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Pursuing wisdom: thomistic thoughts on philosophy as a way of life.

In works of impressive erudition based in ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot (1) and John Cooper (2) have recently reasserted a familiar complaint about the Scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and his neo-Thomist heirs. Scholasticism, they complain, diminished philosophy by rejecting its claim to be a holistic way of life, requiring the transformation of the whole person, and reconceiving it as an exercise in merely conceptual and logical maneuvering, requiring nothing more from the philosopher than the ability to compute logical relations. This arid theorizing, they claim, distinguishes Scholastic thought from ancient philosophy and from the more valuable efforts of certain, generally marginal and idiosyncratic, medieval and modern thinkers. Furthermore, they see these baleful effects of Scholasticism not as unintended consequences but as the avowed goal of its subjugation of philosophy to theology. As Hadot argues, Scholasticism surrendered philosophy as a way of life to spiritual theology and retained for philosophy only arid, metaphysical discourse. Thomists and neo-Thomists have exchanged a rich and vital praxis for a desiccated theorizing.

Hadot's carefully developed account of ancient philosophy sounds themes Cooper echoes, though with some modification, and they are themes that appeal to many. Hadot argues that the ancient philosophers saw philosophy as a way of life consisting in "an exercise of the thought, will, and totality of one's being, the goal of which was to achieve a state practically inaccessible to mankind: wisdom." (3) Such an existential philosophy was conducted by means of "spiritual exercises," practices that "are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual's entire psychism" and lead to wisdom. (4) He endorses what he views as the ancient philosophers' concept of wisdom, "a way of life which brought peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkeia), and a cosmic consciousness." (5) Consequently, for Hadot, true philosophy always gives primacy of place to the practical, valuing the theoretical only for the sake of the practical, and finds in philosophical discourse only an aid to a philosophical way of life. (6)

Scholasticism, on Hadot's account, decisively destroyed this integral vision by spinning existential concerns off to spiritual theology and leaving philosophy with a kind of conceptual engineering centered on philosophical discourse rather than philosophical practice. One can find three points of contrast here, three key aspects of philosophy as a way of life that Hadot finds missing in the Scholastic approach. First, Hadot insists against the Scholastic view of philosophy as a purely theoretical endeavor that philosophy is fundamentally a practical activity subordinating theoretical means to practical ends. Second, a genuine philosophy in the ancient mode unites affection and intellect in an integration of the whole person, whereas Scholastic philosophy separates from the will a pure intellect, engaged in a sort of conceptual calculus irrelevant to feeling and desire. And finally, the Scholastics reduced philosophy to philosophical discourse, and then disconnected such discourse from the goal of wisdom, making it instead nothing more than a propaedeutic to theology. The ancient philosophers, by contrast, held that philosophical discourse serves only to justify and strengthen the more important existential choice of a way of life directed to practical wisdom.

When tested against the convictions of Thomas and his Scholastic and neo-scholastic followers, these contrasts fail to compel; St. Thomas's understanding of philosophy is far more robust than such polemical sketches suggest. One can find a more existential and authentically Thomistic concept of the intellectual life in the work of two of the past century's most prominent neo-scholastics, Etienne Gilson and A. G. Sertillanges, whose studies on the transformative qualities of philosophy predate Hadot's by decades. Gilson, singled out by Hadot as his prime exhibit for neo-Thomism's contentment with theoretical irrelevance, argues--in a text that Hadot seems to overlook--that an authentically Thomistic philosophy must go beyond textbook learning to become a "way of life," centered on the love of wisdom. (7) Likewise, for Sertillanges, an early twentieth-century Dominican, the intellectual life is a sacred calling, encompassing rightly ordered loves, virtues, bodily disciplines, spiritual exercises, acquired skills, appropriate attitudes, and so on. (8) In conceiving of philosophy as an organizing principle for a human life, and not merely an isolated theory-making endeavor, Gilson and Sertillanges provide models in practice of a Thomistic approach to philosophy that share some basic concerns with that of Hadot and Cooper.

Those models are built on certain characteristic Thomistic insights, in light of which one can see that a Thomistic account of the pursuit of wisdom can capture the three marks of philosophy as a way of life noted above. In particular, I will argue in this article that, from a Thomistic perspective, philosophy is a praxis, though with a theoretical end, uniting affection and intellect in the conduct of practices and activities that aim at a contemplative wisdom including discourse within it. Philosophy conceived in this way avoids the fragmentation and dualisms Hadot and Cooper see in Scholastic thought, bringing it closer to their ideals of philosophy as a way of life. I do not deny that deep differences in these approaches to philosophy remain. Some of them turn on Thomas's commitment not just to reason but also to faith, and all of them are worth further exploration. But we can make a worthwhile beginning by considering just these three points.

The structure of the paper reflects these three points of contrast. In the first section, as a preliminary to developing these three themes in Thomistic fashion, I consider Hadot's and Cooper's readings of Aristotelian philosophy as a way of life to determine whether such strategies could be adapted and applied to Aristotle's heir, Thomas. After a negative result in that inquiry, I turn next to reasons grounded in Thomas's account of human action for thinking of philosophy's theoretical inquiry as a genuine practice. In the third section, I examine Gilson's argument in Love and Wisdom for the necessity of philosophy as a way of life uniting affection and intellect, and in the final section, I turn to the relation between discourse and contemplation, focusing on three challenges to the existential significance of Thomistic philosophy that arise from the centrality of discursive metaphysics in Thomas's thought.

Can We Read Thomas as Hadot and Cooper Read Aristotle?

St. Thomas, as everyone knows, regarded Aristotle as "the Philosopher," and the important neo-Platonist themes that are also central to his work do not obscure its significantly Aristotelian cast. It is worthwhile, then, to see how Hadot and Cooper can find Aristotle on the right side of their visions of philosophy and Thomas on the other. Doing so will illuminate more clearly an important Thomistic point that these and other commentators often seem to overlook, namely, the claim that the theoretical activity of the philosopher is, at the same time, a practical choice.

