Thomas Aquinas and "the triumph of faith"
A monk in the black-and-white habit of the Dominicans sits in a niche set within an elaborate columned edifice crowned by a vault. Carved on the panels either side of him are fasces, rods bound together, a symbol of authority that reaches back through the history of ancient Rome to the Etruscans. Conventionally, as those who are attuned to the more sinister aspects of modern European history will be all too well aware, an axe is fixed within the bundle, but here it is omitted and the fasces are lit. Even in ancient times the presence of the axe was associated with tyrannical authority, so the omission suggests a deliberate attempt to evoke an authority that is benign rather than menacing. A setting in Rome is confirmed by the views behind the imposing structure. On one side there is part of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome, fronted by an equestrian statue believed in the 1480s, the date of this fresco, to be of the emperor Constantine, its founder. On the other is the Porta Ripa Grande, the port alongside the river Tiber in Rome. The fresco itself is in the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a Dominican church in the city. Even if the fasces are not menacing, one aspect of the fresco nevertheless is. The monk crushes a scowling old man beneath his feet. The old man is a personification of evil, and he clutches a banner with the Latin inscription "Wisdom conquers evil." The monk himself is none other than the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74). Above him in a roundel are the verses from the Book of Proverbs with which he chose to begin one of his finest works, the Summa contra gentiles, "a summary of the case against the heretics": "For my mouth shall speak truth and wickedness is an abomination to my lips." Also above him, on panels held by putti, appears a declaration of the importance of the revealed word of God: "The revelation of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple." The most important text, however, must be that which Thomas has selected to hold in his left hand; it is from the Apostle Paul, sapientiam sapientum perdam, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." As this book will suggest, the phrase, supported by other texts of Paul which condemn the "empty logic of the philosophers," was the opening shot in the enduring war between Christianity and science.
Here Thomas is in a position of authority, defending the revelatory power of God against "the wisdom of the wise." Yet this "wisdom" is allowed some place. Alongside the saint sit four further personifications, in order from the left, those of Philosophy, Theology, Grammar and Dialectic. Philosophy (largely the study of formal logic), grammar and dialectic (the art of disputation) were the first subjects of the traditional medieval curriculum. However, though they may appear at ease alongside Thomas, they are clearly subordinate to the word of God, as preliminaries that had to be mastered before any advanced study in theology, the longest and most challenging course, could begin. Theology's prominence over the others is shown here by her crown and her hand raised to heaven, as well as by her position immediately to the right of Thomas.
Below Thomas and his intellectual companions two groups of men stand back from a clutter of books and manuscripts. A debate has been in progress, and it seems that its settlement has resulted in a disposal of discarded arguments. The reference here is to the fourth and fifth centuries, when the empire, newly if not fully Christianized, was rocked with debate over the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. The Arians (followers of Arius) claimed that Jesus was a distinct and lower creation, divine perhaps but not fully God. At the opposite extreme, the followers of Sabellius, a Roman cleric, claimed that the Godhead was one and Jesus on earth was only a temporary manifestation of that Godhead, in no way distinct from it. In the fresco Arius stands on the left, a serious and thoughtful man as tradition records, wearing yellow robes. In front of him a book bearing the words of his thesis, "There was a time when the Son was not," lies condemned. Sabellius, shown as an austere Roman in a red robe, gazes down on his work with its own heretical assertion, that the Father is not to be distinguished from the Son, likewise condemned. Other heretics, including the Persian Mani (to the right of Sabellius in a furred hood), to whose sect St. Augustine belonged before his conversion to Christianity, are in the crowd. These heretics had all been subject to specific refutation by Thomas in his works. What Thomas now upholds is the final solution to the issue, the doctrine of the Trinity. God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit have distinct personalities within a single Godhead. It is a doctrine, as Thomas himself wrote in his other great work, the Summa theologiae, that cannot be upheld by reason, but only through faith.
The "triumph of faith," as depicted here by the Florentine painter Filippino Lippi, reflects the theme of this book. "Faith" is a complex concept, but whether it is trust in what cannot be seen, belief in promises made by God, essentially a declaration of loyalty or a virtue, it involves some kind of acquiescence in what cannot be proved by rational thought. What makes faith a difficult concept to explore is that it has both theological and psychological elements. At a psychological level one could argue that faith must exist in any healthy mind. If we cannot trust anyone, have any optimism that "all will be well," we cannot live full lives. Such faith will include positive responses to individuals, as evinced by those who met and travelled with Jesus. Here we cross a conceptual boundary because faith in Jesus, and in particular in the saving nature of his crucifixion and resurrection as taught by Paul, was of a different order from faith in the general sense that "all will be well." With the elaboration of Christian doctrine, faith came to mean acquiescence in the teachings of the churches-to be seen as a virtue in itself.
In the fourth and fifth centuries a.d., however, faith in this last sense achieved prominence over reason. The principles of empirical observation or logic were overruled in the conviction that all knowledge comes from God and even, in the writings of Augustine, that the human mind, burdened with Adam's original sin, is incapable of thinking for itself. For centuries any form of independent scientific thinking was suppressed. Yet, and this is the paradox of the Carafa fresco, it was actually Thomas, through reviving the works of Aristotle, who brought reason back into theology and hence into western thought. Once again it was possible for rational thought and faith to co-exist. We will meet the other Thomas, the Thomas who champions reason alongside faith, in the final chapter of this book.
