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Chapter IV -- 12

To return to St Thomas, St Thomas establishes that in the conditions of the present life our intellect cannot know the angels.[1] It is important to note that the doctrine that the immaterial substances—the angels, for example—can be known by the intellect the more the intellect is unmixed with imagination and sense is here taken by St Thomas to be a doctrine of Plato. St Thomas explicitly states that the opinion of Aristotle is more in accord with experience.

However, the tradition of the Philokalia quite explicitly follows the Platonic doctrine on this point.

St Thomas establishes that we cannot know the immaterial substances by means of a knowledge of material substances.[2] Having excluded a knowledge of immaterial substances by direct, intuitive cognition, he is here excluding knowledge of them on the basis of the sense-perception of material substances. Curiously, he here quotes in support of his position St Dionysios the Areopagite, in a passage whose true interpretation must be seen in the context of the Neoplatonizing philosophy of St Dionysios. St Dionysios argues that we cannot know the immaterial substances by the material substances surely in the sense that we cognize the immaterial substances by another, intuitive means of cognition, not that we cannot cognize them at all, as St Thomas seems to want us to understand him.

St Thomas excludes the possibility that in the present conditions of our life our intellect can know God directly.[3] His argument is a fortiori: Since we cannot know created immaterial substances, even less can we know the uncreated immaterial substance, God. Therefore, St Thomas says, we come to a knowledge of God by means of a knowledge of creatures. For the first thing that we come to know, in our present state, is the essence of the material thing—what we have just discussed above in St Thomas’ theory of concept formation. He quotes St Paul on the matter: ‘By those things which have been made, the invisible things of God are perceived when they are cognized.’[4] But for St Thomas this cognition is a propositional knowledge derived by human ratiocination from the logical manipulation in propositions of concepts abstracted from the sense-perceptions of objects.

In making these assertions about the limitations of the human intellect in its knowledge of intelligible realities, St Thomas has foreclosed the spirituality of the Philokalia. It is true that St Thomas in some fashion recognizes the possibility of supernatural knowledge of intelligible realities by the grace of God in mystical experience, but the psychology of the Philokalia is founded on the psychology of Evagrius Pontikos, which recognizes a natural capacity in man intuitively to cognize intelligible realities.

We have now finished our outline of the anthropology and psychology of St Thomas Aquinas.

Before continuing on to the next topic, St Thomas’ theory of action, it is well to note a small but significant difference between St Thomas’ system and the thought of St Gregory of Nyssa in On the Making of Man: St Thomas asserts that before the Fall, the generation of the human race would have occurred by means of the bodily union of the sexes.[5] In On the Making of Man, St Gregory of Nyssa asserts that had the Fall not taken place, the generation of the human race would have occurred by another, unknown method, and that God made provision for the present method of human generation in his foreknowledge of the Fall.

In his discussion, St Thomas refers directly to St Gregory of Nyssa in On the Making of Man, briefly outlines St Gregory of Nyssa’s views and concludes that they are contrary to reason. St Thomas ends with a quotation from St Augustine:

Let it be far from us that we might suspect that the child would not have been made without the sickness of pleasure (libidinis); but by that gesture of the will those members would have been moved as the others, and without burning heat and attractive excitement, with tranquillity of soul and body.[6]

A small point but significant.

[1] ST Ia, 88, 1.

[2] ST Ia, 88, 2.

[3] ST Ia, 88, 3.

[4] Rom. 1, 20, here translated directly from St Thomas’ Latin.

[5] ST Ia, 98, 2. It is in this article that St Thomas remarks that the sense of Eve’s being a helper for Adam is in the generation of the human race.

[6] De Civit. Dei, 14, 16.


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