06 August 2005

on aquinas' mode of argument

The Fall 2004 issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (which arrived in late Spring 2005) opens with an essay entitled "Reading Immemorially: The Quaestio and the Paragraph in the Summa Theologiae" by Peter M. Candler of Baylor University (531-557).

It is sometimes suggested that Aquinas' writing style and mode of argument represents logic, dialectic, and theology as "science" eclipsing earlier Christian rhetorical art: theology as preaching, rooted in prayer and allegorical meditation, with an aim to persuade and change the audience. Candler's essay goes a long way to undermine any too easy positioning of Aquinas in this way.

Candler begins by noting how modern edited versions of Aquinas' Summa attempt to render the text more "accessible" to modern readers, typically by excerpting, rearranging, and altering the textual apparatus in various ways. Often enough the more "philosophical" bits become abstracted from what are thought to be the more "theological" ones. The end result is that the oral character of the Summa is lost, transforming the work into a series of modern paragraphs outlining theological loci for which Aquinas provides a kind of monological explanation in his responses.

The bulk of Candler's argument, however, is to shape an alternative understanding of the Summa, noting the way in which it "arises out of the tradition of the quaestiones disputatae" central to medieval pedagogy and which are, in the first instance, "non-textual performances" that remain "irreducibly oral" and open-ended in character (533).

The disputed question requires a performance that draws upon memory (which "fell under the curricular heading of rhetoric" in the classical and medieval eras), calling upon the voices of the auctores along "the itinerary of the recollective mind" - a constant movement that takes form in the narrative structure of the magister's speech. As such, the determination of the question was understood both as a "compositional exercise" and a "site of rhetorical invention," where the movement of the master's mind, embodied in speech, moved the hearer's own soul by participation, which is the art of persuasion (534-5).

If this is so, Candler reminds us, then the determination of the question is not a matter of absolute and definitive "closure," but an act of the magisterial role that, in drawing upon past auctores, points forward to further questions and future attempts at resolution (535-6).

Against the backdrop of the medieval disputation, Aquinas' Summa takes on different dimensions than are evident at first glance or in heavily edited versions. Candler goes on at this point to draw upon Marie-Dominique Chenu's argument that the very structure of the Summa manifests a movement of exit and return (exitus et reditus), as part of the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism, where all begins and ends in the life of the Trinity. If this is so, then, in light of the tradition of the quaestiones disputatae, the reader of the Summa is called to become "a participant in this itinerary [who] performs, through the memory, the very reditus to God which Thomas does not merely describe, but actually 'conducts'" (538).

For a medieval student of theology, steeped as he would be within the patterns of Christian liturgy and the art of memory the offices required, reading Aquinas' Summa would resonate, even on the level of the individual quaestio, as a "performance of a liturgically trained memory...which is, ultimately, ordered towards the Good" (538). As Candler suggests:

Aquinas' Summa theologiae is fundamentally interrogative in the sense that each article begins not with a proposition to be defended, but with an utrum to be investigated...The reply at the end of each question, however, serves to point forward to the next utrum, and thus there is a constant motion... (539)

The Summa guides the reader through these questions, invoking voices so as to draw the reader into the great, "endless conversation between God and His people," so that the memory of God's people might be "trained and ordered towards its proper end, union with God" (540).

Further along in his essay, Candler argues that the questions of the Summa are neither specifically Aquinas' own questions nor are they some sort of loci theologici intended to provide a "panoptic cartography of theological knowledge" (546). Unlike the spatialized loci of modern thought, the loci of Aquinas lie along the route to the beatific vision and thus must be traversed and traveled, with the voices of many companions to guide the way.

The loci, moreover, take the form of questions, indeed, questions composed of still further questions. But these are not the questions of a catechism, each with its own set answer. According to Candler, in asking "Whether...," the utrum "emphasizes the participation of the reader (or disputant) within a larger interpretive cosmos or community," among whom only can the question be rightly raised or debated (550).

The objections that begin every article in the Summa likewise assume an ongoing dialogue and set aside the possibility that the matter has already been resolved, presenting instead how things seem (videtur). Moreover, Candler reminds us, the same voices appear time and again in both the objectio and the responsio, even within the scope of a single article.

When we arrive at the sed contra, the text "protests against any 'monological' tendency" and, further, is not yet giving us an answer. Rather, the sed contra, often enough, points towards an alternate position, another extreme from that of the objections, and "between these two the author will have to come to a satisfactory resolution" (553).

Aquinas' responsio, then, at last, grants us a determination of the question, though, even then (as mentioned above), this is meant more as act of magisterial performance or ceremonial function than as a settling of the question once and for all. Since a disputant or, in particular, the writer of a Summa (of which Aquinas' was one of many), is "implicitly a future auctoritas in a future Summa or other work," the determination is necessarily open-ended, allowing for further clarifiation, distinctions, and qualifications (554). This perspective is underscored by the replies to the initial objections as they fill out the article, often introducing further qualifications to the resolution just expressed and even pointing the way to the possibility of still more objections.

In light of this analysis of Aquinas' great Summa, Candler concludes that the work remains "essentially an itinerary of the soul's return to God...as the source and end of all that is. The textual form, therefore, is not separable from the manducation of the soul towards the beatific vision." If Candler is correct, then the Summa does not stand as a rational system of theological science, but rather carries forward the ancient Christian understanding of theology as faithful persuasion.