The Last Knight of Scholastic Philosophy

The word “baroque” carries with it a set of connotations: ornate detail, amplified motion, and an overall impression of inescapable exuberance. It is not as well known that “baroque” is a modifier of the intellectual trends of the 17th century, in addition to that time’s music, art, and architecture. The aesthetic connotations translate nearly as well into baroque scholastic philosophy and theology, which is indeed characterized by motion and detail, a furious and seemingly unceasing investigation into the mysteries of heaven and earth. Current sensibilities are not quite attuned to the aesthetic of motion and detail, but in art, décor, and argument prefer a simpler presentation (cleaner lines being desired) and a more reasonable academic project (epistemic humility being somewhat in vogue).

Silver Age scholastics (a name given to the revitalization of scholasticism especially in the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th and 17th centuries) were a busy group, presenting to bemused modern eyes a spectacle of furious energy and endlessly expanding questions and investigations. It cannot go unnoticed that this situation is in fact the efficient cause of what survey courses in philosophy have to call “modern philosophy,” that is, the moment when Descartes or Locke bursts into the syllabus and perhaps gives voice to the students’ frustration: why do the questions continue to multiply? Why can’t we get clear answers to pressing questions? Why does this scholastic enterprise continue to grow like an inconceivably immense cathedral with no final blueprint?

Were we to attempt to capture the most typical reaction from 21st century academics to the investigatory work and conceptual busyness of early 17th century scholastic philosophy, the response might mirror William Blake’s antipathy in the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” where he somehow manages to link Aristotle’s analytic philosophy with a cannibal monkey prison (lively but undeniably disturbing activity) and a human skeleton (a line of work that is dead beyond recall). Baroque scholasticism was neither an attractive project at the time, nor a viable line of thought now.

Arguably the most distinguished figure in the history of baroque scholasticism, the man who preeminently demonstrates the attributes of baroque excess and daring, is Francisco Suarez, S.J. (1548-1617). Contemplation of his life and work has led my affections in a direction very different from Blake's horror and death, however. There comes to mind instead a literary figure from the very time in question: that “lean and foolish knight,” Don Quixote. Not a self-devouring generator of useless expositions on dead questions, Suarez appears as rather the last knight of scholastic philosophy, champion of an art the rest of the world would soon treat as irrelevant and even fanciful. While the Jesuit’s gaunt face and prominent eyes present a superficial resemblance to the fictional knight’s famously angular bearing, (and the direct overlap of Suarez’s and Miguel de Cervantes’ lifespans is a happy coincidence), the true likeness as I see it is in the nature of their enterprises. Thus, it is necessary to set out some of the details of Suarez’s life and work.

He is not exactly a household name these days, but Suarez holds a place in the Jesuit order that bears a rough equivalence to Thomas Aquinas for the Dominicans and John Duns Scotus for the Franciscans. He was a prominent theologian whose status in Europe was extraordinarily prestigious in his own lifetime and who left behind a body of work both vast and comprehensive, to be consulted when clarification is needed on nearly any significant topic in metaphysics, theology, law, and more. Acknowledging the Jesuit’s supremely magisterial status, Etienne Gilson wrote that:

Suarez enjoys such a knowledge of medieval philosophy, as to put to shame any modern historian of medieval thought. On each and every question he seems to know everybody and everything, and to read his book is like attending the Last Judgment of four centuries of Christian speculation by a dispassionate judge (Being and Some Philosophers, 99).

This authoritative status was, however, something of a surprising development considered in light of Suarez’s early life. As a young student of canon law, Suarez barely passed his studies in Salamanca, a lackluster start that might explain first his rejection (the only rejection out of a pool of fifty applicants) from the Jesuit order and then his admission as an “indifferent,” that is, someone whose future in the order was undecided. Given that he initially requested to remain a lay brother rather than continue on into the priesthood, it seems Suarez himself shared the order’s concerns about his intellectual capacity. Biographical accounts on his life agree, however, that soon after his admission to the order his ability as a student suddenly and staggeringly transformed—he went from being at the bottom to the top of every class, even to the point of assisting the teacher explain abstruse philosophical concepts to his fellow classmates. Whether or not this transformation was literally “overnight,” it was rapid and inexplicable enough to be deemed miraculous and attributed to the direct intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Salas and Fastiggi, 2).

