Is Atheist Sam Harris Sexy? Nagarjuna’s Opinion–And Thomas Aquinas’

Sam Harris is sexy, right? Perhaps you agree. But think again. How you answer this question says a lot about your orientation.

Not your sexual orientation. Or at least not just your sexual orientation. It reveals something about how you swing philosophically–whether to the East or West.

Nagarjuna vs. Thomas Aquinas. The second century Indian philosopher, the Buddhist Nagarjuna, by reason of logic alone, and having never laid eyes on Sam Harris, would say that he is not sexy. Not sexy. And if you swing East philosophically, even if you’re a heterosexual woman with a thing for intellectual atheists, or a gay male for whom images of Sam Harris perk you up, you’re nevertheless likely to agree with Nagarjuna–or at least with his argument. Sam Harris is not sexy.

But the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian, the Catholic Thomas Aquinas, would beg to differ. Simply on being informed by trusted witnesses (imagine a time machine here) of the beguiling and mesmerizing powers of Sam Harris over some people’s imaginations, Aquinas would say–though he had never seen him himself, and by means of logic alone–that Sam Harris must be sexy.

So which is it? Sexy or not sexy? What’s going on here? Why would these two heavyweight logicians–the greatest classical logician of the East and the greatest medieval logician of the West–arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether or not an intellectual celebrity is sexy?

It could be that the disagreement exposes a flaw with logic started from metaphysical premises–and why we ultimately need science to settle speculative questions. It can be argued that, in metaphysics, where you start and stop an argument ultimately entails some sort of question begging: “Why did you start there and stop here?” Metaphysics can be too much like a machine for making sausage. Garbage in, garbage out.

But let’s set our cynicism aside for a moment, assume good intentions on the parts of both Nagarjuna and Aquinas (they’re not merely motivated reasoners, but are trying to get at the ultimate truth of matters), and give these two philosophers a fair shake.

Let’s start with Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna: the first great ecologist. Nagarjuna begins his reasoning with an ecological insight: emptiness. What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne, no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be. Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present. Therefore, no person is sexy. No individual can be anything at all. Not essentially. No flower in the flower; no Sam Harris in Sam Harris.

Put another way, when you dig into a flower, you don’t find a flower. You find the veins of its leaves, the silky fibers of its petals, the green ooze coming from the cut stem. What you don’t find is the self-same flower through and through. You find parts that, combined, you call a flower.

Likewise with Sam Harris. Follow him down through the pupils of his eyes, and you don’t find him behind there–only ocular equipment and a brain. Where’s Sam? He depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Sam; he emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of himself. He is not something all by his lonesome, but dispersed into the system of contingent relations–including perceptual relations. Absent the right bodily, environmental, and perceptual conditions, Sam Harris is not the self-same Sam Harris he is at this moment. He’s empty. Change conditions and perceptions, and you change Sam.

Nagarjuna: Derrida of the East. Now if this sounds like an Eastern version of Derrida’s play of signifiers made flesh, you’re on to something.

Think of what Derrida would say about the dictionary and you’ve got a handle on what Nagarjuna is saying about the cosmos. Derrida would claim that no word in the dictionary is an island; that no word means anything absent the system of words in which it is embedded. Words are defined by other words.

And for Nagarjuna, it’s the same with individuals and things. Just as no single word means anything apart from all the other words in the dictionary–a dictionary is a catalog of self-referential signifiers–so individuals and things don’t mean anything apart from everything else. They’re in the play of signifiers–and signifieds. Not just Jesus, but all of us, are akin to words made flesh. If no word is an island, no flesh is an island either. We are not sexy of our own accord. We have no independent power of sexiness that we cast upon others like a warlock casts a spell.

The Tao of Nagarjuna. For Nagarjuna then, we should regard things, in ultimate terms, as: (1) empty (mutually interdependent arisings that are in constant and unstable flux); and (2) non-dual. Nagarjuna would thus like the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Though these lines come from a Taoist text, the last line is especially important from a Buddhist vantage, for it means that if you can arrest the chain of conditions that bring about a particular desire, you can change what manifests to perception. Desire colors perception. Change the perception part of the mutually interdependent arising equation, and, because all things are ultimately empty and non-dual, you literally change what they are in that moment–at least in relation to you.

