Disputatio

Back in the old days, long before basketball and cheerdance competition became university obsessions, there was only a single event which turned up the excitement of most students and professors of the medieval academia.  That event is called disputatio.  Disputatio was an intellectual fest. It was a gathering of professors and students alike and it featured free, uninhibited intellectual exchange on hot topics of the day.  A disputatio was always guided by a quaestio and steered by a master who acted as moderator and intellectual resource. On occasions, a disputatio would adopt a free-wheeling form and students were allowed a no holds barred interaction with their professor, who was usually a magistro, a master, in the university.  Given the enthusiasm, attendance and level of energy that accompanied such event, a disputatio can be said to be the medieval Woodstock of the minds.

Disputatio was one of those novel things which infused vitality into the university as a result of Aristotle’s entry into the academic world.  Aristotle’s emphasis on ratio as a tool towards a discursive approach to knowledge enabled the medieval academics to shift from the traditional commentary on sentences to a new epistemological strategy which allowed them space to trade and examine arguments in the hope of settling a given quaestio. Through the erudite handling of the masters, disputatio proved to be an effective exercise to expand the intellectual horizons of students and professors alike.

St. Thomas Aquinas, during his stint at the University of Paris, was a constant leading participant in such disputatio.  He came to Paris in the year 1251 to begin his preparations for a professorial career in Theology. That time, St. Thomas was being considered to succeed Elias Brunet of Bergerac, himself a successor of Albert the Great, in one of the professorial chairs of the said university. Despite earlier opposition from the seculars and due in no small measure to his exceptional intellectual prowess, St. Thomas was granted the license to teach in 1256 even if he had not reached yet the mandatory age of thirty-five.  As a magister, Aquinas was tasked to lecture on the Bible from 9:00 am to 12 noon and attend to the disputed questions in the afternoon, hence the term disputatio.  A disputatio had two formats, the regular type held once every two weeks and the impromptu session held twice a year, usually during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, otherwise known as the disputatio de qoudlibet or qoudlibetal disputations. Between the two, it was the latter that drew larger crowd because it was open to the public and members of the audience were given free hand to raise their own questions, any question at all, from a very sublime topic of metaphysics to the tiniest detail of a mundane issue.  St. Thomas was known and revered as one of those who pioneered the use of latter type of disputatio and some of his known works like the treatises on truth, God’s power, the question of evil, soul, virtues and incarnation were actually transcripts of his public address.

St. Thomas was a serious student of Aristotle and a fierce vanguard of ratio as a tool for searching the truth. He in fact wrote no less than twelve commentaries on major works of Aristotle (like Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, Politics, De Anima, De Ceolo)which  were considered by various commentators as works comparable in depth, integrity and scholarship as the Aristotelian sources themselves.  Aristotle stimulated excitement among intellectuals like St. Thomas because as explained by the Dominican author, Thomas O’Meara, “he brought a spirit of criticism over against piety, a realism in the structure of the human personality over against the reduction of faith or grace to signs or stories.” St. Thomas found in Aristotle freedom to explore new frontiers for Christian faith. “Within a freedom of inquiry,” O’Meara continued,  “Aquinas’ career unfolded around his constant and courageous assertion that Christian faith need not fear realistic world-views or sciences.”  Beside the Bible, St. Thomas used Aristotle as his constant reference notwithstanding the fact that he belonged to the Faculty of Theology and not to the Faculty of Arts which had the sole mandate to employ the corpus of the Stagirite in its curricula.

His Aristotelian devotion however was suspected by some colleagues as too avant-garde to fit the doctrinal canons of the Church.  Certain pronouncements of St. Thomas in fact, along with 219 others, were condemned by Bishop Stephen Tempier in 1277, a good three years after his death, all because of their affinity with Aristotelianism. While still alive, St. Thomas was already aware of this predicament but remained undeterred in seeking new expressions and formulating new resolutions for Christian faith with the help of Aristotle and his scheme for rational discourse. He was in constant engagement with those whose opinions were contrary to his –the neo-Platonists, the Averroists, the gentiles – exploring their arguments, clarifying them, detecting both their strong and weak points as he himself tried to fortify his own position in the context of their intellectual contrast. He wanted to spread the light (lumina pandit) not by throwing fireballs or hauling lightning from the sky but by letting it shine on its own through dialogue and reasoned argument.

He was at home with disputatio, had integrity of faith and genuine love for truth and he knew there was much to learn even from those whose judgments he didn’t share. He always believed we can discover truth only if we allow others to help us.

We must indeed guard truth against its greatest threat which after all is not falsehood but our arrogance and conceit which induce us to deprive others their space in what is actually a common enterprise. There is beauty in remembering that truth is a symphony and not a single booming sound that drowns out all other voices. The entire Summa Theologica shows us that.

Such is the legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which hopefully is kept in mind by us Thomasians.

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