Wojciech Golubiewski. Aquinas on Imitation of Nature: Source of Principles of Moral Action. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
“In recent decades, there has been an upsurge of interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas.” This isn’t the first time. And it probably won’t be the last time. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the supposed preeminent Doctor of the Church, was brought to prominence in the Catholic mind in the aftermath of the Industrial and French Revolutions that upended European society in the nineteenth century. It was the Catholic Church’s response to nineteenth century crises that elevated Thomas to his rockstar status. In the light of moral, societal, and cultural decline faced in the West today, Aquinas has once again risen to prominence in Catholic circles (and even in some Reformed Protestant circles friendly to Aristotle and borrowing from what they would consider healthy Catholic thought). Pope Benedict XVI has gone as far as saying Aquinas is the angelic doctor “because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life.”
Wojciech Golubiewski’s Aquinas on Imitation of Nature is part of the current renaissance of Thomistic scholarship within. A lot of the recent scholarship on Aquinas concerns itself with the role of Neoplatonism in his thought in contradistinction to Aristotelianism; Thomistic understandings of human nature implicitly tied to broader cultural debates regarding human nature, biology, and science; and now with this volume the role of imitatio in the natural law as a source for moral action.
Thomas Aquinas is generally known as the theologian who baptized Aristotle, however legitimate that implication may be (which is largely overstated and oversold). Nevertheless, his commentaries on Aristotle and the Aristotelian elements of the Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles solidify his Aristotelian reputation. Insofar that this is true, Golubieweski’s reading of Thomas and Aristotle in relation to Aquinas’s understanding of natural law as imitation of nature leading to practical wisdom and the good life doesn’t tread on new ground. What it does offer, though, is an important antidote to the general perception of a reactionary monopoly over Thomas in contemporary Catholic debates.
The stated aim of this study is “to explore Thomas’s conception of the imitation of nature insofar as it regards his account of practical principles of human moral actions. It aims, therefore, to show what role the imitation of nature plays in Aquinas’s account of moral reasoning and human virtuous agency.” As such, Aquinas on Imitation of Nature is the newest publication in the longstanding war for virtue in modernity. Following in the footsteps of Alasdair McIntyre has a certain nobility to it. But McIntyre and Golubiewski part company in important ways. Essential to this work “is the very intelligibility of the good, and especially the moral good, present both in medieval and contemporary moral considerations.” Golubiewski seeks to bring Thomas into the stage of debate over moral theory that is currently ongoing in intellectual circles.
A number of prominent Thomas scholars are also engaged with throughout the book. The writings of Jan Aertsen, Lawrence Dewan, and Stephen Brock are all preliminarily discussed with their merits and shortcomings addressed. No one can doubt, in the early pages of this work, that Golubiewski is anything but a robust and well-read scholar in the field of Thomistic studies and the contemporary debates and scholarship surrounding the angelic doctor. But bringing Thomas back to a contemporary audience has its own biases and shortcomings.
Liberal theology is often pilloried for a number of reasons. But the most succinct understanding of liberal theology, both Catholic and Protestant, is that it offers a peace treaty with the modern world. Modernity, defined as the will to power, freedom of choice, and the belief in the essential goodness of man, implicitly informs part of Golubiewski’s presentation of Aquinas in this work (or at least a significant element of it). This should also give us pause to consider the merits of Aquinas’s own considerations when reading him in contradistinction to, say, Saint Augustine and the broader Catholic theological and philosophical tradition.
Aquinas’s seemingly compatibilist account (here meaning compatibility with modern beliefs) of moral agency and virtue through the imitation of physical nature cannot escape the specter of Eric Voegelin’s reflection that by the time of late medieval and early Renaissance European thought, the ghost of declination and degeneracy that had preoccupied Augustine and his heirs had vanished. The “dark” vision of history and man, even if tempered by Augustine’s voluminous writings on beauty and love (a prized aspect of his theology championed by his Renaissance disciples without the emphasis on human depravity and predestination), was no longer holding sway over Aquinas even if the angelic doctor shares in the general spirit of eschatological Augustinianism. While Golubiewski routinely reminds us of the importance of God and grace in Aquinas’s thought and action, the concentration on imitation of nature as being a pathway for imitating Divine Wisdom and manifesting human virtue essentially makes peace with the modern world’s rejection of original sin, the need for grace in life, and the belief in the general goodness of man. An entire chapter, in fact, is entitled “Human Natural Goodness.” This, it seems, to be the main purpose of the book—a rehabilitation of the idea of human goodness contra sinfulness, something ultimately compatible with modernist outlooks, within the Thomistic outlook while still sprinkled with reminders of Aquinas’s commitments to God and grace as essential to his thought. As a result, we really have two books. A naturalistic Aquinas whose moral philosophy seems possible without the specter of God and his grace which can be stripped from the great saint’s writings, and the eminently Christian Aquinas whose moral philosophy is impossible without God and his grace.