Cooper argues that a view of Aristotle's philosophy as a way of life turns on its practical character. (9) In particular, Aristotle's moral philosophy, he claims, is designed to communicate "not a theoretical (or 'contemplative') but a practical understanding--one that immediately or directly leads to one's 'practices' in the living of one's life." (10) Cooper's interpretation of Aristotle on this point, as he himself admits, "may seem surprising to hear, even for scholars and advanced students of Aristotle's Ethics." (11) More commonly, readers take Aristotle to distinguish between the theoretical knowledge philosophy yields and the practical knowledge one acquires through experience, though the latter can, of course, be refined through a reflective appropriation of the former. But Cooper makes a stronger claim, insisting that Aristotle "is expecting [his hearers] to acquire through their philosophical studies the very same state of mind that is practical wisdom." (12)

This strategy allows Cooper to find in Aristotle an ordering of the theoretical to the practical. Hadot, too, insists that wisdom is ultimately something practical: "in the last analysis, real knowledge is know-how, and true know-how is knowing how to do good." (13) Not surprisingly both philosophers also find in the ancients central themes important to Kant, especially the motivating power of pure reason (14) and the primacy of the practical. (15) Both also recognize that Aristotle's philosophical way of life is centered on research and contemplation in a way unlike that of, for example, the Stoics or Epicureans. But, for Cooper, that theoretical research into the human good produces practical wisdom; and for Hadot, Aristotle's theoretical endeavors are the result of an existential choice of life that precedes them and produce an "ethics of disinterestedness and of objectivity." (16) So Aristotle's emphasis on the theoretical and his identification of contemplation with the best way of life survive the scrutiny of these two philosophers because they read them in terms of a priority of the practical.

Setting aside the adequacy of these readings as interpretations of Aristotle, one can see at once that St. Thomas will not be easily susceptible of them. Thomas resolutely rejects the primacy of the practical and denies that philosophy as such produces prudence. Commenting on Aristotle's identification of happiness with contemplative activity in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Thomas agrees that the activities of speculative wisdom, understood as inclusive of science and understanding, are those activities that constitute happiness. (17) Happiness, of course, is the final end of the goods and desires that spur human action. (18) So if Hadot's valorization of the Kantian primacy of the practical is a claim about the teleological order, then St. Thomas not only reads Aristotle against Hadot but himself agrees with Aristotle's conclusion: happiness is the activity of the best power in us with respect to the most excellent objects, and thus consists in acts of contemplation concerning that which is highest--preeminently, the divine. (19) If one is to find in Thomas a view of philosophy as engaging the whole person, then one will not discover it in an ultimate orientation of philosophical activity to practical ends.

For Cooper, philosophy can rightly be called a way of life only when one lives "from, as well as on" it. In other words, philosophical insights provide not just "an authoritative guide" for one's life but also the "motivation ... on which one actually lives one's life in just the way that one does." (20) Thus, Cooper's ancient philosophers anticipate the double obligation of Kant's categorical imperative in their view of the relation between philosophy and choice of life: one must not only act according to philosophical insight but also from it. As an important piece of evidence in his argument that Aristotle also maintains this stricture, he identifies a passage in Aristotle's discussion of prudence or practical wisdom in which he compares it to, in Cooper's phrase, "political science." Cooper reads Aristotle as identifying the virtue of practical wisdom that orders a whole life with the political science one learns through attending Aristotle's lectures and reading his texts. (21) He suggests an even stronger claim when he contends that ancient philosophers saw the study of philosophy, in the sense of a systematic, rigorously reasoned body of thought, as not only necessary but also sufficient for virtue and happiness. (22) And given that identification, Aristotle's attention to theory has, in fact, a practical consequence: theoretical study produces practical wisdom.

Thomas again dissents from this interpretation of the ancient sources. Thomas finds in that same Aristotelian text a distinction between two virtues that are substantially the same but differing in a specification from the point of view of reason. Aristotle is not making a point about a theoretical science or habit of mind, Thomas argues, but distinguishing between two kinds of prudence. Both are forms of right reason with respect to action, but one directs actions to the good of the agent and one regulates them in their order to the common good. (23) Even more to the point, Thomas denies that theoretical philosophy, of the kind in Aristotle's treatises, is a necessary route to practical insight. Instead, he suggests that what some come to know about virtue through laborious study, others know more intuitively by being virtuous. (24) In fact, Thomas denies that prudence is a science and insists that experience and much time are required to attain it, since it deals not only with unchanging universals but also with the particulars of individual situations and circumstances. (25) For the same reasons, he would not think that philosophical insight could be sufficient for virtue.

Is Theoretical Inquiry a Practice?

So Hadot and Cooper are right to think that Scholastics like St. Thomas would not integrate philosophy into a whole life on the model of their interpretations of Aristotle. But there are features of Hadot's reading of Aristotle that point the way to a better understanding of the practical significance of theoretical activity. In particular, Hadot argues that the theoretical life is a kind of praxis. He notes that the modern habit of contrasting the theoretical with the practical as the abstract with the concrete does not adequately convey Aristotle's use of the terms. In Aristotle's use, "theoretical" can describe both "the mode of knowledge whose goal is knowledge for knowledge's sake" and "the way of life which consists in devoting one's life to this mode of knowledge." (26) But a way of life consists in a variety of activities, choices, desires, judgments about the good, and so on. Since these phenomena are all practical in some way, Aristotle's theoretical life turns out to be ineliminably practical.

For Thomas, too, theoretical inquiry is a kind of praxis. (27) Thomas insists that every human act is a moral act. The very first article in the Prima secundae makes this point by means of a distinction between properly human actions (actiones humanae) and what are merely the acts of a man (hominis actiones).Thomas argues that actions are most properly called human when they bear the imprint of some feature characteristic of human nature, as opposed to the brute animals. Unlike the brutes, he observes, a human is "the master of his actions through reason and will." (28) So any action proceeding from a deliberate choice is a human action; and every deliberate choice, Thomas adds, is directed to the good and so subject to moral evaluation. Thus, every human act is a moral act.

