JOSEPH OF EGYPT
AND THOMAS AQUINAS
Damien F. Mackey
Damien F. Mackey
This article, entitled in my original version of it, “Go To Thomas”, was inspired by Pope Pius XI’s comparison of St. Thomas Aquinas with Joseph of Egypt in his 1923 encyclical letter,
… if we are to avoid the errors which are the source and foundation-head of all the miseries of our time, the teaching of Aquinas must be adhered to more religiously than ever. For St. Thomas refutes the theories propounded by Modernists in every sphere, in philosophy, by protecting … the force and power of the human mind and by demonstrating the existence of God by the most cogent arguments; in dogmatic theology, by distinguishing the supernatural from the natural order and explaining the reasons for belief and the dogmas themselves; in theology, by showing that the articles of faith are not based upon mere opinion but on truth and therefore cannot possibly change; in exegesis, by transmitting the true conception of divine inspiration; in the science of morals, sociology and law, by laying down sound principles of legal and social, commutative and distributive, justice and explaining the relation between justice and charity; in the theory of asceticism by his precepts concerning the Christian life and his confutation of the enemies of the religious orders in his own day. Lastly, against the much vaunted liberty of the human mind and its independence in regard to God he asserts the rights of primary Truth and the authority over us of the supreme Master. It is therefore clear why Modernists are so amply justified in fearing no Doctor of the Church so much as Thomas Aquinas.
Accordingly, just as it was said of the Egyptians of old in time of famine: Go to Joseph, so that they should receive a supply of corn from him to nourish their bodies, so We now say to all such as are desirous of the truth: Go to Thomas, and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of substantial doctrine wherewith to nourish your souls into eternal life.
So wrote Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Studiorum Ducem (29 June, 1923), to commemorate the sixth centenary of St. Thomas Aquinas. Holy Mother Church wants Catholics to “Go to Thomas” in his living unity; to embrace him as the master of their philosophical education, in order to learn how to think for themselves, to acquire knowledge, so as to be able to resist error and restore civilisation. Go and listen to St. Thomas, she tells us, and do everything that he tells you. If this sounds too much like Our Lady’s message at Cana, concerning her divine Son: ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (John 2:5), it is because – as St. Thomas himself would tell us (Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q.28, a.1 and a.2):
Love seeks to be united with its object, in fact or in affection. Hence union with the beloved thing is an effect of love.
Another effect of love is that lover and beloved dwell in each other in some manner. The lover says, “I have you in my heart”, or: “this project is close to my heart”. And, speaking of the love of God, scripture says (I John 4:16): “he that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him”. Thus a kind of mutual indwelling of lover and beloved is an effect of love.
That for St. Thomas the exclusive object of his love was the Person of Jesus Christ himself is attested, for one, by the sacristan who saw the saint raised nearly two cubits above the ground in ecstasy, and who stood for a long time gazing at him. Suddenly the sacristan heard a voice proceed from the image of the Crucifix to which the Doctor was turned praying in tears: ‘Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas. What reward shall I give thee for thy work? – ‘None but Thyself, O Lord!’
Given this intense union between Jesus Christ and his beloved disciple, French philosopher Jacques Maritain concluded rightly in regard to what our attitude before St. Thomas ought to be (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sheed and Ward, 1948, pp. 79-80):
… if it is true that Thomas Aquinas, the common Doctor of the Church is, after Jesus Christ, the Master par excellence, the ever living Master who from the heart of the beatific vision watches over his doctrine and makes it fruitful in souls, then …[one ought] to put oneself really as regards St. Thomas in the position of a living recipient from a living donor, of one who is formed and enlightened facing one who forms and enlightens ….
Pope Pius XI was able to derive rich nourishment from the Genesis text “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you” (41:55), and apply it to St. Thomas Aquinas. The wisdom of the Joseph of old anticipates - and the wisdom of St. Thomas harkens back to - the Lord of Cana and his Blessed Mother. This marvellous symmetry of God’s salvific plan ought not surprise those who believe that the Supreme Being is an absolute unity. Does not his Book of salvation, the Bible, reveal a profound symmetry and unity of thought; especially as is expressed by the Hebrew genius for chiastic structure?
