Whether St. Thomas is Boring?

People often criticize St. Thomas Aquinas for being “boring.” Today, on the feast of the Angelic Doctor, I offer this light-hearted reflection in his own idiom:

Whether Thomas Aquinas is fittingly called boring?

Objection 1: It would seem that Thomas Aquinas is fittingly called boring. The works of Thomas are composed of impersonal statements and arguments, which are boring. Now, every agent acts in accordance with its nature to produce something like unto itself (omne agens agit sibi simile). Just as nothing can effect heat unless it is hot, so too no one can produce boring writings, unless he is boring. Hence it is seen that since Thomas’ works are boring, Thomas is fittingly called boring.

Objection 2: Thomas Aquinas is well known to have been of considerable girth. A man possesses phlegmatic humor in proportion to his size. The more phlegmatic a man’s disposition, the more he is perceived as dull, wearisome, and uninteresting. Thus, as a result of his girth, Thomas is fittingly called boring.

Objection 3: Those who are always correct in all things are annoying. Those who are annoying are also boring. Thus, Thomas, who is typically correct on account of the soundness of his reasoning and the brilliance of his intellect, is fittingly called boring.

On the contrary, it is written (Job 7:1) “Is not life on earth a drudgery, its days like those of a hireling?” Hence it is on account of the burdens of this life that boredom comes.

I answer that, A thing may be called boring in two ways: in itself (per se) or accidentally (per accidens) on account of some accompanying factor. Thomas, considered in himself, is not boring. A man is only called boring who tries one’s patience excessively and to no great purpose. However, the works of Thomas are ordered towards producing knowledge and wisdom in the reader concerning the greatest realities, namely God and the things of God. As the Philosopher observes in the De Animalibus XI, the least knowledge of the highest realities produces the greatest joy. Whatever produces joy cannot fail to excite.

However, St. Thomas may be called boring accidentally with regard to the difficulty some of his readers experience. As the Philosopher observes in Physics I, we “start from the things which are more knowable to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature.” Whatever is more knowable to us is bound up with the senses and is therefore more easily known and regarded as interesting and exciting. For example, we observe that children, whose capacity for speculation is less developed, learn more easily through stories than through syllogisms. In rising from the level of the senses to the level of intelligible truths, the mind experiences fatigue. This can induce boredom in the wisest of men but especially in those not habituated to abstract speculation. Thus, Thomas may be called boring but only accidentally with respect to the effect experienced by some of his readers.

Reply to Objection 1: Impersonal statements are necessary for the communication of abstract truths. A man who relies merely on stories and examples and who does not employ universal statements and syllogistic reasoning is limited in his ability to communicate the truth. For this reason, theology that remains at the level of literature may be exciting, but after a great period of time it will induce an even greater boredom than that which appeals to abstract reasoning.

Reply to Objection 2: The soul is of greater dignity than the body. For this reason, a man possessing a virtuous disposition of soul may overcome certain impediments posed by his own corpulent physique.

Reply to Objection 3: Those who are consistently correct are regarded as annoying principally by those who prefer the darkness of error. Thus is it is written that King Ahab detested the prophet Micaiah for his truthfulness (1 Kings 22:8): “I hate him because he prophesies not good but evil about me.” Thus, the real cause of annoyance and boredom is interior to the one who is bored and annoyed.

Image: Francisco de Zurbaran, The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas

You May Also Enjoy:

Disputed Question On the Greatest Difficulty in Living the Dominican Life in Contemporary American Culture In the Middle Ages, the disputed question was one of the major forms of academic investigation. A master of theology would pose a question on which great authorities seemed to disagree, and then entertain objections from fellow masters and students. After others attempted to reconcile the various authorities, the master would give a determination that resolv...
Whitewashing Wisdom What do we mean by “wisdom”? When the common man can use the word “tweet” without a paralyzing sense of shame, we have to wonder whether the days of choosing our words carefully have passed us by. There may once have been a time when those who gleefully quoted the maxims of Belloc truly understood what they were saying, but today even the purported defenders of Catholic culture are often caught up in the vagaries of verbal vogue. Do we quote t...
Very God and Very Man In the last seven days before Christmas Eve, the Latin liturgy prescribes a new antiphon every evening at Vespers.  The final “O Antiphon” for the Magnificat will be sung this evening:  “O Emmanuel.”  The petition which the antiphon contains is very simple and beautiful:  “O Emmanuel… come to save us, O Lord, our God!”  “Emmanuel” means “God-with-us.”  This Messianic title contains in itself a catechism on the theology of Christmas. St. Thomas...
Opening the Book of Revelation (Part I) We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God's wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory… —1 Corinthians 2:6-7 The Book of Revelation, or The Apocalypse of St. John, is a book full of mystery. Indeed, St. Jerome famously observed that the Book of Revelation has as many mysteries as it has verses. But to on...
Br. Raymund Snyder, O.P.

Written by:

Br. Raymund Snyder entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he studied philosophy and classics. On DominicanFriars.org