Metaphysi-WHAT, Now? Wrapping My Head Around Thomistic Metaphysics

The Lord has allowed me to write a few books on Scripture, spirituality, and apologetics; but He has also left me with a glaring weakness: I find reading St. Thomas Aquinas to be extremely difficult. His vocabulary – specifically the philosophical vocabulary he makes use of in his theology – has been a barrier for me (e.g., essence, substance, matter and form, potency, act). I know what the words mean in modern, American English; but Thomas uses them in what appears to be a completely different sense. Theologically, I have still been able to benefit from his insights; but they’ve come to me through the mediation of others (predominantly via my brilliant friend Kevin Vost, who has written a number of books on Thomas’ thought). Even so, when I return toThomas for myself, the semantic block remains.

I thought that a college course, “Philosophy for Theologians,” might help me to finally overcome this hurdle. It was taught by an eminently-gifted Dominican priest, who provided a sweeping introduction to the field. We read Ralph McInerny’s St. Thomas Aquinas and A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II’s Faith and Reason. The course agave me a better grasp upon how human beings come to know and what sets human intelligence apart from that of other animals. I was taught that the study of physics (change and movement) led Greek philosophy to the recognition of an immaterial, Uncaused Cause (God) and thus the need for metaphysics, the science of “being as being.” I also learned how relativism and the murky theology of the past century could be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s rejection of an “objective metaphysics.” Now, the scope of  the class was far too wide to go into these matters in any great depth and the assigned readings honestly didn’t do much in terms of helping me read Aquinas. At least I left, however, with a better grasp of what knowledge I lacked – metaphysics!

Afterward, I came across a couple of Fulton J. Sheen’s early works that had just been reprinted, The Philosophy of Science and God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. It seemed like a God-send, given Sheen’s talent for making complex subjects intelligible to the layman. Both were advertised as Sheen using St. Thomas to expound upon the objective basis of human knowledge. The description was accurate, but I found myself reading the young Doctor Fulton J. Sheen, just graduated from the University of Leuven and flexing his philosophical muscle, as opposed to the later television host and writer addressing working-class Americans. I made few gains in my quest to understand St. Thomas’ metaphysical underpinnings.

I had just registered for another college course when I happened upon Facebook post from the prolific and always trustworthy Mike Aquilina:

“I had the metaphysical itch when I was very young, but found most books on metaphysics unreadable…Then I met the metaphysician Michael Torre who, to teach his intro classes, had written his own textbook, which he would print out from his dot-matrix printer and reproduce for his undergrads. I read the book and was astonished….I begged Michael to send it off to a publisher. He said he’d think about it. We continued that conversation for 25 years, but now, AT LAST, THE BOOK IS IN PRINT. If you’ve always wanted to read philosophy, but always choked by page 10, you now have your book: WHAT IS: Introductory Reflections on Thomistic Metaphyscis.”

I ordered it the next day, and after just a few pages realized that it was exactly what I had been looking for. Professor Torre cuts to the chase. What is metaphysics? Aristotle said that it was the investigation of “being insofar as it is being.” Torre helpfully translates this to mean the investigation of “the most basic and fundamental principles of anything that exists.” Its goal is to arrive at “the first and ultimate cause of all things.” (Spoiler: When metaphysics is done well, such as by Aristotle and Aquinas, that cause is “God.”) Now, with such a controversial end, metaphysics must also show students, “how to defend its conclusions against skeptical attack…Hence it takes up the first principles of knowing…the possibility of knowledge and of certitude.” 

The truly beautiful thing, as Torre repeatedly demonstrates, is that metaphysics – despite the terminology – doesn’t require that you come to it with any specialized knowledge; by using our senses to take in the everyday world around us, we can use our reason to arrive at an objective knowledge of WHAT (the nature of things) IS (their existence). Much is simply making explicit what we already know. In the span of 267 pages Professor Torre led me from foundational truths all the way to arguing the existence of God from causality in the universe, and on to discussing the problem of evil. To make a long story short: I recently finished that second college course mentioned above…and I thoroughly enjoyed reading extensive portions of Thomas’ Summa Theologica as part of it! My sincere thanks to Professor Michael Torre and his WHAT IS.

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