That God is absolute unity is demonstrated by St. Thomas himself, who even from his childhood had, according to Pope Pius XI, unceasingly pondered on the nature of God: “What is God?” (Stud. Duc.). As an adult Thomas would reveal, in the first part of his Summa Theologiae, the fruits of this long pondering in his heart (cf. Genesis 37:11 & Luke 2:19). As a conclusion to one of his dissertations on the Divine attribute of Unity, St. Thomas wrote (S.T., Ia, q.11, a.4): “Since being and oneness are really the same, it follows that the more perfect being is the more perfect unity. God is absolute being; therefore God is absolute unity”.
The Church herself, the interpreter of Scripture, clearly attests the symmetry and unity of the Scriptures by finding, firstly:
-from a Christological point of view, references to the Messiah throughout the entire Scriptures.
- in the case of Mary, the Church draws inspiration especially from the Proto-evangelium (Genesis 3:15); and what might be called “The Heroine Books” (Ruth, Judith, Esther); and also details about other famous women, such as Sarah and Deborah; all these beautiful signposts leading to the Woman of the New dispensation. As well, the Wisdom books are overflowing with ‘Mariological’ references. To give just one example, Sirach 24:3-, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High”, etc., is used by the Church as the opening Hymn of Vespers for the common of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
-regarding St. John he Baptist, about whom we read only in the New Testament, the angel Gabriel told his father Zechariah that he was the one who was to come “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17); that is, an Elijah-type, not Elijah the person. Our Lord later confirmed this symbolic link (e.g. Mark 9:13). So, we would expect to gain illumination about the Baptist from meditating upon the life of the prophet Elijah. [Similarly Frits Albers, in his book St. Joseph (Call for Mary Publications, 1998), has applied aspects of the life of the patriarch Joseph to St. Joseph himself – truly also a ‘man of dreams’ (cf. Matthew 1:20; 2:13,19)].
We are on very safe ground in all of this. And we can also confidently follow Pope Pius XI when he carries biblical comparisons over even into post-biblical times – seeing a similarity between the mission of the patriarch Joseph and that of Aquinas.*
* Certain writers for the World Apostolate of Fatima (formerly the Blue Army) have pointed out how aspects of the biblical Book of Esther marvellously prefigure the apparitions & messages of Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima (C20th). I have developed this insight in my book, The Five First Saturdays (Call for Mary publications, 1994), available on-line.
To explore and develop this particular – and at first unexpected – likeness will be a consistent theme throughout the first part of this article.
I: Joseph and Thomas - Builders in Stone
It cannot be regarded as an accident that, just prior to the birth of Joseph, and also of St. Thomas, a holy man – Jacob, in the case of Joseph, and St. Francis of Assisi, in the case of Thomas – had a vision of a staircase, or ladder, leading to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it.
[Jacob] had a dream; a ladder [staircase] was there, standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and there were angels of God going up it and coming down. And Yahweh was there, standing over him, saying, ‘I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham, your father, and the God of Isaac …’. Then Jacob awoke from his sleep, and said: ‘… How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than the House of God; this is the Gate of Heaven!’ (Genesis 28:12-13, 16, 17).
Lovers of the Holy Rosary would know of the vision of St. Francis of Assisi, who saw a ladder reaching from the ground to heaven, with Our Lady at the top, as the entrance to heaven. This magnificent vision has deep Mariological significance.
