St Thomas Aquinas: Missionary to the new Universities
Gregory Murphy OP§1 Introduction
To consider St Thomas Aquinas as a missionary or teacher in the new universities begs a larger question: why should anyone wish to study the philosophy or theology of Aquinas at all? As Anthony Kenny has put it with characteristic wit and acuity, Thomas ‘was an Italian friar of the thirteenth century, writing in low Latin encumbered with antiquated jargon, subservient to the teaching authority of the medieval church’ (Aquinas on Mind
Routledge (1993) page 1). Kenny goes on to note that the answer one gives to this question will depend on one’s conception of the nature of philosophy: ‘unlike works of science, classic works of philosophy do not date’ (ibid). Also, contemporary philosophers have more in common with their medieval predecessors than some might care to admit: most study of philosophy at the present time takes place in universities, and the university was a medieval invention, if by ‘university’ we mean a corporation of people engaged professionally in the teaching of a corpus of knowledge, handing it on to their pupils, with an agreed syllabus, agreed methods of teaching and agreed professional standards. I shall describe the origins and development of these institutions in more detail below.
In the Middle Ages the syllabus was set especially by the translation of the surviving works of Aristotle into Latin. This provided the twelfth and thirteenth-century scholars with a corpus of information about the world and humanity that was independent of, and in some places in conflict with the Christian tradition. Arguably, the main focus of Aquinas’s work was to create a synthesis between faith and reason: to show that Christian Revelation was compatible with the new way of thinking about the world. And in his success in that endeavour lies his continuing importance as an exemplar, as instanced by Pope John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio ‘not only because of the things contained in his teaching but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish studies of his time … he argued that the light of both reason and faith comes from God and therefore there can be no conflict between them’ (Fides et Ratio
§43, citing Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles
(SCG) I.7). However, it is important to note that (in contrast to nineteenth-century neo-Scholasticism) Aquinas is not held up as having all the correct answers, but rather as a theologian whose work can be a template for those who, in our own time, are convinced that faith and reason can, and must, be held together.
One of the major difficulties in appropriating Aquinas’s thought is the sheer bulk of his output. His works were the first major corpus to be turned into machine-readable form for the purpose of constructing a computerised index and concordance. So we are in a position to say that in the less than fifty years of his life he produced 8,686,577 words (excluding works where there is any doubt about authenticity – if these are included, the total reaches some 11 million)(Kenny, op.cit., page 11). Obviously, I cannot offer a comprehensive survey of his thought here. So what I intend to do in this talk is first, to sketch the intellectual context in which Thomas worked, and then to focus on recent re-readings of the genre and purpose of one of his major works, the Summa contra Gentiles, which for long was taken to be intended for missionaries. This view is now increasingly, and, I think, convincingly contested.
The reception of Thomas’s work since the thirteenth century has been long and complex: by his immediate successors; by the generation affected by John Duns Scotus; by sixteenth-century expositors such as Suarez and Cajetan; by those like Las Casas and Vitoria who used his teaching about natural law to develop a doctrine of human rights to defend the indigenous peoples of Latin America – to mention only the salient phases of the story(for a survey of modern interpretations of Aquinas see Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism
Blackwell Publishing, 2002). Ecclesiastical interest in Thomas revived in 1879 following the influential endorsement of his thought by Pope Leo XIII. Accordingly he was neglected by professional philosophers, as he was accepted, both inside and outside the church, as the official philosopher of Roman Catholicism. Since the Second Vatican Council Aquinas’ influence on Catholic institutions has become much looser, and, by contrast his reputation in the non-Catholic world has gained from the fact that he is now no longer seen as the spokesman for a party line (Kenny, op.cit., page 13). Nor, now, does the criticism made by, for instance, Bertrand Russell seem tenable that ‘Aquinas was not a serious philosopher because he was looking for reasons for what he already believed’ – as Kenny dryly observes, ‘it is extraordinary that that criticism should be made by Russell, [who took] hundreds of pages to prove that two and two make four, which is something he had believed all his life’ (Kenny, op.cit., page 12).
