Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Formation of the Catholic Mind

Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day it is today, is an enormously important figure – despite the many attempts to undo his influence on Catholic theology (either by associating him with the more pedantic end of Scholasticism and throwing him out with it, or by simply claiming to have found more ‘up to date’ ways of approaching questions of theology, philosophy and ethics) his work remains a (perhaps the) key reference point for anyone who wants to know how to do systematic theology. On top of this, one might add that he remains the ‘go-to man’ for anyone who wants to know how to do philosophy (again, this is considered to be an outdated view today, but remains true nonetheless). Quite simply, his legacy is both colossal and undeniable, as G. K. Chesterton, describing the end of Aquinas’ life in what is considered by many Thomists to be the introduction to Saint Thomas par excellence, puts beautifully:

Those men must have known that a great mind was still labouring like a great mill in the midst of them. They must have felt that, for that moment, the inside of the monastery was larger than the outside. It must have resembled the case of some mighty modern engine, shaking the ramshackle building in which it is for the moment enclosed. For truly that machine was made of the wheels of all the worlds; and revolved like that cosmos of concentric spheres which, whatever its fate in the face of changing science, must always be something of a symbol for philosophy; the depth of double and triple transparencies more mysterious than darkness; the sevenfold, the terrible crystal. In the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2009), p.91, Dover Publications.

                What Chesterton captures so marvellously well here is not only the complexity of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thought, but the unity of it – he brought the whole range of data that the world presented to him, and unified it in one great system of thought. It is with reference to this power of unification and integration which is Aquinas’ great legacy that I wish to discuss the formation of our thought, both our conscience and intellect – how it is that we enter into and are shaped by any system of thought, and moreover how the unity and consistency of the Catholic way of seeing things affords a uniquely liberating means of formation, and a potent antidote to our confused age.

Our minds are not blank slates, and they do not receive information impartially, but according to what they have already been predisposed to select from the range of data before them – we tend to admit what is consonant with what we already know, and reject things that contradict it. We do not operate according to reason alone, but our reason is directed by our will, which is itself shaped by a sense of what is fitting or conducive to the way we have come to see the world. Saint Thomas explains thus in the Summa Theologiae thus:

Now “moral” virtue is so called from “mos” in the sense of a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action. And the other meaning of “mos,” i.e. “custom,” is akin to this: because custom becomes a second nature, and produces an inclination similar to a natural one. But it is evident that inclination to an action belongs properly to the appetitive power, whose function it is to move all the powers to their acts, as explained above (Question [9], Article [1]. Therefore not every virtue is a moral virtue, but only those that are in the appetitive faculty…

…the appetitive faculty obeys the reason, not blindly, but with a certain power of opposition; wherefore the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3) that “reason commands the appetitive faculty by a politic power,” whereby a man rules over subjects that are free, having a certain right of opposition. Hence Augustine says on Ps. 118 (Serm. 8) that “sometimes we understand [what is right] while desire is slow, or follows not at all,” in so far as the habits or passions of the appetitive faculty cause the use of reason to be impeded in some particular action. And in this way, there is some truth in the saying of Socrates that so long as a man is in possession of knowledge he does not sin: provided, however, that this knowledge is made to include the use of reason in this individual act of choice.

   Accordingly for a man to do a good deed, it is requisite not only that his reason be well disposed by means of a habit of intellectual virtue; but also that his appetite be well disposed by means of a habit of moral virtue. And so moral differs from intellectual virtue, even as the appetite differs from the reason. Hence just as the appetite is the principle of human acts, in so far as it partakes of reason, so are moral habits to be considered virtues in so far as they are in conformity with reason.

Summa Theologiae, I-II, 58, 1-2.

                Saint Thomas is making two key points here – firstly, that whilst our intellect is involved in the act of apprehending the range of data presented to us, it is our appetites or desires (i.e.; the will) that moves the intellect to accept such things or not; and secondly, that therefore to become truly wise we must not only form our intellects in right understanding, but form our moral life in terms of right action and intention, for if we lack the latter, our progress in the former will be hindered. I.e.; if we do not want the Good and the True because of a disordered conscience, it will be a lot harder for us to allow our intellects to accept them. This is particularly true when it pertains to articles of faith, in which the object of our assent is not manifest before us:

Sometimes, however, the understanding can be determined to one side of a contradictory proposition neither immediately through the definitions of the terms, as is the case with principles, nor yet in virtue of principles, as is the case with conclusions from a demonstration. And in this situation our understanding is determined by the will, which chooses to assent to one side definitely and precisely because of something which is enough to move the will, though not enough to move the understanding, namely, since it seems good or fitting to assent to this side. And this is the state of one who believes. This may happen when someone believes what another says because it seems fitting or useful to do so…

…in faith, the assent and the discursive thought are more or less parallel. For the assent is not caused by the thought, but by the will, as has just been said. However, since the understanding does not in this way have its action terminated at one thing so that it is conducted to its proper term, which is the sight of some intelligible object, it follows that its movement is not yet brought to rest. Rather, it still thinks discursively and inquires about the things which it believes, even though its assent to them is unwavering.

