Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers. By Ralph McInerny


Pp. x, 313 , Washington, D.C. , The Catholic University of America Press , 2006 , $34.95/£17.90 .

This volume begins with an introduction concerning Aquinas's understanding of the praeambles of Faith which is followed by a section in which Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, and Marie-Dominique Chenu are credited with ‘erosion of the doctrine’. Part three offers a synoptic overview of Thomas' commentary of Aristotle's Metaphysics. The final chapter therein, ‘Aristotelian Existentialism and Thomistic Essentialism’, exhorts readers to reestablish ‘Aristotelico-Thomism as the norm’. (p. 305)

A central conclusion is that ‘Aristotle's recognition of the distinction of essence and existence … is thematic in a number of works' such as Sophistical Refutations and Posterior Analytics, wherein Aristotle asserts a non-identity of to be ‘x’ and to be without qualification, or when he enumerates distinct objectives of inquiry.’ (p. 296) While advertence to such is indisputable, meticulous analyses of L. M. de Rijk confirm that for Aristotle ‘einai’‘is a (categorially) empty notion’. [Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology, v. 1, p. 59] How the implications of this might be demonstrated occupied many twentieth-century followers of Aquinas, including Gilson and Cornelio Fabro, who like many others viewed Thomas's benignly unified commentaries on Aristotle as generously clarifying the latter's presentation of efficient and final causality to better accommodate metaphysical implications of an infinite subsisting cause of being. Yet McInerny insists that the emphasis placed by these expositors on Aquinas's metaphysical originality implies that they also contended ‘that the subject matter of metaphysics changes from Aristotle to Thomas’. (p. 304)

Thus the lengthy portrayal of the science of metaphysics that should be sought in the third section of this work includes only a very brief overview of Thomas' contrasts between abstraction of form from matter and whole from part, and an equally succinct gloss on ‘the activity of separation as distinctive of metaphysics’. (pp. 208; 197) The brevity of the treatment of this matter only passingly considers the lengthy, substantial reflections of John Wippel on the topic, and virtually no attention is given to detailed analyses of these issues by Joseph Owens. (pp. 194–196) While Fabro, Gilson, Wippel, and Owens contrasted markedly in how they dealt with Thomas's principles, demonstrations, and conclusions, each struggled in distinct ways with whether one only can attain a plenary demonstration or the ‘propter quid’ for the non-identity of created things and their being after successfully demonstrating that God exists, with the latter only achievable ‘quia’. Arguably, this does not imply an alteration of metaphysics's subject as articulated by Aristotle, but rather a refinement of elucidation and explanation of such according to Aristotle's acknowledged canons of demonstration.

Granted, ‘there is no univocal meaning of ens commune or substantia that could cover both material and immaterial things’. (p. 241) But how one can avoid considering whether there can be any originative abstractive notion of being as such, and if not, what this implies concerning the roles of direct and reflexive incomplex abstractions along with direct and reflexive judgments in forging metaphysical notions? These important aspects of our unified experience of things, thought, and language often occupied Owens, but they are not emphasised in the author's overview of Thomas's commentary on Aristotle which emphatically confirms ‘the Metaphysics as a literary whole’. (pp. 219–237)

No one would disagree with a rejection of the long discredited thesis of Werner Jaeger concerning Aristotle's purported development away from Plato, nor the uncontested fact that Aquinas legitimately read the text of Aristotle he had inherited as an apparent unity, especially given Thomas's assumptions. But if Christian Rutten is correct, Aristotle did not conceive the Metaphysics as a coherent text, but rather as a compilation of notes, and the order later imposed on its 154 fragments does not accurately reflect the original sequence. [‘Sur la composition de la Métaphysique d' Aristote: de l'utilité de la stylométrie’, in Éditer, traduire, interpréter, ed. by S. G. Lofts and P. W. Rosemann, pp. 15–23; and ‘Analyse comparative des chapitres de la Métaphysique d' Aristote fondée sur les frequences d'emploi des parties du discours’, in Les cahiers de l' analyse des données 13 (1988), pp. 41–68] Even if implications of this are ignored, can one authoritatively impose a governing template for reading Aquinas's commentary without adverting to meticulous studies detailing his specific divergences from strict Aristotelian descriptions of philosophical notions in that exposition? [J. Owens, ‘Aquinas as Aristotelian Commentator’, in St. Thomas Aquinas: Commemorative Studies, v. 1, esp. pp. 217–229; J. Wippel, ‘Thomas Aquinas's Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, in Uses and Abuses of the Classics, eds. J. Gracia and J. Yu, esp. pp. 140–157]

To remark in passing that Aquinas ‘incorporated Neoplatonist doctrines’ and insist that ‘it is a very different thing to say that we have much more with Thomas Aquinas and quite another to suggest that that ‘more’ is not a development of the science of being as being established by Aristotle’ is a very modest conclusion. (p. 305) Assimilation of the former was important so that Thomas might modulate, refine, and attain clarifications to give the latter maximal coherence. Aside from incidental mention of Fabro, however, no examination is made of important recent reflections directly pertinent to this critical issue. [Edward Booth, Aristotelian Aporetic Ontology in Islamic and Christian Thinkers; Richard Taylor, ‘Aquinas, the Plotiniana Arabica, and the Metaphysics of Being and Actuality’, in Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (1998); Cristina D'Ancona Costa, Recherches sur le Liber de causis; Wayne Hankey, ‘Aquinas and the Platonists’, in The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, ed. J. Hoenen and S. Gersh]

