Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Details about his devouted life and intellectual prowess are well known. However the question remains whether his teachings are still relevant after seven centuries. What I find particularly relevant today is his overall approach as one of the best exponents of a philosphical tradition known as realism.
Truth has been reduced to empirical facts and knowledge to different opinions, with a consistent effect in a relativistic and utilitarian ethics. We have naively started to unquestionably believe the dogma that “I think it is, therefore it is.” While a debate between realistics would try to assess what is the true nature of marriage, for example, today’s debate simply claims that marriage is nothing in itself, and will only be what we want it to be. In other words, marriage, human nature, normal behavior is “nothing” per se, and we are entitled to give it the definition, (or reality) we want.
In our mentality, the human mind becomes a creative power, a source of being, instead of attempting to be a receptacle of reality “as it is”. The human mind can certainly interpret, and in this vein, be creative; but its creations should never be a substitute for the real reality.
If there is one word that keeps being repeated in Aquinas’ writings is “object”. And what we need today is objectivity as opposed to the over-subjectivity of today’s mentality.
We look at everything from the point of view of the subject. Positive (good?) emotions are emotions good for the subject; negative emotions are emotions the subject does not want to experience. However the value of emotions doees not lie in what the subject experiences, but in how suitable they are to the object of the emotion. A speeding truck towards a subject that experiences no fear is lethal. The important bit is not that fear stresses the subject; but that fearing the right object of fear will save his life.
For most this is plain common sense. But it is precisely this common sense for the importance of the object what is missing today. What we say about the object of fear, equally goes for the object of marital love. And while most will see fearing an incoming truck as common sense, just as many will see loving with marital love any person I choose depends on me, the subject, and not on whom I love, the object.
Our lives today are measured in terms of subective experiences. A life with lots and exciting experiences is worth living and actively pursued and proposed as the “ideal” style of life. We admire adventurers, travellers, those who achieve the ultimate thrill. In contrast the unasumming life of the ordinary folk is dismissed as boring and, of course, the life of the commatose patient a total waste. Experience is the mantra of our times.
We therefore need people who questioned that dogma. That life should not be measured in terms of experience, but in terms of fidelity. Humanity has always admired unassuming heroes that were steadfast in their commitments, even if this made them pass through undesireable experiences.
Fidelity needs an object (of fidelity). Truth is the subject knowing faithfully (as it is) an object as it is. Truth about the shape of the earth is knowing faithfully how the shape of the earth really is. Honesty is being faithful (accountable) to someone.
A life centered around experiences will make of us coach-potatoes of life, sitting in the sofa of our lives waiting for things to happen to us, even if that implies changing constatly the sofa. Fidelity however makes of us active subjects in the search for the right object of our relationship. Fidelity is a true journey; experience-thirsty subjectivity is simply to be a spectator.
We need new (truer) cultural dogmas. Perhaps some dogma that says “the life full of experiences and devoid of fidelity is not worth living”. When we look back, how do we measure our lives?
While you won’t see people reading St. Thomas Aquinas on the MRT, although I have tried, his philosophy will always remind us that there is a right and wrong object out there that will change and transform us. Being more objective and less subjective, in the end, opens ourselves to God and his recreative power. Insisting that all depends on us, will simply isolate ourselves in an increasingly archipelagic world.
Happy feast day!