Initially, recent interest had focussed on Thomas as a philosopher, although, inside and outside the church, the volume of his writings has meant that he has been read principally in epitome and anthology, which has often blunted the sharpness of his thought. Of course, Thomas did not think of himself primarily as a philosopher – he saw himself first of all as a commentator on the ‘sacred page’ of Scripture. Recent Anglophone scholarship has redressed this imbalance by paying more attention to the theological and scriptural emphases in Thomas’s writings.
Initially, my response to being asked to talk about St Thomas as a missionary was one of slight perplexity. He did cover prodigious distances in Europe mainly on foot – from Naples to Paris, Paris to Cologne, Cologne to Paris, Paris to Naples, Naples to Orvieto, Orvieto to Rome, Rome to Paris, Paris to Naples, Naples to Fossanova (and thence to glory, en route to the Council of Lyons) – to mention only the major stages. But he was not a missionary as the term is commonly understood, in the sense of preaching the gospel directly to heathens or to the Muslims, although several of his Dominican contemporaries were doing just that. In a slightly wider context, and especially with reference to the new institutions of learning – the universities – that were emerging in Christian Europe, though, I will argue that it makes very good sense to read Thomas as a missionary – as his was one of the first, and (belatedly) most influential Christian responses to the challenge of the re-appropriation of pagan learning in the form of the major works of Aristotle, up to then unavailable to the Latin West, which had been translated from Greek into Arabic via Syriac in Damascus, and which were being translated from Arabic into Latin by scholars based principally in Naples and Spain. Crudely, the issue was that while the Aristotelian corpus seemed to offer a better understanding of the world, the philosophical principles on which it was based seemed to be in conflict with well-established principles of Christian Revelation (which themselves were expressed in terms deriving from neo-Platonism, inherited from the thought, especially, of Boethius and Augustine). Before focussing on some of the issues Thomas was grappling with, and how he resolved them, I want to say something briefly about the origins and character of the ‘new’ universities.§2 The new universities
If we should talk of ‘new universities’ just now the implied context would be drawing a comparison, favourable or otherwise, with the ‘old universities’ – especially, in England, those of Oxford and Cambridge, which are roughly contemporaneous (if a little later) than the two Thomas was principally engaged with – Naples and Paris. To understand how these institutions arose I want to look briefly at two examples: Oxford and Paris. But first a little about the circumstances which gave rise to these institutions. Europe experienced a demographic surge in the first half of the 12th century as a consequence of an agricultural revolution based on the use of horse-drawn plough. This increased availability of food sustained a correspondingly greater population (and labour force) in the new towns. In turn, this resulted in a growing demand for educated officials from all branches of medieval government: kings, bishops, monasteries and all the great landowners required educated men for the conduct of their affairs. Students sought out recognised scholars (or Masters) who were usually associated with Cathedral schools, such as Orleans, Chartres, and, above all, Paris, which themselves had grown out of the monastic schools. These schools in turn coalesced into the first universities – corporations of scholars licensed by ecclesiastical and secular government.§2.1 Paris
One of the schools of Paris that existed in the monastery of St Victor just outside the city walls fostered an Augustinian tradition of philosophy strongly influenced by Plato. The purpose of learning, according to that school’s most distinguished representative, Hugh of St Victor (died 1141), was ‘wisdom’ – ‘the eternal and unchanging truths concealed by the myriad deceptions and alterations of perception’ (Anders Piltz, The World of Medieval Learning
, translated by D. Jones Blackwell (1981) pages 40-41). This and other monastic schools had reached their peak of influence by the early twelfth century. Then, as centres of learning, they were outstripped by the cathedral schools. This was due to two parallel effects of, first, the Carolingian renaissance, and then the later, associated Hildebrandine (Pope Gregory VII) ecclesiastical reforms: on the one hand, monasteries began to lessen the emphasis on (pagan) learning, focussing more on scriptural exegesis; on the other, an enhanced drive to reform the education of the clergy led to the formation of cathedral schools, and the appointment of cathedral officers (responsible to the bishop) who directed the education of the clerics associated with that church. Students from all over Europe travelled to famous masters in these schools such as Gerbert of Rheims and Fulbert and Bernard of Chartres. An outstanding example of such a student, whose autobiography gives an account of one living through this transitional period, is Peter Abelard, who could not unreasonably be claimed as Europe’s first professional academic (Abelard, Historia Calmitatum and Personal Letters
, Penguin Classics; M.Clanchy, Abelard: a Medieval Life
; H.Waddell, Peter Abelard
(this last is a brilliant novel based on Abelard’s life).
