Category Archives: Aristotle


Yikes, kids! I’m in danger of turning into a Thomist – as loose-limbed groupies of Thomas Aquinas are called – and I must be strong. He was a great and nuanced philosopher of religion but was not primarily interested in proving God’s existence. That was a preliminary, the step out the door into sunlight, before he even got into his car.

"Yes, but who's holding the cue?"

“God transcends all sensible things and sense itself,” he says. So how can we know him? We can’t – not his essence. But we can catch a glimpse of him based on “His effects” which are “sensible things.” It’s like looking at a footprint of the Abominable Snowman: it’s evidence of something, alright, but it ain’t the real Snowman.

In the lesser-known “Summa Contra Gentiles,” Aquinas is straight up about parroting Aristotle: “We shall first set forth the arguments by which Aristotle proceeds to prove that God exists.” He isn’t even trying to be original! If you don’t like the First Way, blame The Philosopher, not the Saint.

Way #1 in Plain English (and Pig-Latin): Called the “Unmoved Mover” or “First Mover” argument, it’s oversimplified as saying everything that moves was put in motion by something else. So who moved the first thing? God. We have, ahem, studied some Latin here at The God Project Dot Net, and Aquinas’ word “motus” means “change,” not just motion. Change is a journey from potential to actual. Like: You’re potentially wise but actually ignorant. Potential gets actual all the time, but it can’t get there on its own. You don’t get wise without help. Only one thing can get actual on its own without outside help. What? It-ay is-ay Od-Gay.

Way #2: Effects need a cause, and the first cause is You-Know-Who. Aquinas uses the phrase “efficient cause” 10 times in his short definition. It comes — big surprise, not — from Aristotle. An “efficient cause” is something that happens before the effect. (As opposed to “final” causes which happen after, which sounds weird unless you believe things can have a built-in goal that moves them. Newton killed this idea.)

Way #2 sounds identical to Way #1 unless you remember Way #1 wasn’t about motion; it was about how things can’t change themselves. Way #2 is about how effects can’t cause themselves.

All the Ways are related because they are different definitions of the same word: God. Now can you wait for Ways #3-5? Didn’t think so.


Beating on the Tom Tom

G. K. Chesterton thought Thomas Aquinas could levitate. (His 1932 essay in The Spectator is here.) Think of it as a metaphor for the Angelic Doctor’s stature among Catholics. He was so incredibly fat that when he sat around the University of Paris, he sat around the University of Paris. Yet he could rise up in the air and talk to the Virgin Mary.

Uranus Has Two Moons

Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to show God exists have inspired a cottage industry that’s still churning after 700 years. There’s St. Thomas “Five Ways” buttons (“Good for you. Good for America.”), seasonal humor (“The Five Ways of Proving Santa Claus Exists”) and instructional videos on the Tube of You. Not to mention at least 44 eponymous high schools and colleges in North America and Europe.

Which is all bonus, as we say in Latin. Aquinas was a teacher. I mean this literally: he had students. Even as a Dominican friar, he was on the faculty at the new universities at Paris and Naples, the Oxford and Harvard of the time. And in the prologue to the Summa Theologiae, he claims he’s writing “in such a way as may be consistent with the instruction of beginners.” (ST Prol.)

Beginners? Reading 4,000 pages of unrelenting, densely-argued Latin propositions, objections, assertions, rebuttals, quotations from authority and modifications? We’re thinking they must have made beginners smarter in the 13th century.

Yet he had no illusions about the brainwaves of the kids. At the end of one of his screeds, he wrote: “If anyone, puffing himself up with bogus knowledge, dares to argue against what I have written, let him not hold forth in corners or in the presence of the [students], who are incapable of judging such a difficult subject.” (“On the Unity of Intellect,” 1270)

Touchy, anyone? The “beginners” he refers to in his Prologue are not stupid undergraduates but other professors who — much like the time-challenged staff here at The God Project Dot Net — may lack Aquinas’ trenchant intellect.

But we conjugate onward. We referred a few weeks back to the Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Death Match (Plato vs. Aristotle). By 1250 a new fighter was sea-legging around in the ring: Faith. And some members of the Arts Faculty at Paris seemed willing to give a TKO to Aristotle. Aquinas’ legacy — his life’s mission — was to show that Faith in (the Christian) God was not contradicted by Aristotle in particular, or new information in general.

He was good for science. He gave generations of naturalists and physicists theological cover to experiment. He was good for Catholicism, leaving it a legacy of tolerance for new ideas (like — did we go there? — Evolution) that certain of our Protestant and Muslim brothers and sisters, well, lack.

(Before someone starts a pixellated Death Match of our own here, yes, I know about Pius IX and the infamous “Syllabus of Errors.” These things take time, amigos.)