So Nagarjuna puts the power of discernment and discrimination–the chopping power of conceptualization–in your hands. Existence is non-dual and a continuum. Think of the yin-yang symbol here, but smudge the line between the black and white fish. How you now cut the fish into two is your call: here’s where the white fish starts and the black fish stops, and here’s where the environment stops and Sam Harris starts. Like Solomon, you can divide your babies any way you like: Baby White divides from Baby Black here, Baby Go from Baby Stop there. But ultimately, there’s no dividing white from black, go from stop, up from down, etc. They’re all one; they’re non-dual; they’re relational; they often manifest along a continuum; and they’re empty.

So Nagarjuna would also like the second purport of the Tao Te Ching (again, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

others become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master

acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

things disappear and she lets them go.

And Nagarjuna, in the seventh stanza of his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (translated by Tenzin Dorjee and David Komito), writes this: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.”

Do the one and the many, and being and non-being, really depend on each other to exist? Aquinas would say no, and so Nagarjuna’s non-dual claim exposes a fault line between East and West. Nagarjuna and the Tao Te Ching agree that you can’t have being without nothingness, and therefore even the ultimate–the One or the Tao–is itself empty. Nothing, not even God as the ultimate being (if God exists), has existence independently and essentially–and emptiness itself has no existence apart from beings.

So that’s the last stop on Nagarjuna’s (and the Tao Te Ching’s) logic train. Even emptiness is empty.

All aboard? Not Aquinas.

Where Aquinas and Nagarjuna part ways. It’s at these last two train stops–God is empty and emptiness is empty–that Aquinas and Nagarjuna lose their connection, for though Aquinas agrees with Nagarjuna that all created things are subject to change and contingent upon specific conditions to exist, he can’t agree that Ultimate Being (God) is in the same absurd, vulnerable, and ironic dilemma. God does not need emptiness to exist–nor, for that matter, darkness or evil. Before there was darkness, God was all light; before there was evil, God was all good.

The most existent being–God–is in need of nothing at all. Indeed, nothingness placed into God in a yin-yang manner as a condition of his Being, making him ultimately empty of a single and undivided essence, undermines God’s perfect existence and makes him not God at all. The Ultimate has to be unconditioned by anything–including nothing–to really be His Utmost. God is the necessary Being grounding contingent beings–and nothingness. And the contingent forms that do exist, first existed in the mind of God.

So Aquinas starts his reasoning, not with emptiness, but form.

Aquinas on form. There may be prior conditions out of which forms emerge, but for Aquinas this doesn’t make them empty. So long as they exist, forms are real–they possess real essences–and they consist of two things: actuality and potentiality (or, in Thomistic jargon, “act and potency”). God alone is perfect actuality, not needing to fulfill any potentials within himself. Aquinas’ God is a perfect being; the self-same throughout, lacking in nothing. But not created things.

Once all the conditions for a created form are in place, that form really exists, and the form has actual powers that are independent of its component parts. The form is an emergent property from conditions–but that doesn’t make it any less real. And the form has potencies. The form possesses, by the very nature of its being and form, powers that, though hidden now, manifest in the presence of certain conditions.

So just as a match has the potential for burning wood, you have the potential in your form to set certain people on fire sexually. Your “sexy power” resides in a potency that becomes actual under the right conditions.

In analyzing phenomena, Aquinas thus starts from an essentialist premise, with God as the most existent and essential Being. Nagarjuna starts from an ecological premise: you can never be free from interconnection, and therefore from emptiness. Emptiness haunts being.

So who’s right here?

Aquinas and Nagarjuna: they bleed on both sides. For Aquinas, God has to be transcendent. The first Being has to be prior to all subsequent existence and nothingness–and then remain in some sense apart from dynamic creation. But logically, Nargarjuna insists that being can’t even be conceived independent of nothingness, and therefore anything that exists–including God–has to be empty of essence. This point bloodies the nose of Aquinas’ position. If God is the Ultimate Pot, then, to exist, he needs form and emptiness exactly as white needs black, one needs zero, and good needs evil.

