The speech of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, the day he received his degree as Master of Theology: the order of the universe is hierarchical

Meeting – October 3, 1975 – Friday

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.


We will look at a speech that St. Thomas Aquinas, still very young, gave in Paris at the University of Paris the day he received his degree as Master of Theology. The French text was taken from the life of St. Thomas. You have here a French and a Spanish version.

We are particularly interested in page 3, where St. Thomas develops, in a very summarized way and with his typical clarity, the doctrine on hierarchy in the order of the universe.

“A law established from all eternity by the King of Heaven and Sovereign Lord of all things, disposes that the gifts of His providence reach all the way to the inferior beings…”

That is to say, the lesser or lowest of all beings.

“…through the intermediary ones placed immediately above them”.

In other words, it is therefore a design of Divine Providence that beings are distributed in a hierarchy. But it is not only a static hierarchy in which each step has nothing to do with the other, but a dynamic hierarchy. So there are gifts that come down from God and are given to all beings. But according to a law of the order of the universe that distribution of gifts is done in such a way that, usually – not always as a principle, but habitually – gifts come from heaven to the superior beings and from those superior beings successively descend to others until reaching the lowest ones.

You see therefore that hierarchy is presented here as the opposite of what the Revolution presents with class struggle. The Revolution presents each existing level as a leech of the inferior level, and therefore hierarchy as a hateful thing.

On the eve of the French Revolution, Fr. [Emmanuel-Joseph] Sieyès wrote a book, Le Tiers Etat [The Third State], which is mentioned in almost all the little manuals of world history. In it he said that the Ancien Regime was a cascade of contempt in which the king despised noblemen, noblemen despised the plebe etc.

That is a revolutionary conception which leads to class struggle. From above comes disdain, insult, robbery; from below comes the gift. So what is needed to do is to end with inequality.

Now, St. Thomas’ conception is altogether different. From above come the gifts, and those spread successively down the several levels all the way to the lower levels.

I do not know if I clearly showed here the striking opposition between the Thomistic and Catholic conception of order, of how contingent beings as such must relate with other beings, and the revolutionary conception. And how the first movement of our souls in relation to our superiors should be one of trust and gratitude and rather than one of hostility, as if we felt robbed.

He continues:

“And to show the whole extension of this law, Dionysius, in chapter 15 of his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy says that this sacred law disposes that, for their part, the higher creatures lead those intermediate beings all the way to the lofty and full light of God”.

This is a development of what I have just said. In other words, a mid-level creature always has above itself other creatures, higher and higher, all the way up to God. Dionysius shows that this hierarchy encompasses the whole creation. It is not only a group of beings set in that hierarchical order but all creation itself, more beautiful as a whole than in each part, as Genesis tells us. And this is how we should see how excellent this hierarchization is.

“And that law is in force not only in the world of spirits but also in the world of bodies, which led St. Augustine to say, in his book on the Trinity: Just as less perfect and weaker bodies are governed according to a certain order by the more perfect and stronger bodies, so also all bodies, without exception, remain under the dominance of spirits”.

In other words, there is a dominion upon the body… [the universe is divided into two great sections: spiritual and material. There is a domination of the soul upon the body], of the spiritual man upon the whole material nature that surrounds him; there is a domination of pure spirits upon man, which is a consequence of the superiority of spirit over matter. This is an application of that law in one of the deepest and most universal aspects of the order of the universe.

“Also the Lord, in the Psalms,…”

That is, the Holy Ghost, Who inspired the Psalms.

“…can expound to us how this law works, communicating spiritual wisdom with a metaphor from the palpable world”.

That is, how His own wisdom is communicated to men. So He says:

“You water the mountains with the waters falling from the heights. The earth will be satiated with the fruit of your works.” We see in effect with our bodily eyes the rain falling from the bosom of the clouds that water the mountains…”

That is, the rains water the mountains.

“…and give rise to rivers whose waters flood and satiate the earth, communicating its fecundity”.

This image is extremely beautiful. You can imagine high clouds in the sky and a hill that gives us the illusion that it touches the clouds. The cloud rains and floods the hill. The waters run down from the hill and form rivers. And the rivers spread through the whole earth.

