Simple observations from the medieval poster boy will give you new perspectives
The famous historian Will Durant ranked Thomas Aquinas as the fourth greatest thinker of all time.
When I saw that, I was shocked. Aquinas is the Catholic thinker extraordinaire. He is a canonized saint. His nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.”
Durant wasn’t impressed by such things, to say the least.
An Aside: Will Durant
A quick detour about Will Durant might be helpful to explain why it’s significant that he respected Aquinas so much.
Durant is best known for his monumental 11-volume The Story of Civilization, but he first made his name with the publication of The Story of Philosophy, which became an unlikely bestseller, selling 2,000,000 copies in the 1920s.
The book doesn’t have much Aquinas, and that’s an understatement. Its chapters jump from Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) to Francis Bacon (d. 1626 CE). The 2,000 years in-between receive only nine pages (out of 540). Thinkers like Epictetus, Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas are mentioned only once or not at all.
It’s not surprising. Most of those missed years are conventionally known as the “Middle Ages” and they were in thorough disrepute during much of the twentieth century. If you told someone in the 1920s that you were studying the Middle Ages, she would’ve looked at you like someone would look at you today if you told her you’re studying VHS tapes.
Durant was raised Catholic. As a teenager, he planned on becoming a priest and enrolled at the Seton Hall University seminary in 1909. He spent a lot of time at the seminary library, diving into the likes of Darwin and Huxley, and lost his faith. Like many youngsters who lose their naïve faith, he embraced radical politics and atheism, turning against Catholicism.
So when I saw that Will Durant said Aquinas was the fourth greatest thinker of all time, I was shocked. You might as well have told me that Nancy Pelosi thinks Rush Limbaugh is the fourth greatest political commentator of all time.
Worthy of that Four Spot
Don’t get me wrong. Will Durant was far more intellectually honest than a politician. By all indications, he was intellectually honest, probing, and diligent.
Durant knew Aquinas deserved that ranking.
A list of the top thinkers of all time is subjective in more than one application of the word, but if you look at sheer output, not to mention coherency and cogency, Aquinas deserves to be on anyone’s list. It’s not surprising that, if you Google “top thinkers of all time” and similar queries, you’ll see him repeatedly pop up, sometimes at number one.
The guy was a philosophical titan in every sense of the word, and to this day, his systems and ideas haven’t been refuted. Questioned and ignored and their Catholicism ridiculed, yes. But not refuted.
The key thing for our purpose here is that The Angelic Doctor wasn’t concerned only with heavenly things.
Far from it.
In fact, during his lifetime, he was something of a scandal. He embraced the Aristotelianism that Muslim philosophers had saved and promoted. Unlike the lofty ideas of Plato that were favored at that time, Aristotle was “earthy,” much more concerned with tangible things, from which loftier ideas could emerge.
As a result, Aquinas’ teachings reverberate at all levels, from the natural to the divine . . . and all points in-between.
And all his teachings are ensconced in a fierce logic that yields a ton of simple, common-sense observations.
Below are a dozen of my favorites, but I’ll warn you: Although these aphorisms can be read quickly, they can’t be absorbed quickly. You don’t need to contemplate each of them like a piece of fine poetry, but a minute’s worth of consideration helps.
“A brave man is also patient.”
This is an uncomfortable truth in our modern world. Why are we rushing, always in a hurry, often impatient? Something is chasing us. It’s fear. The brave person controls her fear, resulting in calm and patience.
“All fear arises from the love of something.”
The best observations are often paradoxical. This quote flips something negative (fear) into a positive (love). And it’s not just a clever cliché. It’s profoundly true.
“There is no desire which is not directed towards a good.”
Deep tolerance is embedded in this aphorism. No matter how stupid, debased, or wicked someone’s desires might seem, he is reaching for something good.
“Nobody can strive after evil for its own sake.”
Even the devil worshipper isn’t seeking evil. He sees something good in the devil. It’s like that for everything. It’s not even possible to strive for evil . . . on purpose.
“The rational creature . . . cannot wish not to be happy.”
This is related to the previous aphorism. It’s not possible not to want happiness. Even if you wallow in self-loathsomeness, it’s only because, at some level, you believe it’s what will make you happy.
“Wonder is the desire for knowledge.”
This brings out the kid in us . . . in a mature way. Wonder isn’t juvenile and learning isn’t just for school students.
“The greatest kindness one can render to any man consists in leading him from error to truth.”
Discussion and debate should be acts of kindness, not aggression. If the person you’re interacting with just doesn’t get it, let it go . . . without anger or frustration. You try your best when you try with kindness.
“The virtues perfect us so that we follow our natural inclinations in a fitting manner.”
When people start to strive for a higher plane of moral development, they tend to think they leave their natural selves behind. That’s not the case, and such a perception can lead to a lot of frustration as the “old you” continues to exist. As you develop, your natural dispositions are still there, but they’re molded and improved. You’re still you . . . just better.
“In so far as it is loved, everything becomes a source of pleasure.”
Pleasures are fleeting, pleasures are shallow, pleasures are plentiful and free. You might be inclined to take them for granted. But when you realize that they give pleasure only because they trigger a point of love in you, you appreciate them more.
“Inordinate love of self is the cause of all sin.”
The concept of “sin” isn’t in favor these days, but that shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the fundamental truth: When you behave like an ass, it’s because you’re acting in a self-centered fashion. And you act in a self-centered fashion because you hold yourself in too high regard (i.e., you inordinately love yourself).
“Inordinate fear is included in every sin; the miser fears the loss of money, the intemperate man the loss of pleasure.”
We all have one or more forms of ugliness in us. What’s driving them? In every case, it’s a fear. Identify it and you remove a bit of ugliness from yourself.