But Nagarjuna bleeds as well. Aquinas would insist that Nagarjuna needs to fix his infinite regress before claiming a victory for emptiness over being: where did the First Pot–the first emptiness–emerge from in the first place? Has it always existed? How can that be?

So both Aquinas and Nagarjuna draw blood when they come into contact most directly at the ultimate mystery–call it The Pot of Mystery. They both climb to the lip of The Pot of Mystery from opposite sides (Aquinas climbs up along the outside of its form; Nagarjuna climbs up along the inside, where the emptiness is). But both come to stillness and silence at reaching the lip of the The Pot. Before them, light falls upon clay that surrounds a dark and empty circle. It is here that logic and words fail them both.

Mountains are really mountains. Zen master Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin reached the same impass, and framed the faultline between emptiness and form as a process of alternation: accepting common sense, doubting common sense, accepting common sense (Quoted in Maseo Abe’s Zen and Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 4) :

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, “Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.”

After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.”

But now, having attained the abode of final rest [awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.” 

In other words, every thing that emerges out of the empty and non-dual cosmic network is interconnected with everything else–even as it obtains its own unreproducible identity in the now. Every thing is means and ends in the present. Being and emptiness are akin to looking at two sides of the same coin: mountains are not really mountains–and yet they are. Alternations in time (mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains) prevent us from seeing the whole truth at once in a single vision: the non-dual nature of reality.

Rock or pot: essence or ecology? So what’s the right metaphor here? Is God or the Ultimate akin to a rock (the self-same through and through and in need of nothing, transcending even the non-dual) or a pot (incapable of manifesting form without emptiness)? Do forms, at bottom, emerge and exist essentially or ecologically?

Perhaps to reconcile Aquinas with Nagarjuna, we might say that what we call God or the Ultimate is the non-dual (the one and zero are inseparable, inaccessible to logic absent the other, and only approached at the same time, if at all, by stillness and silence).

Aquinas, curiously, went silent toward the end of his life, and Nagarjuna deployed logic to bring his interlocutors to mystery and silence, showing that every logical starting point in metaphysics derails at some point in a contradiction.

So are you with Aquinas or Nagarjuna–or is this like asking, Do you want the vase, or the empty part of the vase? Is Sam Harris sexy?

How about Marilyn Martian?

2a curvy martian

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Is Atheist Sam Harris Sexy? Nagarjuna’s Opinion–And Thomas Aquinas’

  1. Anonymous says:

    When I was a kid my friends used to like to argue over things like “in a fight, who would win…Superman or Mighty Mouse?”

    This kind of reminds me of that. It was great fun, but it was nonsensical fun because of course Superman and Mighty Mouse were fictional characters.

    The positions ascribed to Aquinas are fictional so I assume the same for Nagarjuna. This is such a bad depiction of facts it must be intentional.

    You need to add the disclaimer that: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      God is treated in the Summa as both First Cause and Pure Act (pure actuality or being)–not being-and-nothingness. And the One is prior to the many. Aquinas also claims that evil cannot exist alongside good as a contrasting element. Evil is the absence of God’s pure good. None of this sounds like an easy fit with Nagarjuna. If you have a different take on what Aquinas is saying, please share.

      • Anonymous says:

        Why force comparisons where none exist?

        For instance, the A-T explanation for existent material things are the famous 4 causes, material, formal, efficient and final. This piece makes it sound like there is only a formal cause when in actuality, an existent thing is holistically all of the 4.

        If you separate the causes (in A-T), you don’t have the thing. If you take away Na or Cl from salt you don’t have salt (material cause)…if you take away the properties of salt, you don’t have salt(formal cause)….if you take away the chemical reaction from salt, you don’t have salt (efficient cause)…if you take away the tendency of Na and Cl to produce salt under certain circumstances, you don’t have salt (final cause).

        My complaint is that you distort at least one of the philosophies you are trying to compare.

        If you are really interested in philosophy, why don’t you try to understand the starting point of each one instead of starting with the conclusions of each one. If 2 persons ask different questions at the start of an inquiry, why would you expect them to come up with similar answers?

