My Love/Hate Relationship with the Fourth Member of the Trinity

My Love/Hate Relationship with the Fourth Member of the Trinity March 13, 2019

Twenty-five years ago last month, I interviewed at Providence College for a tenure-track position in the philosophy department. The sky was crystal clear, but it was bitterly cold; the snowbanks were piled high. When I returned home to Memphis from the interview, I told Jeanne that I hoped I would get the job. “It seems like it would be a good fit,” I said. I was right. I’ve been remembering parts of that intense day of interviewing over the past few days.

There’s nothing more stressful than lunch with all of the members of a twenty-plus member department when it is a central part of an on-campus interview. Twenty-five years ago, that’s where I found myself. Everyone was friendly and no one was trying to be intimidating, but I knew that the supposedly “informal” conversation going on, entirely composed of “Q and A” with the Q being them and the A being me, might possibly be what caused any number of these philosophers to vote “yes” or “no” on my candidacy in a few weeks.

A nun asked “who do you consider to be the five greatest philosophers in the Western tradition?” I quickly provided the answer that my graduate student colleagues and I had agreed upon a few years earlier over several beers: “Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.” “Would you be willing to replace Hume with Aquinas?” an older gentleman in a white robe sitting to my right asked.“No,” I replied while thinking to myself “I wouldn’t even put Aquinas in my top ten.”

I am amazed that I got the job. Because at Providence College, Aquinas is treated by some as a virtual fourth member of the Trinity (perhaps a fifth member, since Mary occasionally  sneaks in as number four). This is the only college in the country that is run by the Dominican Friars (there are several run by Dominican sisters), Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar and was designated as the official philosopher of the Catholic Church by Pope Somebody-or-other at some point in time, there are dorms, classroom buildings, chapels, seminar rooms and probably bathrooms named after him on campus.

Our beautiful center for the humanities is graced with a prominent statue of a seated Thomas in a small grotto to the left of the front entrance. He is holding a book, left hand raised invitingly toward the observer, and looking pleasantly corpulent. The students call this statue “Thomas of the Shire.” I call him “the big guy,” because Thomas Aquinas was a big guy. His classmates at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century called him “The Dumb Ox,” not because he was stupid (presumably), but because he didn’t say much and was much larger in stature and girth than anyone else. Sort of like having an offensive lineman from the football team in class, if we had a football team here.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, there is an aging monk whose solitary claim to fame is that he was the one who figured out how to get Aquinas’ body out of his cell in one of the monastery towers when he died. As the story went, Tom had gotten so fat that he could not be carried down the winding stairs out of the tower (apparently he’d been having his meals delivered for a while); the enterprising monk in question figured out how to lower the very large corpse safely out of the window several stories to the ground using ropes and the labor of several fellow monastics.

As a philosopher, I’ve never been a particular fan of Aquinas’ work, largely because I’ve never been a fan of things medieval. Too obsessed with God (sort of like someone else I know), too stylized, too formal, too buried under layers of ossified tradition and dogma. But on my campus, one cannot walk very far without bumping into one of Thomas’ groupies. Aquinasians and Tom-o-philes abound—they call themselves “Thomists.”

Saint Catherine of Siena Hall houses the theology department on the second floor and the philosophy department on the first; I would guess that at least half of the fifty plus scholars housed in this building would describe themselves as Thomists of some sort. One of them just down the hall from my office who unfortunately passed away a few years ago called himself a “Thomist with a twist.” The President of the college is a Thomist philosopher. I suspect the people who work at the Dunkin’ Donuts on campus are Thomists. The hundreds of squirrels on campus are Thomists. They are everywhere.

Over twenty-five years of unavoidably breathing Thomistic air, I’ve come to realize that my general problem with the big guy is not the big guy himself—it’s what people have done with him over the past seven hundred and fifty years or so. Thomas wrote a ton of stuff—he must have done little other than write and eat—and something in his vast body of work can always be applied to whatever question is being raised or topic is being discussed. From same sex marriage, abortion, and disputes about politics to Red Sox vs. Yankees or boxers vs. briefs debates, the big guy’s opinion invariably shows up. When “Aquinas says that . . .” is introduced into the discussion in appropriately hushed and reverent tones, it is intended to be a conversation stopper. The authority on everything has spoken.

In his day, Tom was a radical, an out-of-the-box thinker who was in trouble with various authorities for most of his adult life. His thought is infused with the energy of Aristotle; Aristotelian-influenced Christian ideas and frameworks of thought were beginning to challenge long-standing doctrinal positions rooted in very different Platonic and Augustinian notions. Aristotelians such as Aquinas were perceived as troublemakers in a world in which such troublemakers often ended up burning at the stake. That such a creative rabble rouser turned into the fourth member of the Trinity is remarkable—and, in my estimation, unfortunate since putting “Saint” in front of anyone’s name tends to turn that person into something other than the flesh-and-blood human being he or she actually was.

Students on campus learn early on that dropping Aquinas’ name randomly into class discussions is a reliable way to please the professor, particularly if the professor is wearing a white robe. Accordingly, I have made a point of letting students know about my own love-hate relationship with the big guy. My ethics classes are probably some of the few ethics classes ever taught on my campus in which the big guy does not show up. I point this out to my students on the first day, suggesting that since they are required in their core curriculum to take two philosophy courses and two theology courses, as well as a four semester required Development of Western Civilization that spends several months in the medieval world, they probably will bump into the big guy at some point (more likely at several dozen points) in their career at the college.

There is one way, however, in which I use Aquinas regularly in class—as an example of how to organize one’s thoughts about any open question whatsoever. Aquinas wrote thousands of pages on just about every important philosophical or theological topic imaginable, and he organized his thinking and writing by adopting the same systematic approach to every topic. No matter what the question is—Whether the existence of God is self-evident? Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists? Whether the New York Yankees are truly the evil empire? Whether it is permissible to serve meat at the Providence College Dunkin’ Donuts on Fridays during Lent?—Aquinas approaches each article in the same way.

Objections—He begins with the best arguments he can find, supported by noted and respected sources, in favor of the position that he will ultimately disagree with. In other words, Aquinas gives the opposition the first shot, often with arguments better than the opposition itself has ever presented.

On the contrary . . . Here Aquinas presents the first statement of the position he will support (contrary to the position supported in the Objections). The “On the contrary” statement is always in the words of some source other than Aquinas, often a Church father, often Scripture itself, sometimes “The Philosopher” (Aristotle), but never Aquinas himself.

I answer that . . . This is the main body of the article, in which the big guy makes his own argument in support of the position stated in “On the contrary . . .”

Replies to objections—To finish the Article, Aquinas returns to the original Objections and responds to them individually, essentially with the attitude “That’s a good idea, but here’s why mine is better.”

A few weeks ago, when assigning the first paper of the semester in a class, I took a few minutes with the students to outline Aquinas’ method, then suggested that they write their papers “in the style of Aquinas.” No matter what position you are taking, no matter how strongly you hold that position, give the other side a fair hearing first. Your paper will not be stronger or more convincing by ignoring the other side or by reducing it to an easily dismissed straw man. Only by showing that the other side has strong arguments, then demonstrating why yours are better, will you have taken true ownership of the position you are taking.

Imagine how different political discourse would be, how more intelligent conversations in person and on line would be if everyone were required to follow the model of Aquinas. Not bad for an Italian monk with an eating disorder from the thirteenth century who didn’t even make it to age fifty. His official nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.” Those must be seriously big wings.

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