The growing fame of individual Masters led them to establish schools associated more-or-less loosely with the cathedrals (in that age, all had to be licensed by the church), pre-eminently in Paris (the arts and theology) and Bologna (canon and civil law). Eventually, we find the scholars validating each others’ progression through an evolving university system in the manner of a guild, itself a medieval innovation structuring trade in the emerging cities. The course in the Faculty of Arts was lengthy and rigorous. At Paris, it was five or six years. The first two years were spent listening to lectures and attending disputations, and the next two participating in disputations under the supervision of a master. A minority of students went on to ‘determine’ – to determine or resolve questions being disputed. At this stage, students would also lecture cursorily on assigned texts. Finally, the student could be presented for a license to incept as a master. Although this was not universally enforced, upon graduating as a Master of Arts he was required to lecture for two years on the faculty. After completing the arts course, a smaller number of highly qualified students would go on to study theology. To become a ‘Master of the Sacred Page’ required eight years in addition to the arts course: four years were spent hearing lectures on the Bible, and two on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (a thematic compilation of Scriptural and Patristic quotations). After this, if he were 25 or older, a student could petition to be made a bachelor. As a bachelor he gave cursory lectures on the Bible for two years. He then became a bachelor of, and delivered lectures on, the Sentences (John I. Jenkins, Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas
Cambridge University Press (1997) page 88). Eventually, a student could attain the highest possible qualification: that of Master in Sacred Theology (only studied at what we would term postgraduate level). As I have said, Paris drew students from all nations, who settled in districts based on nationality (the origin of the quartiers) close to Notre Dame on the left bank of the Seine. Then, as now, this would have been quite volatile – people would have started university at about 15, and riots and outbreaks of violence were commonplace. Out of these schools the university coalesced, and soon this nascent institution was also hosting the study-houses of the new religious movements sweeping thirteenth-century Europe: the friars.§2.2 Oxford
This process is perhaps more easily illustrated in the case of Oxford (although this institution was not, alas, one attended by Aquinas). Like Paris, its older and more famous cousin, the University of Oxford was not created; rather it emerged after a long period of discontinuous and fitful scholastic activity, which only gradually received the stamp of corporate identity in the first quarter of the thirteenth century (R.W.Southern, 'From Schools to University' pages 1-36 in The History of the University of Oxford: Vol 1 The Early Oxford Schools
ed J.I.Catto, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1984), at page 1). The first sign of academic activity in Oxford was the appearance of a schoolmaster who taught in the town about a century earlier. This reflected the enhanced demand for literacy from the church, due to a rapid growth in the number of parishes and religious communities; and, more effectively, the increased demand for educated men from every level of medieval governance, as mentioned above. The growth of a centre for higher studies in England was primarily governed by the ease or difficulty of access to the great schools on the continent (ibid, page 3); for while the advantage of continental schools was primarily chronological – the schools of northern France and Italy having in or about a 100-year head-start – Oxford had become increasingly important as a centre for ecclesiastical and civil courts and litigation towards the close of the reign of Henry II (ibid, pages 15-21). Slightly later, due to the increasing and unprecedented levels of violence and organisation in the wars between Richard I and Philip Augustus of France (1193-1204), scholars were unable to travel to Paris and, consequently, an enhanced and enlarged activity of the Oxford schools is documented around 1200 (ibid, page 25). But this was almost stillborn. In 1209 a student killed his mistress with a bow and fled. Spurred on by the enraged townsfolk, the mayor and officers seized and hanged two others from his lodgings. Masters and scholars scattered, upset by this affront to their juridical immunity from the savagery of the civil law, and went to Paris, Reading and Cambridge (ibid, page 26). [The community at Reading did not survive, though now even Oxford academics, under pressure, will admit that that at Cambridge did so]. Eventually, in 1214, a papal legate arranged for the bishop of Lincoln to appoint a chancellor with some kind of authority over the masters (ibid, page 29): ‘any clerk arrested by a layman was to be handed over at once on request to an officer of the bishop’ (ibid, page 30).
