in this time. More people are moving to towns. And the Church is kind of in a position in which they’re ill-equipped to meet the needs of the people. So you have this kind of dichotomy between the monastic life, so religious that are going off to live in a monastery, monks, and this has been going on since the early centuries of the Church. So think here someone like the Benedictines. And then you have the secular clergy, which are more tied to the local people and the local government. And there’s this groundswell of religious fervor in the early 13th Century in which people are trying to reimagine the religious life in a new way.

HH: Now what’s a Mendicant order?

LC: Okay, so, good. So a Mendicant order is a religious order. So we have a group of men coming together, and eventually women, too, in the form of nuns, who want to live in community, and they want to be joined to this group like the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Augustinians, that sort of, so the speak, international, but they want to speak to people in the towns. They want to go to the towns, and they want to preach, and they want to teach. So what we have here is a kind of synthesis of the normal role, I guess, of the priest or the preacher, and also this kind of monastic life of community. And they’re trying to do both of those, bring them together. And this is something new, and it’s considered quite radical in the way that it shakes up our normal way of thinking about the religious life and the relationship between Church and state. And suddenly, in the twelve teens, twelve twenties, you have a handful of religious orders that we all now take for granted – the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, that are all being formed in these couple of decades.

HH: Now this is, to me, fascinating, and I’m sure a lot of the audience who are not Catholic will also find interesting. Why all the variety? And Dr. Arnn, I’ve got to ask you first. Has Hillsdale ever produced a Jesuit or a Franciscan or a Dominican or anything?

LA: Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah, we have, and they, sometimes the Jesuits come back and try to burn the rest of us.

HH: And so, that is not unusual even to this day for these orders…I was trained by Franciscans, third order regular, in my high school. And now in my parish, we have Norbertines and Jesuits showing, I mean, they’re all over the place. But why, and maybe this is a Professor Cole…

LA: Well…

HH: Oh, go ahead.

LA: So first of all, in the Catholic culture of Hillsdale College, and Lee, are you a Catholic?

LC: Last I checked, I’m a practicing Catholic.

LA: Yeah, okay. That’s right.

LC: I’m always trying to be Catholic as much as possible.

LA: He hasn’t got any, you know, the answer to the question is he is whatever Kelly tells him he is. But, so here I am answering the question. But here’s something you notice, first of all. When we get to talking about the orders among the Catholics here at Hillsdale College, and they’re very numerous, these here Catholics, the Dominicans and the Jesuits are the ones who pride themselves on learning, right, Lee?

LC: I would single those two out, that’s right.

LA: Yeah, and so they have an attraction around here, and that means that we do produce some sometimes. We get some priests. There have been four or five that I can think of in my time here, but that means I’m probably a part, more than that, because I will have missed some. Here’s something else to emphasize a point that Lee made. The word Mendicant comes from the word for begging, right? And what that means is they…and so it starts out with it’s an economic institution. How are we going to live? And the answer is we’re going to live on the voluntary contributions of other people. And that’s going to be our relationship to the society. And of course, these orders, then, become, in a way, a product, a bloom of the society. They are supported by the faithful so that they can carry on their activity of faith. And that institution, that’s very much what Thomas Aquinas is a part of, and Thomas Aquinas’ story is a little bit like St. Francis’ story in this regard. He’s well born and his family does not approve.

HH: And that brings me back to Chesterton as we mentioned last week. Dr. Arnn send me to Chesterton, and Professor Cole sent us all to Kerr for biography. But one of the key parts of the biography, for those who haven’t read it or are just tuning in for the first time, is that Aquinas follows sequentially from Francis, and they could not be more different physiologically or their approach to their faith. But they’re back to back. They’re bookends over fifty years.

