From the drafts folder: Terry Eagleton on Thomas Aquinas

Terry Eagleton and Thomas AquinasAs I’ve said before, Terry Eagleton seems to have a better understanding of theology than many Christians. He also has an affinity with Dominicans that is as strong as his aversion to the “New Atheists”. So I was glad to read his review last year (£) of Denys Turner’s book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (a book I’ve since read).

At the time, I copied and pasted a bunch of quotes from Eagleton’s review, intending to turn them into a blog post. I never got round to knocking the post into shape, though, so here are most of the quotes with some quick comments from me to string them together. The result may be a little disjointed, but there’s some really good stuff from Eagleton here.

Eagleton’s main theme (as it is for Turner) was the idea of Thomas as a materialist:

Like Marx, Aquinas got into hot water with the authorities for being a materialist. It was not that he held the boring view that there is nothing but matter. His materialism was not some kind of brutal reductionism, any more than Marx’s was. On the contrary, as Denys Turner points out in this superb study, he understood that ‘there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist.’ His criticism of the materialists with whom he was acquainted was not that they were bad on the subject of mind or spirit, but that they weren’t very good on the subject of matter.

This then influences Thomas’s understanding of the soul (which, gratifying, ends up sounding not a million miles from this blog post I wrote in 2011):

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas.

Always good, too, to be reminded that Thomas’s doctrine of word and sacraments have quite a Lutheran flavour to them – especially in seeing the sacraments as a vehicle for the Word:

Behind this belief lay a theology of the incarnate Word, and of the eucharist in particular, in which that Word is present in the workaday stuff of bread and wine in something like the way that meaning is present in a verbal sign.

Thus the Christian message is “materialist” in that it is concerned with stuff: the body; the incarnate Word; water, bread and wine. As Eagleton puts it:

Christianity concerns the transfiguration of the body, not the immortality of the soul.

Eagleton then turns to Thomas’s understanding of God:

God is not in Aquinas’s view some kind of being, principle, entity or individual who could be reckoned up with other such entities. He is not even some kind of person, in the sense that Piers Morgan is arguably a person. God and the universe do not make two. Whatever other errors believers may commit, not being able to count is not one of them. They do not hold that there is one more object in the world than there actually is. God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world, but the ground of possibility of anything whatsoever. If we were to fall out of his hands we would lapse into nothingness; and faith is the trust that however obnoxious we are to each other, he will not let us slip through his fingers.

Eagleton also has a better handle on the doctrine of creation than do many Christians:

The idea that God sustains everything in being by his love is known as the doctrine of Creation. Whatever the new atheists may imagine, it has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. In fact, Aquinas himself thought it perfectly reasonable to hold with Aristotle that the world never got started at all, but existed from all eternity. He was not of this opinion himself, since the Book of Genesis seemed to rule it out, but he saw nothing inherently implausible about it. The doctrine of Creation is not bogus science, as old-fashioned 19th-century rationalists like Dawkins assume. As Turner argues, it is really about the extreme fragility of things.

Finally, here is Eagleton on Thomas’s view of “the good life”:

It follows from Aquinas’s view of being that the good life is a flourishing, richly abundant one. The more a thing is itself, the finer it becomes. The saints are those who are supremely successful at the exacting task of being human, the George Bests and Jacqueline du Prés of the moral sphere. Morality is not primarily a question of duty and obligation (Turner points out that the Thomist moral lexicon contains scarcely any such terms), but of happiness or well-being. Why we should want to be happy is in Thomas’s view the very prototype of a silly question.


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