Eighty years ago, in August of 1938, the young Bernard Lonergan [BL] came to Rome to begin a two-year study and writing project that would bear fruit in a dissertation eventually published under the title, Grace and Freedom [GF] with the subtitle “Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.” The composition took less than two years, and was completed in May of 1940. Unfortunately because of World War II, the results could not be defended in Rome as is usually the case. In fact the writer was spirited out of Rome without delay and brought home to Canada for fear that, as a citizen of an enemy nation, he would effectively be imprisoned in Italy until the end of the war.
Fifteen years later, in the Spring of 1953, BL completed the writing of Insight, a work for which he is much more noted. It appears to have taken him about three years (1950 – 53). On this occasion he also had to bring the work to closure in a hurry, not to escape violent hostilities, but in order to get ready for what would turn out to be a distinguished career at the Gregorianum (where he had written his dissertation) as professor of systematic theology.
These fifteen years are the context for a question: what is the connection between GF (a theological dissertation where Lonergan uses modern historical method) and Insight (a comprehensive philosophical essay, also modern, that takes the human subject as its starting point)? Notice in fact that both works are about the human subject, i.e., about you and me: In the case of GF, freedom and the gift of divine love that is for us; In the case of Insight, human understanding, i.e., yours and mine! The question itself can be put simply: what is it that gives continuity in Lonergan’s intellectual life?
To provide a clue for a response to this question, there is the remark, on the very last page of Insight, where the author writes about himself as a human subject, that he “spent years reaching up to the mind of Aquinas” (768). As a matter of fact these are the years that followed on the completion of GF. What then was the motive for the reaching? Was it that in the study and writing that resulted in GF Lonergan discovered in Aquinas something that he needed to understand for self-understanding? Again in fact in the forties, as he reaches for the mind of Aquinas he turns from the affective component of the human being to the cognitive, a turn that makes GF and Insight complementary. GF concerns love; Insight concerns knowledge.
In his “reaching for [Aquinas’] mind” what did Lonergan achieve? Perhaps insight itself? And if so, what would this insight mean? The book Insight arrives “at the end of the line,” so to speak. The years of reaching helped Lonergan to discover two aspects of St. Thomas’ mind. The first aspect relates to how Aquinas understood and heartily agreed with Aristotle concerning how insight occurs. The second aspect relates to how Aquinas discovered that the act of understanding (insight) forms the heart of human coming to know.
What does this insight mean for us? Well, the book Insight itself. A day may come when it becomes attractive to reach up to the mind of Lonergan! It entails the personal challenge of knowing oneself as a knower (intellectual conversion). Such insight does not depend on a book, nor does it occur without the intervention of someone who has had the experience. Fr. Maury Schepers, OP