LC: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, Chesterton, on the one hand, wants to juxtapose the two. So Francis is this fiery romantic who’s exuberant, and does all sorts of things that as a Thomist, I can’t really relate to. And Aquinas is just sort of taciturn and much more thoughtful and much more quiet, this deep thinker. But Chesterton’s deeper point is that both of them have a kind of common goal and kind of purpose. So last week, you talked about them providing a kind of antidote to their culture. And really, both of them emphasize the importance of incarnation. So what they are trying to do is remind the Christians of their time that their God is a God who creates, who wills that the world exists as something good, and who saves the world precisely through taking on flesh, by in a sense reconfirming this original act of creation. And so the world is not something to escape from in a kind of spiritualist way, it’s a real, it’s something to be loved as a good, even if not as great of a good as God. And it’s something really to reflect upon, and Aquinas is as good as anyone to really consider the nature of the natural world, the nature of ourselves as human beings and as moral agents and so on.

HH: Now Aquinas is born in 1225. A decade earlier, the Dominican order is founded by St. Dominic in Spain, and this is going to jar some people. It was founded to convert Muslims and Jews and put an end to heresy. And that, of course, is about as politically incorrect as we can get today. But the Dominicans have that brand, right? They were always the inquisitors.

LC: Right, well, that’s what associated with them. I do think they did carry, as a preaching and teaching order, they did carry out a special task of being in dialogue with not only Christian heretics, but also people of different faith traditions, although I think it’s a little bit unfair that they were sort of chartered, so to speak, simply to put down heresy. I think it’s more fair to say that the Dominicans were founded around a kind of carism or vocation of preaching and teaching in urban areas. They were intellectuals, and they were really providing intellectual formation that had been lacking and become kind of haphazard in the Church at the time. And I would see the work with heretics and so on as a sort of secondary to that. So they were called upon, much like the Jesuits would be hundreds of years last, simply in many ways because they were the most educated people, and they were the ones most equipped to adjudicate these matters.

HH: Now why do we keep getting, this is off the subject a little bit, but I try and anticipate what the audience…why are there always new orders? Opus Dei is a relatively new order. There are always new orders. Why do they spring up?

LC: Right, so of course, what someone like a Dominic would say is he sprung up because he was called by God. So what I would say is that there emerge certain very charismatic figures who have an intense devotion to the Christian life, and attempting to fill in something that’s lacking. And there’s something about, I mean, to use the image of sort of let a million flowers bloom, each human being is sort of unique and has something unique to offer as a way of reflecting what it means to be, in this case, Christ-like. And what happens is these people end up having followers who together with a Dominic or a Francis are trying to serve the poor and trying to renew the Christian spirit. In a way, the Church, if there’s sufficient interest and these seem like a real sort of force for the good and a renewal in Christianity, the Church, in a way, allowing these orders to emerge is just kind of a blessing that they’re doing good things. It’s not meant to divide the Church. It’s to recognize, to use a kind of Pauline image that there are many different gifts that we have to offer within the body of the Church.

HH: We’ll talk about the gifts that came in the person of Aquinas when we come back.

— – – – –

HH: Now Professor Cole, it becomes rather extraordinary, Thomas’ life, immediately. I said he was born in 1225, but at the age of five, he begins his studies. And we learn from his biographers these are serious studies. He is a prodigy.

LC: He really is, and I always emphasize this with my students. Aquinas is, brilliant as he is, is a great beneficiary of fortune or providence, or whatever you’d like to call it. So he’s born in 1225 to a kind of aristocratic family, and lo and behold he grows up miles away from Monte Cassino, which is the Benedictine Abbey founded by St. Benedict in the early 6th Century, it’s the oldest abbey in Europe today as far as I know, and he’s sent off at the age of five to study in this very ancient monastery and is formed by the Benedictines in the liberal arts, and especially in the reading of Scripture. So he really hits the ground running. And then as a teenager, part of this is to do with Frederick kind of invading Monte Cassino. And Thomas is sent down to Naples, and he’s beginning his university education at the age of 14 or 15 at a university that is somewhat cosmopolitan. And he’s running into Aristotelian texts, he’s reading Islamic and Jewish figures, and this is in the 1240s when had Aquinas been born 30 years earlier, he would have never had access to these texts and these locales. So that’s right, he hits the ground running. He’s a prodigy. But it’s also the case that he’s the product of fortune or providence.

