Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Pursuing Wisdom: Thomistic Thoughts on Philosophy as a Way of Life

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Pursuing Wisdom: Thomistic Thoughts on Philosophy as a Way of Life

Article excerpt

In works of impressive erudition based in ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot (1) and John Cooper (2) have recently reasserted a familiar complaint about the Scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and his neo-Thomist heirs. Scholasticism, they complain, diminished philosophy by rejecting its claim to be a holistic way of life, requiring the transformation of the whole person, and reconceiving it as an exercise in merely conceptual and logical maneuvering, requiring nothing more from the philosopher than the ability to compute logical relations. This arid theorizing, they claim, distinguishes Scholastic thought from ancient philosophy and from the more valuable efforts of certain, generally marginal and idiosyncratic, medieval and modern thinkers. Furthermore, they see these baleful effects of Scholasticism not as unintended consequences but as the avowed goal of its subjugation of philosophy to theology. As Hadot argues, Scholasticism surrendered philosophy as a way of life to spiritual theology and retained for philosophy only arid, metaphysical discourse. Thomists and neo-Thomists have exchanged a rich and vital praxis for a desiccated theorizing.

Hadot's carefully developed account of ancient philosophy sounds themes Cooper echoes, though with some modification, and they are themes that appeal to many. Hadot argues that the ancient philosophers saw philosophy as a way of life consisting in "an exercise of the thought, will, and totality of one's being, the goal of which was to achieve a state practically inaccessible to mankind: wisdom." (3) Such an existential philosophy was conducted by means of "spiritual exercises," practices that "are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual's entire psychism" and lead to wisdom. (4) He endorses what he views as the ancient philosophers' concept of wisdom, "a way of life which brought peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkeia), and a cosmic consciousness." (5) Consequently, for Hadot, true philosophy always gives primacy of place to the practical, valuing the theoretical only for the sake of the practical, and finds in philosophical discourse only an aid to a philosophical way of life. (6)

Scholasticism, on Hadot's account, decisively destroyed this integral vision by spinning existential concerns off to spiritual theology and leaving philosophy with a kind of conceptual engineering centered on philosophical discourse rather than philosophical practice. One can find three points of contrast here, three key aspects of philosophy as a way of life that Hadot finds missing in the Scholastic approach. First, Hadot insists against the Scholastic view of philosophy as a purely theoretical endeavor that philosophy is fundamentally a practical activity subordinating theoretical means to practical ends. Second, a genuine philosophy in the ancient mode unites affection and intellect in an integration of the whole person, whereas Scholastic philosophy separates from the will a pure intellect, engaged in a sort of conceptual calculus irrelevant to feeling and desire. And finally, the Scholastics reduced philosophy to philosophical discourse, and then disconnected such discourse from the goal of wisdom, making it instead nothing more than a propaedeutic to theology. The ancient philosophers, by contrast, held that philosophical discourse serves only to justify and strengthen the more important existential choice of a way of life directed to practical wisdom.

When tested against the convictions of Thomas and his Scholastic and neo-scholastic followers, these contrasts fail to compel; St. Thomas's understanding of philosophy is far more robust than such polemical sketches suggest. One can find a more existential and authentically Thomistic concept of the intellectual life in the work of two of the past century's most prominent neo-scholastics, Etienne Gilson and A. G. Sertillanges, whose studies on the transformative qualities of philosophy predate Hadot's by decades. …

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