Consequently, since the acts belonging to theoretical inquiry are free and deliberate, those acts are also moral. They reflect a choice of life, and Aristotle, as St. Thomas notes, identifies that choice of life as the mark distinguishing the philosopher from the Sophist. (29) Whereas the philosopher engages in theoretical inquiry from a desire for the truth, the Sophist engages in similar acts but for the sake of the mere appearance of being knowledgeable. Were theoretical inquiry distinct from the life of choice and practice, no such distinction could be drawn between genuine philosophy and its counterfeit. As with Aristotle, Thomas's insistence on the properly theoretical character of philosophy does not isolate it from the concerns of a whole human life but only marks the way in which those concerns will be embodied.

Thomas extends this insight by means of a distinction between the scientist's assent to the thing known and his consideration of the thing known. (30) A completed science, as Thomas understands it, demonstrates its conclusions; and since a truth known to be demonstrated cannot be denied, the scientist is not free to assent to or to reject the conclusions of his inquiry. But he is free to turn his attention to this matter or that, whether as he begins a certain inquiry or as he considers the conclusions of one. Consequently, Thomas argues, his theoretical inquiry will be praiseworthy when his attention is directed in a determinate way from a concern for the glory of God or the benefit of his neighbor; and it will be blameworthy, the argument implies, so long as his choice to consider some subject matter is directed to a goal contrary to those two ultimate ends of love. On this analysis, then, the philosopher is distinct from the Sophist not so much in the assent he makes to particular truths--the Sophist, too, may sometimes assent to the truth--but in his reason for taking up and attending to the inquiry in the way that he does, a reason that is fundamentally moral. Theoretical activity is moral activity, even though assent itself is not free, because we must select the objects, timing, and other conditions of our attending to the matter of our study.

Consequently, the acts of theoretical inquiry are subject to a twofold evaluation: on the one hand, they may be appraised in light of the intellectual virtues and, on the other hand, in light of the moral virtues. Evaluation in terms of the intellectual virtues considers the scientist's acts of assent in relation to the end of gaining truth; but moral evaluation considers the scientist's acts in relation to the further goals that determine the value of a whole human life. These two forms of evaluation underwrite Thomas's distinction between the intellectual and moral virtues. But Thomas does not distinguish them to isolate them or to associate only the intellectual virtues with theoretical inquiry. Instead, because the theoretical act as deliberate and free is a human act, the distinction between the sorts of virtues serves only to orient us to a twofold evaluation of a single act.

Can Philosophy Unite Affections and Intellect?

Talk of the virtues leads quickly to talk of the affections or passions. (31) For St. Thomas, the passions name inclinations that lead to actions, (32) and first among them is love. (33) Therefore, love is at the heart of Thomas's vision of the moral life, since it is love that awakens desire for the goods we pursue through the actions we undertake by means of the powers the virtues perfect. To speak of our virtues, then, is ultimately to speak of our loves.

This point is at the heart of Gilson's argument that philosophy, for Thomas, must be a way of life. The philosophical life is simply a life motivated by a love of wisdom; "a true Thomist, then," writes Gilson, "is a man who knows because he is a man who loves." (34) This insight leads Gilson to a distinction between philosophy as "learning" and philosophy as a "way of life," thus anticipating Hadot's parallel distinction, and even some of his terminology, by two or three decades (2). For Gilson, philosophy as "learning" is the program of teaching, prescribed readings, textbooks, and so on, which, though worthwhile in its own way, is not the primary aspect of philosophy. Philosophy, rather, is first of all a way of life; but Gilson complains, in words that more than sixty years later sound remarkably current, "The general trend of modern life is against the idea of philosophy as a way of life. Today, learning is sold by big department stores called colleges or universities where students can buy, as advertised, the kind of knowledge which suits their taste or answers their needs" (2). The consumerist model of higher education obscures philosophy's nature as a way of life, marked by a love for wisdom and expressing itself both in a set of moral virtues and in the central intellectual acts themselves.

Wisdom here is not simply practical, though prudence must accompany the search for wisdom. In the first place, Gilson argues, wisdom for St. Thomas was Christ (25); (35) but Thomas also knew and loved wisdom in its other theological and metaphysical forms as well as the wisdom that is, in Thomas's theology, the gift of the Holy Spirit (25). (36) Thus, Gilson points us to the analogous nature of the concept of wisdom. In each of these senses--practical, theological, metaphysical, mystical--wisdom denotes a knowledge of the ordering of things in light of first principles. But no sense of wisdom can simply be reduced to any other. According to Thomas's example, a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, then, must include in whatever way possible a concern for metaphysical insight; but it cannot be a monochromatic life, because wisdom in all its analogous senses remains lovable. A life spent seeking wisdom, then, reaches out to find it on many paths, as St. Thomas--philosopher, theologian, saint, and mystic--did himself.

Gilson describes more than one way in which the inclinations of the will permeate the philosophical life, even beyond the application of knowledge gained to particular moral issues. He argues that "the acquisition, the cultivation and the good use of speculative virtues require the co-operation of the will" (13). And again: "there are practical conditions for the achievement even of speculative knowledge and ... intellectual life involves problems of morality" (6). For example, love of wisdom is the animating force that moves someone to philosophize. Without love to draw someone to the good of metaphysical insight, one would never have reason to pursue it. Thus, the very beginning of the intellectual life--and no less its sustenance over time--cannot, on Thomas's view, be explained simply in terms of the intellect itself. Instead the will's loving relation to truth and wisdom is at its root. But the will is perfected by moral virtues, not merely intellectual ones. So the intellectual life depends not just on the intellectual virtues but more generally on moral ones and, thus, on the exercises and disciplines that shape those virtues.

