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I tried Gilson in college, for a special paper on medieval political thought, and found him pretty dry himself. At the time he didn't strike me as a good ambassador for medieval philosophy, since I really rather enjoyed reading John of Salisbury, Aquinas, Dante, Ockham, and Marsilius of Padua, but would never have guessed how exciting they were from reading Gilson. I might give him another go now though.

I went to graduate school in Toronto, where the ghosts of Gilson and Maritain still haunt the campus. Every autumn there are second-hand booksales at the university, mostly selling off donations from alumni, and books by those two pop up with relatively high frequency. Over the years I've amassed quite a collection. Sad to say, I've read only a handful of those many volumes.

I can add a vote, though for The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which I found both accessible and interesting. I tried Being and Some Philosophers but it defeated me. I started The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy years ago and didn't finish it for some reason, but I'd like to finish it someday.

I will agree with Grumpy that Gilson is a good tutor for those interested in Aquinas. Next to Josef Pieper -- and next to Thomas himself, of course -- it is Gilson who has taught me most about the value of Thomas' thought.

The reason I'd never even made an attempt to read the Gilson book pictured here is that I thought it would somehow be cheating to read it without having read Thomas himself. I've now admitted to myself that I'm never going to read Thomas, at least not in any quantity. I'm not sure whether it therefore makes more or less sense to read the Gilson book.

At any rate this is probably not the best Gilson book for an amateur to read, but it happens to be the one I have.

I have been meaning to read Madame Bovary in French for about 25 years. I cannot read it in English. It's a rule I've invented for myself. It looks like I may never read it until I retire...

About 15 years ago I cracked and read 'The Red and the Black' in English. I loved it.

I'll soon find out how many of those when-I-retire plans I carry through. I blush to admit that I've never read MB. Started it once, got distracted, never got back to it.

I bought a copy of 'The Unity of Philosophical Experience' about 10 years ago but have never read it. Seems like I grabbed the right one to start with, although obviously it isn't particularly helpful just sitting on the shelf.

That is true of way too many books that I own.

I found this reference to Maritain interesting: "He did not put words into Thomas’ mouth or put anachronistic questions to Saint Thomas and invent answers for them."

I've read a bit of Maritain, and liked it, but I did sometimes wonder if he was doing something like this.

I don't quite understand the place of St. Thomas in RC thought. Does he hold a similar place to that of Augustine, in that everything prior to him is in a sense filtered through his thought? It doesn't seem possible to me for a Catholic to be "non-Augustinian." Is it possible to be a "non-Thomist"?

To put it another way, we Orthodox generally consider our thought to be "patristic," the idea being that any post-Schism Eastern writers/thinkers simply continued the patristic "line." In the West, it seems that you have the same mentality, the difference being that all Patristic thought comes to be filtered through, and thus focused in, St. Thomas.

In the East we really don't have one thinker who holds that sort of role, of the type of either Augustine or Thomas. We have theologians who might be said to typify the Tradition, but none who are seen as coalescing and codifying it like the two I mentioned.

I'm not really qualified to answer that. But I'll give you my impression, which is that it's definitely possible to be a non-Thomist. I think Thomas is favored but not imposed or even ubiquitous. I think there have been a number of non-Thomist theologians of recognized stature since the early 20th c. who were well regarded and approved.

Aquinas has always been a big part of Western academic theology, but in terms of Catholicism more generally his eucharistic hymns are probably the most important thing he wrote. He ridiculed the Immaculate Conception, so clearly not everything is filtered through him. There are reams of mystical theology that owe nothing to him at all. It's possible to be a perfectly good Catholic without ever having heard of him, and I don't think there's a single theological issue aside from transubstantiation where Aquinas adds to the Fathers (and what he adds is mental tools for grasping what the Fathers already held). In terms of academic disciplines, both philosophy and theology owe a lot to him (often more than either is willing to admit), and in terms of intellectual method he is exemplary.

Well, in the US, most people were taught from the Baltimore Catechism from 1885, I see, until after Vatican II. As I have gotten older and read more of the Summa here and there, and read people who are Thomists, I see that the Baltimore Catechism must have been largely written by Thomists. So there is a huge influence here.


I like what you said there, Paul, about Aquinas. I never read a word of him until I was at least 40, but I managed to know and practice the essentials of the Faith for more than 20 years before that.

Now, though, if I have a question, I will sometimes remember to go to the Summa online and look up the relevant question. I find this pretty helpful and usually enlightening.

Janet, I think you're right about the Baltimore Catechism.

