On dwarfs, giants and little boys
by Jules van Schaijik
In Issue 2, Michael Waldstein expresses his regret that last semester’s debate in the Concourse on the role of St. Thomas as teacher was “dominated by the question whether or to what extent one is free to disagree with him.” He points out that given “the Church’s recommendation of St. Thomas as the ‘doctor communis,’ the teacher of all ... the first question should not be ‘Must I agree with him?’ but ‘How can I learn from him?’”
Dr. Waldstein is entirely right to urge us all to approach St. Thomas with an attitude of reverent openness and eagerness to learn. And I share, to some extent, his regret about the focus of the debate so far. But there is an important reason why it has been dominated by the question “Must I agree with him?” which, judging from his article, I’m not sure Dr. Waldstein fully appreciates. I think it is this: much of the devotion found in orthodox Catholic universities to St. Thomas as teacher is infected by something like a misplaced or excessive modesty, which not only undermines our intellectual well-being in general, but prevents us from being able to truly learn from Thomas. Let me try to explain what I mean.
Many students and teachers take the Church’s recommendation of St. Thomas as meaning that we should trust him to be generally right (especially with respect to fundamental principles), and that if a certain teaching of his fails to convince us or seems false, we should humbly assume that we have not yet properly understood him. We should admit that our minds are infinitely inferior to Thomas’ and that he knows better than we do. Their point is not that Thomas is infallible—that would be heretical—but that his mind is so much greater and deeper than ours that we are in no position to criticize him. In practice this means we never disagree with Thomas, except in the few places where his conclusions clearly contradict Church teaching.1
This not always explicit, but rather widespread way of thinking is attractive because it seems so humble. But the problem with it is that, in stressing the greatness of Aquinas, we make our own minds so insignificant that they can do nothing but ‘float’ (to put it perhaps a bit too strongly) in his thought. We lose confidence in our ability to think independently, and thereby cut ourselves off from truth—including the truth to be found in Thomas. We may be able to think the same thoughts as Aquinas, but we cannot know them as true. If we are in no position to criticize his thought, then neither are we in a position to evaluate it and hold it as true.
Thus, it seems to me that the frequent insistence on our freedom to disagree with Thomas is not so much an attempt to assert our autonomy and intellectual rights (though it is that too), as it is an attempt to safeguard our relation to truth itself.
Let me draw an analogy with the moral life. We are all aware that to be morally mature, our actions and choices must be our own. We cannot hand our consciences over to someone else, no matter how much holier he is than we. We may well be tempted to do this from time to time; it would be easy and seem humble, to say to another: “You are so much wiser than I am; you decide and just tell me what to do.” But it would be wrong to do this. If we do not act out of our own consciences, we do not act morally well. It goes without saying that we should imitate the example of the saints and turn to wise men for advice, but if, in the end, we do not “stand on our own two feet,” we condemn ourselves to moral backwardness and immaturity. The same is true intellectually. We must learn to relate to Thomas, not in a servile way, but as his fellow-laborers in the search for truth.
Now, I know Dr. Waldstein well enough to know that he would be among the first to acknowledge the centrality of truth in the intellectual realm, and the need for it to be individually appropriated. But, in my opinion, his article is likely to aggravate the problem I have tried to describe and force the debate exactly in the direction he knows it should not go. The fact, for instance, that he presents St. Thomas’ third argument for monogamy (aware that this was just the sort of argument my wife’s article had rejected) without any critical commentary on it or any attempt to justify it to her and other readers of the Concourse, leaves the impression that to have stated Thomas’ opinions and arguments is enough to have settled the problem.
Even worse, I think, is his use of the analogy of “a boy sitting on his mother’s lap as she traces the letters in the primer” to indicate our relation to the great thinkers of the past. This analogy leaves no room for exactly the kind of “critical independence” which I think is so necessary for a genuine, personal appropriation of truth.
I personally much prefer the dwarfs on giants’ shoulders analogy (which Dr. Waldstein seems not to like very much). It expresses our awareness of the great teachers’ superiority over us and the debt of gratitude we owe them for most of our knowledge and understanding, and at the same time, makes clear that we view the same reality they viewed, through our own eyes.
Jules van Schaijik,Class of ‘89
Jules van Schaijik is Academic Secretary at the International Theological Institute for Marriage and Family in Gaming, Austria. He is also Managing Editor of the Concourse and the fortunate spouse of Editor-in-chief, Kathleen van Schaijik.
- People who think this way naturally look with horror on those (such as myself and my wife) who freely dispute with Thomas, as insufferably arrogant and presumptuous—as if, in criticizing this or that aspect of his thought, we set ourselves up as greater than he. ↑