Gilson insists not just on an external relation between the will and the intellectual life; more boldly he argues that the will and its virtues have a decisive role within intellectual activity itself. Never denying Thomas's basic "intellectualism"--that is, his conviction that "just as one can see only with his eyes, so he can know only with his intellect" (6)--Gilson nevertheless insists that our knowing acts proceed not from the intellect alone but also from the will. For example, he argues that our desire for wisdom plays a role in our adopting a judgment when the evidence underdetermines a verdict. He observes, "To what is evident in truth, our intellect cannot not assent; to what in it is not blindingly evident, and yet offers itself to the mind as the highest expression of rationality, our love demands that we assent as to the object of its desire. Nothing is more rational than such as [sic] assent: even where light is not perfect, not to assent to it is still to sin against the light" (24-25). On Gilson's interpretation, then, love moves the true Thomist not just to take up the intellectual life but even to adopt particular theories within it. It is clear that here the intellectual life and the moral life are not strangers but united as one in a common work. Gilson even argues further that love of wisdom also inspires tenacity in our grip on truth. "For," he writes, "it requires no less steady a will to keep truth, after it has been discovered, than it had required to discover it" (20).

Thus, on Thomas's view, and that of his neo-Thomist heirs such as Gilson, philosophical inquiry is not in any sense divorced from the fullness of a human life, as Thomism's critics allege. Instead, an authentically Thomistic conception of philosophy insists that the philosopher's characteristic activity is the expression of his heart's deepest loves, not the mechanical meanderings of a pure intellect. Thus, the intellectual life takes place in a context that includes both intellectual and moral virtues, as well as the most fundamental affections and desires of the human soul.

What Does Discourse Have to Do With Wisdom? Three Challenges

The previous two sections demonstrate that philosophical activity can be seen from a Thomistic perspective as a practice uniting affection and intellect. But another feature of the ancient concept of philosophy as a way of life that drives contemporary attempts at recovery is its aspiration to wisdom. Too much contemporary philosophy, according to these advocates, has exchanged a sapiential focus for the narrow aims of technical and specialized conceptual engineering. (37) Ancient philosophy, by contrast, cultivated spiritual practices that had the intended effect of aiding its practitioners in growth toward wisdom.

Two aspects of a Thomistic account of philosophy pose apparent challenges to a similar vision, and a third challenge emerges from my attempts to resolve the first two. As I noted earlier, Hadot's arguments for the renewal of sapiential philosophy assume that the wisdom that is its ultimate goal must be practical. The initial challenge for a Thomistic account, then, arises from the difficulty of envisioning theoretical wisdom as robustly existential enough to orient a way of life. Further, Thomas's construal of philosophy as a scientia suggests just that kind of conceptual engineering the advocates of philosophy as a way of life are attempting to evade. From Hadot's point of view, Thomas reduces philosophy to discourse, rather than seeing discourse as one subordinate element in a way of life ultimately aimed at achieving practical wisdom through a variety of spiritual exercises. The wisdom that Thomas pursues through his dialectical metaphysics simply does not seem fit to be the wisdom one might pursue through a whole way of life. And so the Thomist finds a second challenge in the relation between the abstract aridity of syllogistic and dialectical discourse and the concrete complexity of a whole human life.

The Proemium to Thomas's commentary on the fourth Gospel provides an indirect response to these two challenges by connecting the theoretical and discursive work of metaphysics with the wisdom offered by the Gospel writer in the context of contemplation. A comparison with Thomas's texts on the contemplative life in the Summa theologiae allows the reader to see in his account of wisdom not just the pet concern of a pedantic professional scholar but the deep desire of the human heart and a grammar of contemplation that unites the acts of the intellectual virtues with the whole of a human life. Nevertheless, a third challenge arises from my use of apparently theological and spiritual texts to support a philosophical thesis, and I will turn to that challenge at the end of this section.

A Thomistic response to the suspicion that theoretical wisdom cannot orient a way of life must begin with the act of wisdom itself. In his general account of the virtues, Thomas describes them as "operative habits," enabling and facilitating the choice of some particular kind of action. (38) Each virtue, then, has its characteristic act, and the virtue of wisdom has contemplation as its act. (39) Thomas never tires of repeating that "it belongs to the wise to order" (sapientis est ordinare), precisely because the wise person sees the first principle of all things and so can see most clearly the relations of dependence that unite things into a whole. This is the aspect of wisdom in view in Aristotle's discussion of that virtue in the beginning of the Metaphysics and in Thomas's commentary on it; but it is also in view in his discussion at the beginning of the Prima secundae of the final end of every human life. Here in the questions on contemplation, he writes, "Contemplation of the divine truth forms the chief part of the contemplative life, because contemplation of this kind is the end of a whole human life." (40) Contemplation of the truth about God as highest cause turns out, then, not to be just the pastime of some of the more cerebral among us, but instead to be the fulfillment of each person's animating desire for a flourishing and whole existence. If Thomas is right on this score, then the wisdom that enables and facilitates such an act might well be the linchpin of a way of life.

It may sound odd, though, to contemporary ears to claim that the contemplation of God as highest cause can be the sort of act that can organize a human life in a fulfilling way. Intensifying that apparent oddity is the fact that Aristotle and Thomas both consider the science of metaphysics as humankind's most natural way to such contemplation of the divine as we can have; but how can such an abstract inquiry, apparently so cold and dry, play such a crowning role in a human life? Does it not reduce the human person to a kind of metaphysical calculating machine, leaving out the emotions and affections that enrich human life? The Thomistic response here draws precisely on the claim that contemplation of the divine truth is our last end. Thomas offers a wide variety of arguments to establish this claim. For example, in line with his interpretation of the tenth book of Aristotle's Ethics, (41) Thomas thinks that our ultimate fulfillment must be found in the flourishing of the highest power within us. But our intellectual powers reach their greatest potential when they consider their most noble object, in terms of which we understand everything else. This object is the truth about God. (42) Further, since the intellect seeks the order of truth, and God as first cause is the ultimate principle of every order of being, we most perfect our intellects through such vision of God as we can have. (43) Again, Thomas argues that, since God is our first principle and since everything achieves its perfection by returning to its source, he must also be our last end. (44) And in a variety of other texts, and with an array of other arguments, he frequently drives home the same point. (45)