I do not know the answer to Rob G's question. It seems to me that the Vatican I constitution Dei Filius was written by Thomists and its difficult to assent to it unless one assents to some Thomistic thinking. It is about how God is known by reason via external evidence and by faith via external evidence.

After Aeterni Patris it looked like Thomism was the 'official philosophy' of the Church - the encyclical does contain the injunction, 'go to Thomas!'

The popes of the period of the Modernist Crisis in the early 20th century likewise not only exhorted folks to ite Thomae but instructed that only Thomism could be taught in seminaries.

Gilson wept with pleasure when he heard Paul VI say that the Church is open to all philosophies which are compatible with the Church's dogma - he was a Thomist who did not like Thomism being an 'official philosophy' or treated as if it were dogma.

" but instructed that only Thomism could be taught in seminaries."

I'm really not sure that most of us understand how much of what we know comes from Thomas, and this is one of the reasons.


You say that you knew and practice the essentials of the Faith without knowing Thomas, but you really don't know what you knew of the essential was informed by Thomism.


I don't have time to look for it, but there was a recent George Weigel column about Newman in which he discussed Newman's role in encouraging renewed interest in the Fathers.

Everything Grumpy says is true, but I should point out that Thomism was the only *philosophy* taught in seminaries - not the only *thing*. And seminarians weren't for the most part training to be philosophers. And it meant that everything taught as philosophy in seminaries had "Thomist" on the box, even when the contents had little to do with Aquinas.

Newman was shocked at how little awareness of Aquinas there was among Catholics in the 1840s. At some point between then and Aeterni Patris, things must have changed somewhat.

Thanks, guys. Very helpful.

To frame my query in another way, in talking with several educated Catholic friends, I sometimes get the impression that they believe that the East, whether EO or Byz. Catholic, isn't really patristic, or perhaps patristic enough so to speak, because it's non-Thomistic. In other words, to be truly patristic one has to be Thomistic, since Thomas not only "gathers" the thought of the Fathers, but uniquely and indispensably epitomizes them.

Certainly one of the ways Newman encouraged knowledge of the Fathers was by translating Aquinas's Catena Aurea into English. But as long as Eastern churches recognise the Latin Fathers and Bede, I'd have thought they were patristic enough for anybody ...

I'm all in favour of Thomism, but I think it gets more lip-service than actual adherence in Catholic circles (while being both praised and blamed for 19th-century tenets and habits of thought that have very little to do with it).

Well Paul I don't think it's true that Thomas' thought was the only *philosophy* taught in seminaries. There were manuals of theology too, eg manuals about the Trinity, and I think those manuals were Thomistic.

Of course I agree that much of what was taught as Thomism was 'Thomism'.

I am not a Thomist. I am a follower of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a fellow who is regarded as heretical by many Thomists.

But I do not think it is right to underplay the importance which Thomas' thought has had for the Western Catholic Church.

Grumpy, I think you might have reversed the polarity of my statement about philosophy. I didn't say that Aquinas was only taught as philosophy, but that it was only in philosophy that Thomism had any sort of monopoly. I'll add that that monopoly was a relatively recent and relatively short-lived phenomenon.

Prior to the 1870s Aquinas was one influential voice among several, with a number of schools in which other voices predominated. This isn't to say he wasn't influential, and certainly not to say that he didn't deserve to be influential, but to suggest that he was the only influential thinker, let alone the only permissible one, is a terrible distortion of reality.

Much as I favour Thomism, I think its importance is exaggerated by viewing it from the aftermath of its brief official dominance: up to the mid-19th century any real acquaintance with the writings of Aquinas (except, as I said in my initial comment, his eucharistic hymns) was pretty much confined to universities (where he had no sort of monopoly) and to Dominican and Jesuit houses of study.

Almost from the very beginning the manuals used in seminaries (and the catechisms used in Sunday schools) were deeply influenced by Spanish and Jesuit late Scholasticism, but these were only "Thomist" in a very limited sense.

Well I'm thinking that Rob G asked that question like butter would not melt in his mouth and his intention was to set the Catholics wrangling amongst themselves.

Gilson was amongst the first, perhaps the first, publically to distinguish the Thomism of Thomas Aquinas from the Thomism of 'the commentators' - the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth century 'schools' of Thomism. I don't presume to know if he was right or not. I have being reading Thomas for more than thirty years, but I'm not a Thomist or a Thomist expert. And I know that some Thomists agree with Gilson and some Thomists do not. The leading Thomists today do not, but maybe they are wrong. I'm finding it more and more difficult to say that the Thomisms of the 16-18th century were simply not Thomism at all. I'm more inclined at least these days to say Thomas can be read in many ways. And Gilson himself fully acknowledged this, when, at the end of 'Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages' he spoke of 'The Thomist Family'. The Thomist family includes all those who take Thomas as their teacher, and who are, Gilson says, inclined to give a reason for their theological assertions, that is, never to say 'this is purely a matter of faith'.

