A Thomistic Preparatio

You’re “astonished”, you say, that Saint Thomas Aquinas should be so highly praised in Professor Oldmeadow’s book concerning the perennialist school: Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of Perennial Philosophy (soon to be republished by World Wisdom, in a revised and expanded edition, as Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy). Was the Angelic Doctor not the very epitome of “mere rationalism”?

Your surprise is certainly not surprising, but I’m obliged to tell you that Oldmeadow has very fairly represented the position, if not of all perennialists, then certainly of Frithjof Schuon. Needless to say Schuon was well aware of the limits of ratio or dianoia, and he wrote about these limits extensively. At the same time, however, he greatly valued the logical rigor of the Scholastic method and was the very first to prefer it to those flights of mere subjectivist fantasy which often masquerade as “mystical intuition”.

Indeed there is a recurrent theme in his writings to the effect that that there is nothing illogical about the spiritual life. We should never suppose that our grasp of the Truth is against reason, only beyond its exhaustive formulation. To speak of the effacement of thought in direct intellection is not to deny its pedagogical value. On the contrary, a rigorously logical attitude toward concepts and philosophical positions is the sine qua non of intellective adequation. Hence what we might call the “initiatic” importance of Schuon’s criticisms of false points of view, as in his (significantly titled) Logic and Transcendence, where he writes as follows:

“The Divine Essence eludes logic to the extent that it is indefinable; but as we are conscious of it, seeing that we can speak of it, it constitutes a premise which allows us to draw at least indirect and extrinsic conclusions. Everything that presents itself to our mind is therefore a premise in some respect, and as soon as there is a premise, whether direct or indirect, precise or approximate, there is the possibility of a conclusion and thus of logic. To speak of concepts which impose themselves on us while concealing themselves from our logic is pure and simple contradiction, and in fact no doctrine has ever rejected the logical explanations of any notion…. No religion has ever imposed on the human mind, or ever could have imposed, an idea which logic was incapable of approaching in any way; religion addresses itself to man, and man is thought.”

Schuon readily admits, of course—still quoting from Logic and Transcendence—that “there are in God aspects that are independent of all limitative logic, and it is from them that the cosmic play and the musical aspect of things arise; but there is nothing in God that opposes the principles of non-contradiction and of sufficient reason, which are rooted in the Divine Intellect.”

I once asked him for a list of recommended reading materials for the Christian esoterist, and I mentioned what I assumed might be some good possibilities: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and a few others in the East, and of course Jakob Boehme and Meister Eckhart in the West. Schuon responded by saying that there was “too much theology and moral sentimentality” in almost all of these authors. The Christian esoterist, he said, need read only “the purely metaphysical portions of Eckhart … and Saint Thomas Aquinas”! Like you I was at first somewhat surprised by this answer, but considering his advice in light of passages like those I have quoted above, it is easy to understand Schuon’s rationale, for there is certainly nothing “sentimental” about the author of the Summa! It is true of course that at the end of his life this saint’s thinking was transcended in vision, but this is hardly an excuse for the rest of us not to think!

For further discussion of these points, you might wish to have a look at my article “A Knowledge That Wounds Our Nature: The Message of Frithjof Schuon”, which can be found here.

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