So, according to this conception, also wisdom spreads upon men.

He did not say or insinuate but one cannot refrain from thinking this: Wisdom descends from God to Our Lady, from Our Lady to St. Thomas, and from St. Thomas – the mountain of mankind – it irrigates the rest of mankind. One thinks of him when one sees that magnificent metaphor that he employs here, taken from Scripture.

“Likewise, from the sovereign height where it dwells, Divine Wisdom inclines upon the intelligence of doctors,…”

That is, it descends upon the intelligence of doctors.

“…whose image is the mountains. And it is through their ministry that it bathes its listeners with the seas of its celestial intelligence. So, in the proposed text we can consider four things –“

The proposed text is the one you see here on the cover.

“You will water the mountains with the waters falling from the heights; the earth will be satiated with the fruit of your works”.

This is what he just quoted. So he makes this application:

“So, with the proposed text we can consider four things, namely: the sublimity of spiritual doctrine; the dignity of its authors; the conditions required for disciples to listen to it; and the economy of communication”.

You see what a magnificent application it is. …  While this application is not directly related to our concerns, that introduction is eminently in accordance with our concerns and with our spirit. It only requires a small application that will make us understand how we can take advantage of the principle that St. Thomas just gave.

I think we can thus conclude this matter quite quickly, and with the amount of attention and depth that I may be able to impart.

So the question is this: Divine Providence disposed that all gifts or talents be distributed to men in a hierarchical way and by some to others. Even more, that the universe be governed likewise, with some beings governing others. For example, when St. Thomas speaks of the angels that govern the stars he explains the reason for it. He says once angels existed, it was advisable that those angels govern the stars and the heavenly bodies, rather than God Himself. Because once God created angels greater than the stars, it was proper for those angels to govern the stars for Him, rather than for Him to guide the stars directly.

You clearly see a concern to implant hierarchical principle in all aspects of the order of the universe.

That hierarchical principle is the one Father Ramière expounds in his book, of which I believe you have been given a summary. That hierarchical principle consists, in the final analysis, in a gradation of beings that becomes all the more beautiful and more perfect as the harmonious contrast between the higher and lower being increases.

In other words, a hierarchy composed only of 3 degrees, in which the lowest being is very similar to the highest being does not have true splendor. A hierarchy’s true splendor consists for the highest being to be as sublime as possible; and for the lowest being, without entering in contradiction with the highest, to be nevertheless in harmonious opposition or contrast to it.

So that, for example, it is more beautiful for us to see the contrast between God Our Lord, Who is infinite, and a little ant than between God and an angel. Because since the little ant is incomparably smaller than an angel, it is one of the lowest living beings, except for the vegetative order – say a living vegetative cell. And thus, since the difference is much greater, hierarchy gains in beauty; because there is a great contrast between the initial being, above, and the terminal being, below.

The second excellence of hierarchy is that the several intermediate scales have the greatest possible continuity so that each scale has a marked similarity with the one above and with the one below it. And so there is a number of hues and shades leading from an inferior level to a superior level.

In other words, say, a hierarchy with 3 huge degrees would not be a beautiful hierarchy.  On the contrary, a hierarchy, with many steps, each constituted in such a way as to imitate a stairway, and inside that smaller stairway if one could see yet another stairway, one could see nuances, shades and more shades… this would be the perfect hierarchy. The more a part is next to another and there is no rupture, explosion, or continuity between them, the more perfect the hierarchy will be.

You see that very well in the hierarchy of the Church. The hierarchy of the Church is fundamentally constituted of 3 degrees: Pope, bishop and priest. But you see how many shades the Church has added on throughout her history – nuances of honor rather than jurisdiction – between the various levels. So you have Cardinals; in cardinaldom you have bishops, deacons and presbyters; cardinal-bishops, cardinal-presbyters cardinal-deacons.

Then you have Patriarchs; then you have Archbishops. Among Archbishops you have a distinction between those who are metropolitan and of those who are not metropolitan but simply head a diocese without subjects, elevated to the dignity of archdiocese for some eminent reason, a miracle that happened there or something like that.