        Is it surprising that the answers to 2 different questions are incongruent?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I thought you had a serious disagreement. This is just nitpicking. I didn’t address all four causes in an already long post. Of course I know that Aquinas follows Aristotle, positing four causes. All of them are grounded in conditions and being, and so to rehearse each one (beyond form) would have made my point repetitive.

      And I addressed Aquinas directly, and rehearsed the four causes, here:

      My main point in this post is that Aquinas agrees with Nagarjuna on the general conditionality of existent things–a key point of agreement, and one you flesh out above by detailing the four causes–but he also places a very different emphasis on what’s important surrounding the things that actually emerge out of those conditions. Nagarjuna puts emphasis on ecological insights–no thing is an island; the non-dual; emptiness–while Aquinas puts emphasis on essentialism, locating and emphasizing powers in the things themselves.

      So Aquinas gives priority to Being over nothingness and emptiness, and makes evil something that doesn’t actually exist–it is the mere absence of the good. You don’t deny this, right?

      I’m trying to close in on the key divergence between the two thinkers, and how a non-dualist like Nagarjuna overcomes the Being-nothingness duality–even as Aquinas tries to maintain the ultimate priority of Being.

      I think Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin (the “mountains are really mountains” guy) suggests a way of seeing both Aquinas and Nagarjuna as insightful (and looking, from different vantages, at the same coin). Where I think they might be reconciled surrounding the Ultimate is via mysticism–a place where logic and language begin to break down and give way to stillness and silence. Both Catholicism and Buddhism have monastic/mystical traditions that bring one to stillness and silence.

      I haven’t read it yet, but I have a book titled “Benedict’s Dharma”–a book reflecting on Catholic monasticism from a Buddhist vantage–that you might be curious to locate as well. Here it is at Amazon:


      Nagarjuna used logic explicitly to drive people to the conclusion that all philosophical positions regarding the ultimate run up against seemingly insurmountable problems of sense. Do you think that Aquinas would agree with this?

      • Anonymous says:

        Here are some detailed disagreements.

        “It could be that the disagreement exposes a flaw with logic started from metaphysical premises–and why we ultimately need science to settle speculative questions.”

        This statement of course asserts that science can somehow settle metaphysical questions, which is a metaphysical position itself, and an internally incoherent one at that. For science itself is derived from certain prior metaphysical premises. This is just bad reasoning.

        “This is just nitpicking”

        I disagree that you accurately described the A-T position in this post. I don’t think get it and it won’t help you to understand the differences in the 2 philosophies if you don’t accurately describe them.

        Anyone who reads this post would think you are asserting:

        “So Aquinas starts his reasoning, not with emptiness, but form.”
        “Once all the conditions for a created form are in place, that form really exists, and the form has actual powers that are independent of its component parts
        In analyzing phenomena, Aquinas thus starts from an essentialist premise, with God as the most existent and essential Being.”

        They would think Aristotle started his metaphysical inquiry from form and assume that things are forms. Aristotle actually sought to answer how things can change, yet still remain the same thing as we perceive them to be. His answer posits that things possess a nature or form that has both actual and potential states. It is only after considering the implications of this, that Aristotle came to the conclusion of the Prime Mover and the attributes of the Prime Mover.

        You seem to want to jump to the God/No God question as a starting point rather than an end point of the reasoning. God forbid (pun intended) that you have to follow reason to a place you don’t want to go.

        “Aquinas, curiously, went silent toward the end of his life”

        Actually after his vision in December 1273 it was only 3 months later that he passed. During that time he was sent to rest at his sister’s home, then returned to Naples, then set out for Lyons at the end of January. Along the way he fell ill twice but also wrote a response to a theological question as well as reportedly started a commentary on the “Song of Songs”. There is no indication to think that he had changed any of his views. There is very good indication that the vision that he experienced was beyond words for him to express.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You seem to use the words “empty” and “nothing” interchangeably.

    As you discussed in the post you linked to, it appears that Buddhism doesn’t have the same definition of nothing that A-T has. In fact it appears from your presentation that Buddhism is talking about things coming to be and passing away only within the physical universe, rather than a concern about the framework of existence itself.