Given that such a contemplative vision of the divine is our last end, it is for us not just true but also good; and perceived as good, it stirs our desires and affections, bringing intellect and will together in one act. (46) The kind of contemplation that reaches God as first cause is not reductively intellectual, since God is not only the ultimate principle of created being but also our good and end--in fact, the good of every good. (47) So Thomas considers the act of contemplation from two points of view. Essentially, contemplation is an act of the intellect, since it is a consideration of the truth, and the intellect is the power within us that has truth as its object. Nevertheless, our will can turn our attention (intentio) here or there, and the fact that we choose to turn and rest our gaze on this object follows, says Thomas, from our love for the object seen. Consequently, he follows St. Gregory the Great in maintaining that contemplation is a matter of the love of God, since from love of God one's desire to see his beauty is kindled. (48)

In fact, beauty is a hallmark of the contemplative life. Not only does the beauty of the object seen draw the will so that it moves the intellect to attend to the truth before it, but contemplation also makes the contemplating soul beautiful. Beauty, Thomas explains, consists in "a certain clarity and due proportion." (49) Clarity is found in the light of reason in which its objects become manifest (lumen manfestans) and due proportion is found in reason's ordering, recognizing, and establishing the appropriate relations of dependence among things. So a soul becomes beautiful by perfecting its intellect in the simple vision of God. That vision begins in love stirred up by the beauty of the object perceived; results in admiratio, that awe born of the apprehension of the sublime; (50) and provides the greatest possible delight to the soul. (51) Thomas puts it this way: "This is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life: that the divine truth not only be seen but also that it be loved." (52)

The wisdom Thomas always pursues is the habit that enables and facilitates this act of contemplation. These brief extracts from his doctrine on contemplation, then, are enough to show that the wisdom to which Thomistic philosophy invites us is not reductive, dry, or arid, but, indeed, a possible lodestar for a whole way of life. It is a speculative wisdom, because it is the act of the intellect apprehending its own principle and the principle of all created being, and such a vision presents something exceeding our powers and capacities. (53) In such a vision, one does not find the means to one's ends or simply a help to one's own actions, as one does in practical wisdom; rather, one finds that which makes all action finally meaningful and choiceworthy. The wisdom whose act is contemplation is not a wisdom about how to live but about what to live for. Nevertheless, even though it is speculative, it cannot help but be life-changing, since it reveals one's final end and ultimate principle, reaching in to transform one's very loves. So a genuinely Thomistic account clears the first hurdle by articulating a concept of theoretical wisdom that can prove rich enough to orient a philosophical way of life.

The second obstacle, of course, still remains. Even if Thomas's view of wisdom is robust enough to make it the centerpiece of a way of life, surely he fatally exaggerates the role of discursive syllogizing in its pursuit. To many readers, Thomas's own writing style seems rather dry and technical. But even more to the point, Thomas associates the habit of wisdom with the science of metaphysics, which itself is carried on by means of discursive reasoning. Science is a virtue perfecting the mind's ability to proceed from principles to conclusions, and it is exhibited by means of philosophical discourse. If the wisdom Thomas urges us to pursue is fundamentally linked to the science of metaphysics, then it must seem that wisdom itself is a kind of discourse, and so falls short of the kind of philosophy that can be a way of life.

The objection, then, turns on the relation between science and wisdom, and between the mind's discursive moments in the one and its simple vision of the truth in the other. An adequate response must demonstrate an internal connection between the virtues of science and wisdom and between their respective acts. Thomas treats that latter point in the third article of his question on the contemplative life, in which he asks whether the contemplative life includes one or a diverse number of acts. He begins by drawing a distinction between angelic and human modes of comprehension: where angels understand "by a simple apprehension," humans arrive at truth through a more complicated route, moving from many premises to one conclusion. He then infers that, for a human, the contemplative life must include several different kinds of acts.
   The contemplative life, in fact, has one act in which it is finally
   perfected, namely the contemplation of truth, from which
   it has unity; but it has many acts by which it comes to this
   final act. One of them pertains to the reception of principles,
   from which one proceeds to the contemplation of truth; but
   another pertains to the deductive movement from principles
   to the truth; but the ultimate contemplative act is the very
   contemplation of the truth. (54)

In other texts, Thomas identifies the reception of principles as the act of the virtue of understanding (intellectus) and the movement from principles to conclusions as the act of the virtue of science (scientia), (55) leaving wisdom itself as the habit concerned with "a simple vision of the truth." (56) One might think, then, that Thomas's answer to the question in the article--Whether diverse acts belong to the contemplative life?--must be in the affirmative. But surprisingly, Thomas denies that diverse acts belong to the contemplative life, a position that appears difficult to hold in view of his explicitly naming a number of seemingly diverse acts belonging to contemplation.

We can find a path through this difficulty when we consider Thomas's claim that the habits of wisdom, science, and understanding make up a potential whole. (57) A potential whole is made up of parts that are ordered to one another in such a way that each participates in the same essence but not in the same power; though all are the same kind of thing, some parts are more perfect than others. (58) Further, a potential whole is a unity in which the various elements participate in the nature of the principal member but in a more limited way, without the latter's full perfection. Because the subordinate members of a potential whole do participate in the perfection of the principal member, that perfection can be predicated of them; but because their participation is limited, they depend on their being ordered to the principal member for whatever perfection they possess.

The concept of a potential unity proves important to Thomas in several ways, and he suggests several examples of it. Perhaps the clearest examples can be found in his treatment of the virtues, in which he analyzes them in terms of their potential parts. The virtue of justice, for example, constitutes a potential whole including as its parts the virtues of, among others, piety and religion. Justice, in the proper sense, names a stable disposition to render what is due to others. Piety is a habit of rendering what is due to the principles of one's life, such as one's parents, teachers, and nation, while religion is a habit of rendering what is due to God, the principle of all created being. But piety and religion are not simply specifications of justice, as "dog" and "cat" are specifications of "animal," since those two virtues fail to fully exhibit the nature of justice proper. In piety and religion, the debt paid can never be strictly equal to the debt owed, as justice itself requires, since one can never repay the gift of one's being and agency themselves. Thus, piety and religion are certainly forms of justice, and yet not in the strict sense that justice proper is.