It seems that the vision of Jacob may actually have been enshrined in Egypt. Archaeology has shown that (presuming the correctness of the identification of Joseph with the architect and sage, Imhotep) the patriarch Joseph was the first in Egypt to build on a grand scale in stone. Thanks to the recent revision of ancient history, in favour of proving the Old Testament to be historically accurate, we can now enhance our knowledge about Joseph in Egypt; for the revised history has well-nigh conclusively identified him as the Vizier, Imhotep, who indeed saved Egypt from a seven-year famine.*
[* Imhotep belonged to the 3rd Dynasty of Egyptian history. But one of the best known accounts of his intervention in Egypt, as recorded in the “Famine Stela”, dates from later Ptolemaïc times, much later than Joseph. Of Imhotep we read in Dr. J. Davidovits’ The Pyramids: An Enigma Solved (Dorset Press, NY, 1990, pp. 127-128): “Imhotep left an unforgettable legacy. Historically, the lives of few men are celebrated for 3,000 years [actually more like 2,000 – author’s comment], but Imhotep was renowned from the height of his achievements, at about 2,700 BC [sic], into the Greco-Roman period. Imhotep was so highly honoured as a physician and sage that he came to be counted among the gods. He was deified in Egypt 2,000 [actually 1,000 – author] years after his death, when he was appropriated by the Greeks, who called him Imuthes [Imouthes] and identified him with the god Asclepius, son of Apollo, their great sage and legendary discoverer of medicine. Imhotep wrote the earliest “wisdom literature”, venerated maxim … and Egypt considered him as the greatest of the scribes … [his] name and titles … are listed in an equal place of honor as those of the king … Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, the first after the King of Upper Egypt. Administrator of the GreatPalace, Physician, Hereditary Noble, High Priest of Anu (i.e., On or Heliopolis), Chief Prefect for Pharaoh and … Sculptor, and Maker of Stone Vessels”.].
Imhotep has been described as “one of the few men of genius recorded in the history of ancient Egypt: he is one of the fixed stars in the Egyptian firmament”. Most notably, Imhotep built for Pharaoh the famous Step Pyramid, which stands proudly at Saqqara even to this day. Might one suggest now that Joseph, as Imhotep, built the Step Pyramid as a commemoration of the staircase beheld by Jacob in his vision. (That Jacob himself had already commemorated his vision a Bethel with an elaborate altar is clear from Genesis 28:20-22 and 35:1-8).
St. Tomas Aquinas likewise built ‘in stone’ inasmuch as his life’s work is durable and will last forever: “… the achievement which dominates the flux of the ages like some huge peaceful pyramid was performed in haste, but betrays no sign of haste, because it overflowed from the fullness of contemplation in a heart united to eternity” (Maritain, op. cit., p. 10). At the canonisation of St. Thomas, in 1319, there were recalled the words of the Archbishop of Naples, that friar Thomas “would have no successor until the end of time”. And Pope Leo XIII would later write to the same effect (in Aeterni Patris, 1879) that: “… [Thomas] seems to have bequeathed to his successors only the possibility of imitating him, having deprived them of the possibility of rivalling him”.
Dreams and Visions
‘Men of profound contemplation’, ‘visionaries’, ‘interpreters of deep secrets’; these are some of the terms that one could use to describe Joseph and Thomas. And with these descriptions we come to a major point of comparison between them, and of distinction from others. The fact is that they – so like each other in many ways – were quite different from the common rank and file of human beings. They drank more deeply from the spring of life (John 4:14) than did the rest; than even their mentors.
“No one else ever born has been like Joseph” (Sirach 49:15) is how the inspired writer sums up the great Patriarch. Pharaoh had asked his ministers concerning Joseph:
‘Can we find any other man like this, possessing the spirit of God?’
So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Seeing that God has given you knowledge of all this, there can be no one as wise and intelligent as you. You shall be my Chancellor, and all my people shall respect your orders; only this throne shall set me above you …. I hereby make you governor of the whole land of Egypt’.
Pharaoh took the ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s. He clothed him in fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He made him ride in the best chariot he had after his own, and they cried before him ‘Abrek’ [thought to mean, ‘make way’]. Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh: without your permission no one is to move hand or foot throughout the land of Egypt’ (Genesis 41:38-41, 42-43,44).
A similarly all-inclusive protocol was imposed at the convent of St. Jacques when Thomas taught there. All the religious present in the convent sat before him on the straw and listened to his lectures. None was excused attendance at the theological course. Moreover, a great multitude of students from outside attended. Thomas became famous at once and everybody hastened to his lectures. He had arrived in the heat of the battle, when error was multiple and ubiquitous; he had to grapple with opponents on all sides.