The chancellor as such was not, initially, an important figure – he had no stipend, and his main duty appeared to be the selection of a hundred poor scholars for a free dinner (funded by the city, as part of the legatine settlement) once a year - but his importance grew with time, as the symbol and rallying point for the corporate identity and ambitions of the body of Masters (ibid, page 33). Over time, we see these bodies asserting their independence from the Church; for example, the Masters of Paris rebelled against their Bishop in 1221, asserting their right to make regulations and seal with their own seal. Similarly, in Lincoln in 1295 the Masters of Oxford wanted to appoint their own candidate as chancellor – the bishop accepted him, but still claimed the right to appoint; however, the direct involvement of the bishop in appointments was gradually eroded (ibid, page 36). Oxford was first recognised as an institution by the crown in 1231, and gained a papal charter from Innocent IV in 1254. Paris had been recognised as a corporate entity by the Holy See in 1245 (M.B.Hackett, 'The University as a Corporate Body' pages 37-95 in The History of the University of Oxford: Vol 1 The Early Oxford Schools
ed J.I.Catto, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1984), at pp 49-50).§ 2.3 Conclusion: the Universities in medieval polities
I had hoped to illustrate three main points from this sketch of the early universities; first, they were, like the Guilds they resembled, medieval innovations arising from the growth of cities for the first time since the collapse of the western Empire; secondly, they were perceived as a valuable resource, and so under ecclesiastical control – the church in the West had, after all, ‘held the gates of learning for Europe’ (see H.Waddell, Songs of the Wandering Scholars
); third, the rulers of the nascent nation states also perceived them to be a valuable resource, in part because they would allow the formation of a cadre of literate bureaucrats seeking patronage from the monarchy rather than the church. Thus we find the Kings of France and England supporting the Universities of Paris and Oxford, respectively; and, more germane to my topic here, the Emperor Frederick II Hohenstauffen founding the University of Naples – decidedly not under papal control (D.Abulafia, Frederick II
, Pimlico (1992) pages 263-264). Unlike the Universities of Paris and Oxford, the University of Naples did not help secure the emerging nation-state in the Holy Roman Empire, as Frederick had hoped, but it played a rather more interesting role. Explicitly founded against the church monopoly of education by a Norman prince who had grown up in the multicultural Sicilian court exposed to Jewish and, especially, Islamic influence, it became one of the key centres in the transmission and translation of the Aristotelian corpus into the Latin west (S.Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers
Cambridge University Press (1958) pages 14-15; J-P.Torrell, St Thomas Aquinas vol 1: the Person and his Work
translated by R.Royal, Catholic University of America Press (1996) page 6). And Aquinas was exposed to this from the beginning.§3 Aquinas and the Universities
The struggle between Pope and Emperor is one of the great shaping narratives of the Middle Ages, and one in which Aquinas’s family was very much involved. The family seat was near Monte Cassino, pretty much on the frontier between the Emperor’s Kingdom of Sicily and the Papal states. Aquinas’s family generally supported the Emperor’s cause. As a younger son, Thomas was educated first at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. As this occupied a strategic position and was in danger of being besieged, about 1239 (aged about 15) the abbot sent him to the University of Naples. There he would have encountered Peter of Ireland, Michael Scot, and others involved in the transmission of the new learning. More significantly, it was at Naples that he first encountered the new Order of Preachers, founded by St Dominic in 1221. Against family opposition (they had expected him eventually to become the abbot of Monte Cassino rather than join a bunch of apostolic ragamuffins) he persisted in the order, and was sent first to Paris, and then to the newly-established Studium Generale founded by St Albert the Great in Cologne.§3.1 Dominican Education
The arrival of the mendicant friars (Dominicans and Franciscans) in the emerging universities helped establish the independence and status of these institutions. But it also aroused the jealousy of the secular masters, who feared competition (their wealth and status depended upon the number of students they could attract). In turn, Dominic’s decisive action in sending small groups of his friars to Paris, Bologna and Oxford changed the Order: its essential apostolate now conceived both in terms of preaching the gospel and in acquiring the formal learning to enable this to be efficiently prosecuted. Not all of the Order’s tertiary-level institutions were linked to Universities (for example, the Studium Generale at Cologne), but a significant number were, and this linkage perdures down to the present.