HH: Larry Arnn, I interviewed last week Megan McArdle, a wonderful writer who’s got The Up Side Of Down, part of which is about how young people in the 21st Century are coddled and kept away. They’re not really coddling Thomas when they send him away at the age of five. I mean, that’s even severe by British standards.

LA: Well, yeah. And you know, it’s worth drawing a picture of him at this time. He’s already getting heavy. And Chesterton writes a brilliant essay that’s a partner to the Dumb Ox one about St. Francis. And he contrasts these two guys. And St. Francis is a nervous twit, and he’s always jerking around, and he’s always active, and he’s lean, and he looks like his metabolism is going 900 miles an hour. And Thomas is this large man who’s slow to speak and shy. And he just sits there, right? And that’s where he gets the name, and he gets it early in his education, the Dumb Ox. And then when he does say something, or he writes something, it’s staggering to people. And that’s the way he has his effect. He could preach, and he did that and famously, but the big thing was people encountered a large man who sat and listened attentively. And if you want to understand, it’s on the second page, I think, of this Chesterton book. Understand what he valued. He’s asked a question what’s my great blessing, your great blessing, and he replies I have understood every page that I have ever read.

HH: Isn’t that remarkable?

LA: Isn’t it? Yeah. And you know, by the way, have you?

HH: No.

LA: Because I would like to do that, you know?

HH: I would like to go one for forty, actually.

LA: Yeah, it’s really, you know, really great. And that means that there’s this remarkable kid in a remarkable place soon to be extremely famous soon. And he, you know, he’s just this quiet, little guy, big guy right now.

LC: Yeah, Hugh, and if I could underscore that and connect it back to the earlier conversation, what’s remarkable, though, is that Aquinas is this shy, taciturn, big guy who’s slow to speak. And yet he joins the Dominican order. He encounters the Dominicans when he’s at Naples when he’s 18 years old, and we think of Aquinas as this contemplative who wants to go off and think and write and not be disturbed. Well, that’s precisely what his family envisioned that he would do. He would be a Benedictine, he would be close at hand at the local monastery, Monte Cassino, and Aquinas decides he wants to do something very different, and very different means sign up with a radical new religious order who lives in a very austere way. And it’s not even clear that they’re going to be around for another ten years. And it’s that life of austerity, that life of preaching to the people that really captures Aquinas’ imagination, which I think forces us to reimagine who Aquinas is as a person, that he’s willing to see this. He sees this as his distinct vocation rather than a life of contemplation and a kind of ivory tower…

HH: And when we say big, we mean big. And Chesterton talks about the size of his head quite a lot. It’s an enormous man. He’s not just well built, he’s enormous.

LC: He is. And Aquinas would say that we do use our brains to think, so maybe he did need a big brain. But it’s also the case, too, Chesterton’s such a lover of, I mean, he’s a lover of food and drink and so on, and I think in some ways, Chesterton sees some of his own qualities in Aquinas, whereas even though Aquinas was a big guy, a lot of that was really just genetic, that his brothers testified that he was so caught up in his studies and writing all the time that he needed a personal secretary to remind him to eat, or we would get sick, because he would just go days and days without eating. So Aquinas was not this person of festivity or this glutton or something like that.

HH: Now before the break, tell us about Albert the Great who figures in here. We have two minutes to the break, dramatically, Albert the Great, people are probably thinking cigars.

