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The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

On-line since: 31st January, 2017



I n the first address of Rudolf Steiner's, he dwells on that moment in the history of spiritual development at which Thomas begins his life-work. The most recent movement of the time, Arabianized Aristotelianism, which “no longer contained anything of Plotinism” questioned every result of Christian thought, such as the basic concept of Augustine — of whom Thomas says that he is imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists — among them, that conception of Humanity as a Whole” which was a dim reflection of the old clairvoyant vision. By the “modern” thought imbued with this Arabianism — which had broken down the bridges behind it to the spiritual world of the clairvoyant visionaries but had thrown no new bridges in front of it to the discovery of individualism on earth — by man alone, therefore, and his struggle for knowledge now become abstract, the question had to be answered from the Christian spirit-life: — What is our relationship to a world of which all we know is from conceptions which can come only from ourselves and our individuality? [pp. 40, 41.]

Let us choose a part of the “Prologue” to a work by Dionysius the Areopagite, whose historical importance is made clear in the second Address [p. 54]. It is one of many proofs in his works of his split from a Platonism which was out of date, and whose position he regarded as untenable against the new Aristotelianism.

Commentary on the Book of Dionysius “Concerning the d1vine names”


…It must be pointed out that Dionysius employs an obscure style in all his writings; not because he knows no better, but on purpose, in order to protect the holy and divine doctrines from the mockery of unbelievers.

The difficulty of understanding these writings arises from several causes.

First, because Dionysius uses the style and expressions of the Platonists, to which the moderns are not accustomed. The Platonists, in their love of referring everything that is composite and material back to simple and abstract principles, set up separate species of things. They spoke of “man apart from matter,” and the same of the horse and other species of nature. They said, for instance, that this particular physically visible man is not the same as “man”; but that he is called “man” because he has a part of that separated species “man.” It follows then that a something is found in the individual physical man, which does not belong to the general human species, namely, the individual substance, and other things; but in the separated species “man” there is nothing which does not belong to the human species. Therefore, the separate man was called “man per se,” because he had in himself nothing which is not a part of humanity; and also “man in the original sense,” in so far as “being man” is carried over from separate man after the manner of participation to physical men. Thus we can also say that the separate man is above individual man, and that he is the “being man” of all physical humanity, in so far as human nature is ascribed purely to the separate man, and from him is carried over to physical humanity.

The Platonists applied such abstractions not only in their discussions on the latest species, but also to the widest range of things, such as the Good, the One, the Existing. They propounded namely a First One, which is the quintessence of Goodness and of Oneness and of Existence, and which we call God; and imagined that all other beings are called “good” or “one” or “existing” through derivation from that First One. Therefore, they named that First One the Self-Good, or the Intrinsically-Good or the First-Good, or the Super-Good, and also the goodness of all goodness, or the Being-Good, or the Quintessential Substance, in the same sense as was explained in the case of the separate man.

But this thought-technique of the Platonists does not harmonize with faith and truth in proportion as it is extended to the species which are separated from Nature; respecting what they said, however, concerning the First Principle their view is very true and in harmony with Christian belief. Therefore, Dionysius calls God at different times the Self-Good, the Super-Good, the First-Good, or the Goodness of every Good; and similarly he calls Him the Super-Life, the Super-Substance, and Arch-divine Godhead, which means the Original Divinity, since the name divinity is also received after a certain participation by certain creatures — the heavenly Hierarchies.

The second difficulty in Dionysius' form of expression comes from the fact that he uses mostly irrefutable arguments in arranging his sentences and often compresses them into few words or even into a single one.

The third difficulty is that he also often heaps word on word which might at first appear superfluous, but which reveal themselves to those who ponder them seriously enough as containing a great depth.

The process involved in the consciousness of Europeans becoming individualized is expressed in the rejection of Plotinism with its special forms separated from matter. Agreement with Plotinism in what it has to say on the subject of “The First Principle” and of the divine world of pure spirits divorced from all things of the senses is developed into a marvellous edifice of logical technique in the Commentaries on the thirteen chapters of the book Concerning the Divine Names. In this technique, applied to the visions of the Dyonistic writings is stamped out the other pole of spiritual and historical change in consciousness: “The problem, which formerly was solved by vision, is brought down into the sphere of thought” [p. 69]. The sentences with which Thomas closes the Commentary seem like a raising of the eyes from an impoverished consciousness which has gone from the security of vision to the loneliness of thought, from the departed riches of the spirit worlds of Plotinism and of Dionysius and Erigena: —

And after the explanations concerning the expressions of St. Dionysius, whose intelligence is far in advance of ours, we demand to be corrected in anything wrong we have said. But if we have said aught well, thanks are due to the giver of all good, the triune God, who lives and rules throughout all ages. Amen.

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