The primary building-blocks which comprised the Dominicans’ graduated hierarchy of schools were: the priory schools, the provincial schools, and the studia generalia. Utilitarian in form and content, the sole objective of the Dominican educational system was to provide the vast majority of the friars preachers with the theological training necessary for their day-to-day ministry. Thus, the Dominican novitiate was designed to immerse the novice in the Dominican way of life, not to educate him in grammar or the arts. Preferring to recruit among the magistri and students of the arts, the Dominicans did not, as a practice, recruit from the insufficentia. Even after the Order lowered the age of admission to 15, candidates were expected to have already acquired the basics of grammatica. Conventual priors were held responsible for the instruction of the uneducated youths whom they admitted.
Between the priory school and the studium generale the Dominicans experimented with several different types of provincial schools, such as the language schools (which taught Arabic, Hebrew and Greek) founded in Spain in the late 13th century for future Dominican missionaries. The fundamental units of province-level education were the studium artium and the studium naturalium. These combined were roughly the equivalent of the arts course at the northern universities. At the pinnacle of the Dominican educational system was the studium generale. This denoted a school that possessed one of the superior faculties or which had obtained papal or imperial recognition; possessed a permanent location, and served friars drawn from the Order as a whole rather than a specific province (summarised from E.Lowe, The Contested Theological Authority of Thomas Aquinas
Routledge (2003) pages 22-29). Aquinas’ assignment to the studia generale in Cologne and Paris thus indicates the Order’s recognition of his gifts, culminating in his election as Master of Theology in Paris, in one of the two chairs allotted to the friars. This was a highly prestigious (if fixed-term) appointment: others who had held it included Thomas’s teacher, St Albert the Great, and his Franciscan contemporary St Bonaventure. Thomas, indeed, had the rare honour of being appointed to this position twice (the only other Dominican who achieved this accolade being Meister Eckhart, a generation later).§3.2 Thomas as a Teacher
The majority of the friars, then, the fratres communes, no matter what their age or experience, are the juniors (iuniores), beginners (incipientes), and the simple (simplices) addressed in so many medieval Dominican prefaces. They are, on the whole, those who had not had the chance of higher education in the manner of Albert, Thomas, Peter of Tarentaise or other intellectual lights of the teachable (docibiles) or lector class (L.E.Boyle, 'The setting of the Summa- Revisited' pages 1-16 in S.J.Pope, (ed) The Ethics of Aquinas
, Georgetown University Press (2002) at page 2). Thomas, as far as we can tell, had his first taste of this ordinary Dominican world of fratres communes, pastoral aids and practical theology when after two years in Naples he took on the post of lector at Orvieto in autumn 1261, after spending some thirteen or fourteen years in the Studia generale at Cologne and Paris. Thomas was not unaware of the demands on lectors (supposed to be totally at the disposition of their brethren) and of the limitations of the priory schools. In June 1259, six months before he left Paris for Naples and, eventually, Orvieto, he had been, along with Albert the Great and Peter of Tarentaise, a member of a committee of five that presented a ratio studiorum for the whole Order to the general chapter at Valenciennes, north of Paris.