If it was in fact Mary herself who intervened on Suarez’s behalf, it would in part account for the attention and devotion to Mary present in his work. As a kind of denouement to Suarez’s dramatic intellectual transformation, he was invited to perform what was known as a “Grand Act” at the University of Salamanca in 1570. It was a public academic exercise in which singularly gifted students or faculty could be examined closely on a certain range of disputed questions. One of the theses Suarez chose to defend was the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a controversial position at the time that was generally rejected by the Dominican order as a whole. By all accounts, Suarez made a brilliant defense of the position, and stuck to his promise of only using Church Fathers as sources for his arguments (Salas and Fastiggi, 3).

However, his commitment to explicating knowledge of Mary did not stop there: within his treatise On the Mysteries of the Life of Christ he investigates so many aspects of Marian theology that Michael O’Carroll calls him the “founder of systematic Mariology.” (Theotokos: Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary). In the 20th century, he would become a regular reference for Papal disquisitions on Marian matters, most notably in Pius XII’s encyclical Ad caeli reginam on Mary’s Queenship, and in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which defined the dogma of the Assumption.

The magnitude of Suarez’s work means that no introductory essay could hope to survey his thought to anyone’s satisfaction. His Opera Omnia (which, despite the title, does not contain all of his written work) containing 14 books, printed in 26 volumes, comes to no less than 21 million words. This seems to confirm the image of scholastic madness from Blake’s perspective; even the barest outline of Suarez's 54 Metaphysical Disputations would make the average eye glaze. Typical descriptions of Suarez include adjectives like “painstaking,” “meticulous,” and “exhaustive.” And if early modern philosophers like Descartes and Locke disavowed the “schoolmen” for the endless refining of definitions and splitting of hairs, even more so do more contemporary theologians and philosophers impute a deal of blame to Suarez for the trajectory of modern philosophy.

Without baldly labeling the Jesuit a villain, Church Life Journal authors such as Alasdair MacIntyre (in Three Rival Versions) and John Milbank (in The Word Made Strange) unambiguously credit Suarez with being a modern thinker and even inventor of a new way of doing philosophy (the new way being rather unmistakably bad news for the Western tradition). Legal scholar John Finnis and political theorist Charles McCoy variously accuse him of rampant voluntarism and a kind of radical democracy. If these negative assessments of Suarez are all credible, Suarez would be in the unenviable position of embodying the worst of scholastic excess with none of the benefit of its venerable tradition.

Alfred Freddoso, on the other hand, identifies the “seeming penchant of some contemporary Catholic authors to blame every historical distortion of St. Thomas’ thought on the Jesuits in general and on Suarez or his progeny in particular,” as a trend that is both unfortunate and unwarranted (Recovering Nature: Essays in Natural Philosophy, Ethics, and Metaphysics). There are of course other assessments of Suarez, including the unabashed enthusiasm of Jose Pereira, who calls him the “consummator” of medieval Scholasticism and the “founder” of modern philosophy, intending both labels as the highest praise. The charitable reading of Suarez on the whole will find him to be a great reconciler, frequently proposing a middle way between Aquinas and Scotus that upholds the authority of both great priests and theologians even as a new position is delineated. While a particularly noteworthy example of that middle way is the careful dance he leads through Thomistic realism and Scotistic nominalism, the grace and beauty of his synthetic prowess is on clearest display in his treatment of natural law.

By the late 16th century, positions on natural law had separated into at least two major camps. There was the “intellectualist” or “naturalist” position, which defined natural law as the rational order of the world which indicates to human beings the means by which to find their fullest happiness and flourishing possible in this life; it is the rational cognition of the ends of the natural inclinations of human beings. This account led to the conclusion that the natural law was an immutable whole. Because a human being is a certain kind of being, there are actions which could never be permitted because they could never lead to the flourishing of a rational animal.

Thus, the willful murder of another innocent person would always be a violation of the natural law. Insistence on immutability became cause for concern to some because once natural law was defined in relation to what is good for human beings simply, the conclusion about immutable precepts also meant that God himself could not change the precepts of the natural law. His own creation, in a sense, was acting as a limitation to his infinite power. From a certain perspective it could seem that God no longer held total authority over the world he had made and continued to keep in existence.