This is precisely the kind of unity Thomas has in mind in discussing the intellectual virtues and the diversity of acts in the unity of contemplation. When the speculative intellectual virtues are considered as a potential whole, wisdom appears as the highest because it considers most directly the highest principles and orders the other habits in light of them. Wisdom's primary act is contemplation, and contemplation's simple vision of that which is most ultimate contrasts with science's laborious and earthbound discursive movement from principles to conclusions and from effects back to causes. Nevertheless, science and understanding make up one complex, potential whole with wisdom, though the latter are ordered to the former as the imperfect to the perfect. (59) Likewise, the act of contemplation is one, but it is a unity made up of parts sharing in an essential nature while differing in their power of perfecting it. The act of contemplation proper is the principal member of the whole, but the reception of principles and the deductive movement from principles to conclusions share in the stretching out to the truth that is the nature of contemplation. They are more limited than contemplation itself, since they fall short of the simple vision of the truth, the concentration on the loved and apprehended object that evokes admiratio. Their participation in the same nature, however, means that one speaks rightly to say that, not only is the simple vision of the truth contemplation, but the grasp of principles and the deductive movement to conclusions are both contemplative, too. The point to note, then, is that Thomas can intelligibly say both that philosophy is realized in the wisdom of contemplation and that it is realized in the science of metaphysics. Both the contemplation and the discourse belong to one whole, all the members of which are ordered to that principal act.

The Proemium to Thomas's commentary on the Gospel of John illustrates this potential whole of contemplation, showing how a vision of philosophy that privileges discourse to a significant degree belongs nonetheless to a way of life oriented to contemplative wisdom. In that text, St. Thomas explains the matter, order, end, and author of the Gospel by putting Isaiah 6:1 in the Evangelist's mouth: "I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the whole house was full of his majesty, and the things that were under him filled the temple." (60) With St. Augustine, Thomas finds the distinctive character of John's Gospel in its contemplative nature and its attention to the divinity of the Incarnate Word. (61) Using the text from Isaiah as a reference, Thomas describes the richness of John's contemplation--which the Evangelist intends to pass on to us--along three dimensions: it is high, full, and perfect. (62)

Contemplation is high when it reaches the knowledge of God. And John's contemplation of the Incarnation, Thomas explains, is high in a fourfold way, a way of authority, eternity, dignity, and incomprehensible truth. (63) Thomas then explicitly draws the link between philosophical argument and contemplation: "It is in these four ways," writes Thomas, "that the early philosophers arrived at the knowledge of God." (64) In the succeeding paragraphs, Thomas lays out four arguments concluding to God's existence as the transcendent cause of order, change, degrees of perfection, and truth. After each metaphysical argument, he directs the reader's attention to texts from other books of Scripture, all revealing the authority, changelessness, dignity, or incomprehensibility of God; and then he shows how John presents Christ in terms of these same divine attributes in the first chapter of his Gospel.

So the height of contemplation can be found precisely in the hard, discursive work of metaphysical argument. The fullness of contemplation lies in its grasp of the extent of the effects of the cause contemplated, which John reveals when he proclaims that "through Him all things came into being." (65) Further, contemplation becomes perfect when one is "led and raised to the height of the thing contemplated ... adhering and assenting [to it] by affection and understanding." (66) John teaches us, argues Thomas, how we are raised and elevated through the grace that comes to us through the sacraments of his humanity (ipsius sacramenta humanitatis). (67)

Thomas then associates each of these aspects of John's contemplation with a corresponding division of the sciences. Moral science has the perfection of contemplation, because that science is concerned with our ultimate good, and the good elicits our affections; (68) natural science, which considers all created things proceeding from God, aspires to fullness; and metaphysics reaches contemplation's heights, arriving at the knowledge of God as first cause. (69) As nature finds its fulfillment in grace, so discursive reason, in its various modes, is completed in the act of contemplation.

For Thomas, then, the acts of these discursive sciences are themselves contemplative, even though they do not tend to the principal act of contemplation itself. And for this reason, Thomas can claim that contemplation includes discursive and intuitive acts, while at the same time insisting that contemplation is one. Thus, the unity of the intellectual virtues and their acts in a potential whole allows Thomas to affirm the discursive aspect of the wisdom that can unify a whole life without reducing that wisdom to conceptual engineering.

Finally, the Proemium also points to a response to one other objection that may be lurking in the background. Allow me first to articulate the objection and then consider responses to it from passages in the Summa before turning to the relevant aspects of the Proemium. Hadot argues that the fatal mistake of Scholastic philosophy lies in its handing over to spiritual theology the spiritual practices that belong to philosophy by right. Similarly, someone might well think that my interpretation of Thomas's account of wisdom relies too heavily on the spiritual theology latent in his work. In other words, by relying on his account of contemplation, so the objection goes, I am helping myself to elements of Thomas's spiritual theology to overcome the inherent limitations of his actual account of philosophy.

It is a reasonable objection and well worth a response. I certainly concede that Thomas's account of contemplation in the Summa theologiae is ultimately in the service of properly theological goals; it is, after all, a summa of theology, not philosophy. Nonetheless, I also maintain that Thomas's teaching on contemplation in question 180 has a philosophical as well as a properly theological application, a fact that Thomas indicates in several ways. Consider his response to the second objection in the third article, in which Thomas interprets Augustine as maintaining that one act belonging to the potential whole of contemplation consists in seeing the cause through the effect (videre causam per effectum), describing precisely the way in which metaphysical argument arrives at a knowledge of the truth that God exists. And in the fourth article, as Thomas explains how a consideration of the divine effects belongs to contemplation, he draws on St. Paul's claim, in Romans 1, that one could, in that way, be "led by the hand to a knowledge of God." (70) His own commentary on Romans shows that he thought of this path to knowledge of God as that of the philosophers. (71) Finally, when he argues that contemplation brings with it the highest delight, he quotes, as one of his premises, Aristotle's insight that "all men by nature desire to know." (72) The argument and the direct citation of Aristotle are strong indications that Thomas is presenting a doctrine about contemplation that includes that which is available on a metaphysical plane, though it also goes beyond it.