Boyle suggests that Thomas may have felt that the emphasis on practical theology (moral cases discussed in the training of preachers and confessors) was too narrow an approach to theology; in any event, around 1265, he seems to have been given a free hand in setting up a studium provincialis for theology in Italy, probably at Santa Sabina, in Rome. There, he was free to devise his own curriculum, focussed on his student body, and this work ‘for the instruction of beginners’ is the Summa theologiae (ST). Thomas did not, of course, ignore practical theology – indeed, the largest part, the Secunda pars specifically considers human beings and their acts. But he now gave that practical theology a setting not evident in Dominican circles before him. By prefacing the moral part with a treatise on God, Trinity and Creation, and then rounding it off with a Tertia pars on the Son of God, Incarnation and the Sacraments, Thomas put practical theology – the study of Christian life, its virtues and its vices - in a full theological context. Christian morality was shown to be more than a question of straight ethical teaching of vices and virtues in isolation. Inasmuch as the person was an intelligent being who was master of himself and possessed freedom of choice, he was in the image of God. To study human action is therefore to study the image of God, and to operate on a theological plane. To study human action on a theological plane is to study it in relation to its beginning and end, God, and to the bridge between them, Christ and his Sacraments (ibid, page 6; see also M-D Chenu’s exitus-reditus model of ST).
Boyle suggests that the audience Thomas had in mind when, with stark prose and easy, logical steps he composed ST, was young, run-of-the-mill Dominicans, and not a more sophisticated university audience: ‘my purpose’, he wrote, ‘is so to propose the things that pertain to faith that the instruction of beginners will be better served (ST I prologue). But the term ‘beginners’ can be deceptive here, and others contest this view. For Jenkins, those called beginners are not always rank beginners. He sees the presupposed contrast as between students, albeit very advanced students (the equivalent of bachelors of the Sentences), on the one hand, and Aquinas’s fellow theological Masters at Paris on the other (Jenkins (1997) pages 89-90). Similarly, for Mark D.Jordan, ST is not so much the report of Thomas’s classroom performance or his script for future teachers as it is the pattern for an ideal pedagogy, a pedagogy for middle learners in a vowed community of Christian pastors (M.D.Jordan, Rewritten Theology: Aquinas after his readers Blackwell Publishing (2006) page 120).§4 Thomas as a Missionary
§4.1 The Summa Contra Gentiles
For a long time this shorter and less famous of Thomas’s Summae was classified as a missionary manual and, indeed, included in histories of missionary activity. Recent readings, especially by Mark Jordan, persuasively argue that such interpretations of the work, and of Thomas’s motives in writing it, comprehensively misread it. But such misreading originated with the Dominicans themselves, not long after Thomas’s death. I would like to summarise the main points of Jordan’s comments on the purpose of SCG, as this illuminates both what Thomas saw as one of his main projects (judging by the length of the work), and his method of engaging with the new learning in the universities.
One early account of the origin and what we would now call genre of SCG runs as follows (here I quote from Jordan):In a narration of the deeds of James I of Aragon, as part of a reminiscence of Raymond of Peñafort, the Dominican chronicler Peter of Marsilius recounts a story about the composition of Against the Gentiles. Peter’s text was finished on April 2nd, 1313; the frame for the story of Raymond is a narrative about Christmas, 1274; and the story itself lies even further back – more than 40 years before the date of writing. At that time, Peter says, Raymond asked Thomas to compose a work ‘against the errors of the unbelievers (contra infidelium errores)’ as an aid in conversion. ‘That master did what the humble rogation (deprecatio) of such a father required; and he composed (condidit) a summa called ‘against the Gentiles,’ which is believed not to have any equal for such material (pro illa materia)’. … The story is introduced to illustrate Raymond’s zeal for conversions and to show his influence within the Order. Since the story is not repeated in the contemporary lives of Raymond or in any of the canonization proceedings for Thomas, it is presumed that Peter was relying on a local legend from the Dominican house in Barcelona, where he had worked with Raymond years before’
(Mark D.Jordan, ‘The Protreptic Structure of the Summa Contra Gentiles’ in The Thomist
50 (1986) 173-209, at pages 175-176; essentially reproduced in Jordan, Rewritten Theology: Aquinas after his Readers
(2006) Blackwell Publishing, chapter 5 pages 89-115, at pages 90-91).