This leads to an important question that Christians must wrestle with, especially those in the Catholic tradition which has a strong—and dogmatic—concept of original sin. What is the role of grace in the life of human virtue and action? This is a nagging question one has especially when reading this book.
“Imitation of nature,” Golubiewski writes, “should be seen as opening an immense horizon of the divine wisdom, and not only and first of all as a mandate of the divine will.” I must profess, I am immensely sympathetic to this line of argumentation. I too like to think, influenced by patristic and scholastic theologies, the imitation and observation of nature serves as a pathway to God. The open sacramentality of nature as an alternative means of God’s grace into human lives is something I do believe in. Whether this is convincing to moderns is another matter.
Furthermore, the presentation of Aquinas ebbs and flows between a nearly naturalistic Thomism and the “grace perfecting nature” Thomism that is associated with orthodox Thomistic theology. Golubiewski writes, “In Aquinas’s doctrine of the imitation of nature, attaining natural goodness by human agents—the moral flourishing—falls under this practical normative [of reason] according to the human mode of action, including practical reasoning, both seeds of and already developed moral virtues, and the free will.” We equally read, “human voluntary and free agency depends on reason’s apprehension of the ratio finis [rational end], which has the notion of the good, while the rectitude and moral goodness of free agency depends also on reason’s right apprehension of the ratio finis.” Statements like these, which are peppered throughout the book, seem to present an Aquinas who argues natural goodness via the imitation of nature is completely under naturalistic human power. An unfallen or original humanity certainly carries with it that possibility. But a humanity that is unfallen and not in need of redemption is ultimately contrary to the Christian outlook; one can keep the trappings of an ethical Christianity, but then Christianity becomes one ethical philosophy among many.
How does reason apprehend the rational and right end of existence? When we ponder this question, especially from a theological dimension, the Aquinas of grace and God appears, “Aquinas considers God the universal good of all creatures, the pure act that all things desire by desiring actuality of their proper perfections, inasmuch as such perfections have always some likeness to the divine act of being.” Likewise, “Eventually, Aquinas says that man as a certain whole (totus homo) is for an extrinsic end, the fruition of God.” So does God, working as “the archer,” move us to the divine wisdom that is imitable through observing nature? Or are we capable of this ourselves? For instance, Golubiewski writes, “In light of reason’s imitation of nature, inasmuch as the immediate order of human nature to the principle of being is grasped through the notions of being and of good, it is perfectly reasonable to will the good of grace, provided one believes there is such a thing as grace.”
What does it mean, “provided one believes there is such a thing as grace?” This is pure sophistry. There is grace in Aquinas’s theology, as Golubiewski states repeatedly throughout the work. For instance, “according to Aquinas, the healing effect of grace is necessary for restoring the integrity of human nature.” Grace excites the will and enlightens the mind to the Divine Wisdom that illuminates and brings fallen intellects back to a knowledge of good and evil. Grace comes first, as Aquinas states, and through cooperating with grace, we will the good because we know from that antecedent grace that the good of nature will produce the happiness and fruition in God we desire. One cannot “will the good of grace” apart from grace. And one cannot believe in grace without the gift of grace.
“Desire of the good and the movement of things both depend on the notion of the end, and the final causality of the good is explained in terms of action and movement toward end.” This is one of the great problems with contemporary academese. To whom does this sentence speak?