In the Secunda Secundae Aquinas offered his own account of the kinds of law—eternal, divine positive, natural, and human—and their relation to each other. By the eternal law is meant the rule and order of the cosmos as conceived in the mind of God in his free act of creation. Divine positive law consists in those commandments that God gave to certain people at particular times for distinct reasons; these commands could later be changed or rescinded altogether, as in the case of the Jewish ceremonial law from the Old Testament. Aquinas then argues that, in contrast both to divine positive law and to human law, which in different ways reflect temporally contingent prescriptions for particular circumstances, natural law is nothing less than the human being’s rational participation in the eternal law of God. According to this understanding, the human mind is created in such a way that it might, through reasoned reflection on the natural inclinations common to the entire human race, come to understand the ends proper to those inclinations, and thereby understand some part of the requirements for human happiness in this life. Being a participation in the eternal law, it follows that the precepts of the natural law are therefore unchangeable—God does not change his mind. Insofar as we think of natural law as God’s commands, they are always directed toward what is best for people, and, further, man’s intellect is adequate to the task of uncovering those commands.

For John Duns Scotus, the only command God cannot give is for a person to hate him; this sort of command would function as a contradiction of God’s very essence. What followed was the decision to categorize only those precepts which had God as their object as belonging to the natural law, properly speaking. This preserves God’s freedom to command actions that are normally out of the question; he might even command an old man to kill his only son as an act of faith in his authority, for instance. William of Ockham built along these lines, even speculating that God could, technically, command the impossible: that someone hate him. Here any obedience would lead to a contradiction because it would lead love of God (obedience) to hatred of God. Ockham even went so far as to say that actions which are inherently bad, such as murder or adultery, are bad precisely because of the command not to do them, thereby making his position somewhat more extreme than Scotus. His line of thinking is designated as “voluntarism,” because of its prioritization of God's random will as the fundamental source of obligation in natural law.

Suarez’s path between voluntarism and intellectualism is important both for what he avoids and for what he contributes to the conversation on natural law. He articulates a natural law that is fully accessible to the human intellect while acknowledging the difficulties individual persons will encounter in the pursuit of this knowledge and the need for collaboration among people of varying intellectual strengths. He commits to the specificity with which natural law precepts can be known, as well as their immutability. But far from producing a rigid order, his attention to the important role circumstance plays in moral action makes allowance for the vagaries of the human condition. While his approach avoids the arbitrary extremes of the voluntarist tradition, his focus on the will as the source of law’s obligation, and his mission to treat natural law as a strictly law-like law both provide a consistent and coherent account of moral obligation. Natural law is fully rational, unchanging, and binding.

His path to clarifying the natural law takes him first through the arduous work of defining law in itself, and here he is careful to caution the reader that “we shall speak always from a human standpoint and in accordance with our own [human] mode of conception,” about those terms and concepts which will also be applied to the natural law and to God as its legislator (de Legibus I.IV.1). As it turns out, there was quite as much controversy over the nature of law itself as there was over the form and content of the natural law specifically. In a manner similar to the intellectualists and voluntarists in their dispute over the natural law, jurists and canonists disputed over whether it was more proper to call the law an act of reason or an act of the will.

In what can only be described as a series of intellectual feints, Suarez first makes the case for law as an act of reason and then convincingly repudiates that position in favor of law as an act of the will. He finally overthrows both those positions in order to establish that law can only be spoken of and understood as act both of reason and will, not one to the exclusion of the other. For a law requires two things: “impulse and direction, or (so to speak) goodness and truth; that is to say, right judgment concerning the things that should be done and an efficacious will impelling to the performance of those things” (DL I.V.20). This third way, defining law as an act both of the intellect and of the will is an unusual position, by Suarez’s own admission, and it is necessary for his position on natural law.

That a law be intelligible, ordered toward the good of its subjects, is perhaps an intuitive truth. The necessity of the will for a law to exist has everything to do with the law’s power to obligate: “The intellect is able merely to point out a necessity existing in the object itself, and if such a necessity does not exist therein, the intellect cannot impart it [to the object]; whereas the will endows [the object] with a necessity which did not formerly characterize it” (DL I.V.5). That which is good for you need not oblige you; otherwise there would be no meaningful distinction between law and counsel.

What turns good advice into law is the office of a lawgiver, someone who is rightfully in authority over you deciding to make a suggestion a command. For his focus on obligation, and his location of its power in an act of the will, it seems that technically Suarez must be called a voluntarist. But this designation betrays the heart of his treatment of natural law. This is also the man who wrote “that properly speaking the natural law cannot of itself lapse or suffer change, whether in its entirety, or in its individual precepts, so long as rational nature endures” (DL II.13.2). How is it possible that natural law owes its preceptive, obligatory status to the will of God, and yet is as immutable as any intellectualist could demand?

