Monday, June 19, 2006

Romanus Cessario's 'A Short History of Thomism'

While traveling for work this past week I was reading Romanus Cessario’s A Short History of Thomism. He makes an argument which I found surprising. He suggests that the various fortunes of Thomism in the modern era have had less to do with its intrinsic qualities than with extrinsic circumstances.

‘The historical reasons for widespread intellectual inactivity differ from period to period. For instance, the explanations may stem from physical causes, such as the Black Death that emptied cloisters and university halls not only of students but also of a generation of talented professors…On the other hand religious dissention, such as followed upon the inception of divisions within Western Christianity, occasioned social upheaval that thwarted the development of Thomism. In some places, Protestantism resulted in the closing of the convents and schools where the Thomist tradition had been studied and passed on. Let two geographical examples suffice: The strong tradition of scholasticism in general and Thomism in particular that flourished in the British Isles, especially at Oxford, was abolished at the time of the sixteenth-century break with Rome, and only returned there in the early twentieth century when New Blackfriars was opened in Oxford. Likewise, the tradition of Thomist mysticism that flourished in the Rhineland during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the remarkable enthusiasm for the Summa Theologiae that succeeded it in the second half of the fifteenth century disappeared in the German principalities that were lost to Rome at the time of the Protestant Reform. This turn of events left Bavarian Benedictine monks as the chief custodians of German Thomism.’

‘On a larger scale, political turmoil often dramatically interrupted the continuation of professional intellectual life, such as happened at the French Revolution, when religious orders – including the Dominicans, who had been the principle carriers of Thomism in the late eighteenth century – were either disbanded or severely restricted in all but a few places in Western Europe…Considerations such as these allow one to argue that when Thomism stopped playing an active role in the intellectual life of certain historical periods, the reasons frequently had little to do with the inherent worth of Aquinas’s thought or its potential to attract followers. The explanation is to be found in extrinsic factors that inhibited the careful study and appropriation of Aquinas and his texts.’ (p. 36-37)

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