Why I like Tom

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One of my students asked me once what it was I most admired in St. Thomas Aquinas (whom I tend to quote a lot). I’d never been asked that before, but the answer came quickly. It’s not that he’s always right; he isn’t (and who is?). What I love about him is his intellectual humility and reverence before the real. This is evidenced especially in how meticulous, fair and deferential he is when expounding ideas he disagrees with. We all feel the almost irresistible temptation to make ‘straw men’ of our opponents, and to caricature their positions rather than describing them. If you were in a debate with Thomas, you would be treated to the courtesy of hearing your own position profiled in the noblest form possible, with all of its strengths highlighted and its weaknesses – for the moment – almost explained away. These form the so-called ‘objections’ – sometimes numbering over 20 in his more detailed works – and they cast wide and deep to find every possible way in which he could be wrong, to give attentive ear to his opponent’s logic and allow them the space and time to conclude their arguments. He doesn’t want to miss the truth, wherever it might be hiding. To be sure, once the defendants have rested their case, his attack will be swift and sharp.  But even so, he will usually begin by making a distinction (“There are two ways to understand this…” or “There are two kinds of that…”), allowing his interlocutors a last-minute chance to save face, presenting their error not so much as blatant stupidity as an understandable failure to catch a difficult distinction. Today, however, we live in a world of words that glory in straw men and caricatures. The surest way to spot the bluntness of someone’s mind is to catch them ridiculing what they have not taken the time to study, and making exaggerated caricatures of things they’ve never pictured in a straightforward way. If such pint-sized pundits would keep their mouths closed, they could at least feign intelligence and mask their mental sloth with a twist of the eyebrows. True understanding, on the other hand, is long, hard work and not for the faint-hearted.