The superiority of the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas over that of other teachers has been confirmed by one after another Pope. Now here is a remarkable fact: whilst many of the hierarchy tried to discourage Thomas – and, after his death, Thomism – the Popes, from the very beginning, not only encouraged him in his work, but also discerned in the Thomistic synthesis an incomparable value and quality, and considered that in it the whole Christian tradition had borne fruit. To give just one, relatively modern, example of a Pope’s view of the doctrinal superiority of Thomas, I quote from Pope Leo XIII’s Letter (of 30th December, 1982) to the Jesuits: “If there are doctors to be found who disagree with St. Thomas, however great their merits may be in other respects, hesitation is not permissible. The former must be sacrificed to the latter”.
Naturally this superiority, this blessedness bestowed by God upon Joseph and Thomas, was sensed by those who knew them. Happily, many rejoiced to see such illumining portents in so dark a firmament. But unfortunately, also, there resided in the hearts of some - in those who were not prepared to praise God for his generous gift - an irrational and consuming jealousy.
‘Here comes the man of dreams’ snarled Joseph’s brothers when his father, Jacob, had sent his young son to them at Shechem, to see how they were faring with their flocks (Genesis 37:12-14,19). [Note that, whilst Joseph’s brothers were to be found in the field, the more contemplative Joseph had been at home with his parents – at home symbolising his preference for the interior, over the exterior, way of life]. ‘Come on, let us kill him and throw him into some well; we can say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams’ (Genesis 37:20; cf. Wisdom 2:10-20).
His brothers were probably mystified as to how their father Jacob could have favoured Joseph, the dreamer, over the rest of them, investing Joseph with a coat of many colours (or “a coat of long sleeves”). “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not say a civil word to him’ (37:4). Most irritating of all was Joseph’s tendency to have dreams in which he saw himself exalted over the rest of his family. His father and mother, symbolised respectively by the sun and moon, and his brothers by the stars, were all seen in Joseph’s dream to bow down and honour him (37:9-11). These dreams came directly from God; they were not the idle fantasies of some pseudo-mystic, who believed himself to be better than the rest.
Rightly only in an allegorical sense were Joseph’s brothers able to report back to Jacob that his son was ‘dead’, inasmuch as he was ‘dead’ to his familiar way of life. Through the crisis to which his brothers had so cruelly subjected him, the young Joseph found a door opening out onto a new God-given mission to come to the rescue of a starving world. While Joseph was an enigma to his entire family, the reaction to his dreams by his brothers was startlingly different from that of his father, who – though he chided the young man – “did not forget” what Joseph had told him. Jacob was visionary enough in his own right to ponder the matter in his heart with his customary deep prayer – as would later be the constant habit of his ‘daughter’, the Virgin Mary (cf. Genesis 37:11 & Luke 2:19).
St. Albert the Great, Thomas’s mentor, had likewise perceived, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, that there was something very special about the young Thomas. His students had nicknamed Thomas “the dumb ox [of Sicily]”, because he was large of size and naturally taciturn. But Albert made a prediction – that the bellowing of Thomas would one day resound throughout the whole world.
The same sort of envy that Joseph had unintentionally aroused in his brothers had unfortunately afflicted many of Thomas’s colleagues as well. We learn this, for example, from the following passage by Maritain (op. cit., p. 75, emphasis added):
St. Thomas was an accomplished teacher because he was ever so much more than a teacher, because his pedagogic discourse came down whole from the very simple heights of contemplation. Think of him in that great disputation he held triumphantly at Paris just before Easter in 1270, on the most controverted point of his teaching, the thesis of the unicity of substantial form, against John Peckham, Regent of the Friars Minor, and later, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bishop of Paris, the masters in theology, all the doctors were determined to ruin him. They were inflamed by jealousy or exasperated by the calm way in which he broke with hallowed routine, and their eyes darted threats, while their expression was full of menace, against him. They had reason enough, indeed, to be disconcerted for he was not one of them, he derived the origin of wisdom from a more exalted source than they did, from the still unruffled silence which is the father of preaching.