De Veritate, 14, 1.

                Now, whilst Saint Thomas is discussing faith and assent (his writings on which bear some striking similarities to that of Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent) in a Christian context, as with everything Aquinas wrote he does so by addressing the fundamental nature of belief, knowledge, intellect, will, etc, so that his investigations are applicable to any case wherein assent is placed in an object or concept that cannot be verified empirically – thus his findings are as applicable to Catholicism as they are to atheism. What we must conclude therefore is that all thought is conditioned by moral and intellectual custom, and so, contrary to the claims of some secularists, it is never possible to educate children in an ideological vacuum. People’s minds will be formed according to some way of seeing the world, and we all (whether we like to admit it or not) take a great deal that is foundational to our worldview on faith. There is no neutral ground here, and the real question is, which worldview is it best to be formed in?

Basically, whilst we may like to think that we can discern everything from the right way to tie our shoelaces to the meaning of life itself by ourselves, and can do so purely according to the lights of our reason, the reality is that we learn most of the things we know on authority – from parents, teachers, respected friends and books. What we receive from these sources will form our approach to learning in the future, and limit the kinds of things our appetite will present to our intellect for retention and absorption. What then, is the best worldview to imbibe; what is the system of thought that provides the most expansive, enriching and humanising vision of life? Clearly Saint Thomas Aquinas would advocate the Catholic worldview as meeting the brief, but given there is not the space to lay out a full apologetic for the Catholic Faith here, what is the most essential reason why one should be formed in such a worldview?

As an aside, I should note that the recognition of the role of custom in receiving and filtering information does not entail relativism. All Saint Thomas is acknowledging here is that the notion of a naked, autonomous self, collecting and assessing data impartially without being affecting by cultural context or personal history is an illusion. There is such a thing as objective truth, and we could not get off the ground thinking about things sensibly if there were not; but similarly, we could not have a fully functioning and fully flourishing culture (intellectual or otherwise) if we refused to listen to or acknowledge the role that other people and existing ideas play in our development. Given that this is the case though, what is it about Catholicism that makes it the most compelling candidate for a worldview through which to form one’s intellectual and moral life?

An answer to this question itself depends upon what value we put on knowing the truth, and whether or not we truly believe that truth is liberating or that virtue provides real freedom. If we do believe such things (as all cultures prior to our own to some extent have), then we will want to form ourselves and our children in a context that does not misdirect the intellect or lead the will away from the good things in life. This is particularly the case in our present cultural context, where, as Eric Voegelin wrote some sixty-three years ago:

We live in the world of the dialogue, where the recognition of the structure of reality, the cultivation of the virtues of sophia and prudentia, the discipline of the intellect and the development of theoretical culture and the life of spirit are stigmatised in public as reactionary, while disregard for the structure of reality, ignorance of facts, fallacious misconstruction and falsification of history, irresponsible opining on the basis of sincere conviction, philosophical illiteracy, spiritual dullness, and agnostic sophistication are considered the virtues of man, and their possession opens the road to public success.

The New Science of Politics (1952), p.178, University of Chicago Press.

                The situation described by Voegelin has since become not only more extreme, but more widespread and more deeply entrenched in our culture. For anybody disconcerted by such a turn of events, Catholicism represents the only really viable alternative in terms of a permanent philosophy that continually engages with changing circumstance but that has the means by which it can discern and authoritatively define what is or isn’t a desirable development. Furthermore, it is not simply a philosophy, and very much not an ideology – it really is, as Chesterton wrote of the mind of Saint Thomas Aquinas, something that proclaims a ‘a just and intelligible order of all earthly things’; the Catholic Church presents a holistic worldview that integrates its theology with its anthropology, its anthropology with its social vision and aesthetic sense, and these back with its theology again.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church presents itself as something divine as well as human – it has the guarantee of being guided by the Holy Spirit. To return to Aquinas’ discussion of the act of faith in De Veritate, the will desires its object when ‘it seems good or fitting to assent’ – when the will is presented with what seems, through investigation and assessment, to be infallibly guaranteed, one can rest in what the Church proclaims with a great deal of assurance – the nature of the object secures the strong assent. If we are convinced that the Church is the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15) and that the Spirit continues to guide her into all truth (c.f.; John 16:12-15) then we are highly justified in assenting to her authority. It is this guarantee of divine guidance that warrants a firm assent and sets the Church apart from other mere philosophies or sources of knowledge.

