Taking it Personally

(A piece of protreptic for my Seven Deadly Sins students.)

I know some of you are struggling with the Aquinas.  That is to be expected; it is hard.  But too many of you have, I worry, lost sight of something that can make the reading easier and more gripping–namely, many of you have lost sight of the fact that Aquinas is telling you about your life.  All that he says may sound academic, in the pejorative sense, with all his complicated talk of potency, act, complements and mastery–but it is not academic:  it is existential.  What he is telling you about are what we might call the necessities of human action, about its general structure, and about the ways in which understanding that structure makes you better at concerted, focused and responsible action, about the understanding necessary to become a virtuoso at living itself.  Since that is what he is doing, your own life plays the role of touchstone for and testifier to the claims he makes.  That is, your own day-to-day living needs to be responsive, and properly responsive, to the claims he is making.  You should be able to see whether he is right or wrong, on to something or whistling in the dark, by examining what he says in the light of your own living.  True, what he says sounds unfamiliar, but he is talking about familiarities, about general structures that are often closer to you than you are to yourself.  Paradoxically, it is the very familiarity of what he is talking about, its closeness to you, that accounts for it seeming unfamiliar and distant.  You do not want, and unfortunately show no tendency to want, to suffuse your own life with reflection, to explicitate what is implicit in your days, day in and day out, day after day.  But today is the day of explicitation; tomorrow may be too late.  Take what he says personally, not in the sense of an affront to you, but as aimed at who and what you are and understand yourself to be.  If you can’t take Aquinas personally, you may as well leave him alone.

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