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Ralph McInerny on Thomas Aquinas' philosophy

Dr. Ralph McInerny is the Michael P. Grace Professor in Medieval Studies and professor in the Philosophy Department of the University of Notre Dame, USA. He is also Director of the Maritain Center and former Director of the Medieval Institute, both located at Notre Dame.
What courses are you teaching this semester?

I am teaching three courses next semester. The first one is a graduate course, entitled 'Thomism as philosophy'. I shall also be teaching two undergraduate courses: one will be on Kierkegaard and Newman and the other is a survey introduction in Thomas Aquinas.

Are you doing any research on Aquinas now?

I have just finished two translation-projects on Aquinas. The first one consists of an annotated translation of chronologically selected writings from Aquinas and is published by Penguin Books. The other project is an English translation of De Virtutibus in communi and of De Virtutibus Cardinalibus. That one will be published by St. Augustine Press.
I have also been invited to give the Gifford Lectures in 1999-2000 in Glasgow. In these lectures on natural theology I shall talk about conversion, using the views of Newman, Kierkegaard and Thomas. There will be three parts. First I shall discuss the difference between changing one's mind and changing one’s life. Next, the distinction between moral and religious conversion will be examined. In the third and final part I shall ask the question: what role do proofs of God's existence play in religious conversion? I doubt that anyone ever converted solely on the basis of a theoretical proof that God exists. Yet, I do think that these proofs have played some role, e.g. in apologetics. In pursuing this question I shall take a closer look at a number of conversion- and deconversion-stories of people – think of Anthony Kenny and his account in The Path From Rome. In the back of my mind is the text from the Psalm: Dixit insipiens in corde suo: non est Deus. A person who denies God’s existence has somehow lost his sapor, his taste, for the divine.
In the course of preparing for the Gifford Lectures, I have also written two monographs that have not been published (yet). One deals with the history of Thomism and the other with controversial issues in 20th century Thomism.

Can you tell us something more about the latter?

I think it is remarkable that so many Thomistic scholars nowadays are worried that we have forgotten about Aquinas as a theologian. In my view, the risk is greater that we are forgetting his philosophy. Of course, Aquinas is a theologian, but he does (also) philosophy. The relation between theology and philosophy is a difficult issue, but Aquinas is well aware of their distinction. It seems to me, however, that in the 20th century the distinction has been smudged. Let me point out two causes. First, there is the influence of the notion of ‘Christian philosophy’ as it was developed by Gilson. Gilson is not always consistent in spelling out what he means by ‘Christian philosophy’, but some of his descriptions tend to blur the distinction between philosophy and theology. Secondly, new interpretations by e.g. de Lubac and Chenu about the relation between the natural and the supernatural, especially with regard to the finis ultimus,led to the same effect. They criticized Cajetan for his views on the relation between the natural and the supernatural end of human life, but they did so by misrepresenting him.
In my view, Aquinas does not hold everything true in virtue of revelation. Take a look at the first question raised in the Summa Theologiae: do we need any other teaching besides philosophy? The question presupposes that we know philosophy! Scholastic theology sees itself on the analogy of the Aristotelian scientia. If you do not know Aristotelian logic and theory of science, you will not understand even the methodological questions Aquinas is asking. I claim that Aquinas is basically an Aristotelian in his philosophy. He deepens the understanding of Aristotle’s thought, makes it his own and incorporates elements from other sources on the basis of their compatibility with Aristotle. Aquinas’s sources are very important and he adopts a lot from others. He didn’t want to come up with new things, he mainly wanted to synthesize and assimilate what was done before him. When reading others, Aquinas is not focused on what is wrong in their thinking, but on what is right In this way he can, for example, integrate much of Platonic thought as Geiger and Fabro have shown. Even if his reading of Plato may historically not be wholly accurate, Aquinas does not hesitate to give him credit for certain insights.
I am sympathetic to the concerns and motives of those who want to emphasize that Aquinas is a theologian, as Fr. Torrell and Fr. O’Meara have done in their recent interviews on this website. They are right, Aquinas is primarily a theologian, and as such the truths of faith are regulative of this thought. Of course, the faith is a measure for the philosopher as well, but it never enters into his subject as an ingredient. The faith is the existential ambience out of which the Catholic philosopher thinks, it suggests research projects to him, warns him off fruitless lines of inquiry and spurs him to refute philosophically positions in conflict with the faith. Revealed truth provides the starting points of theological reflection and is thus intrinsic to the discipline. Thomas assumes that the theologian is already versed in philosophy and can make use of it in various ways. In acknowledging that Thomas in primarily a theologian, we are also acknowledging that he is a philosopher. Any effort to remove Aristotle, or philosophy, from Thomism puts me in mind of the joke about two men painting a wall. One says to the other, “Hang on to your brush, I’m taking away the ladder.”
In my Gifford lectures, I will make a plea for the indispensability of natural theology. Protestants often identify natural theology with Deism, but that is not correct. Aquinas’ natural theology, unlike Deism, states that God is personal and it also takes creation into account. For Aquinas, creation in the sense of creation ex nihilo, not of creation de novo, is a philosophical doctrine. Furthermore, even if philosophical views on, for example, the ultimate end are not adequate, that does not mean that they are false.

Whom do you consider to be your ‘master’ in Aquinas?

As a graduate student at Laval, Charles de Koninck was my mentor. He really influenced my academic outlooks. Later, when I was on a Fullbright at Louvain, I met other Flemish Thomists like Verbeke and Vansteenkiste, but de Koninck is the only one I would want to call my master in Aquinas. Of course, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson have also been mentors of mine.

Do you know about the Thomas Instituut at Utrecht?

I came across your website for the first time about a year ago. I think it is very good.

Dr. McInerny has published not only a great amount of academic books and articles, but he also writes about four novels a year. To the general public, he is best known for his Father Dowling Mysteries, which have also been filmed and broadcasted in many countries. Most recently The Red Hat came out, published by Ignatius Press in April of this year.
Among his academic publications concerning Aquinas are:

  • The Logic of Analogy: an Interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Hague (Nijhoff), 1961.
  • A revised version was recently published as: Aquinas and Analogy. Washington, D.C. (Catholic University of America Press), 1996.
  • Ethica Thomistica: the Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Washington, D.C. (Catholic University of America Press), 1982. Second, revised edition published in 1997
  • A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas : a Handbook for Peeping Thomists. Notre Dame, IN (University of Notre Dame Press), 1990.
  • Boethius and Aquinas.Washington, D.C. (Catholic University of America Press), 1990
  • Aquinas on human action : a theory of practice. Washington, D.C. (Catholic University of America Press), 1992.


Harm Goris