In the Commentary on the Metaphysics Aquinas drops another thought grenade, saying
“For the intelligible object and the intellect must be proportionate to each other and must belong to one and the same genus since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in actuality.”
The intelligible object, that is, the universal, is not a material thing. Think of your knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem: is it a physical thing? Does it have atoms? Molecules? What is it made of? Certainly not anything material. And yet the mind, which, it is argued, is merely the brain, can know it.
What does “know” mean in this context? It means, according to Brother Thomas, that the mind and its object become unified. “One in actuality,” as he says it. The mind has to make real contact with the object, or there is no real knowledge.
The medievals and Aristotle thought that the mind was immaterial because it had to be for the possibility of knowledge.
Materialist objections: there isn’t anything that exists beyond the material world. Ok, fine, but this forecloses the possibility of knowledge in the sense that we used to understand it.
- If there is knowledge, then the mind is not immaterial.
- If the mind is material (aka just the brain), then there isn’t such a thing as knowledge.
I’m with Aristotle on this one. Yes, the soul is the form of the body, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to think of it apart from the body. “We are our bodies” as Gabriel Marcel says. And yet, there is some power of the soul which is not bodily, and this is required because we can actually know things. How can this be? I don’t know. See On the Soul and tell me what you think.
I was reading Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and came across an interesting line in the prologue. He is attempting to determine what the highest science is, and drops this line:
We can discover which science this is and the sorts of things with which it is concerned by carefully examining the qualities of a good ruler; for just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others, whereas those of great physical strength and little intelligence are naturally slaves, as the Philosopher says in the aforementioned book, in a similar way that science which is intellectual in the highest degree should be naturally the ruler of others.
The order of the sciences is argued to be parallel to the proper order of a society, with the more intellectual ruling the less intellectual. While I don’t think he is wrong, I was struck by the casual way in which he said it. For Aquinas, it seems that the qualities of a good ruler were obvious.
It seems to me that we generally esteem someone who represents our interests much more than we esteem someone who is wise. In other words, a modern “good ruler” is one who defends my in-group and gives me what I want. Whatever my desires, that ruler needs to make sure I can satisfy them. Opposed to this is the notion of the statesman, as found in Plato and Aristotle, whose goal is the good of the people. The real good of the people, not the apparent good. It is such a ruler that is the proper model for first philosophy, not the demagogue or tyrant.
I remember as a grad student being floored by the straightforward comment of St. Thomas Aquinas that happiness is an activity. I know I should have figured this out from reading Nichomachean Ethics, but I was not very bright and it took me awhile to figure it out. Take a moment and think about what this means. Happiness, as the ancients believed and the best of the medievals followed, isn’t a feeling or a state of being. It’s not contentedness or satisfaction. It’s an activity, a doing, an energia in entelechia.
It is hard for English speakers to grok this since the word “happiness” means for us something of chance. It is related to the word “happen” and also to “mayhap”. If I happen to come across a $10 bill on the street, I am happy, because of the thing that happened to me. I am happeny. But this sort of thing is not really up to me. Chance is fickle. Fortune’s wheel may grind me to dust or lift me high. Either way it’s not my doing.
But if happiness is an activity, it’s something that I can do. I can make it “happen.” For Aristotle and Aquinas, it’s more than mindless activity or business. It’s an activity of the highest part of you devoted to the highest objects. Maybe to the Highest Object. Reason is the highest thing in the human soul, they assert, and if this is the case, we should use our reason on the highest things we are capable of. For Aristotle this is the contemplation of the first principle, and for Aquinas it’s the contemplation of the Christian God.
This is not relaxation or satisfaction, but a constant work of one’s life. If you take this seriously you aren’t going to sit around, Netflix and chill, and figure that you are happy. The pigs in the pen do as much. Rather you are going to strain yourself a bit to the highest things.
Will it be fun? Sure! Aquinas says somewhere that joy is what happens when you possess a sought-after good. The active life is the most joyful. But you don’t get to have cheap joy.