How would Thomism possibly lead to Enlightenment Deism/Atheism?
In my twenties, I was completely invested in the fortified religio-philosophical system known as Thomism. Catholicism was a massive castle of argumentation that was impenetrable to any skeptical challenger that might bombard the system with (what I assumed were) futile attacks. I recall reading Umberto Eco in his dissertation on Aquinas’ aesthetics commenting that he, too, was once an ardent Thomist until he came to the conclusion that the system just didn’t work. At that time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to that conclusion. How could something so vast and, as a my friend James Kelley said, “elegant,” be fundamentally flawed? That was some ten years or so ago, and in that span of time, Thomism was completely dismantled.
The path to that dismantling is not the subject of this article, but it is worth noting that I was someone totally invested in it, just as in my earlier years, I was totally invested in Protestantism. This has been the source of a lot of criticism for me from those who have observed my journey, but I could care less. Any change of view or new path I have taken was taken out of sincere interest in the truth or falsity of the worldview itself, regardless of the consequences of adopting those positions. And I suspect I’ll always be that way. From my perspective, wouldn’t you rather examine the opposing position to see if it holds water? What other option is there (assuming one has chosen a lifestyle which allows for such religio-philosophical investigations - a conscious choice I made)?
That said, the point of this article is simply to clarify some points on a recent debate I had with a friend concerning the major reasons that Thomism, as a system, is fundamentally flawed. In fact, I want to go even further and show how the Thomistic schema is precisely what led to the Enlightenment and the subsequent deism and atheism of the West. What’s in question here is not Augustine or Aquinas’ motivations or psychology, anymore than I care what Calvin’s motivations were. What’s in question here is the actual published position of Aquinas (and Augustine by extension), in terms of whether it had an instrumental influence on the Enlightenment and the trek Western philosophy took into modernism and the endless word-sludge we see in philosophy today. It is my contention that this is correct: the lesser known Eastern critique is right in making the strong claim that Thomism is a pivotal step in the Western trek from what might be termed a revelational epistemology to Enlightenment empiricism, scientism, deism and atheism.
This article is going to assume knowledge of Thomism on the part of the reader, too, since those interested in an abundance of footnotes and citations can easily search the archives for numerous articles full of citations. Here, we are just going to speak about the system’s golden chain of internal “Dumb Ox” logic. This also doesn’t mean that I think the Eastern view is itself free from all problems or difficulties, but rather that it provides a strong enough critique that I doubt I would ever be reconciled to Thomism again, as much as I would never be brought back to Protestantism. Indeed, it is quite evident to me (and has been for the last several years unchallenged) that Thomism, for whatever good points might be salvaged from it, is so fundamentally flawed that it actually propelled the West down its path of downward spiraling dissolution.
The key issue to look at in order to understand this problem in Thomism is God’s relation to, and action in, the world. Aquinas starts with the assumption of divine simplicity meaning that God is what God has, and God is what God does. God is actus purus, or pure act, with no potentiality. His essence is utterly simple, such that anything predicated of God is only distinguished logically. That means the distinctions made between attributes are only distinctions suited to human finite cognition, and not actual distinctions in reality. Thus, God’s act of creating might be distinguished from His justice or foreknowledge in the human mind, but in actuality, those acts, attributes and predicates are strictly identical to the divine essence, or ousia, in reality. This is a fundamental law in Thomism, as well as in Augustine, and should be without question to those who are studied Thomists. This is abundantly clear in both Summas, as well as in other works like De Veritate. Continue reading