The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper)

Mention is rarely made of the fact that the teaching about God in the Summa Theologica begins with this sentence:  “We are not capable of knowing what God is, but we can know what he is not.”  I know of no textbook of Thomistic thought which contains the notion expressed by St. Thomas in his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, namely that there are three degrees in our knowledge of God:  the lowest, the knowledge of God as he is active in creation; the second, the recognition of God as mirrored in spiritual beings; the third and loftiest, the recognition of God as Unknown, tamquam ignotum.  Or consider this sentence from the Questiones Disputatae:  “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God:  to know that we do not know God.”

4 responses

  1. It’s commonly thought that St. Thomas’s famous lapse into silence resulted from a profound mystical experience of some kind. But apparently all that we know about it are the words that Thomas spoke to Reginald, his amanuensis, who had been hectoring him to rouse himself and complete his great work. “Reginald, it’s not possible; all that I have written seems like straw to me,” he said. I haven’t read Pieper’s book and suspect it might have little to do with the question its title prompts me to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is the conventional interpretation of St. Thomas’s silence as mystical a well-founded one?

    The common understanding is that the experience, whatever its content, brought St. Thomas to a “natural” rest as far as any personal need to continue theological reasoning. In that sense, the experience is construed as having rounded out his philosophical (and dogmatically correct) conclusion that our ultimate knowledge of God is a kind of Socratic ignorance, a knowing that we do not know. But isn’t it just as possible that his silence was the consequence of an existential crisis of some kind, manifesting itself as professional disillusionment? Could the whole business have simply lost its savor and motivation for him? Maybe St. Thomas’s lifelong scramble up Syllogism Mountain left him not so much enlightened as exhausted. Maybe the culminating ignorance was not the ignorance of pious uplift, as the faithful understandably want to believe, but just a feeling of stone-cold, honest-to-goodness ignorance.

    Socrates seems to have thought of his ignorance as a positive achievement, something earned and reenforced through continued intellectual effort. He seems to have loved dialectic for its own sake, and the more he played the game, the more he liked it. But in Thomas’s case, the ignorance – let’s say, the deep realization and conviction of ignorance with respect to God – led him to suspend his intellectual efforts. Why, I am asking, should a deep experience that presumably confirmed (in some way) the ultimate conclusion of his system have brought his work on the system to a halt? Why shouldn’t the experience have caused him to redouble his efforts, if not for himself, then at least for those still struggling at a lower level of spiritual development?

    It’s not my intention to rankle Catholics or other admirers of St. Thomas. In fact, I find Thomas’s system (what little I know of it!) to be breathtakingly beautiful, and I’d be very pleased to learn that the famous “silence of St. Thomas” was a genuine ne plus ultra. I know that I’m not putting my question very well and might be misunderstanding all sorts of things, including the very meaning of the phrase “silence of St. Thomas.” Oh well, I’ll lay it out there, anyway – for what it’s worth.

  2. Didn’t Dante hit the same point at the end of the “Paradiso” – another work that remained unfinished?

    You are assuming this was a *decision* not to continue rather than an disorienting emotional reaction to a overpowering understanding on a much higher level. Perhaps he would have eventually recovered his bearings had he not died first.

    We’ll never know.

    • I’m not really assuming, only wondering. But I do think that your alternative interpretation is perfectly plausible, given the fact that we never will know whether he had a “disorienting emotional reaction to an overpowering understanding” or a disorienting emotional reaction to an overpowering lack of understanding. Also, your interpretation has the advantage of being humanly generous, and anyway conforms to the ancient tradition. That counts for a lot, no doubt. Perhaps, too, the whole story is apocryphal. Clearly, it has no real bearing on the import of Thomas’s thought. I’ll have to look to the end of the “Paradiso”, as you suggest. Thank you, Cynthia, for that gentle shake!

  3. Thanks for the comments and discussion. Yes, we’ll never know. Pieper is much interested in the silence you are talking about, and takes it as the existential consummation of Aquinas’ ultimate apophatic theological “conviction”, knowing that we cannot know God.

    In the theological circles in which I spend much of my time, Aquinas is often caricatured as the arch-cataphatic theologian. My post was, as much as anything, an attempt at a gentle shaking of those folks.

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