    So emptiness for the Buddhist is really something, not nothing from the A-T perspective. Maybe the A-T concept of nothing is not understood or addressed in Buddhism.

    If they use the same word to convey different concepts, then of course there will be confusion.

    But if you only focus on material things coming into existence and passing from existence within the physical universe, then of course there is much similarity. For instance for the A-T, formless matter (or prime matter) seems to roughly correspond to the Buddhist concept of emptiness as you present it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I have a question about Aquinas that I’d be curious for you to answer. Why believe the spin the Catholic Church puts on the end of Aquinas’s life in the first place? Would you believe what the Soviet Union said about why, say, Comrade Stalin went silent at the end of his life (if he had gone silent)? Why believe the narrative of an institution that has a keen and vested interest in a particular sort of answer?

      What if Aquinas had Mother Theresa’s doubting problem at the end of his life? How would we ever really know with confidence why, exactly, he went silent? Maybe Aquinas died as a confused and disillusioned agnostic. And what makes one think that if a brilliant and creative thinker like Aquinas woke up from the dead 700 years later, and after being given a chance to get up to speed on intellectual matters and culture, that he’d still be a Catholic theologian committed to his own system?

      Maybe he’d be embarrassed about it–and embarrassed at the slavish devotees of it. Maybe he’d be for gay marriage today. Maybe he was gay.

      The problem here, in my view, is that we seek to reify authority figures. It’s a form of transference. It tethers our psyches to a fatherly/motherly comfort place. It’s akin to the Buddhist who makes a giant statue to the Buddha, or speaks of the Dalai Lama as “his holiness,” or slavishly follows Nagarjuna’s reasoning (sure signs that such Buddhists don’t really, deep down in the psyche, take Buddhist emptiness seriously).

      These are all ways of denying uncertainty and emptiness; of locating them in an idol that’s not uncertain and empty.

      God functions this way in the West–as a transfer object for housing and grounding emptiness. As does romance, consumerism, etc. We have small gods and large gods–and they’re all doing the same thing–stabilizing what shifts. We are uncertain, anxious, and empty–and somebody has to be at the wheel.

      Somebody is at the wheel, right?

      Feser plays this Oz role (as do other alpha males). He poses as quite confident, and this imparts confidence to others.

      Have you seen “The Master” yet? It’s a great film that meditates on the confidence alpha.

      • Anonymous says:

        “Why believe the spin the Catholic Church puts on the end of Aquinas’s life in the first place? ”

        Please tell me what you think the spin is? Do you dispute the timeline, sequence of events or anything else in my post? My source for the last 3 months of Thomas Aquinas’s life is from a secular biography. What is yours?

        “Maybe he was gay.”

        I guess you can claim maybe he was an alien too, but why make stuff up? Why not read history?

        I get it that you don’t like or understand A-T philosophy. You don’t like people who hold the philosophy and defend it. If the philosophy is not sound, then why not demonstrate that rather than accusing those who hold it of being insincere?

        Do you think everyone you disagree with is like L. Ron Hubbard?

  3. Santi Tafarella says:


    I would argue that the Thomist doesn’t resolve, but rather hides, the paradoxes of change, being, and nothingness within the tidy box of act-potency. It’s a magic box–a black box–that doesn’t actually solve the problems of priority. It’s why physicists don’t say, “In a decisive victory over the pre-Socratics, Aristotle and Aquinas solved the issues surrounding how change occurs–so we’re done thinking about the perplexities that adhere to nothingness, time, space, and objects.”

    In contrast to Catholicism, Buddhism tries to chart a middle way (how successfully is open to debate) between being and nothingness via the ideas of emptiness and the non-dual. Whether or not these are also black boxes filled with question begging is a fair question.

    So both mystical Catholics and Buddhists (for very good reasons) fall silent and still in the face of the largest mystery. “Keep that don’t know mind” is a Zen admonition, for instance.

    Adherents of both Catholicism and Buddhism imagine that they’re reaching the mystery (without wholly grasping it) via sound reasoning, but absent empiricism, it’s very hard to know whether: (1) they’re both talking about the same thing accurately (from different vantages); (2) one is right and one is wrong; or (3) both are on the wrong track (for reasons of the inadequacies of the human mind’s powers in the face of the ultimate).

