Monday, 16 September 2013

Thomas Aquinas: The Bruce Lee of Medieval Philosophy

By Eric Hanna, S.J.


Thomas Aquinas is, without a doubt, the Bruce Lee of medieval philosophy.

That's what I told my students as I began teaching my first class. I have officially begun my regency, the stage of Jesuit formation where those who have taken vows spend time teaching and performing apostolic work. I'm thrilled to be working at Campion College in Regina. It's not easy to interest people in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. But my opening device intrigued my students. Aquinas and Bruce Lee are philosophers with similar approaches to life.

Bruce Lee, founder of his own martial arts school and famed actor/director, began his studies in the west with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution. Aquinas and Bruce were similar in their level of personal giftedness. Both are geniuses who revolutionized their respective fields.

Aquinas and Bruce Lee both inherited the data of many different traditions. Bruce was noted for his integration of western scientific boxing and Japanese martial knowledge into traditional Chinese forms of fighting. His motto was, “It doesn't matter where it comes from, as long as it helps you.” Aquinas integrated traditional Christianity with Arab, Greek, and Roman ways of thinking; using the tools of multiple traditions to get at truth. Both persons integrated what they saw as the best and most useful from their sources.

Both thinkers made use of metaphysical ideas in harmony with scientific observation. In the case of kung fu, the Chinese thought about chi, the energy that flows through the human body. Bruce Lee did not dismiss this tradition as old-fashioned but discovered its correspondence to key processes for maximizing the strength and speed of human biology. In like manner, Aquinas inherited the tradition of the soul but did not dismiss the soul as beyond natural description. Aquinas usefully showed how ideas about the soul corresponded to observable phenomena in the world. Aquinas argued for the soul as a way of conceiving the underlying intelligibility of the physical world.

And, at last, Thomas Aquinas and Bruce Lee both combined academic excellence with moral excellence. Bruce Lee promoted peace, condemned violence as a regrettable last resort, and taught that the best martial artist is one with a fundamental respect for all life. Aquinas, likewise, argued that the apex of philosophy was not personal brilliance or the power to convince others. Rather, Aquinas argued that discovering the truth about the world brings with it a deep humility because of the enormity and complexity of reality. For him, the proper attitude was one of fellowship in a shared search for beloved truth.

Aquinas doesn't strike us as personally charismatic or powerful in the way that Bruce Lee does. However, they would have admired in one another their sheer dedication, their tremendous personal effort in training, which each one exercised for the sake of exploring human potential. In Bruce's case, potential of the body and in Thomas' case, potential of the mind.

I enjoyed relating Aquinas to young students' areas of interest in this way. But, as a confrere of mine has pointed out, if I wish to get my theology buddies to watch kung fu movies with me, I must convince them of the inverse comparison. Not only is Aquinas the Bruce Lee of medieval philosophy, Bruce Lee is the Aquinas of martial arts cinema.  

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