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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 121-149

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Whither the Neo-Thomist Revival?

John F. X. Knasas

My title is the question: "Whither the Neo-Thomist Revival?" I will answer the question from two perspectives. The first is the perspective of the history of philosophy. The second is the perspective of philosophy itself. This distinction of perspectives presupposes a distinction between the existence of ideas and the logic of ideas. In other words, history is not destiny such that the newer is the truer. Given the fact that biases and prejudices can affect thinkers themselves, perfectly good ways of thinking can be discarded for pernicious ways of thinking. Hence, every event in philosophy's history also calls for a philosophical estimate. The same will be true for the event of neo-Thomism.


Before providing an answer in either sense, I need to elucidate the question itself by describing the meanings of its terms. By a "Thomist" I mean a philosopher or theologian who believes that his seminal, or core, ideas agree with those of the thirteenth-century [End Page 121] Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, as that philosopher or theologian reads the Thomistic texts. This understanding of "Thomist" suffices to establish the Thomistic fraternity just as love of wisdom, as distinct from its actual possession, suffices to establish the philosophical fraternity. Obviously, this understanding of "Thomist" does not baptize or anoint any particular brand of Thomism. Rather, it establishes a definite-enough context to distinguish a Thomist from a Kantian, Hegelian, or Heideggerian, yet possesses the logical space to permit the various Thomists to argue and settle the issue of which Thomism is authentic or inauthentic, philosophically correct or incorrect, etc. By this definition, one can still be a Thomist, in spite of all one's mistakes or failings, just as one can still be a philosopher despite the same.

By the "Thomist revival" I mean the tidal wave of Thomistic philosophical activities that rolled forth from Pope Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical, Aeterni patris. A budding revival did precede the encyclical. In their 1838 General Chapter, the Dominicans reestablished the old ratio studiorum consisting of three years of philosophy and five years of Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. Yet further back was the teaching of Aquinas by Canon Vincenzo Buzzetti at the Vincentian "Alberoni" College in Piacenza, Italy. Two of his disciples, Serafino and Dominico Sordi, passed on Buzzetti's enthusiasm for Aquinas to two other brothers, Joseph and Joachim Pecci. Joachim Pecci was to become Leo XIII. 1

In a way difficult to understand in terms of today's indifferent reactions to encyclicals, Aeterni patris bestowed a decisive impetus to this budding Thomistic revival. Without mentioning specific Thomistic doctrines, Leo in florid prose enjoined of the Church's intellectuals a way of philosophizing in which "in the density of ignorance and in the flood-tide of error, holy faith, like a friendly star, shines down upon [the wise man's] path and points out to him the fair gate of truth beyond all danger of wandering." 2 What Leo had in mind might be quickly and not inappropriately compared to mathematics [End Page 122] textbooks that contain the answers at the back. Evidently, mathematical pedagogues consider it helpful for students to already have the answers when learning mathematics. Leo considers the same to be true for the believer learning philosophy.

Now admittedly anything good can be abused, and so it is that some Christian philosophers have used their faith as an excuse to practice philosophy in a slipshod fashion. Yet to attack Leo on this basis is to attack a straw man. The point should be to see the results when something is performed integrally. Leo contends that the history of Christian thought, especially in the Middle Ages, is a glowing tribute to this way of philosophizing. And certainly Etienne Gilson's studies of medieval thinkers have confirmed this. What historians of philosophy regarded as a wasteland, Gilson revealed to be suffused in great and profound philosophical thinking. 3



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