St. Thomas recommends the Dominican life – Part I
St. Thomas recommends the Dominican life – Part II
In this third post, we move from the bird’s eye view of the first 412 questions of St. Thomas’s
Summa Theologiae to his treatment of the diversities of life (active and contemplative). We recall that we are at the end of the Secunda Pars, which covers the ascent of the rational creature (i.e., man) to God. The first five questions of the Secunda Pars give us the goal of the ascent: happiness, or beatitude, in God. After covering the intricacies of that ascent that apply to all men, the last 19 questions of the Secunda Pars cover “acts pertaining especially to certain men.”
Skipping over the “diversity of gratuitous graces” (things like prophecy, rapture, tongues, and miracles), we come to the “diversities of life” in questions 179 through 182 and the “diversity of states of life” in questions 183 through 189. Under “diversities of life,” question 179 is about the division of life into active and contemplative, question 180 covers the contemplative life, question 181 speaks of the active life, and question 182 compares the two. In this post, we will cover the first two of these questions. Note that under each question, which is really a topic, there are several articles to which we will refer, which are the real questions, as it were, of the Summa.
In question 179 there are two articles which ask whether the division of life into active and contemplative is fitting (article 1) and adequate (article 2). In the first article, St. Thomas cites St. Gregory, who speaks of the active and contemplative life as “a twofold life wherein Almighty God instructs us by His holy word.” As we examine the division, it is important to remember that God’s word is accessible to those in both forms of life: both have the same final end of happiness or beatitude in God. St. Thomas defines the division in this way: life is shown by movement or operation, and man’s knowledge (his defining characteristic) is directed towards one of two movements: the knowledge itself of truth or external action, the former being contemplative and the latter being active. For Aquinas, this distinction is also
fitting because some are especially intent on the former and others on the latter.
Question 180, on the contemplative life, begins by asking whether the contemplative life pertains wholly to the intellect or to the affections as well as the intellect. While the essence of the contemplative life pertains to the intellect (as it is directed toward “knowledge itself of truth”), its beginning and end, he says, lie in the affections: it is motivated by the love of the Truth, and it ends with the delight experienced when that Truth is obtained. The affections are, therefore, involved in the happiness or beatitude toward which our whole life, especially in its contemplative aspect, is directed.
The next three articles of the question give us the prerequisites of contemplative life, which belong to it dispositively rather than essentially, i.e. they dispose us toward the contemplative life. First, the moral virtues dispose us to the contemplative life by curbing the passions and the outward disturbances that can hinder us from having the peace and cleanness of heart necessary for it. Second, because we do not come to know truth through simple apprehension like the angels but rather “by a process from several premises,” other actions must precede our contemplation of God: whether receiving things from someone else, as in prayer, hearing, and reading, or by our own personal study in meditation. Third, contemplation of the divine effects (i.e., creatures) show us the way to contemplation of God himself (Rom 1:20).
Having established both the role of the affections and the prerequisites for the contemplative life, St. Thomas examines, in the fifth article of question 180, just how far contemplation can go in this life. If one is in the state of rapture, a middle state between this life and the life to come that frees man from the use of the body, then St. Thomas argues that the full vision of the divine essence is possible. For those not in the state of rapture, however, the full vision of the divine essence is not possible in this life, as human contemplation requires some reference to the senses and therefore, we could say, cannot be purely spiritual. In the sixth and longest article, St. Thomas describes in greater detail the complexities of the operation of human contemplation using a distinction from pseudo-Dionysius. Though we will not examine this article further in our present discussion, note, if you are reading along with St. Thomas, that the second objection and reply provide the meat of the argument.
If you do not experience rapture and, therefore, felt rather let down after the fifth article, the
seventh and eighth articles help us to go out on a high note. In the fifth article, St. Thomas is not denying that human contemplation can reach divine truth, even if the fullness of the beatific vision is left for heaven. We find, in the seventh article, that even in human contemplation there is delight (Wis 8:16), both because the operation of contemplation is the highest human good and because its object is God, whose divine love both motivates us to contemplation and delights us when God is attained. Even though the delight is less perfect in this life than in heaven, it is still more delightful than anything in this life for two reasons: (1) the delight is spiritual rather than carnal, and (2) the love of God through charity surpasses all other love.
Citing our Lord’s statement in Luke 10:42 that “Mary hath chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her,” St. Thomas ends his treatment of the contemplative life by affirming that it is continuous. It is continuous with respect to its nature both because it is “about incorruptible and unchangeable things” and because there is nothing contrary to it. It is continuous with respect to us both because our intellects are capable of it and because we are more able to persevere in works that are not done primarily with our bodies. While St. Thomas admits that the manner of contemplation in this life is different than in heaven, he says that contemplation in this life is said to remain by the continuation of charity, which is its beginning and end.
Stay tuned for our next post, in which we will see the other half of the equation in question 181, which covers the active life, and also a comparison of the two forms of life in question 182.