Such contributions understandably might be viewed as incidental and almost insignificant if one's goal is recovery of an anterior, regulative approach to Aquinas called ‘Aristotelico-Thomism’. Accomplishment of this requires discrediting those who challenged monochromatic, monopolistic approaches to wisdom, such as de Lubac, Chenu, and Gilson, who are portrayed in the second section. Nonetheless, is it fair to deride Chenu's skepticism concerning the validity of the discredited ‘notion of a philosophia perennis’, and his discernment of well-documented Wolffian rationalist encoding of ‘scholastic’ manualist approaches to philosophical studies as ‘impressionistic’? (pp. 116–119) Chenu is even alleged to have disavowed any value to philosophy by asserting that ‘there can be no philosophical tradition because a tradition requires faith’ (p. 115), although Chenu [Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir, p. 152] clearly meant no more than McInerny's earlier observation that initiation into knowledge implies initial natural belief in the authority of some tradition. (p. 14) Any defenses of Chenu, even regarding his challenges to the ‘schemata that had been prepared’ for Vatican ii exclusively by conservative curial members, are gratuitously labeled ‘intemperate’. (p. 120)

De Lubac's detailed, subtle reflections on the implicit natural desire for beatitude fare no better, for they are encapsulated in the remark that ‘in de Lubac's account, man no longer has a natural end. … It is almost as if for him the supernatural replaces the natural’. (p. 86) The insertion of ‘as if’ is a striking precaution, but one senses that the entirety of de Lubac's historical and doctrinal contributions to this subject are worthy only of dismissal, even though he struggled with aspects of Thomas's own reflections that our author must concede to justify the legitimacy of the ‘praeambula fidei’: ‘But what in us can answer to a good that exceeds our nature’? (p. 20); and, ‘as implicit in any action, knowledge of God is natural and, as it were, easy for us; for all that, as made explicit, the overall aim of human life, the telos of philosophy, is almost beyond our capacity’. (p. 173) Many texts are presented that support Cardinal Cajetan against De Lubac's charges concerning the former's misconstruals of Aquinas's understanding of ‘obediential potency’ and the ‘supernatural’ (pp. 82–87). Yet, even though many have sought to impugn de Lubac's project to explore ‘how Faith can be legitimately employed for universal understanding such that neither the supernatural order is naturalised nor the natural order dissolved’, no one has ever shown that he denied the gratuity of beatitude. [Théologies d'occasion, pp. 104–105]

Last but not least, there is the dossier presented against Etienne Gilson, who is accused of ‘almost bullying’ Maritain in a note concerning Cajetan, and of having alleged that ‘Maritain never understood St. Thomas’. (p. 125) In fact, what Gilson asserted was more nuanced: ‘… reading [Jacques's final book] made me realise that I had never understood his true position. I was naively maintaining that one cannot consider oneself a Thomist without first ascertaining the authentic meaning of St. Thomas's doctrine, which only history can do; during all that time, he was considering himself a true disciple of St. Thomas because he was continuing his thought’. [Letter to A. Maurer, Gilson Archives, in Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain: Correspondance 19231971, ed. G. Provost, pp. 275–276] Gilson's career of research spanning over fifty years may be criticised concerning specific historical conclusions and elaborations of philosophical notions. He came to regret having emphasised so greatly Thomas's ‘actus essendi’ in terms of ‘existence’ rather than ‘being’. Yet he graciously acknowledged his fallibility and firmly held ‘all refutation and polemical discussion as absolutely sterile’. [Etienne Gilson's Letters to Bruno Nardi, ed. P. Dronke, p. 15] If one attends to Gilson's ongoing refinements to his anterior research, one is surprised to hear of his ‘reluctance to acknowledge the role of essence and form’ (p. 148), for he insisted that ‘essences are finite and deficient approximations of the pure act of being’, and that ‘the non-representability of being is within us as a shadow intimating the non-representability of God’. [Introduction a la philosophie chrétienne, pp. 179 and 171] One can only wonder whether later substantial and valuable precisions to Gilson's insights into Aquinas's metaphysical doctrines could be subjected to such sweeping criticisms, especially those developed by J. Owens, John Knasas, and others.

Moreover, Chenu's and Gilson's disavowals of rationalistic approaches to philosophy and de Lubac's emphasis on human nature as naturally endless may be viewed as confirming the integrity and value of the ongoing philosophical enterprise, especially regarding issues related to the ‘praeambula fidei’. Such can easily be overlooked, though, if one is concerned with what Thomas would have called a precisive abstraction, in this instance, ‘traditional Thomism’. (p. 32) Hopefully, this well written, integrative work will provoke further discussion of this topic.