    No one can look on God and live, and it also appears that no one can (reasonably) look on God and think with high confidence either. Instead, we take several steps down on the rungs of Jacob’s ladder, and make some inferences that may or may not be as sound or precise as we would like to imagine.

    Given our limitations, it seems that empiricism is the only route that might surprise us with progress–but if one insists that empiricism can’t inform metaphysical questions, then we’re basically stalled (at least in terms of confidence). If metaphysics was mathematics, we could have more confidence, but it’s not.

    As for Aquinas, I thought, toward the end of his life and before going silent, he declared his written work “straw.” That’s not true?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Have you considered that Buddhism thinks it unwise to consider certain questions at all? So by design, some questions A-T seeks and answer to, Buddhism replies “no comment”.

    Science is a branch of Western A-T metaphysical philosophical development. It is no accident that modern science developed in the West rather than the East due to the underlying philosophical positions. The fact that empirical data is indeed repeatable and predictable and intelligible gives us certainty that the underlying philosophy is sound. If the empirical data did not support the philosophy then we would expect a certain action to have random effects or no effect at all, rather than a certain range of effects. Trying to use the scientific method to disprove the scientific method is irrational.

    “As for Aquinas, I thought, toward the end of his life and before going silent, he declared his written work “straw.” That’s not true?”

    It is true.
    After his vision in December of 1273 he went silent for a time (which he often did when lost in abstract thought) ,but this time was different. When his assistant asked him what was wrong, the said that he didn’t want to continue writing….the vision he had made all of his work seem as straw.

    But he did not fall completely silent for the last 3 months of his life, although he was less talkative. As I posted above, he wrote an explanation to the monks of Monte Cassino of how Divine omniscience and human liberty are compatible (because one sees someone sitting down, that act of observation does not compel the person to sit down). He was also said to have started a commentary on the “Song of Songs” for the monks that were taking care of him, but passed before completion (seems there is no copy of it).

    I suppose people who dislike Thomism want to speculate that he changed his mind about the truth of his writings. There is no evidence for that. It seems that he merely saw that words were inadequate to describe the Truth he saw in his vision.

  5. Santi Tafarella says:


    You asked, “Do you think everyone you disagree with is like L. Ron Hubbard?”

    I do not, but I do think that intellectuals committed to traditional religious institutions (such as yourself) downplay the curious psychological similarities between fringe religious groups and traditional religious groups–and this is one reason I suggested “The Master” as an interesting film to see.

    Take, for example, the similarities between God belief and UFO belief. Have you ever noticed the striking psychological resonances between what traditional religionists believe and what UFO enthusiasts believe? I’d be curious to know how you account for such a curious phenomenon.

    • Anonymous says:

      This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone asserting that traditionally religious people believe in UFO’s. I personally don’t, but I guess if you want to make stuff up, it’s a free country.

      I’m sorry that you’ve reduced yourself to ad hominem attacks now.

  6. Santi Tafarella says:


    As for the historical accounts of Aquinas’ life, it won’t do to play the authority card with me (appealing to a secular historian who accepts the sources). I asked you a direct question: if you wouldn’t believe an account of the last months of Stalin coming out of the Soviet Union, why would you believe an account of the last months of Aquinas coming out of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages? What’s the difference?

    As for science and the scholastics, I don’t think it’s an insignificant data point that those who initiated the Enlightenment had a low opinion of scholasticism and thought they were veering away from it in the developing of empiricism and secularism, and deconstructing politics and religion.

    There’s a reason Peter Gay subtitles his now classic history of The Enlightenment as “The Rise of Modern Paganism.” But then, one might imagine Aquinas as a reviver of paganism as well (by reintroducing Aristotle to the West). But if so, then you can blame Aquinas for bringing the plague inside the Church, for once you concede as much as Aquinas does to reason (via Aristotle), it’s just a matter of historical time before reason deconstructs itself. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Structuralism, and Poststructuralism are arguably all consequences of a hyperactive rationality that arrives, reluctantly, at the conclusion that in the triangle of object, subject, and truth, you can’t bracket or sideline the subject in deciding the truth.