LA: So I’ll start about that and then ask Lee a question, because first of all, Aquinas gets this teacher, Albert Magnus, Albert the Great, and this teacher leaves an incredibly large and rich discussion and interpretation and commentary on Aristotle. And it’s magnificent. It’s a huge thing. And so he goes and studies with this older and well-established and great guy, and the question that has to be answered, and Lee is going to answer it after the break is, why would Aquinas become the famous one? Why would he be canonized through what, four centuries before Albert the Great? Why did he eclipse his teacher, because his teacher was awesome and doing the same kind of thing?

LC: Right, now and this is a continuation of how blessed Aquinas was in his education, again, this sort of prodigy, but one who had the best of teachers. So just to think back, Aristotle had only been in circulation for fifty years, and Aquinas is studying under perhaps the first person, one of the first people to really have a kind of mastery of Aristotle in the West again. And what we see are something remarkable. We have this incredibly challenging figure, Aristotle, and I tell my students all the time, imagine having to read Aristotle without a teacher and figure out what he was saying. And what we have in Albert and Aquinas is in two generations, we arrive at Aquinas, and we have in Aquinas a reader of Aristotle who is not surpassed by anyone else in history, even to today. Now there are varying interpretations of Aristotle, but Aquinas is one of the great interpreters or Aristotle, and we have that in just decades after Aristotle’s reintroduced, which suggests how brilliant Albert and Aquinas really were.

— – – – – –

HH: Professor Cole, the Dominicans order you around. They send you places. They give you marching orders, something Hillsdale really can’t do once their graduates graduate?

LA: What are you talking about?

LC: I’m back here, right?

LA: You think it was an accident that Lee Cole gave up Husserl to study Thomas Aquinas?

HH: And that you brought him back after a few years in Villanova. He’s back at Hillsdale.

LC: Yeah.

HH: But they sent him first to Paris so he can go with Albert the Great. Is there a thread here that they recognize what they’ve got, and they’re going to just, iron sharpening iron, send him away?

LC: Yeah, I think Hugh, that’s exactly what’s going on here. They realize even though Aquinas is soft-spoken, it becomes clear early on that they have a really gifted thinker here. If you’re going to take someone at the age of 18 or 19 and then send them off to Paris, and Paris is the flower of the universities, so that’s the most cosmopolitan and advanced university at the time in the middle of the 13th Century. And Aquinas is working directly with Albert the Great, so this is, for all those people trying, students trying to get into grad school, this is like getting into the best grad school with the expert in your field. And Aquinas really sort of sits at Albert’s knee and learns from him in Paris, and they also go to Cologne. Albert’s kind of a native German. And Aquinas assists him. And I think Albert realizes that Aquinas is going to even surpass him. In fact, there’s this famous quotation from Albert, which may be the product of legend, but Albert says when Thomas Aquinas’ colleagues are kind of poking fun at him and calling him the Dumb Ox, Albert interjects and says you know, you call him the Dumb Ox, but one day, this ox will bellow so loudly that his teachings will be heard throughout the world. So that, you see even in Albert a sense that Aquinas will become something great. And Aquinas actually dies before Albert does, and Albert, it becomes a kind of mission of Albert to defend Aquinas’ work.

HH: So give us the arc of his work. He begins in 1252. He writes commentaries on the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and he ends, I don’t know, millions of words later.

LC: Yeah.

HH: The Summa is itself what, a million, eight hundred thousand words long? Am I right about that?

LC: Yeah, just under two million.

HH: Under two million words.

LC: 1.8.

HH: And that’s just one book.

LC: That’s right.

HH: So how prodigious is his output?

LC: It’s astonishingly prodigious. So just to put this into focus, Aquinas dies as a relatively young man. He doesn’t make it to 50. He’s probably about 49 when he dies. He actually for the most part stopped writing the last few months of his life. And so what we really have here is a scholarly career of about 20 years, a little over 20 years. And in that time, we have a total production of between eight and nine million words. Well, what exactly does that look like?

HH: Geez.

