The Relevance of St. Thomas Aquinas in Today’s World

In the Preface to the 1958 edition of St. Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain states that his presentation is not of a medieval Thomism, but of a lasting and present Thomism.”   Such a presentation, however, goes against the grain of today’s intellectual climate in which progress, and all that it implies, is taken for granted.  Can ideas have lasting power?  Can something that was said in the 13th century be relevant in the year 2024?

Built-in obsolescence belongs to the world of technology but not to the world of art.  John Keats recognized the durability of art when he declared that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”  The works of Plato and Aristotle, Bach and Beethoven, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Dante have retained their eternal freshness.  Whatever is up-to-date is quickly out-of-date.   But it is the glory of the human mind that it can create forms that intimate the eternal.  “I am not trying to include the past in the present,” Maritain writes, “but to maintain in the now the presence of the eternal.”

Thomism holds that we should employ reason in order to distinguish the true from the false.  By contrast, it is quite common in the modern world to award this important function to popularity, opinion polls, or practicality.  Reason, therefore, in the search of truth, is a value that is currently either ignored or rejected.  Like Pontius Pilate, contemporary skeptics ask, “What is Truth”?  Maritain disdains to place the wisdom of St. Thomas on a political spectrum:  “Thomism is neither of the right nor of the left; it is not situated in space, but in the spirit.”  It is the truth that will make us free.

At the hearing on the case for the canonization of Saint Thomas (August 8, 1319), Friar Giacomo di Viterbo, Archbishop of Naples believed that God had dispatched three doctors to illuminate the world and the universal Church, “first the apostle Paul, then Augustine, and finally Friar Thomas whom no one would surpass till the end of the world”.  This, of course, is viewing St. Thomas from on high.  But it must be remembered that Aquinas’ philosophy is essentially built from the ground up.  For the Angelic Doctor, all knowledge begins in the senses.  His philosophy, therefore, accords with common sense which places all human beings at the doorstep of philosophy.

G. K. Chesterton stresses, in his remarkable book, St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Aquinas is almost always on the side of simplicity, and supports the ordinary man’s acceptance of ordinary truisms.”  Aquinas is confident that the ordinary man can grasp the external object and does not remain in a quandary about whether what he sees is real or not real.  In this light shines the basis for democracy and the notion that all men are equal.  Aquinas invites everyone to the banquet of wisdom and makes no distinction between the master and the “man in the street.”

Because ordinary human beings know that they are living in a real world, one which they did not create, they can appreciate the reality of the natural law.  And it is this natural law that serves as the basis of morality.  Therefore, morality is not arbitrary or relativistic, but solidly anchored in the natural law.

If people find philosophy to be difficult, it may be that they find something else equally difficult, namely humility.  For Aquinas, “the virtue of humility consists in this, that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him”.   The philosopher begins with humility.  He has no interested in dazzling the world with novel ideas.  Novelty holds no interest for him.  He wants to know something about reality and does not want his ego to get in the way.  Aquinas could not have been either a saint or a great thinker if it were not for his profound sense of humility.  To see things as they are and not the way I would prefer them to be is the mark of a humble philosopher.

For Maritain, “St. Thomas is properly and before everything else, the apostle of the intelligence:  this being the first reason why we must regard him as the apostle of modern times.   Intelligence is not confined to an era.  It is the birthright of every person who has ever come into the world.  Yet, in the modern world, intelligence is compromised, politicized, or subordinated to power.  Intelligence in its purity, nonetheless, is a most reliable witness to truth.

The present age is not philosophical.  There are, however, substitutes for philosophy that pretend to be philosophical.  In this regard we find popular writers and thinkers who attempt to provide solutions for our therapeutic society.  Dr. Ruth, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Phil have had their hour on the stage of philosophy in an attempt to help people who are struggling with day-to-day problems.  Worthy as their aims may be, they do not deal with transcendent issues relating to God and the ultimate meaning of life.  They seek therapies, but not wisdom.

St. Thomas is a philosopher in the broadest sense, dealing with everything that stimulates the mind and exercises the intelligence.  His degree of sanctity and humility are rare.  His mind was encyclopedic, having read and digested whatever the intellectual world of his time was available to him.  Moreover, he has been baptized by a number of popes as the Catholic Church’s pre-eminent thinker.  His feast day is January 24, which is an annual occasion for remembering his importance to everyone who seeks wisdom.


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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com.  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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