Why I like Tom

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One of my students asked me once what it was I most admired in St. Thomas Aquinas (whom I tend to quote a lot). I’d never been asked that before, but the answer came quickly. What I love about him is his intellectual humility and reverence before the real. This is evidenced especially in how meticulous, fair and deferential he is when expounding ideas he disagrees with. We all feel the almost irresistible temptation to make ‘straw men’ of our opponents, seeking burlesques of their positions rather than descriptions.

If you were in a debate with Thomas, you would be treated to the pleasure of hearing your own position profiled in the noblest form possible, with all of its strengths highlighted and its weaknesses – for the moment, at least – almost explained away. These are the so-called ‘objections’ and they sometimes number over 20 in his more detailed works. They cast wide and deep to find every conceivable way in which he could possibly be wrong. He insists on giving attentive ear to his opponent’s logic and allowing them the space and time to fully profile their point of view and conclude their arguments. He doesn’t want to miss the truth, wherever it might be hiding.

To be sure, once the defendants have rested their case, his attack will be swift and sharp. But even so, he will usually begin by making a distinction (“There are two ways to understand this…” or “There are two kinds of that…”), allowing his interlocutors a last-minute chance to save face, presenting their error not so much as blameworthy stupidity as an understandable failure to catch a difficult distinction.

Today, however, we live in a world of words that glory in straw men and exaggerations. One sure way to spot the bluntness, or even the malice of someone’s mind is to catch them deriding what they could not even define, and caricaturing things they would be unable to characterize. If such pint-sized pundits would keep their mouths closed, they could at least feign intelligence and mask their mental sloth with a twist of the eyebrows. Arrogance, however, usually blinds them to such prudential measures. So their mouths open wide and their folly enters the public forum.

I suspect Thomas was not only canonized for the sanctity of his will but also for the heroic courtesy of his intelligence.

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