Then you have priests. But how many levels there are among priests! Monsignors… there are, or at least there were, 5 categories of monsignors, from apostolic protonotaries to apostolic protonotaries ad instar participantium. And from then downward, to the last degree.

Then you have cathedral canons and honorary canons. Then simple priests, to speak only of the secular clergy and nothing of the various hierarchies of the regular clergy.

All this brings out the great potential for splendor and honor existing in the 3 basic degrees. And with this you can perfectly realize how the spirit of the Church leads to modeling those several hierarchies according to the principle and concern that hierarchy be present in everything and for everything.

In other words, absolutely speaking, Divine Wisdom teaches us that God is better reflected by groups of beings rather than individual beings. But all groups of beings and above all the great group of beings which is the universe, are hierarchical, and the order of the groups must be hierarchical, for God is reflected in a particularly splendid way in the hierarchy as such. The whole ensemble is hierarchical; the whole ensemble is a hierarchy.

And hierarchy makes us see the glory of God in an absolutely peculiar, special way. It makes us know God, Who nevertheless does not have a hierarchy internally. The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are strictly equal to one another; and in God all perfections are infinite.

However, when we turn from the Creator, the Absolute being, to contingent beings, hierarchy is what really exists.

Hence, he who wants to prepare his soul for heaven; he who wants to know God on this earth in order to love Him in heaven, must consider the legitimate and well structured hierarchies on this earth and love them as such; for as hierarchies mirror the absolute of God much more than people or isolated creatures without hierarchical links among themselves.

Here hierarchy appears to us as a specially brilliant and luminous point of the universe, or the order of the universe. And this shines to us whenever we consider any terrestrial reality, enchanted with the hierarchy which that reality presents, and liking to see how the several degrees of that hierarchy participate in one another and participate above all in the archetype or prototype of that hierarchy.

And since on the other hand there is a link between the greatest and the smallest running throughout those several degrees, on making this meditation we receive a notion. And in addition to a notion, we get an impression of the order placed by God in the Universe, and therefore of the presence of God in the universe, an impression which is particularly rich and particularly capable of modeling our soul.

Le me give you an example. Imagine a person invited to hear a music program and someone tells him: “here I have a series of melodies, some more beautiful than others, according to a scale universally admitted by critics.  There is a melody more beautiful than all others. How would you organize that program and at what point would you place the most beautiful music? Let us suppose the program is to have 15 melodies. All right, your interlocutor thinks a bit and replies, somewhat displicently: I’d put it in third place.

He apparently did not make a bad action: It was a whim. But in fact, his act shows dislike for God, as it violates the principle that all things should be place in an order fitting their nature. And to place, stupidly and without reflection, the more beautiful music in third place is to violate this universal principle that governs all things: the principle of hierarchy.

Let us say that he goes: “uuhh, this is the most beautiful. I want it now.” Someone will say: “oh, what a soul thirst for perfection.” I would feel like saying: “Rather an idiot without psychological distance.”

For he is not really thirsty for perfection; he is a glutton. A person who simply jumps upon the first melody does not have an orderly thirst for perfection. The one who does have that thirst prepares himself for the supreme melody, degree by degree, and makes comparisons as he goes. He listens to the first music and comments with his friend: “what an excellent melody, hey! What will the second one be like?” And he listens to the second and not only appreciates it but tries to understand how it is better than the first. So that when the concert is over he has tasted and enjoyed that orderly inequality and is prepared for the third melody. And so he can listen to the 15th music standing or on his knees, so full of enthusiasm and respect he is. He has climbed the several degrees. He has placed elevations in his soul – a phrase from Scripture – and climbed to a high point.

This one has acted well, as a soul according to God. The other did not act with a soul according to God. He showed intemperance and denied the principle of hierarchy, which is not only the order of things but, by reflection, the order of thought itself, of the critique that one must make of things.

