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SMC lecture examines Saint Aquinas’ influence

Alicia Smith | Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Though Saint Thomas Aquinas lived in the medieval era, his philosophies still may apply to questions in today’s society.

Saint Mary’s College political science professor Sister Amy Cavender explained in a lecture Tuesday night that although contemporary philosophers believe that Aquinas has no place in today’s pluralistic culture, he can, in fact, provide some insight as to how one should act in order live in harmony with others.

“I want to lay out a charge that is fairly commonly thought, I think, against Aquinas,” Cavender said. “What I would like to do then, is to defend Aquinas against that charge and show where he might have something to offer us in terms of our own thinking about politics.”

Contemporary philosopher John Rawls, Cavender said, argued that Aquinas has nothing to offer modern society.

“Our society is more plural than really it ever was,” Cavender said. “Can these people with all these different backgrounds work well together? How do we deal with the fact that citizens, because they’ve got vastly different conditions, are going to have a wide range of ideas about what the good life is? Not only do they have different ideas, but some of those ideas are incompatible with each other.”

According to Cavender, Rawls disagreed with the idea that there is only one correct conception of the good.

“There’s one right understanding of the good, and it’s a good we should pursue. Rawls doesn’t think this is going to work very well,” Cavender said. “There are a lot of conflicting reasonable and conflicting doctrines … That is going to be the case, anytime you leave people with freedom to exercise their reason. [There is] no one vision of the good that is appropriate for the basis of a political regime.”

Though Rawls disagrees with Aquinas’s philosophy, Cavender argued that though Aquinas believes in one good, he still is able to support pluralism.

“That stems in part from the fact that Aquinas will say that we’ve got two ends, or purposes, as human beings. One’s a supernatural one — the vision of God, happiness with God and eternal life,” Cavender said.

The other purpose, she said, was happiness as a human being on this earth.

“Those two are related but they are distinct. Aquinas will say that the natural realm has it’s own values, has it’s own worth,” Cavender said. “Based on that he can affirm toleration and some respect for some of the principles that we would think important in the political society that is pluralistic.”