LC: Well, it looks like this. So Plato, you can get the complete works of Plato. That’s about 500,000 words. You can get the complete works of Aristotle. Now some of Aristotle’s works have been lost, but that’s about a million words. Augustine is perhaps the most prodigious person of late antiquity, and he was a great rhetorician. Talking came very naturally to Augustine. And Augustine wrote over 5 million words. So what we have in Aquinas is Augustine, Aristotle, Plato all summed together and then some, all done in a life that was shorter than any of those three figure. So it’s just mind blowing. And he’s not writing pulp novels, either.

HH: Well, what did the Dominicans do with this output? I’m fascinated by the practicality of the parchment, the ink and the storage of this. What do they do with it?

LC: Well, it’s clear, to supplement what I just said, it’s clear when you speak of parchment and ink, Aquinas was working with a number of secretaries, right? He kind of had a kind of war room, and he was dictating multiple works to multiple secretaries almost kind of simultaneously, just giving them direction and outline and they’re writing it down. Now he’s doing some of the writing himself. We actually have manuscripts with his handwriting, which is completely unintelligible. There are probably less than ten people in the whole world that can read his handwriting. And I’m not exaggerating.

HH: I’m glad to hear that.

LC: It’s probably less than five, actually.

LA: There are only two who can read Neville Chamberlain’s, just as an aside.

HH: Well, this is, a minute to the break, Larry Arnn, this is reminiscent. We spent many weeks last year on Churchill, striding about dictating to people.

LA: Yeah, well, you know, the Summa Theologica, we are going to talk a lot about that, and there are many, many passages, because the form of these queries is he raises a question, and then he raises several positions and objections to the principles. And he gets towards the end, and he says and I say. And you know, you can hear him saying that, right? And he writes that he says very often that. And so it’s an enormous operation, and they, this very large man is being sustained by an order that is devoted to him.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, as you go back and forth, there’s plenty of read to be doing here, but he is sent sort of as a special agent. Wherever there is controversy, the Dominicans send off Thomas to kind of solve it, think through it. He moves around quite a lot. This century is not a dark and terrible time. It’s a time of great intellectual combat.

LA: Yeah, and you know, think about today. Today, there’s this incredible orthodoxy. And Chesterton says at the beginning of the Dumb Ox, it’s kind of an answer to a question you asked earlier of Lee, Hugh. You said why do these orders spring up? Why are there revivals and interest of people like there is in Aquinas in modern times? And the answer is he provides and answer to something. He’s a man with a whole lot of reasons. And what the president of the University of Iowa said, the faux pas she committed was to pretend that there are reasons for anything, because we think today, and actually try to enforce now increasingly, that having a reason for something is an interference with one’s freedom. Well, we’re back here in the 13th Century, and this brilliant human being thought to be as smart as anybody ever saw, is sent around to reason with people and get things right. And that’s not a strict or narrow orthodoxy. That’s a quest for the truth.

HH: Now Professor Cole, you recommended the biography by Fergus Kerr. We’ve already mentioned the Chesterton book, which is you’ve got to love and luxuriate in Chesterton. You’re not going to zip through it like you might with Fergus Kerr, and I hope to have that read by next week. But assuming someone has done either or both of those things, we’re going to pick up with the Summa next week. How do you tell you students, how do you, you know, we were given in Gov. 106A by Harvey Mansfield a tiny, little book of excerpts, just a tiny, little book of excerpts for a couple of weeks of lecture. How do you do this?

