The Spiritual and the Supernatural according to Thomas Aquinas
A paper delivered at the Biennial Conference in Philosophy, Religion and Culture, ‘The Supernatural’, Catholic Institute of Sydney, 3 – 4 October (1998)
As we investigate in this conference what is meant by “supernatural” and whether or not we wish to admit anything that falls within its scope, it seems worthwhile to make a survey of the works of one of Christianity’s most significant Theologians, Thomas Aquinas, in order to see how he used the term. Further, as a medieval thinker, he lived before the claims and problems of modernity had arisen. What did “supernatural” mean then, and how might that meaning inform our discussion. The term “spiritual” makes it clear that for Thomas it is not just a matter of material things verses supernatural things but that there are spiritual things that are part of nature though immaterial.
It is surprising to discover that Thomas uses forms of the term “supernatural” only 336 times in over eight and a half million words, or on average once in every twenty-six thousand words. This is not a high rate of usage, when you consider, for instance, that “grace” is used 16,004 times and “natural” is used some 15,394 times, nor is distribution of the term even. It ranges from about one in 6,000 for the Disputed Questions on Truth (De veritate) to one in 92,000 for a number of other works. Within works, while there is some scattered use of the term, its usage tends to be concentrated around particular discussions. In the De veritate, for instance, two thirds of the occurrences are in one of twenty-nine questions, and half of these are in one of twelve articles.