Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove

Aquinas on Contemplation

While the topic of the beatific vision (and its philosophical sources) has been the focus of much scholarly attention the cognate subject of contemplation on earth has been strangely neglected in Thomist studies. This is surprising, if only because Aquinas considers contemplation the goal of our entire life (finis totius vitae) and an anticipation of heavenly beatitude (ST II-II, q. 180, a. 4). A number of different questions deserve broader engagement. First, while Aquinas’ indebtedness to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is undisputed, I have shown that in order to describe the acme of the contemplative act (in terms of intuitus simplex) Aquinas actually invariably draws on Neoplatonic sources (i.e. ps.-Dionysius and Boethius). Secondly, drawing on these Neoplatonic sources Aquinas develops a notion of contemplation that is far broader in scope than that of Aristotle, if only because he has to incorporate the contemplation of the average Christian, for all Christians are called to contemplation (III Sent. d. 36, q. 1, a. 3 ad 5). Hence, we also need to examine the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and the connaturality with God it implies) to give a comprehensive account of Aquinas’s understanding of contemplation. Thirdly, for all his intellectualist (as distinct from voluntarist) emphasis Aquinas’s understanding of contemplation also involves the will, charity and affections. This opens up a Trinitarian dimension in terms of participation in the intra-divine processions. Finally, we cannot begin to give a proper account of Aquinas’s views on contemplation (and the relation between the active and contemplative lives in particular) without situating them against his Dominican charism, and the mendicant controversy which raged during his time in Paris. As this brief outline suggests, this project draws on Aquinas’ philosophy of mind, moral theology, theology of the Trinity, and spirituality.