Moreover, the desire of the good and the movement toward the good’s proper end, fruition and love of God, is not possible on its own terms without antecedent grace. It is only through grace that the imitation of nature as imitation of the Divine Mind is possible—to which our author does devote an entire chapter reminding us after hooking us with the implicit possibility otherwise. Concerning the imitation of nature as the imitation of Divine Wisdom, “[Aquinas’s] account does not entail that in order to actually imitate nature one needs to know that God exists or realize that by thinking and doing what is morally right one imitates the divine mind.” Yet later we read, “Consequently, the more human reason knows and imitates the divine mind directing all things to the good of their natures in the universal order, the more the intelligibility of the good to be pursued in human actions is secured.”
Through this book, however erudite and insightful reflections on Aquinas are—and there are many—we still run into the problem of whether or not the imitation of nature out of a “natural goodness” can exist independent of God’s grace? Just when we read and begin thinking it can exist without God and his grace, we encounter timely reminders otherwise.
Aquinas on Imitation of Nature does, however, revive—very importantly—the understanding that the “imitation of nature” is the ‘imitation of the divine mind.’” This is a worthy thing to promote, especially because, as Golubiewski notes, the unity of God and nature in Thomistic theology and natural law theory is “often neglected.” It is not neglected in this book, at least not during the second half of the work. And we, as readers, certainly benefit from Golubiewski reminding us that imitation of nature is the imitation of Divine Wisdom (properly understood, that is, with grace in our life).
Here, then, is the crux of the matter. The classical to medieval conception of man and nature saw the two as closely interlinked if not otherwise intertwined. Our post-Cartesian and post-Baconian understanding sees us in radical separation from nature. Concern over the vast theological and philosophical writings of Aquinas can be emphasized on several accounts which are needed in modernity. One is the moral considerations to which this book is part. Another is the attempt to reunify and revivify an understanding of human nature as synthetic with nature and the cosmos, to which this book is also concerned with. In doing so, however, there are many places where the imitation of nature also comes off as an attempted peace treaty with modernity: Thomas for liberals. Aquinas’s teachings on grace are sometimes neglected until it appears, briefly, reminding the reader that, “Aquinas considers God the universal good of all creatures.”
We are subsequently hung up with the nagging questions of God and grace in the right imitation of nature by natural reason. When we speak of natural reason and the right imitation of nature, it bears repeating that we ask this question: is this possible apart from God and God’s grace? There are moments when this work seems to imply yes. Then when we begin reaching that belief, we are reminded that this is not the case. So what value, then, is the right imitation of nature?
The value, as I see it, is the enduring reminder that natural theology is a form of sacramentality and not naturalism. God is discernible and knowable through the cosmos he created. The beauty, order, and love that can be discerned and induced through observation is desperately needed in theology today—not just theology in the ivory tower (which this book is clearly intended for) but also in the streets and everyday lives of the laity. The imitation of God through the imitation of nature is an essential part of the angelic doctor’s theology, a part that shouldn’t be neglected and that this book rightfully challenges. However, in doing so, we are sometimes left wondering what exactly is meant to be taken away from this learned tome. Can humans imitate nature from some natural goodness apart from antecedent grace? Or is grace essential for the right imitation of nature—as Aquinas himself believed and wrote? And what does this reality mean for any attempt at an accommodation with modern liberal sensibilities that reject nature and any notion of inherent sinfulness and imperfection?
Aquinas on Imitation of Nature plays multiple sides. It attempts to reconfigure the synthetic view of man and cosmos lost in our post-Cartesian and post-Baconian world. In doing so, Golubiewski importantly returns our attention to an enchanted cosmos that teems with life and excitement in Aquinas’s mind. We encounter the sacramental imitation that preoccupies Thomas and should preoccupy us. Yet this work also attempts to present an Aquinas palatable with modern sensibilities of natural goodness, a world free of original sin, a world of absolute will without direct knowledge of the grace of God in living a good life; implicitly, a world of naturalism instead of sacramentality. And just when we think we have achieved an Aquinas compatible with modern sensibilities, Golubieski always reminds us the opposite: God, the Divine Will, and fruition in God are what the imitation of nature seeks and this is not possible without grace acting in our life. The “Source of Principles of Moral Action” is not from the imitation of nature apart from God, it is from the imitation of nature with God because nature has in it the intelligibility of the Divine Will. And that view is hardly compatible with modern sensibilities. We must never lose sight of that fact when reading or teaching Aquinas.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More