If one is convinced by the claims of the Church in this regard then, it seems clear that the only sensible thing to do is to ensure all under our care (children in particular) are formed within its folds, in order that they may better receive the breadth and richness of its teaching and so be better equipped to live a life of virtue and intellectual clarity in an age that values neither. We cannot leave the situation to sort itself out, so to speak – if we do not educate our children in the Faith, and do not continue to immerse ourselves in it, that our intellect and will are led to habitually gravitate towards the Good and the True (i.e.; towards God) then the surrounding culture will fill the gap we leave; and it is not a neutral culture, particularly where religion is concerned. Catholicism offers a worldview that is rich, consistent, inclusive and all-encompassing – rightly is Saint Thomas Aquinas considered to be its universal Doctor, as his capacious mind mirrors its expansive and generous vision, and his love of truth reflects the Spirit of Truth who resides at its heart.


11 thoughts on “Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Formation of the Catholic Mind

  1. “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church”, Bl. Pope St. John Paul II said to Ven. Fulton Sheen.
    These words could also have been directed to St. Thomas Aquinas of course, and G.K. Chesterton… and (with the hope I am not embarrassing you 😉 ) they could equally well be applied to you, Michael!

    This is a brilliant piece of Catholic apologetics that has straightened out a lot of things for me – thank you so much.

    • Thank you Kathleen, and apologies for the delayed reply – I have been away from home the past few days, so have had limited access to the internet. It is very kind of you to apply those words of John Paul II to myself, but yes, I must admit to being a little embarassed too! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post though, and found it useful.

      • Sorry… it wasn’t my intention to embarrass you, as I know you know! 🙂

        I always used to think St. Thomas Aquinas was, on the whole, a bit heavy-going (being neither a theologian nor a philosopher myself), but you manage to make even this great man’s momentous thoughts and teachings accessible to the ordinary Catholic like me.

        Hope you enjoyed your few days away. 🙂

        • Yes, I know 🙂 and I did have a good few days away, thank you. As for Saint Thomas, I would suggest as a basic rule of thumb that if anyone says they DON’T find him heavy-going (or at least didn’t find him so initially) then they are probably either not being wholly truthful, or they haven’t understood him as well as they think they have!

          I certainly still, despite being able to follow him with a bit more ease than I used to, still find him a bit hard, but this is only because he is so rigorous – he leaves no stone unturned, and I think he will continue to be THE standard by which we judge Catholic theology for a good while longer, if not for ever. Anyway, I thank you again for your kind words re my presentation of his thought, and I am very glad that what I wrote made him more accessible – a great tribute, thank you 🙂

          • You certainly did (make him more accessible), and I should thank you for that!

            It’s very interesting to me that you believe St. Thomas A. will be “the standard” that all future Catholic theology will be judged… and I’m also delighted to hear it, knowing as we do that he is so solidly reliable and traditional. On that score I have a long story to tell you (that I won’t bore you with now) but that in a nutshell led me realise that those who scorn and discard this giant of Catholic orthodoxy as being outdated, are those who are most likely dancing with Modernism and all its shenanigans! 😉

            • I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions here! I have a book called ‘Understanding Veritatis Splendor’ that contains John Paul’s encyclical alongside a series of essays examining it from different angles. The people arguing against his perspective (which is fundamentally Thomist, and thus supportive of traditional Catholic moral theology) to a man seem to be motivated by a desire to do away with ordinary teaching on things like sexual ethics, and their criticisms of Saint John Paul/Saint Thomas are guided by that, which leads to a rather skewed approach wherein their theology is guided by their sociological alignment rather than the other way around – the very essence of Modernism!

              Thankfully the essays are divided about fifty-fifty, and so you get a chance to see just how woeful this approach is compared to the rigorous, carefully argued positions of John Paul’s supporters (and of John Paul himself of course). In one instance, a critic of the encyclical pretty much resorted to saying that its approach was just ‘out of date’ as if that were the end of the story – no real argument required! On this note, you may find the following article interesting (and encouraging, to a certain extent):


              One more thing before I sign off, I should say (forgot to do so earlier) that I hope I haven’t given the impression I am anything of an expert on Saint Thomas Aquinas, or even super-familiar with his writings first hand. I myself am just as indebted to a wide range of writers who have made him accessible for me – I don’t think I would ever have been able to tackle him first hand, and there are still reams of his work that I haven’t plucked up the courage to read! 🙂

              • Fascinating, everything you say here – thank you Michael – and I shall look into the link you give.

                Don’t worry about not being “an expert” on St. Thomas Aquinas… very few people would ever dare say they were! 😉 All the same, you have clearly grasped the godly mindset of the great saint, and that in itself is a very worthy achievement. (In my limited and only basic knowledge of Thomism, I would be quite unable to write a post about him.) There’s plenty of time for you to dig in deeper in the coming years… and then hopefully to come back to J2E to give us further [more accessible-to-read] installments. 🙂

                • Very well said Kathleen – and I certainly hope that in time I will be able to dig deeper into Saint Thomas’ works; there is certainly a lifetime’s work to be investigated therein, and then some!

                  Thank you again for your very kind words 🙂

  2. Pingback: C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training | Journey Towards Easter

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