To Aquinas, it was obvious that if there is a God, It created everything. Get it? Everything! Including natural phenomenon, the human mind, the ability to question, French idiot professeurs, philosophy, even contestants in the Pagan Death Match. “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” he says, “natural reason should minister to faith ….”

For Reason to contradict Faith, he believed, made about as much sense as for my Moon to contradict Uranus. The source is all one, all God, which does not self-contradict. Truth is not a threat to truth. What a radical beginning.

Five Alive

Thomas Aquinas was so fat, the story goes, his Dominican brothers had to cut a place for him into the communal table so he could sit closer to the food bowls he so obviously didn’t need. He was Italian, second son of nobility, and a mondo-maxi-zoom-dweeby genius whose career coincided with the rediscovery of Aristotle, known only to Muslim philosophers for 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Thomas Aquinas

"I've taken the liberty of preparing my own dinner menu"

My revered father, Dr. Ronald, was a Catholic boy in Cape Town, South Africa, in the days when the mass was said in Latin. He met Pope Pius XII in Rome after Italy surrendered in World War II. And when I mentioned The God Project Dot Net to him, his response was rat-a-tat: “You have to talk about Aquinas.”

To Catholics, Aquinas is the philosopher, a voice louder than Augustine’s, more comprehensive than Paul’s, second only to that of Christ himself (as explained by the Holy See). Non-Catholics are less impressed: following Luther, Protestants have caricatured Aquinas as a crypto-Pelagian hypnotized by a pagan pseudo-atheist who believed the universe was eternal, God didn’t care much about us, and the human soul could die.

Aquinas wrote even more than he ate, and his big book was the Summa Theologica, a 4000-page masterpiece of meticulous step-by-step argument on all things Christian. Of these many, many Latin pages, only two (2!) are devoted to proving the existence of God. That’s 0.05% — a solid click-through rate for an online display ad but hardly a ringing indication of what’s really on Aquinas’ mind.

So let’s say it again: Pre-modern “proofs” for the existence of God were not written to convince modern atheists, and they won’t. They were written because philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas had enormous respect for Greek wisdom — Sophia, or “Reason” with a capital “R” — and they wanted to convince believing Christians that their faith was rational. It’s like Aquinas heard the scientific train wreck a-coming and slapped on his goggles to weld up a fortress of faith.

He even admits (ST PI Q1 A8): “If our opponent [i.e., atheist] believes nothing of divine revelation there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning.”

So Aquinas breezes through an answer to questions he poses himself: “Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?” (Article 2) and “Whether God Exists?” (Article 3). In good dialectical fashion, he first raises some contraries that sound remarkably modern:

  • A “demonstration produces scientific knowledge; whereas faith is of the unseen”
  • We “cannot know in what God’s essence consists” because humans aren’t smart enough
  • We can know God only “from His effects,” which are “not proportionate” — meaning, nowhere near enough
  • “There is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”

His response: “I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways” — leading into his famous so-called “Five Ways” to show that God exists.

Can you wait?

Why Atheists and Fundamentalists Can’t Communicate

The reason is Aristotle. Stay with me here.

Let’s get them out on the mat: Plato v. Aristotle – Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Deathmatch

How do we know anything? We’re trying to answer the Ultimate Question, after all. So we should pause to consider just where our evidence is coming from.

In one corner, Aristotle made the sensible claim that all knowledge comes through our senses. Period. And when we come up with “categories” – as we like to do, being Meaning Making Machines – that is, when we organize all these sense impressions into groups of things that we can put a name to – when we do this, what we’re doing mentally is combining all the different versions our senses have experienced into a kind of average.

So my concept of “car” or “sedan” or “Little Red Corvette” is a mish-mash of all the particular versions I’ve seen or read about or heard in my life.

This sounds very sensible to modern people because without knowing it most of us are Aristotelian epistemologists.

Then there’s Plato. He comes out swinging from the opposite corner. He sees the world and everything in it as a shadow or copy of the really real, an invisible realm. Learning is a process of remembering and not discovering the so-called Forms, or prototypes, of things. And what’s really amazing – startling, outrageous, even – is that Platonists claim these Forms are not only more real than what we can see but that – outrage and calumny – they exist.

That is, they’re not pieces in some giant mental game played by pinheaded brain warriors. They are real things. That we can’t see.

We might call this distinction Ancient; we might call it academic. But it’s still very much with us. I think it’s at the heart of why so-called Liberal Atheists and Evangelicals just don’t understand one another.

The Pagan Deathmatch gives us two ways to check into that cabana called reality. One is to look around, keep it real, and say, “I get it.” The other is to find some source of information about what’s really real, to mistrust our senses and trust, say, our intuitions, or the Scofield Bible.

Who’s right? Nobody knows.