Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Angelic Doctor

Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Angelic Doctor

When I first begin a new semester of teaching Philosophy, I always begin by asking students for their opinions on certain moral and social questions. In almost all cases the student’s response begins with: “I feel that…”

These three little words are indicative, I think, of why there is so much confusion in our society. As stated in a previous article, [i] an area of concern for the Western World is what Pope Emeritis Benedict XVI calls “the eclipse of reason.” Simply put, the concept of objective truth has been abandoned and replaced with subjective truth, namely—“truth for me”. No longer is something “true” in itself but it is “true for me.” This leads to the fragmentation of truth so that I have my truth, you have your truth, and we are both right because that’s what’s true “for you.”

This state of affairs has had two consequences.

First, truth has become highly personalized. Since it is my truth, I identify myself with it. It is not something that is somehow separate from who I am.

Secondly, since it is so personalized, any critique of my truth is a critique of me. It is a personal assault. If you join these two consequences to the increased narcissism in Western society, we can begin to understand the phenomena of people saying, “I feel that …” We are seeing the consequences of David Hume’s position that Reason is the slave of the passions, not the master of them. [ii]

As a result I spend a great deal of time in the first few weeks trying to break my students of this habit of leading with their feelings.

I make it clear that I’m not interested in how they feel; I want to know what they think!

If they begin a statement with, “I feel that…” I stop them and have them start again with “I think that…”

This does two things.

First of all, it focuses their attention away from the heart and to the mind. Now, maybe I’m strange—okay, I am strange, I teach philosophy after all!—but try the following experiment and let me know if I’m making this up:

  • Say the words: I FEEL THAT…  Where is your self awareness focused on? Did it not center on your torso, in the area of your heart? Are you not preparing to justify your feelings, with your mind being at the service of your heart? Is there not a sense of intimate connection with whatever you are feeling?
  • Now say the words: I THINK THAT…  Is not your self-awareness focused on your head? Is there not a distance created between your identity and your ideas? Is there not a sense that you can change what you’re thinking and it isn’t so personal, that it doesn’t require an almost tantamount change in personal identity?

Secondly, it facilitates productive debate. Now, I don’t claim any expertise in psychology or whatever “ology” would cover something like this, but I have noticed that as soon as students begin to emotionally detach themselves from their opinions, to examine them in the light of reason and not feeling, there results a great deal more clear discussion and a great deal less heated “emoting.”  They are also more open to personal change as well, and some of them have told me so.

What is Reason?

If human beings are rational by nature, then we need to examine what it is that we mean by this term. We don’t mean “think” in the simplest sense. All creatures with a brain “think.” Reason is that ability to “understand” what we are thinking, to judge it, to grasp new truths that result from what we understand.

For our purposes, I would like to focus on just a few elements of Reason.


St. Thomas Aquinas states that human beings receive knowledge first from their senses. In other words, we can know nothing unless it first comes to our awareness through the senses. After that however, the human intellect abstracts further understanding. The further we abstract from the sensible world, the higher the level of abstraction.[iii] There are three Levels of Abstraction.

  • First Level: This is where we grasp understanding of a thing in its individual material accidents, such as materiality, locality, appearance, biology and so on. This level of abstraction is found in the Natural Sciences.
  • Second Level: This is where we grasp understanding in a quantitative sense. I leave the material properties behind and deal with mathematics.
  • Third Level: This “highest” or most distant level of abstraction deals with  a being as a being. On this level, we are not concerned with the size, shape or weight of a being. Nor are we concerned about the classification of this being into genus and species. This level deals with a being completely removed from its sensible qualities. It is here that we find the basis for the study of metaphysics and where we discover the First Principles of Being.[iv]

Theoretical (Speculative) and Practical Reason

The following is much too simplistic but I like to refer to these two aspects of Reason as the “why” and the “how” respectively.

  • Speculative Reason understands the “why” of things. In Natural Science it examines things to grasp why things work the way they do. In Philosophy it deals with Metaphysics. Questions such as why do things exists the way they do, or even, why do things exist at all, are attempts to grasp the origin (Principle of Sufficient Reason) and purpose (Principle of Finality) of a thing. In the area of Human Nature or anthropology it tries to answer the question of what does it mean to be “human” and why are we this way? Speculative Reason deals with things that are factual in nature and treats them in impersonal terms so that they apply to everyone. The majority of my philosophy course is focused on Speculative Reason since it is an introduction to Philosophy.
  • Practical Reason deals with the “how” of things. If I understand “why” certain things are the way they are then I can use my reason to determine “how” to produce or avoid the consequences of that reality. Speculative Reason understands “why” erosion happens and Practical Reason determines “how” to avoid it. The virtue most associated with Practical Reason is Prudence. In terms of human beings if I understand “why” I exist then I can determine “how” I should live.


