The Ox Files: The Dumb Ox vs. The Underground Man

Thomas Aquinas

I’m continuing to read more Aquinas’ Summa and it’s more apparent to me that my chief reservation about him lies in his view of what motivates people to act. Here again and again I read him returning this idea that people act rationally toward some kind of final end. This I find flies in the face of what I read when I read Dostoevsky. This is significant because for many Dostoevsky remains one of those authors that can be safely regarded as Christian by just about all Christians (outside of a handful of the most rigorous sectarians). Most notably inĀ Notes From Underground but also in many of his other books Dostoevsky portrays people acting out of very complicated motivations, some of the characters aren’t even sure why they are doing what they are doing it would appear. I would argue that it is precisely this complicated look at human actions and the convoluted psychologies behind them that makes Dostoevsky a writer of world-historical importance.

I don’t get this from Thomas. His view of what moves humans to act seems so tantalizingly simple, yet in trying to understand why people actually do what they do, Dostoevsky’s approach seem, to me at least, to ring more true. And what is that approach? I don’t think I can do it justice in a simple blog post, but it is sufficient to say that Dostoevsky would surely scoff at the idea that our motivations are as simple as wanting that which is for our final end. There are layers of irrationality or self-hatred or pride or spite or frailty that make our motivations constantly suspect. Not only to others but also to ourselves. Reading Aquinas he seems to casually wave all this away. How do Thomists answer Dostoevsky’s apparent implicit critique of their man?