Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Thomist education

On Monday evening I attended an excellent lecture at the Oxford Centre for Franciscan Studies. Despite the name of the sponsoring institution it was delivered by a Dominican, Dr Vivian Boland from Blackfriars here in Oxford, and was on "St Thomas Aquinas and Education."


St. Thomas Aquinas
from The Demidoff Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli

I have no expertise in Thomist studies, but we were presented with a clear exposition of what St Thomas said about education and the pursuit of Truth, and I appreciated more fully the richness of the Thomist inheritance. What follows is a summary of a beautifully constructed talk, and I hope I do justice to it.

Fr Vivian began by making the point that St THomas wrote nothing directly in terms of an educational programme, but that circa 1250, together with St Albert and other Dominicans he was commissioned by the Master, Humbert of Romans, to draw up a scheme of study for members of the Order. The options facing the Dominicans were those of reconciling the vision of St Dominic of winning souls with the philosophical discoveries of the age.

To undedstand Aquinas' approach we were reminded of where he studies and taught - Monte Cassino, the university founded by Frederick II in Naples, where he first encountered Aristotle before meeting St Albert, and where he was taught by Peter of Ireland, and then in Paris studying under St Albert. With him he went to Cologne to establish a house of studies for German Dominicans before returning to Paris as a Regent Master. He then sent to Naples to establish a Dominican house of studies, on to Orvieto and the Papal court, and then Rome and taught at Sta Sabina, where he had the freedom to develop what became the Summa Theologica. He then went back to Paris in the late 1260s (Eckhardt was the only other Dominican to have a second period teaching at Paris. In Thomas' case it was to defend the reception of Aristotle) before returning to Naples and dying at Fossanova in 1274.

The basic curriculum he would have known, along with all his contemporaries, was the TriviumQuadrivium. He identified three things for the teacher to do - legere, disputare and praedicare, deriving this from the Letter to Titus. It is a reminder of the oral nature of so much of the teaching at atime when manuscript texts were limited in number. and

His methods were open, critical in the sense that he was aware of problems with texts, although clearly not with access to later historical-critical methodology, and confident in the Truth as an objective thing to which all are called to be obedient, and which is strong initself; nothing can prevail against it as he argues in the Summa contra Gentiles. As to sources he set no limits to what could be used to discover that Truth - all sources - Christian, Jewish, Classical, Arablic, were to be received and used.

For St Thomas himself there were the positive choices of going against his family's will and joining the Dominicans. This was not without political consequences as his family were based in an area where overlordship switched between the Pope and the Emperor. One of his brothers was executed by Frederick II for treason and joining the pro-Papal Dominicans would be likely to appear as a political choice. His committment to Aristotle was also a clear choice when reception of him was, and remained, by no means universal.


St Thomas posed the question as to whether one person can teach another in Quaestionesdisputatae de Veritate 11, ' de magistro' and in the Summa theologiae 1 117,1: 'utrum unus homo possit alium docere'. Fr Vivian stressed that this was in the Prima Pars, not the Secunda Pars of the Summa . The Prima Pars deals with the metaphysics of creation and he addresses the question as to whether created beings can act with creation to further the work of creation. Only God can create but the created order can be involved and share in the Divine task to bring it to the fullness of truth and goodness. The question is then: How do God, angels and men do this?

His concern is with goodness, beauty, coherence, balance - an entire cosmos, not just the universe around us. Teaching can be admired as God speaks in ways we can understand, and teaching is an activity in creation helping people to come to goodness; this is to make achane within creation rather than just unveiling the world.

In the Pars Secunda St Thomas writes of studiosity ( II.II 166), docility ( II.II 49,3), truthfulness (II.II 109), patience (II.II 136), perserverence (II.II 137),active and contemplative lives (II.II 179-82,188) - where he expresses the view that the best form of life is that of the teacher who contemplates and passes on knowledge, which became a Dominican motto - knowledge (II.II, 8), understanding (II.II 9) and wisdom ( II.II 45). These are all presented as bringing spiritual benefits, and as being in the case of the last three , together with prudence and art the intellectual virtues, enabling one to distinguish the good and the bad.

Fr Vivian concluded with a study of a sermon preached by St Thomas during his second period in Paris between 1268 and 1272. The sermon is entitled Puer Jesus and ostensibly deals with the Finding of Our Lord in the Temple.In December 1270 the Bishop of Paris had condemned some Averroist propositions and this sermon preached at the following Epiphanty 1271 appears to be St Thomas' response. For him Jesus is the model teacher. He speaks of the adolescence of Christ, and of His growing in wisdom, and how a human being learns - by listening generously, enquiring diligently, responding prudently and meditating attentively. This last action was needed so as to retain the ideas - ideas needed to be chewed like food to gain the benefits they offered.

St Thomas' stresses the three days Our Lord spent in the Temple and links His presence to the account in Sirach of the one who opened his mouth in the midst of the great congregation. It is possible, in St Thomas' opinion for friends to hold different opinions and maintain peace with reference to a central truth; only when individuals proceed from ideas to action is there the risk of the peace being disrupted. Jesus is that Truth, and He is not partial.All things can reveal the Truth that is at the centre of being.

The sermon reveals something of St Thomas' personality in Fr Vivian's view - there is irony, humour and understanding, and recall his hearers tyo the pursuit of truth and wisdom.

With respect to the Bible St Thomas saw the literal sense as fundamental, but the other medieval methods of exegisis had their place in leading the re4ader behind the literal to a deeper understanding. As someone who would not seperate fact and value as modern man might St Thomas would see the Bible as both the way we learn and what we need to understand.first

At the end of the lecture, unlike some others I have attended on aspects of Thomist ideas I really felt I wanted to experience more of this way of thinking - I suppose that is what comes of having a Dominican expound St Thomas.

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