Thursday 17 January 2013

What I Learned from St. Thomas Aquinas

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Image: J. Hester & P. Scowen, STScI, ESA, NASA.

As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers, he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things. It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One. ―Chesterton on Thomas Aquinas

Last term, a fellow Jesuit scholastic and I were privileged to do a reading course on the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas with our programme director, reading chiefly from the First Part of the magnificent Summa Theologiae. I expected the material to be intellectually stimulating, but an unexpected pleasure were the many spiritual insights that we received. Here are the “greatest hits” from the course.

1. The doctrine of creation is a major advance. One of the real philosophical advantages that St. Thomas has to his favour is the doctrine of creation. Plato, Aristotle and the other ancients concluded that there was an Intelligence somehow responsible for the rationality of the universe, but they believed that the material world itself was just there. They did not attempt to explain why matter exists. Thomas, on the other hand, is convinced that matter itself needs to be caused by God. This leads to the recognition that matter is noble and good, which many ancients denied. It also meshes with the Christian vision that absolutely everything in the whole universe, small to large, most physical to most spiritual, participates in God’s life, something that mere Platonism could not satisfactorily arrive at. (See: ST Ia, Q. 44.)

2. Creation is not the same as a “beginning”. Creation is not about God getting the universe rolling and then letting it do its thing. In fact, Thomas shows that it would be quite possible for a created universe to be eternal, with no beginning. It is only by revelation that we know that there was a beginning in time. Creation is God’s act giving existence to the world and all that is in it, as he constantly holds everything in being. When we say that God creates “from nothing”, this does not mean that he causes a change that turns something called “nothing” into “something”, for nothing is not something. Real change presupposes matter, and so creation is of a different order. Thomas’s philosophy of creation lends real depth to the Christian notion that God is everywhere and in all things, for everything is constantly being held in existence and participating in his infinite goodness. (See: ST Ia, Q. 45 & Q. 46.)

St. Thomas Aquinas
3. Everthing that is, is good. Because all being is created by God and participates in his existence, everything that is, is good. To put it another way, anything that has being is good by the very fact that it exists. There is no such thing as a completely evil person or a completely evil deed. (See: ST Ia, Q. 5.)

4. Evil is not a thing. Since everything that is is good, nothing that is is evil. Rather, evil is a privation of being that is proper to something. When a person is injured―losing a limb, for example―the evil is in being deprived of something that is natural to the person. Or, when someone has an evil desire, it is not that desire itself is evil or that the thing desired is evil, but that the will is deprived of the fullness of what it ought to desire. Understanding this can help to look upon those who do evil in a new light. All evil begins from a good and is directed towards a good, notwithstanding the privation that accompanies it. And as long as there is good it can be fanned into flame; evil, being nothing, cannot ultimately survive. (See: ST Ia, Q. 48.)

5. God works for the common good. God’s will is that all creation together show forth his glory and his goodness. Individual beings in creation cannot find their full meaning in themselves, but only insofar as they are part of the whole. This partly explains why evil is allowed to exist: a universe that shows God’s glory most fully must include things having all grades of perfection. Technically, this is called “the principle of plenitude”. Since no created thing can even approach his own perfection and splendour, God created many things, each showing his goodness in its own way, whether great and humble. And because all creatures have some degree of imperfection, evil will inevitably arise—though only to usher in a far greater good, because taken all together, creation is (and is becoming) more complete reflection of God's glory. That is why, even in a world of suffering, we can say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” and speak truly. These words only make sense if we reject individualism, the deception that tells us that the greatest good comes from individual fulfilment. Rather, each person will find fulfilment in this universe by living for the common good, which is to God’s glory. (See: ST Ia,  Q. 47 & Q. 49).


  1. Thank you for sharing. Your article is thought-provoking and food for prayer.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, especially since I am too daunted to actually pick up the summa.

    Also, nice nebula. I recognized the photo, since I have now read every children's book that our local library has to offer. This is all due to my son, who is named after.... St. Thomas Acquinas. Coincidence? Hmmm.