Aquinas for the Rest of Us
The Moral Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas: An Introduction to Ragamuffin Ethics
By Peter Redpath
Publisher: En Route Books & Media
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
The global turmoil of our times has been more than political; there’s been a scrambling of the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural orders to boot. People around the world have come to realize that there is something very wrong with most human societies. Whichever ideology we deploy to try to make sense of things, it is obvious that reality is wreaking havoc with what many thought were reasonably workable social truths. But what is the etiology of our civilization’s wasting disease? What is fundamentally wrong with all the “isms” that have begotten our cultural woes, and wherefore do all these ideologies keep ending up as twisted heaps of wreckage piled on the altar of progress?
Peter Redpath knows what the problem is and why things have turned out as badly as they have. He has dedicated his life to telling the rest of us what went wrong and how we can get the West, and the world, back on track. The Moral Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of books, papers, presentations, and lectures by America’s greatest living Thomist, and yet by itself it contains all we need to know to get our heads, hearts, and souls screwed on straight again and to start working our way out of the thicket of “isms” that have brought us to the brink of ruin.
The reason Redpath is the greatest living Thomist is directly related to the reason St. Thomas was the greatest philosopher who ever lived, period. Until I had the unsettling pleasure of studying under Redpath at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, I thought I knew a thing or two about St. Thomas. I was wrong on both counts: I knew neither two things about St. Thomas nor one. I knew nothing. Thomas is not who we think he is. And Redpath has done something extraordinary in reading, as far as I can tell, all the writings of Aquinas — in Latin — and emerging with a portrait of the great man that differs vastly from the caricatures we encounter even among those who claim Thomism as their intellectual vocation. Redpath has met the real Thomas and has introduced him anew to a world that needs him badly. This is why Redpath is the greatest living Thomist. But why Thomas was the greatest philosopher is another matter.
Simply put, Thomas was a great philosopher because he was not trying to create a system of thought. This is of central importance, a fact that must be grasped if we are to have any hope of escaping the fog of neo-Thomism and encountering the mind of Thomas himself. Thomas had no need to create anything because God had already done all that. Unlike the so-called Enlightenment philosophers (whom Redpath excoriates in his other works as “charlatans” and “sleepwalkers” who are not philosophers at all but “sophists” — Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Locke, and that entire benighted crew), Thomas started with creation as the human person encounters it: that sprawling array of sensory data and objectively existing, mind-independent stuff with which the human soul forms a relationship. This soul-level relationship is grounded in a truth that courses like an electric current through the entire circuit of matter and mind. Ultimately, all that truth is Truth, and all that Truth is in God. That’s the system. Nearly every “philosopher” since Descartes has tried to counterfeit this in one way or another, to cut God out of the equation and substitute something else for Him. This pseudo-intellectual shell game is the cause of all “isms.” But Thomas didn’t do this. He was figuring out a puzzle, not setting up a game. He was looking for systematic Truth, not trying to systematize his own cogitations.
It is because this is who St. Thomas is, and because Peter Redpath knows it and says so, that reading Aquinas through the eyes of Redpath is a life-changing experience. While so many books on Thomas essentialize his philosophy, boiling it down to the natural law (about which he actually wrote comparatively little) or the “one, true, beautiful, and good,” Redpath gives us Thomas in his truly astounding complexity and simplicity, his ability to meet every conceivable sub-truth head-on, from the Arabs to the Latins to the Greeks, and to imbricate them all into the always-already-there “system” of the universe that God lovingly wrought.
There are wonders untold in the writings of the Angelic Doctor, but they are often so richly inlaid into the workings of the cosmos itself that it takes an expert guide like Redpath to spread them out before us in workable portions — just as Thomas was the faithful broker for the very difficult Aristotle to his own contemporaries. Truth is enormous and cannot be contained in any human system. This is the exhilarating discovery one makes while following Redpath deep into St. Thomas’s beautiful mind.
