Wednesday, October 28, 2015

St Thomas Aquinas and Dialogue - Lessons from Josef Pieper

"Anyone who considers dialogue, disputation, debate, to be a fundamental method for arriving at truth must already have concluded and stated that arriving at truth is an affair that calls for more power than the autarchic individual possesses. He must feel that common effort, perhaps the effort of everybody, is necessary. No one is sufficient unto himself and no one is completely superfluous; each person needs the other" - Josef Pieper
I'm currently on sabbatical, and am taking the opportunity not only to work on my book on Cyril of Alexandria's pneumatology but also to catch up on reading books I've wanted to read for some time. One of these books is Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

The book interested me both because I'm keen to improve my knowledge and appreciation of Saint Thomas Aquinas and because, while reading Thomas Merton's journals, I saw numerous places where Merton writes appreciatively of this book, often recording long sections into his journal.

What interests me most about Pieper's book is his account of Thomas Aquinas' methodology, particularly his focus on dialogue (I think this is what was also of interest to Merton). The recently concluded Synod on the Family unfortunately demonstrated how uninterested and unprepared segments of the church are to dialogue (I don't think this is true of the synod delegates, by the way. My sense is that genuine dialogue did occur among the delegates and continues to occur). Social media witnessed to a firestorm during and after the Synod, and if my Twitter feed is any indication, the church is polarized.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or here on this blog know the value I place on "dialogue." On Twitter, 'conservative' friends (and more than a few interlocutors) challenge me on this, arguing that dialogue is a meaningless buzzword that simply masks relativism and a hidden agenda to conquer and silence. In the run-up to the Synod, a parody account called "Dr. Dialogue SJ" was created that illustrates the suspicion conservatives have of those on the left who call for dialogue.
It is because of this suspicion that many in the 'conservative' and 'traditionalist' camp seem to distrust Pope Francis' consistent exhortation to dialogue (by the way, I've an essay coming out - hopefully soon - on Syndicate Theology that unpacks what Pope Francis means when he refers to dialogue in Laudato Si', as he does more than twenty times, as well as what he means by dialogue more generally).

I have to be candid and admit that my traditionalist friends are not entirely unjustified in their suspicions of those on the left. On social media and in person, I've encountered more than a few people who emphasize the importance of dialogue with one side of their mouth while deriding the backwardness and ridiculousness of their interlocutors with the other side. That said, very often I also encounter people on the right - at least on social media - demonstrating their own lack of good faith. Friends are viciously attacked for being 'liberals' and when they block accounts that use hate-filled language in their attacks, they're accused of not being open to dialogue.

In short, the charity and good faith needed for genuine dialogue appears to me to be in short supply on all sides (with a number of important exceptions), and I have to admit my own complicity in this.

But I simply can't accede to accusations that 'dialogue' is a meaningless path that leads to nowhere, and Josef Pieper's book on Thomas Aquinas convinces me of this all the more. Pieper argues that genuine dialogue has a pedigree in the church that extends throughout the centuries, and suggests that Thomas Aquinas represents the very best of the tradition. So, both for my own sake and for yours, I want simply to quote a few important (albeit lengthy) sections from Pieper's book on what dialogue meant for Thomas Aquinas, as a means of reminding us what it can look like to engage our interlocutors with charity, even when we're convinced they're wrong. Though the sections I'm quoting below are lengthy, I guarantee that they're well worth reading (emphases below are my own):
[Thomas Aquinas] shows not a trace of dictatorial or magisterial attitude [when handling the opinions of opponents. It can happen to anyone reading, say, the Summa Against the Pagans, that he will come unsuspectingly upon a chapter in which Thomas expounds the arguments of the opposite camp; if theological matters are under discussion, these arguments may well be heretical; yet the reader will almost be inclined to consider the arguments irrefutable - so entirely without bias does Thomas present them. He himself brings to light their force with a persuasiveness which the opponent himself might well have envied. Here Thomas completely fulfilled the dialogue character of his work, the quality of a dialogue between persons who respect one another. That does not mean that each opinion is right; but it does mean that each side has the right to formulate his argument and that each is obligated to listen to the other. Truth must be brought to bear in and for itself, with its own inherent strength, and not be means of an adventitious force (38).
Anyone who considers dialogue, disputation, debate, to be a fundamental method for arriving at truth must already have concluded and stated that arriving at truth is an affair that calls for more power than the autarchic individual possesses. He must feel that common effort, perhaps the effort of everybody, is necessary. No one is sufficient unto himself and no one is completely superfluous; each person needs the other; the teacher even needs the student, as Socrates always held. In any case, the learner, the student, contributes something to the dialogue along with the teacher. If this fundamental conviction is genuine, it must necessarily affect the mode of listening as well as the mode of speaking. Dialogue does not mean only that people talk to one another, but also that they listen to one another. The first requirement, therefore, is: Listen to the interlocutor, take note of his argument, his contribution to the recherche collective de la vérité, in the same way that he himself understands his own argument (82).
But of course this listening is not concerned solely with grasping the substance. It is also directed fully at the interlocutor as a person; it draws its vitality from respect for the other's dignity, and even from gratitude toward him - gratitude for the increase in knowledge which is derived even from error. "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth adn both have helped us in the finding of it" (Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics 12, 9; No. 2566). The great doctors of Christendom completely agree on this point; they stand in a common front against the stupidity of narrow-minded polemic. For the latter usually lacks not only respect for the person of the opponent but also full openheartedness to the truth of things. The attitude formulated by Thomas - which has nothing in common with sentimentality - is in keeping with the best, the most legitimate tradition (84).
Picture of Josef Pieper from
Painting by Fra Angelico of St Thomas Aquinas from


