How to persuade like the Angelic Doctor

Photo: Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Belgium/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Belgium/Wikimedia Commons
It wasn't just his brilliance that made St. Thomas Aquinas so convincing

Sometimes being right isn’t enough. In Homer’s Iliad, Cassandra desperately warned her city not to accept the Trojan horse, only to be ignored. Now and then, we feel the same way, knowing the right thing to do but unable to persuade our coworkers, children or neighbors. Fortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas provides us a good example of how to win people over.

People don’t always associate Aquinas with persuasion. We tend to recognize his brilliance, but that’s only part of the story.

A pure heart

Aquinas wasn’t called the Angelic Doctor (the church refers to great teachers of the faith as “doctors of the church”) just because he wrote about angels. St. Thomas’ life was characterized by kindness, charity and a devotion to the Eucharist just as much as it was by study and writing. His greatness as a scholar and teacher was rooted partially in his love and affection for his students, but primarily in his deep love of our Lord.

People might differ with St. Thomas’ conclusions, but they couldn’t question his motivation. Because of his sincerity and purity of heart, people knew that they could take what he said at face value. This goes for us as well. As long as people doubt the messenger, they won’t listen to the message. The more our lives are characterized by kindness, charity and obedience to God, the more convincing we will be.

All truth is God’s truth

As Pope St. John Paul II noted in one of his addresses to scholars, Aquinas was demonstrably “a true pioneer of modern scientific realism.” He knew that, since God is Lord of Creation, all truth was God’s truth and, understood properly, would lead us to him. Thus, the Angelic Doctor would boldly pursue the truth wherever it led. Rather than defensively rejecting arguments from other thinkers, he took those arguments seriously and listened to what they had to say. This enabled St. Thomas to understand thinkers like Aristotle, Maimonides and Averroes and to integrate their thinking into his reasoning, taking that which shone a light on truth and setting aside conclusions that were off the mark.

The organization of his Summa Theologiae reflects the open approach St. Thomas used. Each section presents opponents’ arguments in their most compelling form. Having presented the opposing arguments, St. Thomas then offers a response that respectfully addresses those arguments and points the way to the truth.

St. Thomas’ spirit of open and thorough inquiry made him a compelling teacher. His students appreciated how he shed light on the truth from a number of different angles. And, because his pure heart took pride out of the equation, people understood that, rather than advocating for his theory, the Angelic Doctor was simply pursuing truth for its own sake.

Grounded in the faith

Throughout the Summa, after presenting opponents’ arguments and before offering his own, St. Thomas offers citations from Scripture, the fathers of the church and great philosophers like Aristotle. In his humility, Aquinas resists the temptation to treat the logic of his arguments, as well-formulated as they are, as definitive. Instead, he respects the truths offered by revelation and the church’s deposit of the faith and aligns his philosophy with them.

Like a good carpenter practicing “measure twice, cut once,” St. Thomas patiently referenced his reasoning with revelation and ensured that it aligned with those truths. In doing so, he discovered connections that shed light on the question in new and powerful ways. In this way, Aquinas is a great example of “thinking with the mind of the church,” evaluating our own observations in light of what the church teaches, similar to a scientist who asks respected peers to review her findings before settling on a conclusion.

Though we may lack the brilliance of the Angelic Doctor, we can adopt his purity, respect for truth and faithfulness. If we do so with genuine humility and love, this disciplined way of thinking might change the dynamics of our conversations — from “our” argument vs. “their” argument, to that of a mutual search for the truth. Few things could be more persuasive.

Northwest Catholic - October 2017

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.
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El Diácono Eric Paige es el Director para el Matrimonio, la Vida familiar y Formación en la Arquidiócesis de Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: eric.page@seattlearch.org.