But aside from these clues in the arguments of the Summa, Thomas's Proemium to the commentary on John makes the point abundantly clear. In a striking fashion, Thomas cites and elaborates on the philosophical arguments of the ancients, even mentioning the names of certain pagan thinkers, to show that their discursive and philosophical endeavors reached toward the height of contemplation, even though they could not reach the perfection of contemplation that depends on the grace God gives through the sacraments. Thomas's insistence that a human life flourishing to the fullest extent requires not just reason but also faith in no way nullifies the sapiential and contemplative character of properly philosophical argument. Philosophical study is not merely a preparation, analogue, or occasion for real contemplation; instead, such inquiry, culminating in the insights of metaphysics and natural theology, is already contemplation, albeit in an imperfect mode. Thomas never denigrates the imperfect just because it is imperfect; in a whole made up of parts ordered to a certain end, the imperfect plays a worthy and necessary role, even if it is not the perfect itself.


I began this article with three characteristic marks of philosophy conceived as a way of life. On such an account, philosophy is a practice uniting affect and intellect and leading its practitioner toward wisdom. I have shown that one can see these three marks as characteristic of a Thomistic--even neo-scholastic--account of philosophy in light of Thomas's insights into human action, love, and the unity of wisdom as a potential whole. Perhaps Hadot and Cooper would not recognize their aspirations for philosophy in a philosophical practice ordered to theoretical goals or in a discourse oriented to contemplation of the divine. Nevertheless, this examination has uncovered more common ground than one might at first have thought, demonstrating that a mode of philosophical inquiry oriented to contemplation can also make philosophy's existential import central. But further themes, such as the role of faith and revelation and the universal accessibility of philosophical wisdom call for more exploration than space here allows--and perhaps hint at deeper divergences.


I am glad to acknowledge my debts to the members of Kenrick-Glennon's Faculty Papers and Projects Colloquium, especially Larry Feingold, John Finley, Earl Muller, SJ, Larry Welch, and Shawn Welch, who read and offered valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article.

(1.) See especially Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold I. Davidson and trans. Michael Chase (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1995); What Is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002); and The Present Alone is Our Happiness, Second Edition: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Marc Djaballah and Michael Chase (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

(2.) John M. Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

(3.) Hadot, Way of Life, 265.

(4.) Ibid., 82.

(5.) Ibid., 265.

(6.) Ibid., 273.

(7.) Etienne Gilson, Wisdom and Love in Saint Thomas Aquinas (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1951), 2 and throughout.

(8.) A. G. Sertillanges, OP, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1980).

(9.) Cooper, Pursuits, 73.

(10.) Ibid., 76.

(11.) Ibid., 406n13.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, 18.

(14.) Cooper, Pursuits, 11n16.

(15.) Hadot, Way of Life, 33.

(16.) Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, 81.

(17.) Thomas Aquinas, In Libros Ethicorum ad Nicomachum (hereafter cited EN), Book X, lectio 10, number 7. Translations in this article are my own, from the Latin texts of the Busa edition available at Note that Thomas makes a point of saying that this judgment agrees not only with discussions earlier in Aristotle's text but "also with the truth itself" (etiam ipsi veritati).

(18.) EN, X, l. 10, n. 1; see also EN, X, l. 9, n. 1.

(19.) EN, X, l. 10, n. 8. For further argument along these same lines in his own right, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II, q. 3, a. 5.

(20.) Cooper, Pursuits, 13.

(21.) Ibid., 406n13.

(22.) See ibid., 13n 19, for philosophy as necessary and sufficient for virtue and happiness; for the sense of "philosophy," see 7, 17, and 22.

(23.) EN, VI, l. 7, n. 2.

(24.) See Aquinas, ST I, q. 1, a. 6 ad 3; II-II, q. 2, a. 3 ad 2; and II-II, q. 45, a. 2.

(25.) EN, VI, l. 7, n. 19.

(26.) Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, 80-81.

(27.) In perhaps the most extensive and detailed Thomistic response to Hadot to date, Thomas Hibbs makes the related point that metaphysical inquiry is one activity among others and so depends on the virtue of prudence for its ordering within a whole human life. See his Aquinas, Ethics, and Philosophy of Religion: Metaphysics and Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 109. Hibbs's whole discussion of matters related to Hadot's critique is well worth reading; see especially chapters 5 and 6, 75-116.

(28.) ST I-II, q. 1, a. 1. [H]omo dominus suorum actuum per rationem et voluntatem.

(29.) Sententia libri metaphysicae, Book IV, l. 4, n. 6.

(30.) ST II-II, q. 2, a. 9 ad 2. See also Thomas's comments on the third book of the Sentences, III Sent., d. 32, q. 2, a. 4.

(31.) In St. Thomas, affectio and passio are near synonyms; but Thomas almost always connects passio with corporal change (ST I-II, q. 22, aa. 1 and 3), whereas affectio can be without bodily alteration (ST I-II, q. 22, a. 3 ad 1). See Nicholas E. Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011), especially chap. 3, "The Affections of the Will."

(32.) ST I-II, q. 22, a. 2 ad 2.

(33.) ST I-II, q. 25, a. 2, in which Thomas argues that love is the first of the concupiscible passions, and ST I-II, q. 25, a. 1, in which he argues that concupiscible passions precede the irascible.

(34.) Gilson, Wisdom and Love, 5. Parenthetical citations in the rest of this section refer to Wisdom and Love. Without mentioning Gilson, Hibbs provides further support for this claim by drawing out the erotic cast to Thomas's metaphysical discourse. See Hibbs, Aquinas, Ethics, 94-95.

(35.) In support of this claim, Gilson cites I Sent., Prologus: Inter multas sententias quae a diversis de sapientia prodierunt, quid scilicet esset vera sapientia, unam singulariter firmam et veram apostolus protulit dicens Christum Dei virtutem et Dei sapientiam, qui etiam nobis a Deo factus est sapientia (Among many opinions from diverse sources about wisdom, and namely about what would be true wisdom, the Apostle pronounced one particularly firm and true, saying, "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God, who also is made for us wisdom from God" [interior quote from I Cor 1:24 and 30].)

(36.) For the central place Thomas accords the gift of wisdom from the Holy Spirit, see Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio, n. 44.

