The Time of Aquinas

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Aquinas (1225:1274)

Thomas Aquinas (aka, Thomas of Aquino) is the paramount Catholic Theologian of all time. His monumental Summa Theologica made a great contribution to our understanding of theology and morality. He took theology from the realm of mysticism into the realm of logic and reason. He actually used the scientific method to develop what is known as the Natural Law of morality. (His influence was so powerful, that reverberations of his teaching are found in our Declaration of Independence.) He analyzed human behavior, determined the result of that behavior, and evaluated whether the outcome was in harmony with the way God creates us to live. The only problem is that it is based, in part, on a scientific fallacy.

Part 2 of Summa Theologica can be summarized as: There is a God. God has a plan for the Universe. God creates us as rational beings for a purpose. We can use reason to determine what are the rules of God's plan for us (Natural Law or Laws of Nature). Aquinas was building a bridge between Christian theology and the rationalism of the philosopher Aristotle. For this he was denounced by church leaders at the University of Paris for daring to incorporate the writings of a pagan into Christianity. Eventually he was excommunicated by the important Bishop of Paris. Its university was the foremost Christian university of Western Europe at the time. The Greek writers, especially Aristotle, were all the rage in Paris. Latin translations of the Greek had just arrived from the great Andalûsian University of Córdoba. Thomas had two choices: fight them or join them. He did what many other Christian thinkers have successfully done. He took the pagan ideas and used them to advance Christianity.

Aristotle (384:322 BC)

Aristotle Travels to Paris (Side Trip)

The distance from Athens to Paris is 1660 miles, as the bird flies. But Aristotle took the scenic route–7048 miles, which is why it took him about 1500 years to make the trip. Along the way he had extended lay-overs at two crown jewels of Islamic civilization–Baghdad and Córdoba.

Baghdad was established in 762 AD and within 50 years its population had grown to over a million. It was the capital of the great Abbasid Empire–a rich and proud, but beautiful city, distinguished by the domes and archways of intricate Abbasid architecture. Caliph al-Ma'mūn, a great patron of learning and science, founded a school for scholarship. He amassed a huge library holding the writing of the best minds from earlier times–particularly Greek philosophers like Aristotle–and had them translated into Arabic. His school was called the House of Wisdom and it rivaled the Library of Alexandria. It was the genesis of the golden age of Islamic culture. An extraordinary list of scholars studied here from the 9th to 13th centuries. Islamic civilization eventually streatched from Uzbekistan in the east to Spain in the west and covered an expanse larger than the Roman empire at its apex. It has such power and influence that for more than 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic.

Córdoba was of city of half a million inhabitants, paved streets with street lights, and public services such as hospitals and libraries–the first true European metropolis since Rome. At a time when the rest of Europe was shrouded in the Dark Ages, the Muslim city was the most advanced city on the entire continent. It was the home of Averroes (1126:1198) and Maimonides (1135:1204)–physicians and preeminent philosophers of Islam and Judaism. In philosophy, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, poetry, and theology, medieval Islam was the world's leading civilization. Muslim culture served as the repository of ancient Greek philosophy and science. It was that civilization which transmitted Greek knowledge to Western Europe–along an unbroken belt stretching from Asia Minor to Spain. The chain of communication reached from a school of translators in 8th century Baghdad (Greek into Arabic) to a school of translators in 13th century Córdoba (Arabic into Latin).

In any event, the flaw in the philosophy of Aquinas is that he accepted Aristotle's concept of time as being discrete rather than continuous. So they both are ensnared by one of the paradoxes devised by Zeno (aka Zeno of Elea). Let's go to the video.

In their foot-race, Achilles allows the Tortoise a head-start of 100 yards. If each racer travels at a constant speed, then after some finite time, Achilles has run 100 yards, bringing him to the Tortoise's starting point. During this time, the Tortoise has crawled only 10 yards. It will then take Achilles some more time to run that distance, by which time the Tortoise will have advanced further. Achilles needs even more time to reach this third point, while the Tortoise moves ahead again. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the Tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. So, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise and win the race.

The solution to the paradox lies the false premise that moving objects have exact positions at an instant in time and that their motion and time can be meaningfully dissected this way, i.e., time is continuous–not discrete.

Zeno (495:430 BC)

As a result of this time trap, Thomas sees life as a series of short discrete events rather than a long continuous movement. Life is full of good acts and evil acts. Most of the virtuous acts are Boy-Scout daily good deeds (helping a little old lady across the street), but some of the virtuous acts are truly heroic (risking one's life to save a baby from a burning building). Most of the bad acts are venial sins (copying a friend's homework for school), but some of the bad acts are really evil mortal sins (serial murder or genocide).

Thomistic philosophy leads to the view that how we die is more important than how we live. Thus, the fewer mortal sins we commit the better our odds of being the state of grace when God rolls the dice and we die. Because, once again, there is a discrete result–heaven or hell. It does not matter how virtuous the life we lead or how consistently evil our behavior has been; it's all about how we die. Redemption from a wicked life through a death-bed confession has become a cliché of our culture. And the story is told of a holy pope, who was on the path to be canonized a saint. But when they dug up his casket looking for a sign, they found evidence of thrashing around–the pope had been buried alive–maybe he had committed the mortal sin of despair in his last moments. Case closed. How dumb is that?

I see life as a process–it ebbs and flows–it has it's ups and downs. We are all saints and sinners. But it is not quick little acts that define us–it is our overall way of life. Are we trying to improve the life of those around us, or are we completely self-centered on our own well-being? Most of us fall somewhere in between Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II on one hand and Hitler, Stalin, or Mao on the other. On the negative side, it is not the number of times we loose our temper; rather it is living of life filled with settling old scores and revenge for past injuries. On the positive side, it is not the number of checks we write to charity; rather it is that we make a practice of responding generously to those in need.

To my way of thinking, we die as we live. If we are racing toward a cliff, it is pointless to jamb on the brakes when the front wheels are over the edge. Yes, we can reform our sinful lives, or we can stray from the path of sainthood. But it is a slow process, with many successes and failures along the way. Habits are hard to kick. Momentum or inertia (depending on our perspective) is difficult to overcome. Whatever direction we have chosen, we tend to stay on course with few and small changes. So our position in the after-life is determined by the sum total of our lives–how we deal with adversity; how we deal with success; what we have done–or failed to do–with the physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities we have been given; how much have we subtracted from society, or how much have we contributed to society.

[There is a separate essay on how the Thomistic perspective on time has influence our views on morality. There is some overlap. READ MORE: Morality Plays]

[To a lesser extent this concept of time has also affected our thinking on the Sacraments, subjects of another essay. READ MORE: Seven Sacraments] NOT DONE YET

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