Logic is the tool by which we reason. There are many different systems of Logic, but because of time constraints, I will only focus on two: Deductive and Inductive. [v]

  • Deductive Logic begins with things we know or presume to be true and discover what NECESSARILY follows from that. A simple example:
    • In a NASCAR race the first car past the finish line wins.
    • Dale Earnhart Jr. was the first car past the finish line.
    • Therefore, Dale Jr. must necessarily be the winner (assuming there was no cheating involved.) Any other conclusion would be illogical and irrational.
  • Inductive Logic begins with what we know and works its way to what IS PROBABLY true but is not NECESSARILY true. Detectives are the best example of those who use inductive logic. They take the available evidence and try to come to the most logical conclusion, based on that evidence. Our belief in God, from an intellectual perspective, is based on inductive logic. St. Thomas’ Five Proofs for the Existence of God start with what we know (Causality, Motion, Design, etc) and work back (up) to the First Cause, First Mover, Designer, etc. A simple example:
    • If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck.
    • However, it could be a mechanical decoy that is so real to life as to be indistinguishable.

Ideas Have Consequences

Human beings are not robots; we have emotions and desires. No one can live a coldly logical existence divorced from our feelings. We are not Mr. Spock.[vi]  Yet at the same time we also recognize that all too often we are consumed by our passions and desires. The Catholic faith attributes this to the consequence of Original Sin, where Reason and passions which were meant to be in harmony are now disharmonious.

We also recognize that David Hume’s (as well as Rousseau and Freud’s) position—that Reason is the slave of desire—has resulted in a society that sees Reason only as a tool for “rationalizing” and fulfilling our desires. This idea has also reduced morality to simply weighing pros and cons for any action, what is called “utility” (more on that later in Ethics) and has focused a great deal of time, energy, intellect and resources into finding ways to by-pass the natural consequences of our uncontrolled desires, such as artificial contraceptives and divorce courts.

However, if we accept the reality that human beings are rational creatures, then we must understand what that means and apply it to our lives. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” If we are to examine our lives, it must be with the awareness that it is examined in the light of truth, not of personal sentiments, and to metaphysical principles, not simply base desires.

This awareness also means that if we do not live a life guided by reason, then somehow we are not living up to our nature. We recognize that a life, lived irrationally and compelled only by base desires, is somehow less than dignified, less than worthy of the term ‘human.’ Indeed, we often describe such people as “living (or acting) like animals.” We also recognize that, sooner or later, we will have to deal with the consequences of living in a way that contradicts reason and truth.

We can conclude the following then:

  1. All human beings, from the moment of conception, are endowed with the capacity to reason, though at first it exists only in potency. Whether in potency or in actuality, reason is intrinsic to all human beings.
  2. All human beings grow in their ability to reason as they age, but also to the extent that they are taught how to reason correctly.
  3. All human beings should exercise the capacity to reason, to the best of their ability, so that they participate as fully as possible in what is intrinsic to human nature.
  4. That if human beings do not exercise the capacity to reason it is either a result of illness or disability, or a deliberate volitional failure to do so.

I would not be alone in stating that much of our Post-Christian, Western society now faces tremendous difficulties, because for too long we have lost sight of reality as it truly is, and in so doing have lost sight of who we are as human beings. The so-called “Age of Reason” [vii] that was so optimistically proclaimed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has turned into an “Eclipse of Reason.” We are making choices that are not only detrimental to ourselves individually, but also collectively, as can be seen in the atrocity of abortion. Those who claim to be “pro-choice” embody well the insanity that results from casting Reason from its proper place so that it now becomes the slave of our desires.

Our society has to rediscover that “thinking” feeling again because, for good or for ill, we do make choices based on what we either know or feel … and that reveals to us another aspect of human nature—volition, the capacity to choose what we wish to believe and how we wish to act. This characteristic of human nature we will examine next time.


[i] The Eclipse of Reason

[ii] Human Nature: Reality or Fantasy

Another consequence of this subjectivism is the decline in civil debate. If someone attacks my opinion then they must be intolerant, judgmental and mean. Hence the name-calling, shouting down, physical and verbal intimidation that is evidenced in many meetings, rallies and protests. We are no longer dealing with ideas of right or wrong, it’s personal!

[iii] Hence the term “higher education.” Originally it meant an education that was more abstract in nature. As a result, the natural sciences would be considered a lower form of education than philosophy, which was the highest level of education. Today a “higher” education simply means level of the program you are studying: Bachelor, Master or Doctoral level. It also tells us what our priorities are when we place Math and Science at the top of educational importance and philosophy is relegated to the obscure corner of the campus.

[iv] One of the reasons many of my students have a difficult time initially in philosophy is that they have no experience in thinking at such a high level of abstraction. So steeped is our educational system in math and science that we fail our students by not training them how to think metaphysically, which can be done by focusing on typology, analogy, metaphors, parables, symbolism and so on. Too many seniors cannot go beyond the concrete and literal.

[v] A good internet resource for an introduction to logic can be found here:

[vi] For those unfamiliar with Star Trek please refer to the following link:


Editor’s Note: This is the ninth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for another article.

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