Imagine that some day – if Divine Providence made me that gift – I were able to attend a great session of the French Academy of Letters in which some great writer were to speak about a great topic. I don’t know if that still exists in France or if great topics are still dealt with around the world before great auditoriums. I don’t know if great auditoriums are still filled in our days, nor if there are elements for that. Imagine I had to attend a small, very interesting, very important and very good session about the history of Academies of Letters, later to go to a session of the Academy of Letters.

How foolish would I be if I were to say: no, I will sleep until the time of the session at the Academy of Letters – let say it is at five o’clock in the afternoon – and later at 10 o’clock at night I will have them hold a little history session for me to attend.

It would be the same as for me to begin a dinner with magnificent plates and finish having everyday bread and butter for dessert. That makes no sense at all. It is a complete inversion of values. It is foolishness.

Is it only foolishness? No: it is a disorder. And this disorder shows dislike for God, like every disorder. But here it is a dislike for God on a sensitive and special point of the order of the universe placed by God: hierarchy.

Then, if we want to prepare ourselves for a spiritual life that leads our souls to God according to the TFP school of spirituality, in addition to the exercises and meditations and reflections consecrated by Catholic piety – most precious treasures that evidently we cannot forgo in any sense and at any price – we have to introduce this reflection of our own: An analysis of all of hierarchies placed before us, be it in reading, be it in the observation of the universe ordered by God, be it in the ordination of the small remnants of order that still exist around the world. We must look at these hierarchies trying to keep in mind that when we do this exercise completely, something in our soul is prepared to consider the absolute; something is prepared to conceive the absolute so we can become ecstatic in admiration of the absolute. In other words, we prepare ourselves to see God Our Lord.

This is a true moral preparation for us to become entirely open to the consideration of God Our Lord and of everything on earth that more excellently represents God and conveys to us the impression of absolute, eternal and immutable as is God Our Lord Himself.

And so here you have a piece of advice for the spiritual life which is related with my lecture to many of you on relativism in Jasna Gora last Thursday.

How can we rid ourselves of that cursed relativism that penetrates us through the pores? We can do it by preparing our souls for tasting the absolute, if we can put it that way; for the adoration of the absolute precisely through contemplation and love of hierarchies. And we should do so feeling happy and joyful for our condition as intermediate beings, without any envy of anyone who is more than us, but on the contrary, saying to God: “I give Thee thanks, my Father and Lord, through Mary Most Holy, for having given me those who are more than I because they bring me closer to Thee;” and on the other hand, saying: “my God, I give Thee thanks for having given me those who are less than I because I am to them a link to Thee. Thou deignest reach them through me. And I love that hierarchy and the place where Thou hast placed me in that hierarchy. I love it in such a way that, if it were for Thy glory, I would want to be the last; and if it were for Thy glory, I would accept to be the first, asking Thee to be entirely selflessly, without any pride or attachment, solely for Thy glory.  Thou hast placed me in the middle. I thank Thee, Lord, and remain as a link uniting these two ends and thus ensuring the perfection of Thy own image. Between the very small and the very great, here I am. And it is in that cohesion of the very small with the very great that Thy glory especially shines. Here I am to render Thee that service. Praised be Thy Name.”

This appears to me entirely orderly and according to the lecture by St. Thomas Aquinas.

So here you have an exercise in line with what I said Thursday. I have spoken a little longer than I wanted and do not want to extend this lecture, but there is a negative exercise in this same line which is rather obvious. Whenever we notice anything cacophonous, shocking or aberrant in the modern world we should try to see in what way it denies the principle of hierarchy. This is a most a beautiful thing which is fitting to do and is somehow related with all forms of aberration of the modern world, with all the forms of torpidity of the modern world.

So also in our examination of conscience we should try to see whether every time that an awful thing appeared before us, we noticed it. For if we did not notice it we end up becoming habituated to it; and by becoming used to it, we end up by loving it. So we have to ask ourselves if we noticed it, if we offered an act of reparation to Our Lady, and if we asked for the destruction of that thing.

Here you have a quick outline of one of the characteristic aspects of the spiritual life according to the dictates of TFP. Not according to doctrines invented by me, but as can be seen, from a small passage by St. Thomas Aquinas which has the advantage of being very concise, very clear, very didactic and all based on the best Catholic doctrine.