What we have here, then, is a unique attestation for what seems to be a bit of local hagiography. However, Jordan argues, if we assume that the story is a luckily preserved fact rather than a pious invention, difficulties merely multiply. The first difficulty is simply to know what Peter means, especially what he intends by the phrase ‘such material (illa materia)’. What is the matter or material of SCG? Where does it fit into the well-organised Dominican missionary effort? Jordan suggests three possibilities: it is a book to be given to potential converts; it is a manual for field-training missionaries; it represents a reference work that refutes all errors of unbelievers compendiously.
Of these three readings of materia he considers only the third to have any plausibility – and then not much. As to the first, Jordan thinks Against the Gentiles cannot have been directed at potential converts, as ‘from the first line and then on every page thereafter, Thomas’s rhetoric is the rhetoric of one Christian speaking to another’ (Jordan (1986) page 176). This is evident in the use of Scriptural and magisterial quotations, in a presumption of acquaintance with Christian letters, and even in the voice of the first person plural. More precisely, Thomas argues in the prologue that the mysteries of Christian faith ought not to be presented argumentatively before non-believers for fear of making them think that faith depends only upon such weak arguments. But it is precisely these arguments that are presented as part of the plan of the fourth book (SCG I.9.3: ‘answering the objections of its adversaries and setting forth the truth of faith by probable arguments and by authorities, to the best of our ability’). How then could Thomas have intended that his book be placed into the hands of non-believers, without giving them offence and exposing the Christian faith to scandal?
Jordan thinks it no more likely that SCG was intended to train Dominican missionaries in the field. There are external and internal reasons for adopting this view. Externally, the work is an unsatisfactory missionary manual precisely by Dominican standards of the thirteenth century. The life of Raymond himself offers counter-examples. Raymond not only founded schools for Oriental studies within the Dominican order, as Peter narrates, but also figured prominently in public debates with non-Christians. In 1263, for example, Raymond helped set the rules for a debate between the Dominican Paul the Christian (a convert from Judaism) and Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona. Paul’s strategy was to argue from a detailed knowledge of rabbinical writings that the messiah had already come, that he was prophesied to be both divine and human, and that his advent had destroyed the laws and ceremonials. This same strategy of refutation from within the opposing tradition was used by Dominicans in campaigns of Jewish conversion through the 1250s and 1260s in Spain and France. They dealt similarly with the Cathars and allied heretics (Jordan (1986) pages 177-78 with references given there), and very much the same devices and emphases figure in Dominican preaching to Islam.
Internally, Thomas, in the prologue to the work (the first nine chapters of SCG I) excuses himself for not being able to deal with particular errors (SCG I.2). He is not familiar with them, nor can he proceed against all adversaries on the basis of common Scriptural authorities (I.2.3) since ‘Mohammedans and the pagans’ do not share any Scriptural authority with Christians. The second passage, in SCG I.6, contrasts the sober motives for accepting Christian revelation with the improper persuasions to various erroneous opinions, citing Mohammed ‘seducing the people by promises of carnal pleasure’ (SCG I.6.4). It is clear this description depends on no very detailed knowledge of Islam. But that is because Thomas’s source is not contemporary Dominican research, but rather the century-old Summula of Peter the Venerable. Elsewhere, in his Contra errors Graecorum, a short work written as Thomas was finishing the last book of SCG, we find Thomas being textually scrupulous within the limits of his knowledge and cautious about overstepping those limits (Jordan (1986) pages 179-81).
