Thomas Aquinas

The Golden Blade, 1954, pp. 93-95
The Redemption of Thinking: A Study in the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, by Rudolf Steiner. Translated and edited with an Introduction and Epilogue by A. P. Shepherd and Mildred Robertson Nicoll. (Hodder and Stoughton, 12s. 6.)

The difficulty of introducing Anthroposophy to more and more people in the outside world is notorious. Over and over again those engaged in the task find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. If they “link on” with thoughts and problems which are in the general intellectual climate, the reader who is totally unacquainted with the depths from which Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy springs will see it as one more interesting theory – not so very different from several with which he is already acquainted. But if they avoid this pitfall and insist on the depths, what they say will sound, to such a reader, fantastic and pretentious.

In this precarious adventure, Dr. A. P. Shepherd is a pioneer. It is less than two years since his valuable and successful book, A Scientist of the Invisible, was published by Messrs. Houghton and Stoughton, and now – this time in collaboration with Mildred Robertson Nicoll – he has followed it up with another, written in quite a different vein. The Redemption of Thinking, apart from its other merits, is a significant experiment in what might be called anthroposophical exegesis. For the method adopted is, I believe, a new one. The authors take a subject which has recently attracted renewed interest in many quarters. In a brief Introduction they allude to this interest and the need from which it springs, and speak of Steiner’s contribution to the subject, and of Steiner himself. The main substance of the book (94 pages out of 185) consists of Steiner’s own words; but these are again followed by an Epilogue of about 40 pages, which illuminates and (for the average reader) deepens what is contained in the lectures, by bringing to bear on it something of the rest of anthroposophy.

The subject is Thomism. In the year 1920 Rudolf Steiner gave three long lectures on Scholastic philosophy, and especially that of Thomas Aquinas. “At that time,” says the Introduction, “they passed almost unnoticed. Indeed, in a lecture a year or two later Steiner himself remarked that even his own followers hardly seemed to realise their importance, as presenting the essential task of redeeming modern thought from the fetters of its own preconceived limitations.”

It is the text of these three lectures – in the authors’ careful and scholarly English translation – which forms the heart of The Redemption of Thinking.

Steiner’s approach differs from the approach of the neo-Thomists in that he does not attempt to interpret Aquinas directly out of modern consciousness, but first seeks to reconstitute in his hearers something of the very different consciousness out of which Aquinas’s philosophy was written. Without this, it is really impossible to understand Scholasticism. We use the same words as the Schoolmen did, and forget, or are ignorant, that the meanings of the words have altered too much to carry the real content of the thought to us.

Therefore in the first lecture we hear more of Aquinas’s predecessors – particularly St. Augustine – than of Thomas himself. The gradual “fall” of human thinking from its old perception of a spiritual world had reached a sort of climax by the time he was born, and it was held that man’s reason had indeed participated in the fall of Adam, so that the conclusions it arrived at must be contrary to the truth of revealed religion. Aquinas successfully combated this conception of a “double truth” and found that human reason, accurately employed, reached conclusions not incompatible with the Christian revelation. But further than this he could not go. Before thinking can actually confirm the Christian revelation, by participating in the being of the Christ Himself, it needs to be redeemed. This is possible in our age, but was not yet possible in the thirteenth century.

This is the note on which the lectures conclude, and this is the thought that is taken up and woven into the fascinating Epilogue. After ranging over topics as divergent as Rudolf Steiner’s relation to the Theosophical Society and Professor Fred Hoyle’s book The Nature of the Universe, the Epilogue returns in the end to the substance of the lectures and the direction in which they point mankind.

Hardly less valuable than the Epilogue are the numerous footnotes, consisting of allusions to, and quotations from, other books and lectures by Rudolf Steiner himself, and also from many of the thinkers to whom he refers in these lectures, such as Origen, Plotinus, Aristotle. To these are added six short, interesting appendices on Origen, Aristotle, Jundi-Shapur, Dionysus the Areopagite, Steiner’s Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, and the Mystery Centres. The book is embellished with a frontispiece in the shape of a good photographic reproduction of Traini Francesco’s picture, The Apotheosis of St. Thomas, in the church of S. Caterina at Pisa. Yet all this gives a very poor notion of the wealth of pertinent detail with which every rift in this little gold-mine is loaded. Finally its value for reference is more than doubled by the provision of an adequate index – a blessing for which readers of books and lectures by Rudolf Steiner have hitherto, in the inscrutable wisdom of editors and publishers, been thought unfitted.

Here, then is a compact, well-written, well-produced book, which enables us, first of all, to see the remarkable phenomenon of Scholastic philosophy in its time-setting in the evolution of human consciousness, and then, with the editors’ help, to place the author himself in that setting, and these particular lectures in their true setting in the author’s life and thought. In that triple framework, Scholasticism, far from being the dry-as-dust affair it is often supposed to be, emerges as a development pregnant for the future, if only it is taken, as it should be by our generation, as a spur to further activity in the redemption of thinking.

Owen Barfield

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.