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The Thomist Who Loved Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

It will become evident that my debt is not only to Aquinas but also to a certain kind of modern interpreter. Once, largely through the work of Wittgenstein (1889–1951), the centuries-long domination of Western thinking by Cartesian and related empiricist doctrines had been broken, it became possible for philosophers to look back with a fresh understanding to pre-Cartesian thinking, in particular to Aquinas, and to discover how very congenial so much of his writing is to modern styles of questioning and answering. So I have been able to borrow shamelessly from Wittgenstein himself, but also from Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001), Peter Geach, Philippa Foot, Anthony Kenny, Alasdair MacIntyre and Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) – though, perhaps, they (those of them still living at any rate) would not all acknowledge, or even recognize, their insights in the simplifications to which they have been reduced. This also means that what I have to say will sometimes seem strange to the older kind of ‘Thomist’ who was, I believe, often unwittingly influenced by empiricist or Cartesian presuppositions. So responses to my reflections and expositions are likely to take the form of arguments from many sides. But what other reason is there for writing any philosophical book?

Herbert McCabe, OP – The Good Life

The late Herbert McCabe, OP, longtime editor of New Blackfriars and author of many posthumously published books, was not typical of Dominican friars of his or later generations in that he paired his love of St. Thomas Aquinas with a keen interest in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein had several prominent Catholic students. Foremost were Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach, who arranged a Catholic funeral and burial for their teacher despite his never joining the Church. As McCabe writes above in his introduction to The Good Life, he read Wittgenstein as a way to reach beyond or beside the limitations of modern thinking and thus as a pathway to earlier thinking. Earlier thinking meant, chiefly, St. Thomas Aquinas.

McCabe shares with other philosophers in Wittgenstein’s lineage a clarity and playfulness of prose. He was relieved of his editing duties at New Blackfriars in 1967 for penning an editorial that criticized a former contributor for publicly leaving the Church. When he became editor again in 1970 he began his editorial, “As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted…” Paul O’Grady notes that McCabe and Wittgenstein shared an absence of careerism and care for academic (and in Fr. Herbert’s case, ecclesiastical) decorum and self-advancement. Both chose a life of voluntary poverty. Neither published much in his lifetime, but each left an estimable (and now well mined) nachlass.

Not only inspired by both, McCabe charted the overlapping concerns of St. Thomas Aquinas and Wittgenstein: “When Wittgenstein in the Tractatus says “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is”: (6.44) it seems to me that he is engaged with the same question as St Thomas when he speaks of esse.”

Herbert McCabe, OP
Herbert McCabe, OP

McCabe’s books and articles are free of philosophical or theological jargon—indeed, they are accessible always to any educated reader and often funny—so whatever one makes of his conclusions, his way of writing offers lessons in how to write and think about theology. (He shares these qualities with another Thomist whom we featured on this blog, Josef Pieper.)

Titles from Herbert McCabe, OP available in Verbum:

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Sunday of the Word of God

Pope Francis begins his Apostolic Letter Aperuit Illis, which institutes the annual Sunday of the Word of God, with a verse from the Gospel of Luke: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” The Holy Father continues, “Devoting a specific Sunday of the liturgical year to the word of God can enable the Church to experience anew how the risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world.”

Sunday of the Word of God occurred last Sunday, and we’re celebrating by offering special prices on Catholic Bibles and commentaries throughout the week so that all the faithful can “grow in religious and intimate familiarity with the sacred Scriptures.” Some Bibles are available for as little as $0.99.

What is Great in the Great

What is great in the great appears to consist precisely in those qualities which rule them out as representatives of a “movement.” And this is also true of Thomas. His greatness, and incidentally his timeliness, consists precisely in the fact that a real “ism” cannot properly be attached to him; that, therefore, “Thomism” cannot really exist. Not, at any rate, if we understand the term to mean a specific doctrinal tendency conditioned by polemical theses and demarcations, a system of tenets handed down from teacher to pupil, as is the case with any “school.” This cannot exist because the magnificent statement residing in the work of St. Thomas is far too rich; its special virtue lies in its not seeking to be anything “special.” Thomas refused to be selective; he undertook the enormous task of “choosing everything.” “He seeks to be faithful to the deeper intention of Saint Augustine, as well as to that of Aristotle; the deeper aim of human reason as well as of divine faith.” Similarly, the French Dominican Geiger, who in his much-discussed book on the concept of “participation” in Thomas Aquinas attempted to show the Platonic elements in the thinking of the alleged Aristotelian Thomas, has made the same observation: Thomas ought to have made choices but did not do so—or il n’a pas choisi. Thomas was neither Platonist nor Aristotelian; he was both.

Josef Pieper – Guide to Thomas Aquinas

The Meaning of “Doctrina” in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae

The second objection to the first article of the first question of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae begins thus: “Doctrina non potest esse nisi de ente: nihil enim scitur nisi verum, quod cum ente convertitur.” In his translation of the Summa the late Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP translates doctrina as “knowledge.” The newer edition of the Summa from the Aquinas Institute revises this translation from “knowledge” to “teaching.”

So what is doctrina and what does it mean?

St. Jerome uses doctrina to translate a host of words in the Vulgate: e.g., מְלָאכָה (Exodus 35:31), אוּרִים (Leviticus 8:8), דַּעַת (Proverbs 24:4; 1 Kings 7:14; Ecclesiastes 2:21), שִׂכְלוֹ (Proverbs 12:8), מוּסַר (Proverbs 13:1; Isaiah 26:16; Jeremiah 10:8), שֵֽׂכֶל (Proverbs 13:15), דְּעֶה (Proverbs 24:14), παιδεία (Sirach 4:29, 21:22), δῐδᾰχή (Matthew 7:28 et passim; Mark 4:2 et passim; Luke 4:32; John 7:17 et passim), δῐδασκᾰλία (Romans 12:7; Titus 2:7), or διδακτός (1 Corinthians 2:13). In all it appears 113 times in the Vulgate and frequently in works like the Venerable Bede’s Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum and Cicero’s dialogue De Oratore. The sense of the word tends to be, as Lewis & Short put it, “the knowledge imparted by teaching” or “the habit produced by instruction.”