Is the Catholic Church a 'Thomist family'? That is the question Rob has set us to discuss. In one sense, Paul is right that the dominance of Thomism is a largely 19th century thing - its influence on Vatican I (an ecumenical Council), and on Aeterni Patris, and its subsequent influence on seminary teaching for just under a hundred years. This teaching didn't only affect professors of philosophy and theology in seminaries. It trickled down into way Catholics thought about their faith as a whole.

Is it dead and gone now? I do not think so, at least in terms of magisterial teaching. Fides et Ratio gives four models of a Christian thinker: Edith Stein, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Rosmini (who had to be culled from the Index by Ratzinger a couple years before ...).

I think that if you look at the model of the use of faith and reason in Fides et Ratio overall, a kind of Augustinian-Thomist reasoning is very plain. I would call it a Gilsonian encyclical, but I do not wish to enter into a debate about that.

As far as influence on seminary teaching, and on teaching lay people who work in the Church is concerned, I do not think any modern theology (von Balthasar, de Lubac, Rahner, etc) which has not 'made its peace' with Thomism will make headway and become central. It will have to take Thomas serious and include it within its 'modern synthesis'. So in that sense, I have partially to disagree with Paul and say that I think Thomism is and remains unavoidable for Catholics.

I meant to put a :) on my comment about Rob G ! :) Too early in the morning to be posting

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all these small Catholic Colleges like TAC, Ave Maria, Christendom, etc., are very Thomist. They are small, but this is where the priests, sisters, theologians and Catholic philosophers are going to come from in the near future. So, I think the church in the US will become increasingly Thomist.


Yes but I dont think it is only that the more consevstive students and seminarians are thomist. I think that even those who do not see themselves as Thomist want to abdorb his thought not bypass it

I would like to say something longish but am on my phone, so: there seems to be an impression among the Orthodox that Thomas has a problematic near-dogmatic position in Catholicism. I took Rob's question as coming from that. And it kind of is a problem.

I'm sure we've all had the experience of being exasperated by amateur Thomists who apply his method in a maddeningly mechanical way. I don't especially want to see more of that. Sounds like Gilson can be a corrective to that.

Yes he is and I see that our response to Rob G should have included something like: sectarian thomism is exists within the RC church but is not canonized by that church.

But I still think that the place of Thomas and of the various Thomistic traditions in the RC church is wider and deeper than Paul suggestd

want to abdorb his thought not bypass it

I'm trying to figure out if abdorb was supposed to be absorb, or adore or something else.


"Well I'm thinking that Rob G asked that question like butter would not melt in his mouth and his intention was to set the Catholics wrangling amongst themselves."

Yes, and I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling philosophers!

"there seems to be an impression among the Orthodox that Thomas has a problematic near-dogmatic position in Catholicism. I took Rob's question as coming from that."

Right - some Catholics seem to talk as if Thomism has that sort of position, while others do not. That divergence is what I was wondering about.

"sectarian thomism is exists within the RC church but is not canonized by that church."

Makes sense.

Re: Rosmini, please see the excellent newly translated book by the late Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity. Del Noce, who died in 1989, was one of the premier Italian political philosophers/cultural critics of the post-WWII era. He argues that Rosmini represents the culmination of an alternative, "positive" line of modernity that parallels the negative one that culminates with Nietzsche. According to Del Noce both lines begin with Descartes but end in opposite places, one in nihilism, the other in Rosmini's "refined" theism that has faced the criticisms of atheism and come out the other side better for it.


I got the softcover on Amazon for about $30 (the hardback lists for $100!)

Yes Im reading Del Noce's book right now as it happens and translating another.

Janet: absorb

"Im reading Del Noce's book right now as it happens and translating another"

Which one?

We are creating an anthology called 'Downhill All the Way: Telling the Story of Atheism'. The idea of it is that there is a *kind of* general Catholic story about the origins of atheism - see the Preamble to Vatican I ! - but beyond that there are lots of versions or takes on this story. So we begin with von Drey and Staudmaier, and then we have Kleutgen and Gunther and Brentano for the later nineteenth century, and then for the early twentieth century we have Gilson and de Lubac and Hans urs von Balthasar (from The Apocalypse of the German Soul). For the second half of the twentieth century we have Cottier and del Noce. We are translating a bit from a book called 'The Problem of Atheism'. We are just translating lots of little bits of these authors. Or not so little - about 80 pages is the max.