The doctrine of St. Thomas was far more profound than that of the Averroïst philosophers who idolized Aristotle – or, at least, their version of Aristotle – and of those self-styled Augustinian theologians who were afraid of the mind; that “short-sighted crowd [who] rose up against him and strove to rend the seamless garment of his too pure doctrine” (ibid., p. 24). Friar Thomas, Tocco tell us, was a marvellous contemplative (vir miro modo contemplativus). He passed his life in a sort of perpetual rapture and ecstasy. He prayed unceasingly wept, fasted, yearned. The mind of St. Thomas was virtually seraphic, and for this reason he has been called the Angelic Doctor. “It is not without reason”, wrote Pope Pius XI (op. cit.), “that [Thomas] has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues”.
That Thomas was prone to deep fits of abstraction is clear from the following two famous episodes, as recalled by Maritain (op. cit., pp. 12-13):
The faculty of abstraction, which had developed in him to an extraordinary degree, sometimes played him tricks. Dining once wit St. Louis (whose invitation he had been compelled by the order of the Prior to accept, because it meant tearing himself away from the Summa Theologica which he was dictating at the time), he suddenly brought his fist down on the table and exclaimed: “There is the conclusive argument against the Manichaean heresy!” “Master”, said the Prior, “be careful: you are sitting at the moment at the table of the King of France”, and plucked him violently by the sleeve to bring him out of his meditation. The King had a secretary quickly summoned and writing materials.
Another time, in Italy, a Cardinal asked to see him. Friar Thomas came down from his work, saw nobody and went on meditating; then exclaimed in delight: “Now I’ve got what I was looking for”. He had again to be plucked by the sleeve to take notice of the Lord Cardinal, who, receiving no mark of reverence, had begun to despise him.
The Fiery Ordeal
Whilst Scripture does not inform us as to what was the reaction by Joseph’s mother to his series of fascinating dreams, we do know that in the case of St. Thomas, his mother, the Countess Theodora, did everything in her power to thwart him. She, according to Maritain, “who was to stop at nothing to prevent [Thomas] following the will of God, was a woman of great virtue and self-denial” (ibid., p. 2). Be that as it may, she was obviously not in tune with the “Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). And so we find the Countess dispatching a special messenger to Thomas’ brothers, ordering them, as they respected her maternal blessing, to arrest Thomas and send him back to her under escort. These brothers – like Joseph’s – were able to be located in the field (at Acquapendente on military campaign with the Emperor, Frederick II).
And Thomas’s crime?
He had chosen to be a Dominican rather than a Benedictine. Whereas, in those days, the Dominican Order was a new phenomenon (two decades old), little respected, the Benedictine vocation was a sort of State affair, gratifying alike to God, the Emperor and the family. ‘No’, said Thomas, ‘I will be a Preacher’. That was God’s will and so the matter was final as far as he was concerned. Thomas must have worn the white habit of St. Dominic as proudly as had the young Joseph worn the “coat of many colours” (or “of long sleeves”) given him by his beloved father. But just as Joseph was stripped of that precious garment by his rage-filled brothers, who then cast him into a well, so did Thomas’s brothers attempt to strip him of his coat of many graces by a fountain (or well).
The Saint, however, wrapped himself so closely in his Dominican habit that they were unable to tear it from him.
Who can imagine the agony of soul that St. Thomas must then have been experiencing? (Cf. Genesis 42:21). Though he was taken captive, his will could not be brought into submission. “Brothers, mother, prison, guile and violence, nothing could shake his determination” (ibid., p. 64). Why was young Thomas so obstinate? He had to be about his Father’s business, and that was something that neither the Countess Theodora, nor her sons, could begin to understand.