A Lexicon of Saint Thomas Aquinas defines it this way: doctrīna, ae, f., (1) instruction in the active sense of the word, teaching, informing, synonym of doctio and doctrinatio, the opposite of disciplina, (2) instruction in the passive sense of the word, synonym of disciplina, (3) doctrine, dogma, (4) profession of teaching, branch of learning, science, synonym of disciplina.

Which is to say, the Aquinas Institute’s revision is right and good.

Verbum’s Christmas Sale Continues!


The Christmas season just started, and our Advent & Christmas sale continues through January 10th. Save on a host of Catholic resources!

Highlights include:

Venite, venite in Bethlehem

Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte
Regem angelorum:
Venite adoremus

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the Oldest Surviving Christmas Tree

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the oldest surviving Christmas tree in the world, which forms a kind of reredos behind the high altar in the church at Christkindl near Steyr. The history of this tree takes us back to the year 1694. At that time, Steyr had a new sacristan and choirmaster who suffered from epilepsy—or, as the chronicle innocently puts it, “the sickness where one falls down”. He came from Melk, where he had become acquainted with the devotion to the child Jesus. He placed a picture of the Holy Family in the hollow of a medium-sized pine, and he found strength and consolation as he said his prayers before this picture. Then he heard of an image of the Christ child that had healed a paralyzed nun, and after some time he succeeded in obtaining an exact copy, a waxen Christ child holding a cross in one hand and the crown of thorns in the other. He brought this image to the tree and said his prayers before it, sensing that a healing power radiated from the image. Gradually, people heard about this, and they began to make pilgrimages to the Christ child in the tree. The Church authorities in Passau were slow to approve of this popular devotion, but the local people were finally given permission to erect a little church around this tree, and the foundation stone of the Christkindl church was laid in 1708. It was built by the most celebrated Austrian architects of the time, on the model of Santa Maria Rotonda in Rome. One might say that it has become a precious husk around the tree, out of which the altar and the tabernacle grow. The tree still bears the little waxen Christ child. He wears a crown, and rays go forth from the figure, giving an assurance of faith and hope to many people.

 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – The Blessing of Christmas

Four Catholic Quotations for Christmas


Brothers, see Jesus in the manger, see him in the lap of his virgin mother, see him sucking at her breasts, crying in the cradle, see him wrapped in swaddling clothes; see him also, if I am not mistaken, surrounded by the hay in the stable. This is spiritual milk; these are the banquet foods I promised you for this our feast day. Suck on them sweetly; think on them with tenderness. Nourish yourselves interiorly with a drink of this milk. But this is for children. What may we do for the youth, what for the elders? The youth are strong; elders have lost the heat of the flesh. If therefore you are a child, suckle on Jesus in the stable. If you are strong, imitate Jesus on the gibbet of the cross.

St. Aelred of Rievaulx – The Liturgical Sermons

When the Maker of time, the Word of the Father, was made flesh, He gave us His birthday in time; and He without whose divine bidding no day runs its course, in His Incarnation reserved one day for Himself. He Himself with the Father precedes all spans of time; but on this day, issuing from His mother, He stepped into the tide of the years. Man’s Maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breasts; that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey; that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Vine be crowned with thorns, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might be made weak, that He who makes well might be wounded, that Life might die. He was made man to suffer these and similar undeserved things for us, that He might free us who were undeserving; and He who on account of us endured such great evils, merited no evil, while we who through Him were so bountifully blessed, had no merits to show for such blessings. Therefore, because of all this, He who before all ages and without a beginning determined by days was the Son of God, saw fit in these latter days to be the Son of man; and He, who was born of the Father but not made by the Father, was made in the mother whom He had made, that He might sometime be born here on earth of her who could never have been anywhere except through Him.

St. Augustine – Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany

The Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries give three Masses to this feast (of Christmas), and these, with a special and sublime martyrology, and dispensation, if necessary, from abstinence, still mark our usage. Though Rome gives three Masses to the Nativity only, Ildefonsus, a Spanish bishop, in 845, alludes to a triple mass on Nativity, Easter, Whitsun, and Transfiguration (P.L., CVI, 888). These Masses, at midnight, dawn, and in die, were mystically connected with aboriginal, Judaic, and Christian dispensations, or (as by St. Thomas, Summa Theologica III:83:2) to the triple “birth” of Christ: in Eternity, in Time, and in the Soul. Liturgical colours varied: black, white, red, or (e.g. at Narbonne) red, white, violet were used (Durand, Rat. Div. Off., VI, 13). The Gloria was at first sung only in the first Mass of this day.

The Catholic Encyclopedia

Though coming in the form of man, yet not in every thing is He subject to the laws of man’s nature; for while His being born of a woman, tells of human nature; virginity becoming capable of childbirth betokens something above man. Of Him then His mother’s burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy. But through a virgin’s purity He makes His passage into mortal life at a time in which the darkness was beginning to fail, and the vast expanse of night to fade away before the exceeding brightness of the light. For the death of sin had brought an end of wickedness which from henceforth tends to nothing by reason of the presence of the true light which has illuminated the whole world with the rays of the Gospel.

St. Gregory of Nyssa quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke

How to Do Original Language Study

Fr. Andrew explains how to use Verbum 9 for original language study, even if you don’t know Greek, Latin, or Hebrew yet.

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