(37.) Jason Baehr cites several examples towards the beginning of his "Two Types of Wisdom," Acta Analytica, 27 (2012): 81-97.

(38.) ST I-II, q. 55, a. 2. See also III Sententia d. 3, q. 2, a. 4: habitus nihil est aliud quam habilitas ad actum, a habit is nothing other than an aptitude for an act.

(39.) See discussion and texts in Kieran Conley, OSB, A Theology of Wisdom: A Study in St. Thomas (Dubuque, IA: Priory Press, 1963), 38-39.

(40.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 4. Principaliter quidem ad vitam contemplativam pertinet contemplatio divinae veritatis, quia huiusmodi contemplatio est finis totius humanae vitae.

(41.) See especially lectiones 10 and ii in Thomas's commentary on Book X of the Ethics.

(42.) See ST I-II, q. 3, a. 5 and I Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 1.

(43.) Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 25.

(44.) Sententia Metaphysicae, I, l. 1, n. 4 together with ST I-II, q. 3, a. 7.

(45.) See, for example, the various arguments in SCG, III, c. 25 and ST, I-II, q. 3, a. 8.

(46.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 7.

(47.) SCG, I, c. 40.

(48.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 1.

(49.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 2 ad 3. In quadam claritate et debita proportione.

(50.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 3 ad 3.

(51.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 7.

(52.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 7 ad 1.

(53.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 3 ad 3.

(54.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 3.

(55.) ST I-II, q. 57, a. 2.

(56.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 3 ad 1. Simplex intuitum veritatis.

(57.) For further discussion of the nature of potential wholes and references in Thomas's texts, see Carl A. Lofy, SJ, "The Meaning of 'Potential Whole' in St. Thomas Aquinas," The Modern Schoolman: 37 (1959) 39-48. For the significance of that concept for Thomas's account of wisdom, see Conley, A Theology of Wisdom, 29-31. See especially in St. Thomas, Summa theologiae I, q. 77, a. 1 ad 1. Later in his study, Conley applies the same kind of analysis to theological wisdom: "If theology is a true realization of acquired wisdom, it must be, like metaphysics, a potential whole, embracing a number of diverse functions. Its most perfect act, its primary act, is contemplation, but it also includes the interpretation and defense of its principles, the demonstrative process of strict science, as well as the judgment and negative control of the lower sciences" (80). In a different but related context, Reinhard Hutter applies the notion of a potential whole to theology in his "Theological Faith Enlightening Sacred Theology: Renewing Theology by Recovering Its Unity as Sacra Doctrina The Thomist 74 (2010): 369-405, especially 389-98. Both Conley and Hutter depend in this connection on Francisco Muniz, OP; Conley cites his "De diversis muneribus sacrae theologiae secundum doctrinam S. Thomae," Angelicum 24 (1947), and Hutter cites his The Work of Theology, trans. John P. Reid, OP (Washington, DC: Thomist Press, 1953).

(58.) Thomas also identifies two other kinds of wholes, universal wholes and integral wholes. In an integral whole, such as a house, the parts do not themselves share in the perfection of the whole--a wall is not a house at all--but the parts together make up the whole. In a universal whole, such as a genus, the parts share equally in the nature of the whole; so "dog" and "cat" are both parts of "animal," and equally share in its nature. See Lofy, "Meaning of 'Potential Whole,'" 40-41 for further discussion and extensive references to texts in Thomas.

(59.) See also ST I-II, q. 57, a. 2 ad 1 and ST II-II, q. 180, a. 3.

(60.) Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, trans. Fabian Larcher, OP and James A. Weisheipl, OP, with introduction and notes by Daniel Keating and Matthew Levering (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 1. The verse from Isaiah forms the epigram to the text. A note on references: the Busa text does not divide Thomas's prologue into sections, presenting the entire passage as one great block of text. Consequently, to make it easier for the reader to locate the relevant passage more quickly, I refer below to the page and section numbers as found in the Larcher and Weisheipl edition. Any faults in the translation, however, are my own.

(61.) Commentary, 1, n. 1.

(62.) Commentary, 1, n. 1: Describitur autem alta, ampla, et perfecta.

(63.) Commentary, 1, n. 2: Auctoritatis, aeternitatis, dignitatis, incomprehensibilis veritatis.

(64.) Commentary, 1, n. 2: Istis enim quatuor modis antiqui philosophi ad Dei cognitionem pervenerunt.

(65.) Commentary, 3, n. 7.

(66.) Commentary, 4, n. 8: "Tunc enim contemplatio perfecta est, quando contemplans perducitur et elevatur ad altitudinem rei contemplatae ... inhaerendo et assentiendo per affectum et intellectum."

(67.) Though an elaboration of this point is beyond the scope of this paper, one might notice here how Thomas establishes a sacramental and ecclesial context for the perfection of a contemplative activity begun in metaphysics.

(68.) This, by the way, is essentially what Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes Climacus has in mind when, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he argues that (ethical and religious) "truth is subjectivity." See also in St. Thomas, In Hebraeorum, chapter 5, lectio 2 (for English translation, see Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. Chrysostom Baer, O. Praem. [South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2006], 120n273) and ST II-II, a. 20, q. 2 and ad 1-2.

(69.) Commentary, 4, n. 9.

(70.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 4. Ex hoc manuducitur homo in Dei cognitionem.

(71.) Super Romanos, chap. 1, lectio 6. For English translation, see Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, trans. F. R. Larcher, OP, ed. J. Mortensen and E. Alarcon (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), 40-41, nn. 114-16.

(72.) ST II-II, q. 180, a. 7. Omnes homines ex natura scire desiderant. Aristotle is quoted again in the reply to the third objection, to the effect that a little knowledge of the highest is more delightful than much knowledge about something lower. But note that two kinds of delight are possible in contemplation: the delight in act that is proper to one's nature, on the one hand, and the delight in a kind of union with a loved object on the other. Thomas generally views the contemplation of the ancient philosophers in terms of the first, not the second, kind of delight. See In III Sent., d. 35, q. 1, a. 2, questiuncula 1.
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