LC: Right, well, I have the luxury here, actually, of often getting to offer a class exclusively on Aquinas, and really just one particular issue in Aquinas. So I’ll teach a class on Aquinas on God. And what we do is we have the great fortune of sitting down and just really reading a couple hundred pages of Aquinas together throughout the semester. And what I tell the students is one of the chief goals at the end of the semester is that they can go on, not only will they know something about what Aquinas thinks about the nature of God, but they can go off and read Aquinas on their own. This will sort of unlock their ability to do that. But there’s a way in which that’s only completely possible because we’re going through the exercise on a weekly basis of reading it together and reading it out loud. And that takes time and it takes a lot of care and attention. And that’s something that just can’t quite be duplicated outside of a liberal arts setting. And that’s of course what we do here at Hillsdale College. But that’s not, that’s also not to be discouraging. It’s not impossible to read Aquinas on your own. But it’s going to take a certain amount of effort, because there are certain terms that we’re not really familiar with anymore, which says as much about Aquinas as it does about us, actually.

HH: Do we need to even try, though? That’s the question, is do people, sure, it’s college. People go to Hillsdale to get exposed and to learn. But is it really necessary?

LC: Yeah, so the question is who’s the we here? So I would argue that it’s very necessary that somebody is reading Aquinas, and hopefully a lot of people are reading Aquinas. I don’t think it’s necessary to living a fulfilling human life that everybody has to read Aquinas. I think we’re going to find ourselves in a really bad place if those people who teach us and govern us are not taking someone like an Aquinas seriously. And I think you can’t do Christian theology in the 21st Century without taking Aquinas very seriously, even if you’re going to part ways with him, simply because as I said last week, there really is no one in the history of Christian reflection who offers a vision of the world and the human being’s place within it and our relationship to God that’s as consistent, as expansive, as deep as the vision that’s offered by Thomas Aquinas. So we abandon him as our peril, precisely because he helps us understand ourselves so well, because he really understood the human being really, really well. And you can’t but, if you really give Aquinas a shot, and I still find myself having these experiences where I’m reading Aquinas on how we will, and I think wow, I do that, and I didn’t even notice until he said that, that I do that. And how would he know that we will that way unless he didn’t think about the way he wills and the way he desires. So he wasn’t doing this kind of abstract, armchair speculation divorced from real reflection on human experience and nature.

HH: So how is it organized? If someone picks it up, what are they going to find? And how would you advise them to go about it? It’s available on Amazon for free, basically.

LC: Right.

HH: I’m not sure which translation you recommend people use.

LC: Yeah, well, actually, it’s available, there’s a website called the DHS Priory, which is the Dominican House of Studies. And they have most of Aquinas’ works translated in English in public domain translation that are available to a reader. In fact, they have even the English and the Latin side by side. And the translations they use are perfectly adequate 90% of the time.

HH: The DHS Priory?

LC: That’s right. The DHS Priory. It’s just you open it up, and it’s like a table of contents with hyperlinks to almost all of Aquinas’ works. It’s just astonishing. I’m very glad it’s 2014.

HH: And so Dr. Larry Arnn, is there ever a debate within the faculty about how much or how little of Aquinas to read?

LA: Well, there’s a debate about everything like that, because life is too short, and there are too many good things, and the human soul is not capable of grasping it all. So of course, there’s such a debate. But I want to add something to what you and Lee said a minute ago. This is actually your function in life now, Hugh Hewitt, and you were born for this and you are good at it. It turns out in an age where nihilism reigns, or bad philosophy of any kind, and produces despotism, which is what’s going on, then it is the job of philosophy to defend the truth and the freedom of people and justice. And so what Lee said is profoundly true. It’s important that some people who love their fellow man and their country, and their God, are reading Thomas Aquinas so that they can put the arguments together. And it’s not true that everybody needs to know those arguments, but it is true that everybody needs to hear them. And so that’s what you’re doing, and you’ve got a, you know, I’m doing this because of you, because you’re just nuts and you keep making me do stuff like this.

HH: And it will, I think people are going to go to The DHS Priory this week, and we will dive in next week, and they’ll be mad as hornets at Lee Cole and Larry Arnn for having them do that. But in the end, they’ll be happy. Onward and upward next week with more Aquinas – The DHS Priory. In the meantime, if you missed the first two hours on our assault on Aquinas, Mt. Aquinas, go to or

End of interview.


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