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  • Chaff: Thomas Aquinas’s Repudiation of His Opera omnia
  • Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle (bio)

“I cannot”: Thomas Aquinas replied to an anxious inquiry about why he had abruptly ceased writing and dictating his Summa heologiae. His companion and confessor, Reginald of Piperno, afraid that overzealous study had induced insanity, insisted that he continue. “I cannot,” repeated Aquinas, “because everything that I have written seems to me chaffy.” Reginald was stunned. Within the month Aquinas decided to visit a sister but upon arrival remained withdrawn and taciturn. “Why,” asked his sister, “is he stupefied and hardly speaking to me?” Reginald explained the case: “From about the feast of St. Nicholas he has been in this state, and since then he has composed nothing.” Reginald importuned Aquinas to tell him why he refused to write and why he was stunned. After many interrogations Aquinas answered, “I adjure you by the living almighty God, and by the faith you have in our order, and by charity that you strictly promise me you will never reveal in my lifetime what I tell you. Everything that I have written seems to me chaffy in respect to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.” 1

Aquinas’s “everything” was voluminous: 101 works. He interrupted his Summa theologiae in the third part at the end of question ninety, “On the parts of penance in general,” and his lectures on the psalms with fifty-four, an entreaty for salvation from enemies. A legend that on his deathbed he obliged monks of Fossanova with a commentary on the Song of Songs is apocryphal, for there is no extant manuscript or report of it. 2 Aquinas never wrote another theological word. His resignation has become anecdotal. 3 It recently introduced a review in The New York Times of Richard Rorty’s philosophical papers: “At the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas had a heavenly vision that convinced him that his writings were ‘as straw.’” 4

Since antiquity an orator had ensured an audience attentive and favorable to his pleading by a modest presence. That very presence required establishment and emphasis, so that among the topics proper to an exordium was affected modesty. An author introduced a subject as beyond his wit. Formulas of modesty protesting meager talent and rude [End Page 383] speech were commonly diffused from classical oratory through medieval literature. There was the fear even to begin, of failure before completion: literary trepidation. An author feigned to venture a project only at the command of a friend, patron, or superior. 5 Although the inability of Aquinas concerned a work well in progress, his refusal to continue at the persuasion of Reginald signaled such modesty. Incomplete texts, whether really so or contrived to be—like Petrarch’s lamented Africa or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and House of Fame—were a feature of fourteenth-century literature. “Feebleness” (excusatio propter infirmitatem) was, since Quintilian’s rhetoric, the excuse of inadequacy, 6 and its denotation of intellectual and artistic debility connoted, as in Reginald’s inference about Aquinas, physiological or psychological infirmity. Yet the fragment, for which the intact original was lost, forgotten, or vanished, was a bane of medieval literature, whose culture differed from modern notions of the empirical, individual creator whose work is self-expressive. Not originality but imitation was the norm, invention from the commonplaces of tradition, so that textual voices were fundamentally anonymous. 7

Straw was common enough material for deprecation. The ubiquitous objector whom Aquinas refuted in his Summa theologiae might be considered a “straw man.” The University of Paris where he lectured and disputed was on Straw Street (rue du Fouarre), so that the epithet “straw” might have typified scholasticism. Straw was famously used to discredit at least one book beyond his Summa theologiae. Martin Luther demoted the Epistle of James from the biblical canon because it was a “right strawy epistle.” Since the offense of that book was justification by works, 8 his epithet was likely influenced by Augustine’s speculation in De fide et operibus on the testing by fire of works built on the foundation of Christ: whether the refinement of gold, silver, and jewels as good...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 383-399
Launched on MUSE
1997-04-01
Open Access
No
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