Henry Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams and Mont-Sant-Michel and Chatres, describes the beauty of St. Thomas Aquinas’ opus vitae. The reader, however, must first observe that both works are more introspective than just a list of his adventures. More than anything, Adams wrote about the intellectual life of the American aristocracy after the Revolution. This becomes pertinent when he discusses the changes in education and thought throughout his lifetime. Adams has much admiration for the work of Aquinas’ thoughts, due to their completely innovative form and almost artistic qualities.
Additionally, Adams reveres Aquinas’ theology because it is timeless. One fact is evident, however, and that is that Adams very much appreciates the art of St.Thomas’ theology. This is in fact one of the reason Adams gives for studying Aquinas, for “[his] architecture…is best studied by itself as though he created it outright”. The question remains as to why Adams had such regard for Aquinas, as opposed to other theologians. It appears that Adams main draw to Aquinas stems from the aesthetic. Adams writes, “he filled the Church by uniting mind and matter in man, or man’s soul, giving to humanity a free will that rose…to heaven.” Adams further admits that Aquinas’ “vocabulary… syllogisms…[and] arrangements are…curious but not vital.”
Adams reveres Aquinas for his lasting effect on the Church, in all its forms. He claims that while Descartes and Hume have faded away, Aquinas’ legacy has continued on like a cathedral. He further claims that the foundation of Aquinas’ art was based on a “Norman, [and] not French” foundation.
Adams believes this is especially important because the other theologians did not have a strong enough foundation for what Aquinas was trying to accomplish through his theological art. Aquinas’ ability to prove “unity through multiplicity” was testament to his courageous character. Adams contends that many would shirk away from such forward theological theories, but perhaps this is why Adams so admired Aquinas.
Aquinas, in the Summa, takes a leap of faith. His scholastic school was a major innovation in the train of Western thought, and to Adams, it is tantamount to a great work of intellectual art.
This is a point which Adams stresses throughout Mont-Sant-Michel and Chartres. The Summa is indeed a beautiful work. Throughout the work, Aquinas spins a masterful tapestry, giving the best proof of God in his time and Adams’. It is important to note that as a part of the American intellectual class, Adams would have been exposed to the ideas of deism. Perhaps this is why Aquinas is such a breath of fresh air for Adams.
Adams also finds it interesting that Aquinas was able to show that “Descartes wanted to prove…too much, and Spinoza showed…that Saint Thomas had been in the right.” Aquinas was able to convince the mystics too; or perhaps, admitted Aquinas was right and gave up the fight against his theological art. Adams continues to show that Aquinas was able to prove God as the prime motor and that it was the foundation of Aquinas’ theological cathedral.
Adams lauds Aquinas’ intellectual grasp of the Trinity, as well. To Adams, the “Breton solution… was too heavy, and the French solution… was too light.” Aquinas, however, was to find the middle ground. Adams admires the simplicity with which Aquinas treated the subject. Aquinas was able to lighten the theology of the Trinity, and by doing this, gained Adams admiration.
An interesting thing to note of Adams’ discussion of Aquinas is that Adam continually draws allegories between Aquinas’ theology and Gothic architecture. This is due to Adams’ time in France and his obsession with Gothic architecture. However, this also draws to the reader’s mind an ideal, that is, that Thomistic theology transcends time and space, just as Gothic architecture does. In Adams’ mind, Aquinas was the foremost because of his simple, yet grand and elegant discussion of God. Just as Gothic architecture and the architecture of a Church is completely unified, so too is Aquinas’ theology.
Aquinas “embraced all the converging lines of the universe, and the universe showed none but lines that converged.” Aquinas’ theology shows that nothing intervenes between God and man, just as a Gothic structure is supposed to represent to the parishioners. Just as a church has symbolism and is supposed to represent a “simple emanation from God”, so Aquinas’ theology shows man that it is a simple, not complex, emanation from the prime motor.
It is this “fusion of the universal with the individual, of unity with multiplicity” that so fascinates and enraptures Henry Adams. Adams further focuses on the teaching of Aquinas that souls “[differ] in their aptitudes for uniting with particular bodies”. That is to say, that God created the human individual’s soul out of the same specie but in the act of creation, gave individuality to each soul. Adams admires Aquinas for denouncing that all intellects were equal. Adams, rightly so, believes in the individual capacity of intellect, and is excited by the fact that Aquinas vehemently denies that intellect is the same for all men. Adams is likewise enraptured by the idea that Aquinas postulates: that is, that men are notangels and are, ideally, a mix of the spiritual and material world. Adams claims that the “Church wanted to be pure spirit”, but Aquinas proved that man was both matter and spirit, and rather than running from the material aspect of humanity, Aquinas accepted both. Adams claims that “nothing so lofty… so true in scale… has ever been conceived elsewhere”. To Adams, Aquinas is the apex of theological art.