Thomas was probably of similar age to Joseph (cf. Genesis 37:2) at the time of this crisis with his family. He had been forced to defy the will of his father and mother, and of affronting the wrath of his relations, who were not persons of feeble energy or easily placated. As he was to write later (S.T., II-IIae, q.189, a.6):
When parents are not in such dire necessity that they need the services of their children, children may adopt the religious life without the consent of their parents and even in defiance of their expressed wishes, because, once the age of puberty is over, anyone sui juris is entitled to please himself in the choice of a career, especially if the service of God is involved; it is better to obey the Father of spirits, in order that we may have life, than those who have begotten us in the flesh.
We know from history – and we can infer from the Bible (Genesis 41:45) * - that Joseph (Imhotep) was a priest. He was in fact the chief priest of the sacred city of On, that the Greeks would later call Heliopolis (the “City of the Sun”).
[* Regarding this point, I give here Professor A. Yahuda’s expert explanation, in The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian, Vol. I (Oxford UP, 1933): “The narrator was quite clear as to the hierarchic significance of such a union [of Joseph with the priest of On’s daughter], and of the high position occupied by the priests of On. For the Egyptians On was the holy city par excellence. It was regarded as the seat of the most powerful of the cosmic gods … and it was occupied by a numerous and important body of priests (Erman, Relig. 12). … The marriage of Joseph to the daughter of the priest of On therefore signified the reception of the foreigner into the highest priestly caste, and by his elevation to the rank of ‘father of God’ he was assigned one of the most eminent sacerdotal dignities of ancient Egypt”. Similarly, Daniel would later be placed over all the wise men and magicians of Chaldea (Daniel 2:48)].
Pharaoh had given Joseph for his wife, Asenath, the daughter of the priest of On. Though blessed from birth, Joseph received this great honour of the priesthood only after his passing through a fiery ordeal.
St. Thomas too, having been purified “like gold and silver” in the refiner’s fire of tribulation, arose a priest “fit to bring offerings to the Lord” (Malachi 3:3). He had “moved from one perfection to another, and a more difficult one” (Maritain, op cit., ibid.).
The Practicality of Wisdom
The world – as typified by the activities of the brothers, respectively, of Joseph and Thomas – is full of self-important people; men and women of affairs, bureaucrats, technocrats, complex people with no interior life, who are frantically busy about everything, and nothing in particular. These worldlings have not much time for the contemplative souls like Joseph and Thomas, whom they consider to be impractical ‘dreamers’; whose serene simplicity is often misconstrued by them as being an inadequate and disinterested response to society. In a world obsessed with conformity, consensus and political correctness, genuine individuals like Joseph and Thomas can be regarded as misfits.
This is most especially true of our modern, technological world that has almost totally abandoned any interest in contemplative metaphysics.
Only fellow-dreamers, like Joseph’s Pharaoh, or like St. Thomas’s patron, St. Louis IX of France, can really understand this type. In fact it was owing to the dream of the Pharaoh that Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, and became the virtual ruler of that country. And King Louis took counsel from Thomas, confided in him at evening the difficulties that harrassed him and in the morning received the solutions.
But if Joseph’s, St. Thomas’s, siblings imagined their brothers of dreams to be the most useless and impractical of persons, they were quite wrong. Wisdom is eminently practical because it goes to first principles. “It is she who orders all things for good” (Wisdom 8:1). What impresses one from reading Joseph’s written account of his own life (Genesis 37:2-50:21) * – for he too was an inspired scribe of sacred doctrine – is the fact that he was so competent in the management of his affairs that he was left unsupervised by his respective masters: firstly, by the commander of the guard (39:3-6); then by the prison guard (vv. 22-23); then by Pharaoh (41:41,44). Consider the thorough manner in which Joseph organised Egypt, in order to cope with a mother of all famines lasting for many years that brought the whole then world to the brink of starvation (42:46-57)!
[Joseph – as we know from the revision of history – also oversaw some massive building projects in Egypt, because he (as Imhotep) was also Pharaoh’s “Chief Architect”].
