St. Thomas Aquinas c. 1225-1274 Edit

Doctor Angelicus 

Italian philosopher and theologian, whose works have made him the most important figure in Scholastic philosophy and one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians. Called the Angelic Doctor and the Prince of Scholastics, although by fellow students he was known as the "Dumb Ox". Albertus Magnus is said to have predicted that "this ox will one day fill the world with his bellowing." His prediction was pretty accurate:  Aquinas ultimatley used Aristotelian philosophy to construct an entire cosmology that was to be the dominant conception of the world for some 450 years until the emergence of Renaisssance Humanism. 

Home: Roccasecca, near Aquino, Italy

School: Skeptic/ Scholastic.

Rational/Empirical: Aquinas attempted a spiritualist/rationalist/empiricist/ fusion centuries ahead of his time. He failed miserably, but then again, his task was impossible from the start.

Influence: Restorative - corrected the 1000 year old blunders of the nefarious Augustine. His free thinking ironically doomed Christianity to lose its iron grip on though. Think of his views as the religious eqivalent of Peristroika 

Greatest achievement: Made the apparently logical point that if Christianity is true, then it can and should stand up to empirical thought. (God's handiwork's cannot contradict God). The problem with this position, however, is that as per the apophatic tradition, one cannot apply logic or reason (or any ontological category) to the supernatural. Aquinas sought to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Augustinian theology. Aquinas attemped to employ both reason and faith in the study of metaphysics, moral philosophy, and religion.

Signficant Works: Summa Theologiae , Summa Contra Gentiles

"The truth of the Christian faith...surpasses the capacity of reason, nevertheless that truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith."

Western thought had been dominated by the revelation-based philosophy of St. Augustine, and while it is arguable, I maintain strongly that this Augustinian mindset was the precursor to the dark ages. However, early in the 13th century the major works of Aristotle were restored by Averroës, the great Islamic scholar. The authority of Aristotle's teachings restored confidence in empirical knowledge and gave rise to a school of wise philosophers known as Averroists. Averroists asserted that philosophy was independent of revelation.

Averroism, as a logical, rational, coherent and consistent manner of thinking, threatened the "integrity" and supremacy of Roman Catholic doctrine and filled orthodox thinkers with alarm. Therefore, there was a need to "reconcile" the Augustinian emphasis upon the human spiritual principle (whatever that was) with the Averroist claim of autonomy for knowledge derived from the senses. Aquinas insisted that this was possible, by stating that the truths of faith and those of sense experience, as presented by Aristotle, are fully compatible and complementary.

Aquinas stated that some truths, such as that of the mystery of the incarnation, can be known only through revelation (god making himself known to us through empirical and rational methods - i.e the scriptures), and others, such as that of the composition of material things, only through experience; still others, such as that of the existence of God, are known through both equally. All knowledge, Aquinas held, originates in sensation, but sense data can be made intelligible only by the action of the intellect, which elevates thought toward the apprehension of such 'immaterial' realities as the 'human soul', angels, and God. Aquinas's moderate realism placed the universals firmly in the mind, in opposition to extreme realism, which posited their existence independent of human thought. He admitted a foundation for universals in existing things, however, in opposition to both nominalism and conceptualism.

In order to prove the veracity of this reconcilation of faith and reason, Aquinas went to work on creating a new set of "logical" proofs supporting the existence of God. These arguments are all famous today, and are known as Aquinas's "Five Ways". The first four are Cosmological arguments, which strive to use the existence of the universe as proof of the existence of a divine creator. The last is a Teleological argument which attempts to find god as the creator of the purpose of the universe.

None of these arguments appear to be original to Aquinas. The argument for first cause is Islamic, and is known as the Kalam argument. It was put forward by al -Ghazali (1058-1111) Others were first instigated by Aristotle. While they represented the height of logical though for his time, all five have been shown to be flawed. It should also be noted, as Christopher Hitchens recognized, that none of these arguments are actually theistic, they are all deistic. This means that even if these arguments worked, you'd still need a connecting argument from deism to theism and then onto a particular theism. 