It seems, then, that we are reduced to the third possibility, that SCG was intended to provide a reference book of philosophical arguments against the conceptual arguments instanced by unbelievers, to be read by Christians who live in intellectual contact with them. But it is difficult to call such a general work of Christian pedagogy ‘missionary’, except in the sense in which every Christian reader is being called to conversion.
In a close analysis of the text, Jordan argues that the structure of SCG as Thomas conceives it is phrased in terms of a rhetorical or pedagogical efficacy (SCG I.9). But who is to be persuaded, and about what? The audience is not the adversary himself, nor the prospective convert. Rather, Thomas wants to show how an adversary could be convinced. However, in order to teach believers what can (what we might call natural theology) and what cannot (what we might call revelation) be demonstrated, Thomas must undertake a persuasive clarification of the truth of faith (ibid, page 190). Jordan therefore classifies the genre of SCG as ‘protreptic’: in classical writing a persuasion to the study or practice of some art or skill; for philosophical writers, an exhortation to the practice of the philosophic art, which required virtues of inquiry and contemplation (ibid,l page 192). If we recall that the ancient philosophical schools functioned in a semi-religious sense as schools of wisdom, eclipsed by Christian asceticism in the monastic movement, then the notion of SCG as an essentially rhetorical work might not seem so outlandish. Thomas’s call in this work, then, is not to conversion (it presumes baptism) but rather to progress in the practice of Christian wisdom.
One of the most obviously persuasive structures in the work is the ascent to the human good in the first 63 chapters of the third book. The argument rises from a general assertion of teleological order (1-16), through the thesis that God is the end of all and of intellectual substances particularly (17-26), to a comparison of contemplation with all other possible claims to human happiness (27-47). Thomas ends with a technical analysis of the contemplation of God in beatitude, but reminds the reader that this fulfils the philosophic longing for highest contemplation (48-63). Thomas ends his peroration by juxtaposing the Aristotelian and scriptural praises of wisdom, so that the reader might see the one perfected in the other (63). But the third book does not stop there. Thomas then turns to a long consideration of providence – precisely to assure the reader that the distant end of contemplation, which so little resembles our life here, is within the power of the ruler of this cosmos. God’s providence is not coercive; however the culmination of the treatment of providence comes in the argument for man’s need of divine grace in attaining the end already proposed (147-163).
Jordan argues that further evidence for a protreptic structure in the work is in the selection of topics treated at length: those treated extensively and most technically are those which have a direct bearing on persuasion to the highest good (ibid, pages 207-08). Consider the technical analysis of the beatific vision (III.51-60). These chapters must show that God can be contemplated directly, but only by his gift – otherwise the rest of the third book will be otiose. If there is no direct contemplation, the protreptic has no end (or the end ever recedes); if there is no need for grace, the protreptic is in no way Christian. The work, then is concerned to persuade its readers to the practice of the virtues of Christian wisdom, both acquired and infused. Now, persuasion to the practice of a virtue will be sterile unless it can offer the opportunity for its practice. It is an Aristotelian principle that the virtues, including the intellectual ones, are acquired by practice. The best Aristotelian protreptic then would not only exhort, but would engage. In this work Thomas applies in hundreds of particular arguments the principia that are the seeds of speculative virtue. This work, Jordan concludes, is at once both an introduction to wisdom, and a school for it.§4.2 Conclusion
So, was Thomas a missionary? Not in the narrow sense of the term. However, my aim in this all-too summary survey of contemporary reappraisals of his work is to try to bring out the sense in which he was engaged in a lifelong effort to hold together the truth of Christian revelation with the truth of the world, challenged by a new and deeper understanding of man and nature. And that challenge today is even more exigent – not so much from alternative philosophies, but from the dramatic increase in our understanding of the world given by the natural sciences. Some Christians, unfortunately, see this as a threat, rather than a challenge. Aquinas offers us a good paradigm of how we should respond to it.