[* To P. J. Wiseman must go the credit for having shown that the Book of Genesis is a series of ancient family histories (Hebrew toledôt), “These are the generations of …”) of the great biblical Patriarchs, from Adam to Jacob. Genesis is rounded off by Joseph’s own long personal history, which, having been written in Egypt, does not conclude with a toledôt phrase. Presumably Moses added the details about Joseph’s death and embalming. An updated version of Wiseman’s thesis can be found in Ancient Records and the Sructure of Genesis (Thomas nelson, NY, 1985)].
Were Joseph’s brothers still complaining about his ‘dreaminess’ when later they themselves were forced to beg food from him in Egypt, to save their lives? Indeed they were not! The severe trial of the famine years was actually the salvation of these brothers. In fact, they had begun to come to their senses even before they had realised that “the man” (the Vizier) who was interviewing them in Egypt was actually Joseph himself: ‘Truly we are being called to account for our brother’, they began to say amongst themselves in Joseph’s hearing (without realising who he was). ‘We saw his misery of soul when he begged our mercy, but we did not listen to him and now this misery has come to us’ (42:21).
Yes, it was that unworldly, ‘impractical’ dreamy Joseph, and not the busy, ‘competent and self-assured brothers, who had managed to save the world from the seven-year famine, using extremely practical measures on a vast scale.
Now, let us listen to part of what St. Thomas himself has to say about the practicality of wisdom (Commentary on the Ethics, lect. 1):
It is the function of the wise man to put things in order, because wisdom is primarily the perfection of reason an it is the characteristic of reason to know order; for although the sensitive faculties know some things absolutely, only the intellect or reason can know the relation one thing bears to another ….
Thus people of wisdom should make fit rulers. Plato certainly thought so when he named ‘The Philosopher Ruler’ as the ideal type of Guardian to steer the ship of state of his utopic Republic (The Republic, Pt. VII, [Penguin Books, 1955]).
Wisdom is eminently practical: “I, Wisdom, dwell with experience, and possess good advice and sound judgment. … Mine are counsel and advice, mine are discernment and strength. Through me rulers govern and are all the judges respected. …. For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive …”, etc., etc., (Proverbs 8:12, 15-16; Wisdom 7:22). The Wisdom books are replete with testimonies such as these re Wisdom’s competence to govern and rule.
Pope Pius XI’s following description of the practical aspect of Thomistic metaphysics, rising “step by step … [to] the topmost peak of all things”, finds its perfect material icon in the graded Step Pyramid of Saqqara, built by Imhotep himself from the ground upwards, as if reaching to heaven (op. cit., last emphasis added):
‘ … the order of voluntary acts is for the consideration of moral philosophy which is divided into three sections: the first considers the activities of the individual man in relation to their end and is called monastics; the second considers the activities of the family group or community and is called economics; the third considers the activities of the State and is called politics’ (In Ethic., lect. 1). St. Thomas dealt thoroughly with all these several divisions of philosophy, each according to its appropriate method, and, beginning with things remote, nearest to us, rose step by step to things more remote, until he stood in the end ‘on the topmost peak of all things … in supremo rerum omnium vertice’ (Contra Gent., ii, 56; iv, 1).
The true metaphysician understands the proper order of things, as symbolised by the gradient staircase with its pinnacle in heaven. St. Thomas had not much interest in material buildings, but he was certainly a wise architect of knowledge, which – according to Maritain – is supremely “architectonic” (op. cit., p. 19):
St. Thomas achieved a great philosophical work, he had an extraordinary metaphysical genius. But he is not simply, or primarily, a philosopher, he is essentially a theologian. It is as a theologian, from the summit of knowledge which is architectonic par excellence, that he definitively established the order of Christian economy.
But the metaphysician also shows that the contemplative life is superior to the active life (cf. Luke 10:42), and that it constitutes, when it overflows into an apostolate, the state of life which is purely and simply the most perfect (ibid., p. 76): “ … the contemplation of the saints is worth more than the speculation of the philosophers; … the loftiest intellectuality, far from being diminished, is corroborated and carried to the summit of the spirit by the humility of the knowledge of the Cross” (cf. e.g. Colossians 2:8).