Alas, that mind is very different from those we encounter in contemporary pop-philosophy and pop-psychology. Each glossy covered “guide to life” retailed by legions of pop-philosophers and pop-psychologists is evidence that modern man has forgotten who he is. Ideologues argue that man is just another species, or, worse, below the animals, below even the inanimate planet on which he resides. If we are to believe the so-called wise men (and women) of the age, human beings are not much to write home about. “Self-esteem” is the watchword of our century, but for all that we are reminded everywhere that human life is tawdry and cheap.
But what if Redpath is right in his assessment of Thomas’s understanding of Aristotle? He writes:
The way a thing acts essentially reflects the way it exists. Knowing is a human being’s proper operation, our specific difference, because by means of it we excel in kind, in virtual quantity, all other animals. For this reason, Thomas says Aristotle concludes man’s highest good, happiness, must consist in knowing. The human species must derive its specific difference from the intellectual soul, the principle of the act of knowing. Since everything derives its species from its form, the intellectual soul must be the proper form of human nature.
From this insight follows a train of others, all working to show that man is part of the world and also separate from it, embedded in a spiritual hierarchy that stretches infinitely beyond what we can see, touch, and hear. The human soul is a moral matrix.
As Rev. A. William McVey points out in the foreword to The Moral Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Redpath takes this personalist “power psychology” from the great French thinker Étienne Gilson. As such, one cannot have any kind of thinking — including, McVey says and Redpath repeatedly affirms, science — without a power psychology that is grounded in the moral man. To lop off man’s royal destiny as heir to the Kingdom of Heaven is to destroy everything about him that makes him who he really is. The horrors of the Enlightenment and its aftermath spring from man’s trying to hide from his own nobility behind animal-like caricatures of himself, incarnadine in the blood of his fellows. To recover sanity, we must recover a true, Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of ourselves grounded in eternal truth: Truth.
But Rome was not built in a day, and the disaster of the modern age cannot be undone by reading some words in a book. “Ragamuffin Thomism” is Redpath’s humble acknowledgment that we are all in the same boat, all wounded among the ruins of the West and trying to come back from five centuries of leaning spread-eagle on the pseudo-scientific ropes. Ragamuffin Thomism, in Redpath’s words, is Thomism for all of us “not-quite-perfect, at times, educationally deprived and abused, but rightly disposed to learn, students (many of whom are still rough around the edges)” (emphases in original). This is a book for us to whom it has fallen to lay the first stones in the long rebuilding of a lost world. None of us has all the answers, but as ragamuffin Thomists, God willing, we might be able to make a good start.
Redpath’s massive new book may be daunting, but, unlike the Enlightenment, it is meant to illuminate, not to confuse. Redpath is a delightful New Yorker who does not suffer fools, and readers will not find any fluff, bluster, or weasel words on any of the nearly 800 pages of The Moral Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas. If anything, they will leave the final chapter — a brilliant dissection of the disingenuousness and intellectual poverty of one of our modern charlatans, Jonathan Haidt — completely energized to go out into the world and do joyous brick-laying amid the crumbling remains of modernity gone mad. Take and read, Redpath is challenging us — and then, like St. Thomas, gird and engage.
Yes, we in the West — we nearly everywhere — are in bad shape. But there is no need to despair. The ultimate problem facing us is not liberalism, communism, socialism, transgenderism, transhumanism, or any of the thousand-and-one other regimes of falsehood that vie to capture our attention and lead us astray. The ultimate problem is that we don’t know who looks back at us from the mirror each morning. Figure out that person — his real identity, his real destiny — and the fight is as good as won. As Christ showed us, the truth will set us free, but it will cost us everything to obtain it. Our birthright cannot be bought for anything less than eternity with God in Heaven. Read The Moral Psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas and you will find that on your journey back to civilizational sanity you have no less a companion than the Angelic Doctor himself.
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