This post is part of our original series on Poetic Justice Warriors.
Poetic justice spontaneously rewards virtue and punishes vice. Social justice is capricious and requires force. This series of articles from Center for Individualism will feature some of the unsung heroes of Western Civilization. They are champions of reason and peaceful human progress, armed only with the power of their ideas applied to reality. Our motivation is gratitude. We stand on the shoulders of these giants in economics, science, business, politics, the arts, and education.
Perhaps the most challenging and controversial question of human existence is, well, human existence. How did we acquire consciousness, and when? Was it an emergent phenomenon as suggested by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or was it a supernaturally induced spark that created our inner voice, our sense of the future, and formed language? This is an enduring historical, scientific, religious, and philosophical conundrum, and a contentious one at that.
A similar, and existentially important question is: when and how did human beings make the giant leap from the mind-numbing stagnation of the Dark Ages to the humanism and achievements of The Enlightenment? Was it an emergent phenomenon, divine inspiration, or was it a spark induced by a few mere mortals? This question is also one of history, science, religion, and philosophy. While the histiography is complex, there is one individual who resolved the religious and philosophical differences that paved the way for Romanticism and the Scientific Method. This Poetic Justice Warrior bridged the gap between Catholic hegemony and The Renaissance. He is the Italian Dominican Friar Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The Teacher, Philosopher and Theologian
The bridge that Aquinas built was constructed with the ancient girders of Aristotle’s reason, and this was no small feat. It required extraordinary insight and courage as he risked possible excommunication from the Church. To be accused of blasphemy was a very serious matter. For example, three years after Aquinas’ death in 1274, the Bishop of Paris issued a condemnation to declare that God’s absolute power superseded any principles that are derived from reason.
The condemnation listed over 200 such heretical propositions; many were Aristotle’s, and twenty were from Thomas Aquinas’ own philosophy known as Thomism. One example of Thomism is self-determination and inductive reasoning:
The will does not precede the intellect but follows upon it. It freely chooses among the many goods that are presented to it as desirable according to a changeable judgment or evaluation. Consequently, the choice follows the final practical judgment. But the will is the cause of it being the final one.
Another example of Thomism is Aquinas connecting the divine and the Law of Identity (everything behaves according to its nature):
Consequently, the one God, unique and simple, alone subsists in absolute being. All other things that participate in being have a nature whereby their being is restricted; they are constituted of essence and being, as really distinct principles.
As is frequently the case with poetic justice, it takes time and patience, and is an inevitable force of nature. Fifty years after his death, Aquinas was canonized as a saint, in 1567 he was awarded the title of Doctor of the Church for his research and writing, and in 1879 Pope Leo XIII declared Aquinas’s theology a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine.
Enter The Modern Era
Thomas Aquinas utilized a method of thinking and learning known as Scholasticism, which is a system of critical thought that was a departure from traditional Christian theology. Scholasticism is closely associated with the rise of modern universities in Europe, and it relies heavily on dialectical reasoning, which is a form of debate that excludes subjective or emotional elements. The goal is to arrive at objective truth. Rational arguments are broken down into inferences that move premises toward logical conclusions. This is essential for resolving contradictions because contradictions cannot exist. The significance of this, especially in the late Middle Ages, cannot be underestimated. Scholasticism was the crucial method needed to reconcile Christian theology with Classical philosophy, and pave the way for the Modern era.
Aquinas’ signature achievement is his masterwork Summa Theologica, and it is considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic, medieval, and Christian philosophy. Within Summa there are several main characters, and two of these people could have been considered heresy. One is the Islamic, Aristotelian philosopher and polymath Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and the other is Aristotle himself, referred to as The Philosopher. But how did Classical Greek philosophy resurrect itself after a 1000 year absence in the Christian world? According to philosopher Stephen Hicks:
1085 is a significant year. Spain becomes fully Christian again. And at Toledo and various other points, the Christians rediscover all sorts of Greek and Roman texts that had been lost to Western Europe. And curious minds start to read some of these texts and discover these magnificent civilizations that had existed long before and shockingly were not Christian. How was it possible?
Not only was Aquinas born into a prominent Catholic family during a time of enormous transition for Europe, he was a strong-willed and highly educated renegade. As a young man, his parents held Aquinas under house arrest for a year because of his plans to join the Dominican Order, by whom he had been introduced to Aristotelian philosophy while enrolled at university in Naples.
Postmodern Progressives vs. The Enlightenment
The fall of Rome in the 5th century A. D. led to the fall of literacy, and the rise of St. Augustine’s influence over Christian doctrine. According to Hicks, “the dominant Augustinian Christian theology is very anti-empirical, it emphasizes revelation, mysticism, authority, and faith. Reason, to the extent that is allowed, is severely subordinated.” Its doctrine teaches that the divine controls all that will ever happen, force is permitted against heretics, people are inherently evil, and that reason, purpose and pride are bound to fail.
Incidentally, the rise of so-called progressivism in 20th century western culture has similar characteristics. While literacy is very high, its doctrine is government control, intolerance of debate, people are inherently victims, and individualism has failed. This can only lead us down the Road to Serfdom, and ultimately to the slavery which had been eradicated by western capitalists.
Not only did Aquinas usher the Catholic church into the Age of Reason, whereby it became a major force for higher education throughout the western world, he helped pave the way for the level of human consciousness that nature intended. And this unleashed a spontaneous force of nature that brought human flourishing to the entire world. While the pagans of classical Greece and Rome were slave owners (it was common and accepted nearly everywhere on earth) and placed no particular value on individuals, Christians began to regard slavery as inhuman. After all, central to Christian theology is the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God, an idea also enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence. As President John Adams wrote, “The Revolution was in the minds of the people.”
And this is the spark, combining the Classical ideal of reason to the Christian ideal of equality, that freed the human mind and led to Western Civilization’s hallmarks of personal liberty, self-reliance, invention, religious and ethnic tolerance, limited government, the arts and unimaginable prosperity. All of which describes individualism, a Classical and ancient Hebrew idea best championed by Poetic Justice Warrior Ayn Rand, “The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.”