The answer, I think, lies in Suarez’s understanding of God’s providence and the radically personal nature of creation. When Thomas Aquinas says that God cannot deny himself, Suarez takes him to mean “that God cannot fail to prohibit those things which are evil and contrary to natural reason” (DL II.6.5). Suarez here builds on a foundation laid by Thomas but goes in a direction that is not obvious or necessary, perfectly illustrating his respect for tradition and capacity for originality. Given the creation of this world, in all its gloriously intelligible rationality, God could not have done otherwise than to promulgate the natural law.

As long as rational nature endures, the natural law will be what it has always been. But this does not mean that natural law calls for the same set of actions in all times and places; Suarez explains that natural law precepts were “from the beginning for given occasions or conditions, and not for others” (DL.II.13.4). Circumstances are very nearly the whole of the story when it comes to making a practical judgment about a course of action. And circumstances mean that the unchanging precepts of the natural law will amount to very different actions in different times and places.

Our ability to discern those circumstances and to interpret the natural law correctly is the greatest testimony Suarez can find of God’s authorship and continued governance of the universe: “the faculty of judgment contained in reason, of itself indicates the existence of a divine providence befitting God” (DL II.6.24). Human beings have the capacity to recognize what is good and what is evil in action; Suarez insists that it is God’s legislation which makes those recognizably good and evil things mandatory or prohibited.

St. Paul said that the Gentiles show the law is written on men’s hearts, evidenced by a conscience that excuses or accuses. Suarez’s attention to the problem of obligation and immutability in natural law offers an interpretation of this passage that is at once highly optimistic and quite beautiful. Natural law for Suarez is nothing less than the voice of God, speaking through his creation and to his creation, directing and binding in a single utterance. God is one, and to direct all focus either on the power or on the intelligibility of the almighty will of necessity lead to a distortion. The lesson to be learned from Suarez on natural law is more than a case of consistency or coherence. It is, instead, a reflection on what it means to be part of a creation; to have a relationship with a creator that is more than dependence, subjection, or direction.

To be obligated by the will of God is to recognize the bond of Love that forever ties creation together and to its source. Suarez, through an admittedly exhaustive, meticulous, and yes, dry presentation of an old and possibly worn out topic, opens the reader’s eyes to something perhaps obvious but too often forgotten: love moves the cosmos and draws all things to itself, and so to see how a creature could be bound in conscience and not simply counseled through reason, we must remember the intimate relationship between Creator and created.

Such confidence in God’s presence in the world stands in marked contrast to the modern imagination of a Kierkegaard or a Newman. Consider what Saint Cardinal Newman sees when he looks out into the world:

The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator” (Apologia pro Vita Sua chapter 5 italics mine).

Does this then mark Suarez’s confident outlook as definitively medieval, artifact of a more naïve or homogeneous world? Perhaps not; Newman’s contemporary and Suarez’s confrere, Gerard Manly Hopkins, was both able to note that though the world was “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil /And wears man’s smudge and bears man’s smell,” still “for all this, nature is never spent,” and that “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods.” The darkest nights of the soul may still be pierced by uncreated light, revealing what is luminous in the darkness.

Suarez should not be relegated to the files of intellectual history—he taught for 47 of his years on earth and is teaching still if we will stop to read him. His nuanced thought on the naturalness of political life yields an anti-absolutist constitutionalism that is richly theological, providing a surprising ground for religious toleration and a strong case for female political rule. Not only did he make a case for tyrannicide, but he even argued that legitimate, legal monarchs could become tyrants, and thus potentially open to tyrannicide. King James I of England was so enraged by this development he burned Suarez’s work in public, a move that for one reason or another John Locke or John Finnis might endorse.

There are stereotypes about scholasticism for a reason. Suarez is not easy to read, and his method of exploring what is apparently every possible wrong answer before getting to the correct one is liable to madden some readers. But if there is a madness to the scope, scale, and detail of his work, I believe it is more the madness of Quixote than the horror of Blake’s cacophonous dungeon. This is not an ugly or useless task, but is rather a quest for the absolute through the passageways of scholastic technicality. It might be an impossible thing that Suarez presents to the potential student: that while he is fully Baroque in the fullness and intricacy of his theology and philosophy, he is neither medieval nor modern. His thought is some via media, a road not taken, a rapprochement between medieval principles and modern aspirations that still offers hope to any reader on his or her own unlikely quest for wisdom.

Featured Image: Albrecht Durer, Paumgartner Altar detail, 1503; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Catherine Sims Kuiper

Catherine Kuiper is an Assistant Professor of Education at Hillsdale College, with a PhD in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame. She writes from Michigan with her husband and three children.

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