Language, Style, Thought

I recently came across some lines about Aquinas’s style penned by Catherine Pickstock and by A.N. Williams that I found perceptive or, more minimally, thought provoking. On the chance that they might resonate with others, I’ve decided to present them here. First Pickstock:

[E]xegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult. And Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation. Some thinkers, like Heidegger, appear on the surface to be obscure and deep, but on analysis are revealed as offering all too clear and readily statable positions. But as Rudi te Velde very well intimates, with Aquinas the opposite pertains. Only superficially is he clear, but on analysis one discovers that he does not offer us a decently confined “Anglo-Saxon” lucidity, but rather the intense light of Naples and Paris which is ultimately invisible in its very radiance — rendering the wisest of us, for Aquinas after Aristotle, like owls blinking in the noonday. Of course it is true that Aquinas does indeed refute shaky positions with supreme economy, simplicity and clarity of argumentation, but the arcanum of his teaching lies not here. It resides rather in the positions he does affirm, often briefly and like a residue, akin to Sherlock Holmes’s last remaining solution, which must be accepted in all its implausibility, when other solutions have been shown to be simply impossible (Truth in Aquinas, 20-21).

I know that not all Thomists are sympathetic with Pickstock or the whole “Radical Orthodoxy” project, and I do have my own misgivings in that direction, but I have to admit that these are arresting words. Is she unfair to Heidegger? Maybe. The reference to Heidegger might not be arbitrary since it seems that it is often precisely continentals who are so critical of Aquinas’s language and style, and not merely because they find it dull. Thus in Heidegger and Aquinas John Caputo writes:

St. Thomas thought Being in the terms that were granted to him … Thomas exhausted the possibilities of thinking Christianity in terms of the metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, and Scholasticism. But his genius was decidedly not to bring this tradition as a whole into question, to question the terms that were handed down to him, to wonder about the sending of Being in the Roman-Latin language [that] he spoke as a magister, to wonder whence these terms and categories, this language, this whole metaphysical constellation sprang. From the standpoint of Heidegger, Thomas thinks naively within this tradition and leaves the original sending of Being in oblivion … [T]he Romans, the builders of roads and empires, rendered this word [i.e., energeia] as actualitas; hence, they conceived Being in terms of acting and action (agere, actio, actus), of doing, making, producing. The metaphysics of “actuality” in St. Thomas is a captive of this metaphysical scheme, which is then wedded to the Christian doctrine of creation (5-6).

Of course, Thomists will say that something has gone horribly wrong with Caputo’s understanding of Aquinas and they will be right. Pickstock’s comments suggest a possible route of response if not the only route. Still Caputo’s concern shows an approach to texts that is admirably non-Cartesian, I mean he takes seriously the material, historical dimension of Aquinas’s thought, drawing out its philosophical and theological import, although in my view he is confused about that import.

As for Pickstock’s quip about “decently confined ‘Anglo-Saxon’ lucidity,” I don’t know how else to read this but as a swipe at analytic thought and perhaps analytic Thomism. It is funny but certainly unfair. Personally, I find a great deal of value in analytic philosophy and theology and in analytic Thomism (despite the fact that I don’t consider myself a part of these groups). Oh well, I’ll let others debate this.

Now the words of A.N. Williams, who happens to be Pickstock’s colleague in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge:

One thread that runs through most of my work is Aquinas, whom I have loved since my first months studying theology. He is the author who figures most prominently in my research and to whom I appeal the most when teaching. The patristic and medieval periods offer such a wealth of extraordinary thought, rich and vibrant in the textures of its prose, but also stunning in its intellectual power. Even so, for me Aquinas stands out even in this distinguished company: the clarity, range and acuity of his thought seems to me unparalleled. Although his prose is pared down to the bone, its structure is so elegant it still sometimes takes my breath away. I smile inwardly as, year in and year out, I see students make the journey from complaining at the beginning of term “This is too hard!” or “This is dry!” to, by the end of term, exclaiming “Wow! This is amazing!”

This passage comes from Williams’s profile on her Cambridge faculty page. There is a clear parallel between her understanding of the relationship of style and thought in Aquinas and Pickstock’s. But Williams does seem to appreciate the surface of the Thomistic text more than Pickstock. And I think many of us can relate to what she says about the apprehension of students when first reading Aquinas. I don’t want to pick on literature majors, but they are often the hardest to convince of Aquinas’s worth! Sometimes they just cannot get beyond the apparent dryness of language and style. They think it betrays a dryness of thought if not life. (It couldn’t be that my colleagues in the literature department are aiding and abetting them in their distaste, could it? “There is an ancient quarrell…” and all that.)

But another thing that is interesting about Williams’s comments is that she isn’t just saying, “Try to look past the surface.” She sees beauty there too: “Although his prose is pared down to the bone, its structure is so elegant it still sometimes takes my breath away.” Some people might be staggered, even offended by this statement. And how would Caputo respond? It might be difficult for him to imagine anyone reacting to Aquinas in the way Williams does. Did he miss something?