    The great problem of Aquinas–the thing that ultimately did in the Church via Aristotle–is that he accepted the full deliverances of reason, but gave Being (something we can only infer to exist) ontological priority over subject and object–the two things we actually know to exist. Once you insist on reason, and the moment you combine reason with a strict empiricism, you’re driven to the conclusion that what one has to start with is phenomenology. It’s no longer about what’s true in some absolute sense, but what’s true in the relational sense, in the provisional sense, with the subject as part of the equation of truth. Absent the subject, you can never speak of the whole truth. Once the subject enters the equation, truth in relation to objects and Being becomes a matter of interpretation and vantage as much as objectivity. But Aquinas excludes the subject from the truth, then expects the subject to submit to the truth as worked out (by reason and the Church). The subject is supposed to wait on the deliverances of truth, not contribute to it. But empiricism and democracy won’t allow the subject–the observer–to disappear until the truth is worked out. It demands that the subject be noticed, not marginalized; that attention be paid.

    Thus, for example, the tension within traditional religion over what one is to do in the 21st century about the doctrine of hell. The idea of hell is a grotesque dismissal of the subject to a lake of fire–a symbol of absolute truth not giving a damn for those subjects who won’t conform. Their pain, their vantage, is invisible.

    That’s really what it comes down to–also in the relation of Buddhism to, say, Catholicism. Is the subject’s vantage visible? Is the subject not only conditioned, but does she also condition in a central, not marginal, sense? Does God (the truth, Being) need the aware human subject–or not? Are they interconnected in a non-dual sense?

    I’m increasingly thinking that aspect seeing (as with the goblet vs. two faces image in psychology textbooks) is a key to thinking about the cosmos. We are the empty and moving image of eternity, akin to an emergent fish or bird arising into vision from an Escher painting. The fish-bird in an Escher painting is both there, and not there. It is not the same as what it emerges out of, and yet it is the same. Whatever you affirm about the fish becomes a negation when pressed. An Escher painting or any other figure-ground illusion is a visual representation of how the non-dual world actually functions. Now it’s this, now it’s that–but the first now is just the flip side of the second now, and it has no independent or substantial essence. It’s a ghost bird. A ghost fish. And the subject perspective counts.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “As for the historical accounts of Aquinas’ life, it won’t do to play the authority card with me (appealing to a secular historian who accepts the sources). I asked you a direct question: if you wouldn’t believe an account of the last months of Stalin coming out of the Soviet Union, why would you believe an account of the last months of Aquinas coming out of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages? What’s the difference?”

    Let me try to understand what you are asking. Are you asserting that since the source of any account of Aquinas is from the Catholic Church then we shouldn’t trust any of them? Or are you implying that only the particular book I looked at was biased and therefore shouldn’t be trusted?

    If you believe the first case to be true, then you yourself should not be speculating that Aquinas even went silent.
    If you believe the second case is true, then please provide the source that contradicts the account I laid out for Aquinas’s last 3 months. I’d be happy to look at it. Currently, the only account I have it what I shared. So, to directly answer your question, I probably would believe what Pravda wrote about Stalin’s last days given other sources did not contradict the Pravda account. What I wouldn’t do, is insist on a made up account that he made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism.

    As for the rest of your post, I find it exceedingly hard to follow. Are you really attempting to lay out reasons that reason should not be followed? Doesn’t it occur to you if reason can’t be followed, then your arguing using reasons is irrational?

    It’s clear that A-T philosophy confuses you and you have no interest in it, other than you think in some way that it must be bad. Most of the times I see you post something here it falls into the category of “not even wrong”, you so misrepresent your object of dislike.

    So why not just ignore it and follow the path to the particular brand of Buddhism that you want to invent? You don’t have to contrast it to something you don’t understand.

  8. Santi Tafarella says:


    I worked out quite a few parallels between God belief and UFO belief at this link here.

    I’d be curious as to what your alternative explanation of the parallels might be.