  1. Well written. At times, I fear that I may be guilty of "deriding the backwardness and ridiculousness". I need to pray to be open to dialogue.

  2. Reminds me of one of my favorite Oliver O'Donovan quotes:

    "This modest version of the thesis is enough to explain the all-important role of discussion as a matrix for our moral thinking. Discussion is so important, indeed, that we engage in it for pleasure as well as at need, and constantly pursue it in imagination as well as in actual society. And yet our models of social interaction usually misrepresent it, conceiving of it as a kind of negotiation or bargaining. In striking a bargain we start out with an idea of what we want to achieve and negotiate away as little as we can. In a discussion we start out with less than that, and end with more. Beginning from an intuition, we use the dialectical interplay of perspectives on a shared question to help us ‘know what we think’ and ‘make up our minds.’ A negotiation succeeds when it achieves a compromise; a discussion succeeds only when it reaches a measure of substantial agreement. Discussion is a shared struggle to reach truth and overcome error. It may often unfold in an eristic form, as an exchange of arguments and rebuttals. (We see this especially in the phenomenon of the combative personality, the individual who has difficulty thinking through anything at all without picking a quarrel, thrusting discussion-partners into the role of opponents.) The eristic form has its own right. Differences at the outset provide the stimulus for thought to progress dialectically. As we know from politics, discussion cannot get off the ground if either party denies the other the right to its independent starting point; when the conditions for entering discussion is that a key point is surrendered in advance, no discussion can occur. Paradoxically, then, discussion depends at once on conflicting assertions and on mutual concessions. But what is asserted and what is conceded are not the same. We may enter a discussion in perfect confidence that we are in the right against our opponent. We may be sure that once we have explained ourselves fully, no shred of an answer can be made. Yet we may still sense the need to prove our impregnability in a clash of steel, to gain real knowledge of what the opponent actually says when confronted with our case and to discern, if we can, what alternative reasoning can be brought to bear against our own. Even the most confident discussant can expect to learn something from the exercise."
    –Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2013), 45–46.

  3. Can a "sinner" who is by self-definition, and in moment-to-monent dramatized separative action entirely God-less, possibly have anything to say that has anything to do with Real God or The Living Divine Reality Who IS Alive as All beings, or that can or will make any real difference to anything whatsoever?

    Without exception all God-ideas are the product of the "ego-in-the-world".
    It is only in the imagination that the "ego-in-the-world" exists. The separate "self" is simply a "thing" presumed and entertained in mind. Ego is an imagined objectified persona.. The "self"-image and the entire drama of the ego is something conceived and believed in mind only, including the mind of apparent "others" who are likewise imagining.

    Therefore, the life (and the never-ending "dialogues" of the separate "self" is LITERALLY an illusion - but the ego-based human being constantly lives in that illusion, constantly re-imagines that illusion, and constantly furthers that illusion in imagination, supported by an inexhaustible reservoir of desire energy. The mutual association (and presumed "dialogue") between human beings is mere association between imagining minds - re-imagining one another, and being imagined by one another - each so-called "individual" perpetually re-imagining itself through mental reflections.

    The Reality & Truth of existence is something else entirely. The actual situation, the True Self-Nature, Self-Condition, and Self-State, is Perfectly Prior, Non-separate, Indivisible, Self-Existing, and Self-Radiant.

    THAT Is the Real Condition. That Real Condition or Sat-Chit-Ananda is Self-evident, and That Real Condition can be Intrinsically and intuitively Self- Realized.
    The REALIZATION of That Real Condition is a Transcendental Spiritual matter - but the nature of Reality, the Real nature of existence, can in any moment, be intuitively noticed by anyone.