Book Review: The Angelic Doctor‏ – By Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain The Angelic Doctor.pngLetter TThe Angelic Doctor, as one might well guess from the title, is Jacques Maritain‘s biography of Thomas Aquinas, as well as a treatise on the philosophy of monolithic thinker. The latter portions of the book are especially devoted to discussing the philosophy of Aquinas as it affects us today and laying out what Maritain believes to be the proper course of action for Christians in the face of the various systems of thought which face them.

As noted the first sections of the book are devoted to discussing the life of Aquinas in a purely biographical arena. The life of Aquinas as presented by Maritain is both readable and informative, as well as insightful.

With the life of Aquinas layed out Maritain goes on to speak of his philosophy. As posited by Maritain, “Saint Thomas’ method… is essentially universalist and positive. It aims indeed at preserving all the acquired knowledge of humanity in order to add to it and to perfect it; and it requires the more and more complete effacement of the personality of the philosopher before the truth of the object.” He goes on to note that “The philosophy of Saint Thomas is independent in itself of the data of faith: its principles and structure depend upon experience and reason alone.”

The prime duration of Maritain’s philosophy discussion is the exposition of his Thomism, concluding in a catalog of references to places in which the leaders of the Catholic church have shown support of that Thomism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Thomism claims to use reason to distinguish the true from the false; it does not wish to destroy but to purify modern thought, and to integrate everything true that has been discovered since the time of Saint Thomas.”

-“The error of the modern world has been to claim to assure the reign of reason over nature by refusing the reign of super-nature over reason.”

-“I mean this in an altogether different sense: that common sense itself is an embryonic and rudimentary philosophy, a philosophy which has not yet reached the scientific state.”

Specific Criticisms

I’m unsure whether my criticisms serve as critiques of this book in particular, or of Maritain’s Thomism, or of Aquinas, or simply of Catholicism. It is possible my critiques are simply a reflection of my Protestantism. Either way they are the places I depart from the thought of the author (whether directly or indirectly).

My chief issue with the philosophy presented by Maritain, and the only one I’ll really bother to get into here, is that it sets up the problem of the Fall as an intellectual dilemma, it is one that he believes can be remedied by the use of the mind (which would make one wonder why there was any need of Christ if man could just think his way out of the trap he’d fallen into). Here are two examples of this mindset:

“A resurrection of metaphysics and a new expansion of charity: before all else this is the prerequisite for the return to human unity, to that unity which was perfect only in the Garden of Eden and in the heart of Christ in Gethsemane, but the longing for which will never cease to haunt us.”

“Now, it is important to realize that nothing below the intellect can remedy this disease which affects the intellect and which sprang from it; it is by intelligence itself that this disease will be cured. If intelligence is not saved, nothing will be saved.”

Within these two quotations we have presented everything which is in opposition to the message of Christ. In short, sin is not the problem. The issue is not one of the soul, or the will, but a simple problem of a diseased intellect – but the bright side is that even though it is the intellect which is diseased, the intellect is capable of curing itself!

A few other minor issues are the idea of a Christian philosophy being capable of existing independent of faith (operating solely on reason), as well as the general trend towards assimilating the ‘truth’ of all other philosophies into some Christian body of truth. The simple question is, ‘what are the qualifiers for bringing new truth into the Christian philosophy?’ Is it simply that which already agrees with Christian philosophy? In this case it would be redundant. Or is it simply acknowledging facts outside those expressly put forth in scripture (and/or tradition in the case of Catholicism).

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