Did either Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis understand (and appreciate) Thomas Aquinas?


For a while this summer, I dug deep in the sources to try to discover whether C. S. Lewis’s strong taste for virtue ethics, manifested both in his Abolition of Man and in his Mere Christianity (among other places) reflected an equally strong appreciation for Thomas Aquinas. At the Marion Wade Center, I pored over the massive four-volume set of Aquinas’s Summa that once resided in Lewis’s library. There were almost no annotations in that set by Lewis, but then again, many of the books he loved most were likewise unmarked.

I read through certain letters of Lewis in which he cautions his correspondent to stay away from the neo-scholasticism of Jacques Maritain and others (he identified T. S. Eliot with this movement). To Dom Bede Griffiths he wrote, “There is no section of religious opinion with which I feel less sympathy.” Lewis seems to have objected to the neo-Thomists’ insistence on certain philosophical formulations and understandings as essential to the faith: “there are some of this set who seem to me to be anxious to make of the Christian faith itself one more of their high brow fads.” This would seem to rub against Lewis’s commitment to “mere Christianity.”

Also, Chris Mitchell of the Wade Center warned me that Lewis got most of his understanding and appreciation of virtue ethics directly from Aristotle, rather than via Aquinas. So I began to worry that Lewis was in fact anti-scholastic, and that I would have a hard time using him in my Medieval Wisdom book as an guide into the passion for precise theological understanding that characterized the great scholastics.

Fast forward to today. I just ran across a brief item by the three Catholic professors who author the Sacred Page blog:

Did Luther Really Understand Aquinas?

“One of the questions that Luther’s theology raises is the question of how good Luther’s knowledge of philosophy was. Luther bitterly attacked Thomas Aquinas. But did he really know Aquinas, or was his knowledge largely secondhand? The answer seems to be that Luther regularly lumped Thomistic teaching on grace with Scotist and Occamist views, and that he read Thomas through the eyes of others, especially those of Gabriel Biel. Moreover, late medieval knowledge of Aquinas seems to have been based more on his commentaries than on the Summa. Even so, the question remains whether Luther’s theology would have been different if he had possessed a firsthand knowledge of Thomas. The answer remains doubtful.”[1]


[1] Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosphers, Ideas and Movements, Vol. 1, From the Ancient World to the Age of Enlightenment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 150.

Now, I have found both a partial answer to this question about Luther and a reassurance about Lewis’s regard for medieval scholasticism in a fascinating passage from one of C. S. Lewis’s lesser-known works (because it is one of his scholarly works), English Literature in the Sixteenth Century , Excluding Drama, in the Oxford History of English Literature, ed. F. P. Wilson and Bonamy Dobree (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954):

Here is the passage, which details the renaissance humanists’ response to, and knowledge of, scholastic theology, including Aquinas. When reading, note Lewis’s tone. He is clearly defending scholasticism as a highly developed form of Christian theology. That helps to answer my question.

Remember also that the humanists were arguably one of the two primary influences on Luther’s thought, along with philosophical nominalism. That helps to answer the question about Luther’s knowledge of Aquinas.

The passage begins on p. 29:

“So far as the common reader was concerned, the humanists’ attack on romances was not, in the sixteenth century, very successful; their attack on medieval philosophy had more serious consequences. Here again we must beware of false simplifications. We must not picture a straight fight in which humanism, with the new science as its ally, rebelled against ‘the tyranny of Aristotle’. Humanists were seldom, even by accident, allied with scientists: scientists did not always despise scholasticism; Aristotle and scholasticism are sometimes in opposition. In reality the humanists’ revolt against medieval philosophy was not a philosophical revolt. What it really was can best be gauged by the language it used. Your philosophers, says Vives (De Causis, I), are straw-splitters, makers of unnecessary difficulties, and if you call their jargon Latin, why then we must find some other name for the speech of Cicero. ‘The more filthie barbarisme they haue in their style (si quam maxime barbare spurceque loquantur) the greater theologians they doe account themselues’, says Erasmus (Maoriae Encomium, cf. also Letter 64). ‘Calle ye Thomas Aquinas a doctor?’ said Johan Wessesl, ‘He knew no tongue but the Latin and barely that!’ We are invited to admire the Utopians because they could never understand the Second Intentions (Utopia, II. vi). ‘Second Intentions’,  says Rabelais in effect, ‘ask whether a chimaera buzzing in a void can eat them. There’d be a proper question for a schoolman’ (Pantagruel, vii). These are not the terms in which a new philosophy attacks an old one: they are, unmistakably, the terms in which at all times the merely literary man, the bellettrist, attacks philosophy itself. No humanist is now remembered as a philosopher. They jeer and do not refute. The schoolman advanced, and supported, propositions about things: the humanist replied that his words were inelegant. Of the scholastic terminology as an instrument of thought–that instrument which, according to Conderocet, has created une precision d’idees inconnue aux anciens [a precision of ideas unknown to the Ancients]–no reasoned criticism was usually vouchsafed. Words like realitas and identificatio were condemned not because they had no use but because Cicero had not used them. Sometimes comically enough, you can catch a humanist using such words himself and thinking to counteract this testimony to their value by branding them with a futile note of infamy. . . . [examples omitted]”

“The war between the humanists and the schoolmen was not a war between ideas: it was, on the humanists’ side, a war against ideas. It is a manifestation of the humanistic tendency to make eloquence the sole test of learning; embittered (if not partly caused) by the fact that in the universities of that age the teachers of eloquence usually had less secure and lucrative posts than their enemies. . . .”

