A book that views a noted saint and theologian of the Catholic Church as–a materialist?
It may sound counterintuitive, but British born Yale professor of historical theology Denys Turner makes his case, which is why I’m picking his new biography, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait for this blog’s book of the year.
Thomas Aquinas is a figure that usually brings to mind philosophical attempts to prove the existence of God. For example, the famous ‘Five Ways’ from his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae, although he worked them out in less detail there than he did in his earlier work, the Summa Contra Gentiles.
But arguments for God’s existence were not what got Aquinas in trouble with his contemporaries. What disturbed them was his rejection of the whole concept of what today might be understood as ‘mind over matter’.
Indeed, to Aquinas, the human mind cannot be truly understood apart from matter. Turner writes,
Of course, then, to call [Aquinas] a “materialist” in today’s sense of the term would be to do an injustice to Thomas, not only because for him there is more to the world than matter, but perhaps even more because for Thomas, there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist. Less anachronistically, the chief defect of the standard forms of materialism known to him (mainly those of the later classical Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles, or, in the Latin tradition, Democritus) is not that they are bad on the subjects of mind and spirit–that criticism Thomas reserves for the Platonizing Christians of his day. Thomas’s criticism of the materialists of whom he had knowledge was that they were simply not very good on the subject of matter. [p. 52]
In a sense, Aquinas’s whole philosophy and theology revolved around the idea that matter has a life of its own. It does not need to be guided by external forces, but relies instead on its own inner principle, or ‘form’ to use the medieval understanding. This was an idea he inherited from his reading of the then freshly translated works of Aristotle, which European scholars eagerly imported from Andalusian Spain and also from Sicily, where ambitious translation movements were underway.
The ‘Platonizing Christians’ of his day were not amused. Indeed, shortly after his death, his work was attacked by bishops who were alarmed by his insistence that talk about forms independent of matter was useless.
For Thomas the conception of matter actually existent but without shape, form, or meaning is nonsensical. As one might put it, for Thomas it is precisely in matter that meaning principally and in the first instance shines forth. And it was in that belief that his theological enemies across the board identified his “materialism,” as if Thomas were playing their game only on the opposing team–as if, that is to say, Thomas played off matter against spirit in the same way that opponents played off spirit against matter. [p. 97]
In a sense, the same game continues to this day, as readers familiar with the current debates about consciousness know.
But I would recommend Turner’s book for anyone curious about the Mr. Spock of the Middle Ages. In other biographies and treatments, Aquinas too often comes across as something of a cipher, lost behind the staid, plodding arguments and theses that he put forth in an enormous literary output over the course of a short life.
Turner briefly but concretely fleshes him out in the full context of his age, with all of its paradoxes and contradictions.