Philosophical Friday: Thomas Aquinas and Metaphor

Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher and theologian from a family of Italian nobles. During his life (1225-1274), he wrote more than sixty books. Among his most well-known works is Summa Theologica. Within the book, he deals with issues of biblical interpretation, among other things. In the Ninth and Tenth articles, he deals with two issues important in modern literary discourse: metaphor and whether or not words in the Christian biblical tradition can have several senses.

Concerning the first, he lays a framework for how he understands the relationship between materials and text, a text he perceives as being the Holy Writ. Within this framework, “spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things” [1] in order that all people may grasp and understand the text. As such, poetry (text) and materials are in relation via metaphorical expression. This metaphorical connection between poetry and materials can take two forms: (a) a generic form for men to simply please humans or (b) a sacred form which leverages metaphor for divine truths. Moreover, the metaphorical connection between text and material is sometimes obscure within “Holy Writ” in order to allow people to exercise their minds and prevent the impious from ridiculing the text.

Concerning the Tenth Article, he sees multiple layers of sense: the allegorical (the Hebrew Bible signifying relation to New Testament literature); the moral sense (things done by or signifying Jesus); anagogical sense (related to eternal glory); literal sense (the intention of the author, namely God). Of these, the last sense is central. The literal sense, for Aquinas, contains multiple senses because he perceive God as the author.

From these points, I find a few features notable.

First, Aquinas approaches the text with the assumption that “God” is the quintessential author. God being a transcendent deity who is all-powerful, perception of God as the author influences how Aquinas approaches and defines the types of metaphor. His second understanding of metaphor, sacred metaphor which communicates divine truths, echoes the concerns expressed by authors like Longinus. The notion of “sacred metaphor” is similar, though not equivalent to, the sublime. As a result, within Aquinas’ writing, the Bible receives a special status in comparison with other books, wherein he essentially employs circular reasoning: the Bible is sublime because God wrote it; and God wrote the bible so it is sublime.

Second, Aquinas claims that texts don’t always make sense because God wants to train minds and prevent ridicule. He is much like other writers that I have discussed: this is his way of dealing with texts which are lacking cogency and coherency. Though such things are always lacking to a certain degree, human minds naturally and instinctively attempt to fix the ruptures in the flow of a text.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 191.

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