Thomas Aquinas | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, "Truth in Aquinas," (Routledge, 2001). p.4. There is an "ocean of meaning" behind this proposition. This is not the place to discuss in detail, but I am tempted to mention a few ideas of Wittgenstein's theory of language found in his Philosophical Investigations. His philosophy could be creatively used in all parts of this essay, not only here. Wittgenstein says that the essence of human language is that "every word has a meaning" and that "every meaning is correlated with a word." The meaning is the "object for which the word stands." But it is not so simple, because the word could lose its entire meaning and with this the adequate description of its object, if it is employed outside context and environment; thus the meaning flows not so much (or not exclusively) from the simple correlation word-object, but from the greater context in which a word and object find their place. The meaning of a word and object changes in different contexts, while they continue to keep their most general or ideal designation. "When we say," Wittgenstein explains, "'Every word in language signifies something' we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make." This means that we cannot find the meaning of a word outside some general, logically ordered context, composed of plurality of distinct meanings and words. Moreover, language has this quality to signify one particular thing not only with one single word, but also with one particular sentence, thus the sentence often plays the role of a word, when a word cannot deliver the full meaning of the object. Sentences could be regarded as compound generalizations or higher principles that resolve particular problems of meaning (or reality). I say this, because in the next pages, we will see that an exception in law can be resolved only with the application of a higher principle, the automatic, simple correlation between situation and corresponding special rule does not apply to exceptional cases. In language and law, the issues of particularity and complexity of meaning could be settled only through discovering greater principles and finer descriptions. Law and language are holistic entities mirroring the reality, but as tools of human mind, they still have limits. (See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 1968)
Thomas Aquinas (1224/6—1274) St
"The more we descend to matters of detail, the more the general principle will be found to admit of exception," Aquinas observes and continues with an example, "Goods left in the care of another should be restored to their owner. Now it is true in the majority of cases, but it can happen in a particular case that it would be harmful and consequently unreasonable, to restore such goods: for instance, if someone claimed them in order to fight against country." Or if we take another example, the story with which we have started this essay. One of the general principles of good governance is that the ruler must respect the will of the people and try not to impose his personal will. So Pilate, although saying about Jesus, "I don't find this man guilty of anything," complied with the general principle of good governance, prudently seeking the utility of peoples' approval, and authorized the death sentence. But Aquinas also says, "...what glory of human prize can be compared to that which is produced not by the treachery of flattering tongues and deceitful human opinion, but by the inward testimony of conscience..." The "inward testimony of conscience" is the whisper of God in our heart: "Good ought to be done and pursued, and evil avoided." Pilate followed the general rule, the "ideal" of governance; he acted prudently, but did not follow God's command, "imprinted" in his heart. This is an example of how mind needs, in a concrete situation, the insight of faith with its natural, immediate sense for right and wrong. In this case, prudence of mind has no worth at all. Therefore, we agree with the positivists and the pragmatists that exceptions to general principles are possible, logical,and expected, yet we must also correct them with the argument that these exceptions cannot contradict, in fact, never contradict, the first general principle of law "Good ought to be done and pursued, and evil avoided." Applied to the case with Pilate, this simply means that the principle of saving innocent life must stay above and regulate the principle of the sovereign will of the nation. Neither Pilate, nor the nation in its collective will, have the right to take innocent human life. Pilate had to measure his principles and decisions on the fundamental measuring scale of the rule "Good ought to be done and pursued, and evil avoided," and make an exception from the general rule of governance with applying an even higher general rule. It is paradoxical, but the exceptions from the general rules are successfully resolved through the application of higher universal rules. It is not a co-incidence that the state Constitutions and the Charts (and Declarations) of Human Rights are the supreme regulative principles in the systems of law.
Aquinas explains that since everything is "ruled" and "measured" by the eternal law, and in this way participating in it, the mode of participation and grasp of truth is different for the different creatures. The matter does not have the capability to apprehend the law, but only to respond to it mechanically; the irrational creatures, like animals, are not more capable of comprehension than the matter, their will is bounded to their instincts; to comprehend means to have the power to make a choice, to be free in some way from the "dictates" of the law, thus only human mind has the function to participate in law intellectually and responsibly. This does not make the mind perfect or divorced from its creatureliness. The proclamation of law, although absolute, and open to all, is never grasped in its entirety in the same manner and by all creatures, even not by human mind. What make a thing creature are its limitations. Matter is limited to mechanics, animals to instincts, and mind through its freedom. Being free, mind is blessed (and cursed, some would say) to decide and discern what is "is" and "ought," what is right and wrong, good and evil, i.e. it has no a complete and immediate access to truth. The fact that mind cannot participate in God's law without the mediation of externals and signs makes it both dependent and secondary to faith; to operate, mind depends on matter (and on all forms of experience), separated from the signs and the objects, it has no pure intuition. As we have said, mind is not alone; it needs both objects and faith to apprehend God's law and become practical. "Human reason," Aquinas argues, "cannot participate in the dictate of the Divine reason fully, but only in its own way and imperfectly."
Augustine and Aquinas - their Political Thought
Lonergan explains that value is a transcendental notion about good. It is the application of what we have as knowledge, it is the move from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from the is to the ought. It is transcendental, because it comes first as a question. "So when I ask whether this is truly or not merely apparently good, whether that is or is not worth while, I do not yet know value but I am intending value." The questioning "promotes the subject from lower to higher levels of consciousness, from experimental to intellectual, from the intellectual to rational, from the rational to existential." Existential (and this is very important) means actual or final. Lonergan speaks about the path of actualisation, of fulfilment. Knowledge, left on its own, has no sense, as we have remarked in a footnote quoting Berdyaev; we know that what we know must have practical application, and this practical application must be towards good. This is a "drive to value," it leads to truth. It is the movement of the circle—the Augustinian circle of Being, Life, and Knowledge—where the subject departs from the self through life, the operations of life lead him towards the others, where he becomes known and knowing, and eventually returns to himself transformed. This fulfillment is called truth, and truth, as Lonergan says, is what is good. This is a process of self-transcendence through questioning. The end of this process, in a concrete situation, is the point of certitude that we cannot find in the object of our knowledge something that has a negative aspect, i.e. the path to love is cleared from obstacles. So, when we start with a question and pass all levels of operations, we finish with a judgement about the practical application of what we have conceived. The true judgements of value, says Lonergan, are not only knowledge of what is good or not, but also doing of what is good, and avoiding what is evil. Here we really have closed the circle, we have returned to Aquinas' first principle of law that states, "Good ought to be done and pursued, and evil avoided."