We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influential banner of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science-and rational thought in general-and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the Christian concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate), it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.
The quest for certainty
The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.
On his long journey home from Troy to his wife, Penelope, in Ithaca, Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, was swept from his ship through the fury of Poseidon, the god of earthquakes and the sea, who had turned against him. Luckily, the goddess Leukothea, who lived in the depths of the sea, took pity on him and offered him a magic scarf that, when bound around him, would protect him, while the goddess Athena calmed the waves so that he could swim towards the shores of the land of the Phaeacians. In this crisis Odysseus still had to make his own decisions, in the short term at what moment he should leave the timbers of his ship and strike for shore. A massive wave sent by Poseidon made the decision for him, and he found himself swimming without any support. The coast came into view, but it was rugged. Is it better, Odysseus wondered, to land where he can and risk being crushed against the cliffs by a wave, or continue onwards in his exhaustion in the hopes of finding a sandy bay?
Odysseus' ordeal ended happily. He was washed ashore and rescued by the beautiful Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacian king. He was saved by two goddesses who successfully challenged another god, Poseidon. So here is a man at the mercy of divine forces who nevertheless retained the power to think rationally and who saw rational thought as a means of bettering his chances. One can hardly say this is a revolutionary step; archaeological evidence from South African caves shows that individuals were able to provide "rational" adaptations to their changing environment (in the sense of adapting their tools) as long as 70,000 years ago. What is important is that Homer distinguishes rational thought, even at this primitive, almost instinctive level, as a mental activity, independent of the whim of the gods.
This is the mental landscape of Greece in the eighth century or earlier-the Odyssey took its final form about 725 b.c. from much older oral traditions-but it is a world that is passing. Odysseus is an aristocrat, a king in his land of Ithaca, where he has palaces and cattle. His wife, Penelope, though vulnerable without him, has her own status. When they are finally reunited, they enjoy each other's conversation as equals before they make together for the royal bed. Emerging is the world of the Greek city state, where, from the eighth century, one finds communities making focused settlements, typically with their own sacred spaces and public arenas. There is a shift, probably as a result of population increase, from the "aristocratic" extravagance of cattle farming to more intensive cultivation, of olives, cereals and vines. A peasant economy emerges based on a free citizenry relying on slaves
for extra labour. Women are now segregated, the aristocratic palace replaced by the enclosed home, which, unlike Penelope's palace in Ithaca, contains no allotted space in which women can appear before strangers. Fighting is no longer between aristocratic heroes meeting in single combat but between massed phalanxes of hoplites (the word comes from hoplon, a shield), made up of the peasantry, who fight side by side with each other and overwhelm their opponents by sheer weight and determination.
Population increase and political infighting encouraged settlement overseas, and the city state, or polis as it was known in Greek, proved eminently exportable throughout the Mediterranean. One finds the same structure, domestic areas, public meeting places and a demarcated area, the temenos, for temples and sacrificial altars, in most Greek cities. Remarkably, despite the fragmentation and extent of settlement, there remained a common sense of Greek culture, sustained by religious festivals, many of them with games, oracles and centres of pilgrimage, at which Greeks from across the Mediterranean gathered.
The number and frequency of such festivals reflects the intensely spiritual nature of the ancient Greeks. They had a powerful sense of the sacred, often personified in gods and goddesses, elaborated in myth and celebrated at an enormous number of shrines, some natural such as caves and springs, others opulent temple complexes. Their gods remained close to them, traditionally portrayed in human form and displaying behaviour which was often all too human in its fits of jealousy and anger. Among the twelve Olympian gods the full spectrum of human life was represented, from the wild excess of emotion (Dionysus) to the calm exercise of reason (Apollo), from the lustful enjoyment of sex (Aphrodite) to virgin modesty (Artemis). Each god or goddess played a number of roles, accumulated from different traditions both inside and outside Greece. So Zeus, the father of the gods, could act as lord of the skies, as a bringer of victory, a symbol of sexual potency, the upholder of rulers and the god of thunder and lightning. Alongside the Olympian gods there was a mass of lesser deities, such as Pan, the god of shepherds, and local heroes with a range of roles. Ancient Greece vibrated with spiritual presences.
Mediation with the gods took place through prayer and sacrifice. The sacrifice was the central point of almost every ritual. An animal-an ox, sheep, goat or pig-would be presented to the gods and then killed, burnt and eaten by the community. Sacrifices were not an aberrant or cruel activity-they were a sophisticated way of dealing with the necessity of killing animals in order to eat. In fact, the rituals surrounding sacrifice suggest that the Greeks felt some unease about killing animals they had reared themselves. So the illusion was created that an animal went to its death willingly, and before the killing all present threw a handful of barley at it, as if the community as a whole was accepting responsibility for the death. At the moment of the slaughter women would utter impassioned cries, again a recognition of the seriousness of what was being done in taking life. This was a common theme in ritual, also found in Greek tragic drama, an awareness that any transition involved a loss that had to be recognized within the ritual itself. There was also a strong belief that through the maintaining of the round of rituals the city had been protected. As one Athenian citizen put it in a public debate:
Our ancestors by sacrificing in accordance with the tablets of Solon [laws instituted in the early sixth century] have handed down to us a city superior in greatness and prosperity to any other in Greece so that it behooves us to perform the same sacrifices as they did if for no other reason than that of the success which has resulted from these rites.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. Copyright © 2003 by Charles Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.