The Nature of "Wisdom" in Aquinas' Thought - "Wisdom Transformed by Love" - Thomas Hibbs

In this article by professor Thomas Hibbs at Baylor University, he tries to recover a lost understanding
of the word "wisdom" by looking at the Medieval Catholic notion of wisdom expounded by the early Dominican friar, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas' view holds that wisdom is a supernatural gift given to the intellect and will of the human person, perfecting their innate desire for God by allows God's presence in them assent to truths about him and to commune with him in a type of spiritual unity, one which then overflows in service of others. 

"Wisdom," The Word

Hibbs opens by stating that in previous centuries much of our religions and Christian language and terminology held a richer and fuller meaning, and that today we rather possess only "fragments" of that former meaning. This requires a return to the sources of Theology in order to regain the fullness of meaning we seek after. 1 While many of the terms for the traditional virtues have lost their original meaning over time, and been corrupted by contemporary understanding which are often antithetical to their original, Hibbs points out that "wisdom" is not one that has received much attention, and thus one which has not shifted much in its meaning, but rather just been lost. If anything, we may use the word to represent someone who is able to counsel us regarding a particular practical situation, someone who is able to guide us through it or see a larger pattern to it. Wisdom, though, is not being smart, or acquiring lots of knowledge. Rather, according to St. Thomas, it is to attain a portion of the blessedness of God. 2 Aristotle in some respects has this notion of Wisdom in his work
The Metaphysics
 in that the Unmoved Mover draws all things to itself through causing a desire in them for its perfection. Thus, all men seek to know, and the highest form of knowledge would that of the ultimate causes of things. 3

"Wisdom," The Experience

Hibbs also mentions a distinction in the ancient world between the active life and the contemplative life, but both gave way to the love of wisdom, or philosophy, as their guide. 4 The Dominican life, which St. Thomas participated in, believed that one's evangelistic efforts should proceed from one's contemplative efforts. And that contemplative prayer and study nourish the innate desire for God that we all have. 5 Philosophy, then, begins in the wonder and desire to know truth, rejoices in the process and search, and finds its perfection and pleasure in God, who is wisdom itself. 6 Wisdom, in a Christian sense, is to be drawn into a relationship with God himself. A type of "ecstasy" is achieved in this pursuit. 7

"Our desires for the good (or “affective powers”) are so taken up into the object of beauty that they can be said to “hand themselves over” to the object of their delight so as to remain in the object. Here Thomas draws upon one of the most striking features of Christian writing about beauty and contemplation, namely, its ecstatic character. Ecstasy means to stand outside of oneself, to be transfixed by the object of beauty to such an extent that one forgets oneself and loses a sense of time. Wisdom is hardly a self-regarding virtue; much less is it a calculative skill or an activity of the intellect utterly isolated from affection or love. The experience of ecstasy in wisdom is an intimation of immortality." 8

God's wisdom begins in his ordering and creation of everything from nothing. As we uncover the
natural world, we are encountering the wisdom of God. Secondly, the wisdom of God is expressed in revelation, as the fullness of himself is revealed to us. 9 Thirdly, we receive wisdom when we are given the infused gift of God's presence in us through supernatural faith. In a Christian sense, then, wisdom is not only to contemplate the highest truths of God, but to share and participate in a relationship with him. It is a belief that is filled with charity. 10 "If in one way charity presupposes faith, in another way faith cannot exist without charity, since friendship with God is the form and goal of faith ..." 11

Charity is a supernatural virtue that guides not just the intellect in faith, but the will as well, towards the attainment of beatitude with God. Thus it is a whole new way of looking at life which goes beyond the naturally philosophical outlook and purview provides. It points us to our supernatural end. Wisdom then, having been received, must pour forth from the contemplative sphere to the active sphere in helping to confer the same on others. 12

"The genius of Thomas Aquinas’s approach is his insistence that not only must wisdom be transformed by love, but also love must be transformed by wisdom. Just as the contemplative life has its roots in the affections—in the love of God—so too it overflows into acts of charity in the form of teaching, preaching, and acts of mercy." 13


1- Thomas S. Hibbs, “Wisdom Transformed by Love,” in Where Wisdom Is Found (Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2009), 38. 

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