Thomas Aquinas' "Five Ways" (To prove God's existence)Edit

First Way: The Argument From Motion

St. Thomas Aquinas, studying the works of the Greek philsopher Aristotle, concluded from common observation that an object that is in motion (e.g. the planets, a rolling stone) is put in motion by some other object or force. From this, Aquinas believes that ultimately there must have been an UNMOVED MOVER (GOD) who first put things in motion. Follow the agrument this way:

1) Nothing can move itself.
2) If every object in motion had a mover, then the first object in motion needed a mover.
3) This first mover is the Unmoved Mover, called God.

Second Way: Causation Of Existence

This Way deals with the issue of existence. Aquinas concluded that common sense observation tells us that no object creates itself. In other words, some previous object had to create it. Aquinas believed that ultimately there must have been an UNCAUSED FIRST CAUSE (GOD) who began the chain of existence for all things. Follow the agrument this way:

1) There exists things that are caused (created) by other things
2) Nothing can be the cause of itself (nothing can create itself.)
3) There can not be an endless string of objects causing other objects to exist.
4) Therefore, ther must be an uncaused first cause called God.

Third Way: Contingent and Neccessary Objects

This Way defines two types of objects in the universe: contingent beings and necessary beings. A contingent being is an object that can not exist without a necessary being causing its existence. Aquinas believed that the existence of contingent beings would ultimately neccesitate a being which must exist for all of the contingent beings to exist. This being, called a necessary being, is what we call God. Follow the argument this way:

1) Contingent beings are caused.
2) Not every being can be contingent.
3) There must exist a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
4) This necessary being is God.

Fourth Way: The Argument From Degrees And Perfection

St. Thomas formulated this Way from a very interesting observation about the qualities of things. For example one may say that of two marble scultures one is more beautiful than the other. So for these two objects, one has a greater degree of beauty than the next. This is referred to as degrees or gradation of a quality. From this fact Aquinas concluded that for any given quality (e.g. goodness, beauty, knowledge) there must be an perfect standard by which all such qualities are measured. These perfections are contained in God.

Fifth Way: The Argument From Intelligent Design

The final Way that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of has to do with the observable universe and the order of nature. Aquinas states that common sense tells us that the universe works in such a way, that one can conclude that is was designed by an intelligent designer, God. In other words, all physical laws and the order of nature and life were designed and ordered by God, the intellgent designer. This argument was compelling enough for Thomas Paine for him to accept it as the sole proof of God's existence.

A more complete explanation of St. Thomas' Fifth Way about God as Intelligent Designer was attempted by Paley in his "Teleological Argument", but it is just as equally flawed. Modern attempts are known as the "Cosmological argument". They fail just like the others, but sound more scientific.


Despite Aquinas' belief in the five ways to god, his works include tacit doubts about god. For example, Aquinas suggested that God had made a mistake in creating woman: 'nothing [deficient] or defective should have been produced in the first establishment of things; so woman ought not to have been produced then.' In questioning whether an omnipotent god made an error, he questioned the very existence of the being that he otherwise claimed to be so sure of.

Another problem: Aquinas' begruding acceptance of the apophatic way.

Thomas Aquinas can be considered an example of a positive theologian - one who holds that god can be comprehensible. But what I find intriguing is that even the master of 'positive theology' has to come to terms with the reality that positive theology 'mostly fails' (actually, it fails in toto, but I digress...)

Aquinas did introduce the idea that natural reason can tell us things 'about' God, but only by telling us those things which God cannot be. (Via negatiava, or negative theology) What we are supposedy left with is the nearest we can come to 'comprehending' God. However, he also taught that there are mysteries of the faith: those revealed truths that natural reason cannot even in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of divine revelation.

From Summa Theologiae I, Q.3, Prologue

"The existence of a thing having been ascertained, the way in which it exists remains to be examined if we would know its nature. Because we cannot know what God is, but rather what God is not, our method has to be mainly negative… What kind of being God is not can be known by eliminating characteristics which cannot apply to him, like composition, change, and so forth."[/quote]

So it's interesting that even Aquinas, the most famous positive theologian imaginable, actually leaned towards negative theology.... and while he feels that the process of defining a 'god' is 'mainly negative' Aquinas never actually succeeded in giving his supernatural 'being' a positive atttribute.