Can Aquinas’ Cosmos Still Be Our Cosmos?

Paradiso_Canto_31When returning to learn from the great thinkers of the past, especially with an eye for what they can contribute to our discernment of what the modern age claims as true or to be believed, a balance must be struck so that, on the one hand, the truth from prior ages is not so emaciated in the transfer that the only connection it has with its original proponent is its author’s name, which we tack on as a helpful label to remind ourselves why it is made by that association important, and, on the other hand, that those truths from bygone eras are not weighed down by cultural and scientific baggage that encumber the truth still lurking within the work’s yellowed pages. Good intentions can lead to errors on either end, and this seems especially true when history reports that a thinker is one to be revered. St. Thomas Aquinas is frequently subjected to this. For instance, a recent short essay by Paul Krause claiming that “Thomas Aquinas’ cosmology and doctrine of the soul are vitalistic” is an example of the latter extreme, despite the good intentions of the essay’s author.

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Course in April

As part of the last stages of my postdoctoral project here in Chile, I’m happy to announce a course that I’ll be teaching this April at Universidad Gabriela Mistral: Dios y la Filosofía. The course is an overview of the fundamentals of natural theology, especially in view of modern science, following a classical Thomistic approach to the subject.

Dios y la filosofía

Essay at


Recently published at is an essay of mine, “Some Mistakes Due to What Is Per Accidens.” The essay discusses four philosophical mistakes when what is per accidens is taken to be what is actually per se to something. This logical error was discussed with lucidity by Dr. Duane Berquist in his lectures on logic, and hence I dedicate the essay to his memory. Any of the logical errors in the essay must be imputed, of course, to the author and not to the author’s teacher.

Sine Thoma, Aristoteles mutus esset

Recently, I came across this gem, written by Petrus Hoenen in his Cosmologia (5th ed., 1956, p. 305). Hoenen, who obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Leiden in 1912 (writing a dissertation on thermodynamics and studying under, among others, H. A. Lorentz), writes in this context against making form out to be a being, which is against the intention of Aristotle.


The “Note XVII” to which Hoenen refers is titled: “On the error of reifying material forms.” A translation of the first paragraph:

The theory of Aristotle was perfectly understood by St. Thomas; indeed, to the point that he makes use of the clearest formulations even in the most remote deductions. Aquinas seems to have been the first one who fully understood the Stagirite; after so many ages, at last someone was found equal to the talent of Aristotle’s mind, such that through his clarity we too even now can easily understand the problem of the greatest import and the one most worth of metaphysical attentiveness: how a being is able to be intrinsically mutable.

Of course, we must also remember Ralph McInerny’s converse maximSine Aristotele, Thomas non esset.

Sacra Doctrina Project

Paradiso_Canto_31Tradition, as Josef Pieper describes it, is something handed down from an original divine encounter. This is tradition in the primary sense—all other uses of the word are analogical. The sense of tradition that is first to us includes human traditions, and most of all traditions that pass on knowledge. These senses are all to be found in a new project recently announced, The Sacra Doctrina Project. More can be read about this initiative here. I count myself lucky to now be an affiliate member, and I encourage those interested to apply.

The Sacra Doctrina Project’s aims are clearly stated, and include above all “the study of theology as a scientia which is properly speculative and sapiential in nature.” That is, it aims to contribute to the Church’s longstanding tradition of seeking a knowledge through causes that is certain and evident about the source of our salvation that is still, at its height, a speculative form of knowledge, a knowledge that “aims both at the clarity needed to properly evaluate theological claims and at the fulfillment of the natural desire to know intimately that which one loves.” Furthermore, this tradition is sapiential insofar as sacred theology stands as wisdom to all other forms of knowledge. It governs them, uses their fruits, and defends them against error insofar as the subsidiarity of the disciplines of knowledge permits. We should note the role of philosophy as sapiential aid to theology in this regard:

We recognize the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological foundations of the philosophical realism upon which theology builds, acknowledging that human reason has apprehended principles which theology cannot ignore or modify but can only integrate into her understanding of God’s revelation. Philosophy and theology can and ought to inform each other on account of their reflecting a unified reality under two distinct but interwoven modes of knowledge. As such, philosophy acts both as that which enables theology to “assume the nature, form, and character of a true science” and that which “tends to smooth and fortify the road to true faith” (Aeterni patris, §§4, 6). As queen of the sciences, the scientia of sacred theology is ably supported in its discourse about God by philosophy, as by a handmaid (cf. Prov. 9:3).

Ah, to Live in a Cosmos Again!


The folks over at Church Life Journal at the University of Notre Dame are publishing a special series during September on the relationship between science and religion. The series especially focuses on “the demise of the conflictual model of science and religion.” All of the posts in the series can be found through this link, and my own contribution to the series can be found here. An excerpt, from the essay’s introduction, is below:

Anaxagoras takes the stage early in Aristotle’s Metaphysics as that sober man among drunks who rightly claims that reason is the cause behind all of nature and its beauty. This same Anaxagoras, we are told, “answered a man … asking why one should choose rather to be born than not by saying ‘for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe.’” Reason is needed to cause the beauty of the whole; only mind can make the world a cosmos. Mind is also needed to recognize that we live in a cosmos, as Seth Benardete remarks: “We see heaven and earth, but we do not see their unity, which we call cosmos. ‘Cosmos’ puts a label on an insight about the structure of the whole that is simply not available to sight.” This label, “cosmos,” is rooted in the Greek verb kosmein, meaning both “to arrange” and “to order, rule” as well as “to adorn” (as in “cosmetics”). The aggregate of all that exists is a cosmos because of its adorned order, both arranged and recognized by mind: “And God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good” (Gen 1:31).

Dignity in a cold, dark universe

(Photograph by Carlos Orue)

The following is the abstract of a paper soon to be under review. If you would like a personal copy, please e-mail me here.

Is Personal Dignity Possible Only If We Live in a Cosmos?

The Catholic Church has increasingly relied upon the principle of human dignity as part of its evangelical mission in modern times. Catholic philosophers must therefore defend this principle in service to Catholic theology. One aspect of this defense is how the human person relates to the universe. Is human dignity of a piece with the material universe in which we find ourselves? Or is the part’s dignity alien in kind to such a whole? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between? The Thomistic metaphysics of creation properly locates the human being in the universe as a part, ordered to the universe’s common good of order and ultimately to God. Human dignity is possible only in a cosmos; that this is concordant with modern scientific cosmology is briefly defended in conclusion.