Aquinas for Educators
Guest post by Edward G. O. Radler Rice
First, I want to extend my thanks to Stacy Trasancos for giving me the opportunity to present a guest symposium. Ignitum Today is a Godsend. Here we – the frontline in the New Evangelization – have a forum to share our faith and knowledge.
Now, I’m simply going to get out of the way and point to St. Thomas Aquinas who unbeknownst to me was my guide when I was just a boy, and then my chosen guide while I was in college, and continues to be my teacher in regards to Catholic Education, along with so much more…
Between 1256 and 1259, Thomas Aquinas wrote his treatise On the Teacher, which is the eleventh of the twenty-nine questions making up his Disputed Question on Truth. In 1998, Ralph McInerny edited and translated Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, published by Penguin Classics, and included On the Teacher in the compilation.
Here follows excerpts from the Angelic Doctor’s responses to articles 1, 2, and 4, with the page number from McInerny’s compilation noted:
Article 1: Can a man teach and be called a master or God alone?
It should be said that there is the same diversity of opinion in three matters, namely, in bringing forms in existence, in the acquisition of virtue, and in the acquisition of knowledge (197).
…science pre-exists in the learner in active and not purely passive potency, otherwise a man could not acquire science on his own.
Therefore, just as there are two ways to be cured, one by the operation of nature alone, the other by nature as aided by medicine, so too there are two ways of acquiring science, one, when natural reason by itself comes to knowledge of the unknown, and this way is called discovery, another when someone outside aids natural reason, and this way is called learning.
In things that come about both by nature and by art, art acts in the same way and through the same means as nature. For just as nature restores health to one suffering a chill by heating, so too the physician, which is why art is said to imitate nature. It happens similarly in the acquisition of science, because the teacher leads another in the same way to knowledge of the unknown as one by discovery brings himself to knowledge of the unknown.
But the process of coming to knowledge of the unknown by discovery is to apply the common self-evident principles to determinate matters and then to proceed to particular conclusions, and from those to others. So one man is said to teach another following this same discourse of reason which natural reason executes, showing signs to another so that the natural reason of the pupil, through what is proposed, as through certain instruments, comes to knowledge of the unknown.
Therefore, just as the physician is said to cause health in the infirm by acting with nature, so too a man is said to cause science in another by the activity of his natural reason, and this is to teach. Hence one man is said to teach another and to be his master. And thus the Philosopher says in Posterior Analytics 1 that demonstration is a syllogism that causes one to know (199-200).
The light of reason by which principles of this kind are known is placed in us by God, bringing about in us a kind of likeness or uncreated truth. Hence, since all human teaching is only efficacious because of the power of this light, it follows that it is God alone who teaches within and principally, just as nature principally and within heals. Nevertheless, man can be properly said both to heal and to teach in the way explained (200).
Article 2: Can someone be called his own teacher?
It should be said that without any doubt one can, through the light of natural reason placed within him and without any external aid, come to knowledge of many unknown things, as is evident in all who acquired science by way of discovery. And thus in a certain way one can be the cause of his own knowing, but he cannot properly be called his own teacher or be said to teach himself.
…teaching implies the perfect act of knowing in the teacher or master; hence it is required that he who teachers or is a master should have the science he cause in another, explicitly and perfectly, as it is acquired in the learning through teaching.
When someone acquires knowledge by himself through an intrinsic principle, what is the agent cause of science does not possess the science to be acquired, save in part, namely with respect to the seminal reasons of science, which are common principles. Therefore, from such causality the name teacher or doctor cannot be derived, properly speaking (205).
Article 4: Is teaching an act of the active or contemplative life?
It should be said that the contemplative and active lives are distinguished from one another by end and by matter.
Temporal things, on which human acts bear, are the matter of the active life, whereas the matter of the contemplative is the notions of knowable things on which the contemplator dwells. This diversity of matter comes from the diversity of ends, just as in everything else the matter is determined according to the requirements of the end.
For the end of the contemplative life, as we now speak of it, is the seeing of truth; I mean uncreated truth to the degree possible for the one contemplating. Which in this life is imperfectly seen, but in the future life will be seen perfectly. Hence Gregory also says that the contemplative life begins here, that it might be perfected in the heavenly fatherland.
But the end of the active life is action, which is aimed at for its usefulness to neighbours.
We find a twofold matter in the act of teaching, a sign of which is that there is a doubt object conjoined to the act of teaching. One matter of it is the thing itself that is taught, another the one to whom the science is passed on. By reason of the first matter, the act of teaching pertains to the contemplative life, but by reason of the second to the active.
From the point of view of its end, teaching is seen to pertain to the active life alone, because its ultimate matter, in which it achieves the intended end, is the matter of the active life. Hence it pertains rather to the active than to the contemplative life, although it also in a certain way pertains to the contemplative, as is clear from what has been said (214-15).
Finally, I turn to Aquinas’ treatise, The Active and Contemplative Lives, found in the Summa theologiae (2-2, 180) and translated by McInerny in Selected Works.
Article 4: Does the contemplative life consist only in the contemplation of God or of other truths as well?
It should be said that, as has already been remarked, something can belong to the contemplative life in two ways, principally and secondarily or dispositively. The contemplation of divine truth belongs principally to the contemplative life, because this kind of contemplation is the end of the whole of human life. Hence Augustine says in On the Trinity I.8 that the contemplation of God is promised to us as the end of all actions, and the eternal perfection of the blessed. In the future life this will be perfect, when we will see him face to face, whence he makes us perfectly happy. Now, however, the contemplation of divine truth is had only imperfectly by us, namely through a glass darkly; hence through it a kind of commencement of happiness comes to be in us, which starts here and will come to term in the future. Hence the Philosopher in Ethics 10.7 places man’s ultimate happiness in the contemplation of the best intelligible object. But we are led by the divine effects to the contemplation of God, according to Romans I.20: ‘For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen – his everlasting power also and divinity – being understood through the things that are made.’ Thus it is that the contemplation of divine effects belongs secondarily to the contemplative life, insofar as man is led from them to knowledge of God (italics mine). Hence Augustine says in On True Religion 29 that a vain and perishing curiosity ought not to be exercised in the consideration of creatures, but it should be a step towards the immortal and everlasting. Therefore, it is clear that four things pertain to contemplation in an orderly fashion: first, the moral virtues; second, the other acts besides contemplation; third, contemplation of divine effects; fourth, the fulfilling contemplation of the divine truth (692-93).
My point in highlighting the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas should be clear. He is simply awesome owing to the gifts bestowed on him by Christ Jesus. For the Catholic educator, Thomas Aquinas must be a model for teaching and contemplation.