At a party this afternoon I proposed Rob G's question (neutrally worded) to two graduate students in Theology - one who studies medieval vernacular theology and an Old Testament exegete. They straight away fell into a surprisingly heated debate on almost exactly the same lines as Grumpy and I have been differing along here.

I don't think three Catholics, even of quite similar persuasions as we are, would state the place of Thomas in the Church in exactly the same way.

I mean, how many people are there who are Christopher Derrick fans? Not many. And yet the two of us, both of whom who qualify for that small segment, don't quite interpret what Thomas means to the Church in the same way.

The evidence is ambiguous. How does one interpret that Vatican I is clearly the work of Thomists? What is the status today of Aeterni Patris? What does it signify that Fides et Ratio as a 'Gilsonian flavour' ?

If its too strong to say its ambiguous, its not crystal clear either.

Aeterni Patris versus Paul VI's Decree on Priestly Training, which came out of Vatican II--

From Aeterni Patris:

While, therefore, We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind, We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences. The wisdom of St. Thomas, We say; for if anything is taken up with too great subtlety by the Scholastic doctors, or too carelessly stated-if there be anything that ill agrees with the discoveries of a later age, or, in a word, improbable in whatever way-it does not enter Our mind to propose that for imitation to Our age. Let carefully selected teachers endeavor to implant the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas in the minds of students, and set forth clearly his solidity and excellence over others.
From Decree on Priestly Training:
Dogmatic theology should be so arranged that these biblical themes are proposed first of all. Next there should be opened up to the students what the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church have contributed to the faithful transmission and development of the individual truths of revelation. The further history of dogma should also be presented, account being taken of its relation to the general history of the Church. Next, in order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections. They should be taught to recognize these same mysteries as present and working in liturgical actions and in the entire life of the Church. They should learn to seek the solutions to human problems under the light of revelation, to apply the eternal truths of revelation to the changeable conditions of human affairs and to communicate them in a way suited to men of our day.
Those seem very different takes on the role of Thomism. Or is it just a change in language?

Something that was mentioned this afternoon that chimes with what Janet says was this: that academic job ads for scholars of medieval theology in the US invariably require an ability to teach Thomism. This is not the case in Europe.

I did wonder whether it was a coincidence that both the people taking the position that Aquinas's influence is relative and late are Benedictine-educated historians of periods when Aquinas was known but did not serve as the sole exemplar of scholastic theology.

Before Nicaea Trinitarian theology was ante Nicene

Had Rob G asked "So, this Thomas Aquinas, is he important?" my answer would have been a resounding Yes. But his actual question was "Is it possible for an RC to be a non-Thomist?" – to which the answer also has to be a resounding Yes.

The same does not apply to Nicaea.

One of the things I like best about Fides et Ratio is that it puts Bonaventure alongside Aquinas (while Dante's Paradiso puts Siger of Brabant, of all people, alongside St Thomas in heaven). I owe more to Thomas than to any of the others, but the historical reality is that Thomas is not all of Thomism, and Thomism is not all of Scholasticism, while to be a Catholic does not require adherence to any of the above (and does require one to reject Aquinas's views on the Immaculate Conception).

Fides et Ratio refers to Bonaventure. But the way it envisages the synthesis of faith and reason is that if an Augustinian Thomist such as Gilson.

"Well I'm thinking that Rob G asked that question like butter would not melt in his mouth and his intention was to set the Catholics wrangling amongst themselves."

Yes. Evil man. :)

"I'm sure we've all had the experience of being exasperated by amateur Thomists who apply his method in a maddeningly mechanical way."

I think I must have led a very sheltered life! And that I must be pretty dumb. I have no idea what Grumpy and Paul are talking about! This is very funny.

I did understand this:

"At a party this afternoon I proposed Rob G's question (neutrally worded) to two graduate students in Theology - one who studies medieval vernacular theology and an Old Testament exegete. They straight away fell into a surprisingly heated debate on almost exactly the same lines as Grumpy and I have been differing along here."

That's really funny. :)

That anthology sounds fascinating, Grumpy.

Well, on Thomas, now that I'm totally confused....

Just kidding. It all makes sense, actually, as in Anglo-Orthodoxy we've got a somewhat similar situation vis a vis Gregory Palamas.

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