This is part of an ongoing series in which I read and interpret Thomas Aquinas’s SUMMA THEOLOGICA for butt joke aficionados. See this post for more information.
Hey guys. Been a couple of weeks. (Sorry.)
Today we’re diving deep into ontology — that is, the science of being. How can you know what really is? You can’t. You’re trapped in your head. And your head is stupid.
And by the way, if you’re into ontological head-trips, I wrote a novel about that sort of thing. You should buy it. I mean, you owe me that much, right? It’s called OPHELIA, ALIVE, and it’s sort of like Stephen King meets Descartes, with lots of sex jokes and Millennial angst. What’s not to love? Check it out!
Anyhoo, let’s get started:
I, Q. 1, Art. 5:
Whether Sacred Doctrine Is Nobler than Other Sciences?
This is the moment of truth, you guys: when we find out which science is the best science. We all know that Aquinas is going to tell us that theology is (because, y’know, job security), but personally I’m rooting for interior decorating.
Objection 1: It seems that sacred doctrine is not nobler than other sciences; for the nobility of a science depends on the certitude it establishes. But other sciences, the principles of which cannot be doubted, seem to be more certain than sacred doctrine; for its principles — namely, articles of faith — can be doubted. Therefore other sciences seem to be nobler.
I imagine most modern thinkers would agree with this objection. “Science,” in the modern sense of the word, establishes much more certitude than philosophy, religion, ethics, art, etc., since it’s based on direct, repeated observation. In that sense, you could call it “nobler,” depending on what you see as noble, I guess. (I know what I see as noble.)
As we’ve previously seen, though, certitude is more relative than absolute.
Obj. 2: Further, it is the sign of a lower science to depend upon a higher; as music depends on arithmetic. But sacred doctrine does in a sense depend upon philosophical sciences; for Jerome observes, in his Epistle to Magnus, that “the ancient doctors so enriched their books with the ideas and phrases of the philosophers, that thou knowest not what more to admire in them, their profane erudition or their scriptural learning.” Therefore sacred doctrine is inferior to other sciences.
In the same way my own opus of butt jokes depends upon the sacred doctrine of Aquinas, sacred doctrine depends upon philosophy.
Really, no matter what you’re doing, it’s impossible to get away from philosophy. If you disagree, prove me wrong — without using philosophy.
So does that make philosophy a nobler science than theology? Let’s find out…
On the contrary, Other sciences are called the handmaidens of this one: “Wisdom sent her maids to invite to the tower” (Prov. 9:3).
It’s maybe a little bit of a stretch to equate “wisdom” with “sacred doctrine,” but whatever. If it makes you feel better, Aquinas.
I answer that, Since this science is partly speculative and partly practical, it transcends all others speculative and practical. Now one speculative science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject-matter. In both these respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences; in point of greater certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas this derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled: in point of the higher worth of its subject-matter because this science treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason; while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Aquinas says theology is the greatest science for two reasons: (1) it has greater certitude than all other sciences, and (2) its subject matter is more important than all other sciences.
Modern readers will point out that there’s a huge leap in logic in #1 — that there’s an assumption that the “divine knowledge” we have is, indeed, “divine knowledge.” How do we know the Bible is true in the first place?
Aquinas would likely respond that we don’t know the Bible is true, but we also don’t know that human experience and reason are any more reliable as indicators of reality. In fact, there are philosophers like Descartes who have argued that we have to presuppose the existence of God to even begin to imagine that our senses are at all reliable. Evolutionary law creates creatures good at reproducing, not necessarily creatures good at understanding reality.
The second point is one I can’t really argue with. To a human being, there can be no question more important than the whole why am I here / where did I come from / where am I going / how should I live complex. As interesting as the mating habits of elephant seals are, they hold significantly less importance in my life than whether God exists and what He expects of me.
Also, elephant seals are gross.
Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences.
Because how can you argue with eternal bliss? It’s hard to think of a purpose much higher than that, amirite folks? As far as I can tell, the only higher purpose than that is Cheetos.
Reply Obj. 1: It may well happen that what is in itself the more certain may seem to us the less certain on account of the weakness of our intelligence, “which is dazzled by the clearest objects of nature; as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun” (Metap. ii, lect. i).
The old saying about humility is that when you really think you have it is when you can be sure you don’t. Or something.
As far as epistemological humility goes, though, Aristotle’s observation here seems like a good place to start. As a species, we’re the sort that tend to get distracted by shiny things; therefore we ought to take our own “knowledge” with a grain of…
Sorry, I got distracted by a shiny thing.
Hence the fact that some happen to doubt about articles of faith is not due to the uncertain nature of the truths, but to the weakness of human intelligence; yet the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things, as is said in de Animalibus xi.
I honestly have no idea what Aquinas is talking about when he says “de Animalibus xi.” My guess would be he’s talking about Aristotle’s de Anima (“Of the Soul”), but since that doesn’t have an eleventh chapter, your guess is as good as mine.
But the point is: even if there’s a slim chance of knowing God, God’s transcendence and majesty easily justifies chasing after whatever small amount of knowledge we might gain of Him. We can know tons about elephant seals, but they’re gross; God isn’t gross, so even the tiniest sliver of knowledge of God is more valuable than ten-thousand books about elephant seals.
Reply Obj. 2: This science can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens: even so the master sciences make use of the sciences that supply their materials, as political of military science. That it thus uses them is not due to its own defect or insufficiency, but to the defect of our intelligence, which is more easily led by what is known through natural reason (from which proceed the other sciences) to that which is above reason, such as the teachings of this science.
In short: philosophy is only necessary for theology because of the limits of the human mind. Since your brain (stupid brain!) tends to prefer evidence to divine revelation, the reasoning supplied by philosophy is helpful in getting you to divinely revealed knowledge — but it’s not necessary. At least according to Aquinas.
I’m not sure I’m with him on this, but we’re brushing so hard up against the intrinsic limits of human knowledge that I can’t argue too much. Or can I? I dunno.
Anyway, I’ll see you next week. If you can’t wait that long to hear from me again, buy my book!