“In the field of philosophy humanism must be regarded, quite frankly, as a Philistine movement: even an obscurantist movement. In that sense the New Learning created the New Ignorance. Perhaps every new learning makes room for itself by creating a new ignorance. In our own age we have seen the sciences beating back the humanities as humanism once eat back metaphysics. Man’s power of attention seems to be limited; one nail drives out another.”

“[In Reformation England, m]en of the Old Religion, if they were humanists, might despise scholasticism; men of the New, if they were philosophers, might revere it. Thus we find Hooker strongly impregnated with Thomism, and More and Erasmus among the mockers of the schoolmen.”

Where Luther falls in this schema is pretty clear: he disliked philosophy, leaving “all that” to his friend Melanchthon.

As for Lewis’s conclusion of his tale about the “barbarous” humanists overturning the scholastic philosophers without so much as bothering to learn their craft, here it is:

“I am unwilling to end this short account of the humanists on a note of condemnation. Despite the immense harm they did, despite their narrowness, their boasting, and their ferocity–for it is a strange delusion that represents them as gentle, amiable, and (in that sense) ‘humane’–our debt to them can never be cancelled. If we must now judge that, in the very act of discovering some classics, they introduced a subtle falsity of approach to them from which we took centuries to recover, yet we so judge only from a reading of texts which the humanists themselves first gave us. If their manners were often like those of giants, so were their labours.”

4 responses to “Did either Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis understand (and appreciate) Thomas Aquinas?

  1. Thanks for the confirmation and the speculation about Hooker. I know Lewis both read Hooker and recommended him to others, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he got some of his “scholasticism” through that route.

    As for influence, Grant Wacker once, in a seminar at Duke, defined “history” as the study of facts about traditions over time. If we are to study traditions and their shifts over time, then it seems to me we must speak of influence. There’s no getting around it. All the caveats still apply, but to do useful historiography, I think we need to continue making educated guesses about influence–as educated as we can, but of course with the “guess” element still admitted to our readers. What bugs me about the way history gets written is that most historians have been dishonest about that “guess” element, and also about the impact of their own personal filters on the stories they tell. This realization almost led me, as I think you know, to leave my doctoral program at one point. I was furious. Felt hornswoggled.

  2. Chris,

    I think you’re on the right track. I don’t think Lewis’s distaste for neo-scholastics applied to the medievals–and in fact I think most Thomists today would agree that Maritain and his ilk are not exactly the most faithful disciples of Aquinas (not that creative use of someone’s ideas is a bad thing!). One can hate Barth and love Calvin (or vice versa)–same with Maritain and Aquinas.

    I used to think of Lewis as a Thomist, but I don’t think he was. I think he appreciated Aquinas, but I don’t think Aquinas was the major shaper of his thought. Mitchell’s point about Lewis reading Aristotle directly is a good one (I myself know Aristotle mostly through the scholastics, so I am not good at distinguishing them from each other). Another point to consider is Lewis’s familiarity with later figures such as Richard Hooker. A lot of the points that initially struck me as “Thomist” in Lewis now seem to me to have been very much shaped by Hooker. If you put Hooker and Aristotle together, you may be able to account for much of what seems Thomist in Lewis.

    On the other hand, as Steinmetz repeatedly warned me, influence is very hard to prove and we are generally better off not using that language. (And yet, as this post shows, I can’t stop doing it!)

  3. Travis,

    Of course you’re right, but it is the nature of Lewis’s language that leads me to see this as a defense of philosophy:

    Because of the humanists’ outright rejection of scholastic philosophy, he calls the humanists “Philistine” and “obscurantist”–strongly implying an art and a clarity in the philosophy they opposed.

    He accuses them of undertaking “a war against ideas”; this is surely a war that the hawkish Lewis would never support, and it implies substance and value on the side of the scholastics.

    He compares the humanists’ attack on scholastic philosophy to the beating back of the humanities (which Lewis highly valued) by the sciences (the idolatry of which he constantly opposed).

    He names the result of their attack a “new ignorance”–surely indicating the loss not of otiose speculation but of valuable knowledge.

    So although your argument–that an attack on an attacker is not necessarily a defense of the victim–is correct as a piece of abstract logic, yet the terms used by Lewis in making this particular attack on this particular attacker prove, I think, his high regard for this particular victim.

  4. I’m not sure that a condemnation of humanism is necessarily a defense or endorsement for scholasticism here. One does not, after all, have to agree with the view that is being attack in order to point out that the attack is a poor one.

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