    As for Aquinas, my point is a simple one: Aquinas’ silence may be because he ceased to believe in God, or disavowed Aristotle for mystical experience. In any case, if there is any complication to the backstory, the medieval Church, as an institution, would have had an interest in keeping it mum. You surely don’t deny that, right?

    And I think Aquinas has been turned into an idol. He was a smart man who thought clearly and believed in God. Somebody has to carry the believer’s doubts, so that energy is placed on him as a rock of certainty. His biography, therefore, takes on an exaggerated importance. Freud called such “I need a daddy who’s at the wheel and doesn’t disappoint me” behavior transference. Aquinas is a transference object for Catholics in the same way that CS Lewis plays this function for evangelicals.

    But if Aquinas could have lived to see the progress of humanity up to this point, he almost certainly would by now have abandoned Thomism, so it really doesn’t matter what Aquinas believed at the time of his death.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “I’d be curious as to what your alternative explanation of the parallels might be.”

    Sorry. I have no clue how your mind works or how you make stuff up and then believe it.

    “As for Aquinas, my point is a simple one: Aquinas’ silence may be because he ceased to believe in God, or disavowed Aristotle for mystical experience. In any case, if there is any complication to the backstory, the medieval Church, as an institution, would have had an interest in keeping it mum. You surely don’t deny that, right?”

    I see you’re not interested in answering any of my questions regarding sources that contradict what I posted. If you want to believe the Church is an evil all powerful entity that habitually lies about anything and everything, then I nothing I say will change your mind.

    However, I can tell you really don’t know how historians go about their business. Thomas Aquinas had and has opponents and their writings are extant and not suppressed. So it’s not like he didn’t have detractors that wrote about him. It’s just that no one familiar with his last days recorded anything like what you’re making up.

    “But if Aquinas could have lived to see the progress of humanity up to this point, he almost certainly would by now have abandoned Thomism, so it really doesn’t matter what Aquinas believed at the time of his death. ”

    Sorry. I have no clue how your mind works or how you make stuff up and then believe it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Translation: you have no alternative explanations for the curious parallels between God belief and UFO belief. And if you had them, you wouldn’t dare flesh out the distinctions in my presence because they would be too easy for me to deconstruct.

      Here’s your chance to prove me wrong:

      As to it being improbable that Thomas, in the year 2015, would be a Thomist, it is a conclusion based in probability. Thomas was a genius, and being a genius, he would probably reach conclusions about religion that more closely approximate the other geniuses of the past four hundred years. And there are very, very few genius-level intellects that take Thomism seriously today. It’s because they’re pretty good at knowing checkmate when they see it. They’ve wisely moved on.

      History could have played differently. We could have reached 2015 with genius thinkers in substantial agreement that Thomas’ ideas are good ones (as they are with Darwin’s). But this is not the case.

      As for history, believe what you want, but after the pedophile scandal (ongoing) and the whitewashing of Pope Pius XII’s–and the Church’s–role in the Holocaust (also ongoing), I wouldn’t be too confident that one gets the whole truth out of that institution–ever.

      And think of Mother Theresa. Even in an age where little can be kept under wraps for substantial periods of time, the Catholic Church managed to keep Mother Theresa’s doubt a secret for decades. The Church massaged her image and knowingly misled billions. There are those who wish her journals and letters had never reached the light of day.

      Sorry if I’m inclined to take with a grain of salt the accounts of Thomas’s last year. He may have had inner intellectual struggles and doubts at the end of his life quite akin to Mother Theresa’s–and we’d never know the extent or nature of them. Who knows how long he may have been struggling inwardly before deciding that his works were straw and his best course was silence. What makes you think there wasn’t an anxious huddle of allied bishops to Aquinas’s ideas wondering how to put the best spin on his intellectual evolution and subsequent silence?

      Where there’s straw, there might be fire.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I can see that you’re not interested in a reasonable discussion at this point.
    I’ve tried to have discussions with intoxicated friends in the past and this pretty much feels like that.
    I’ve learned not to expect any seriousness till they sobered up.

    When you do, please read this regarding what you posit Aquinas would think in 2015.
    What if fallacy:

    Regarding everything else, I see no reason to engage when you employ this strategy:
    MSU fallacy:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s