Why Did Thomas Aquinas Leave his Summa Theologiae Unfinished?

Burnout or visio mystica?

Our frenetic and hyperkinetic way of life makes it difficult to take religion seriously and what is essential to it, namely, the belief in what William James calls an Unseen Order. Our communications technology in particular is binding us ever tighter within the human horizon so that the sense of Transcendence is becoming weaker and weaker. It therefore comes as no surprise that someone would point to 'burnout' as the explanation of Aquinas' failure to finish his sum of theology when the traditional explanation was that he was vouchsafed mystical insight into the Unseen Order:

Aquinas’s ultimate act of apparent humility occurred on December 6, 1273, St. Nicholas’s Day, when he was forty-eight or forty-nine years old. Aquinas was celebrating Mass in the chapel of St. Nicholas, and he again had a vision. What exactly he saw is unknown. But afterward, he did not resume his dictation as he usually would. Reginald prodded him to get back to work, but Aquinas responded, “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.” He stopped writing altogether, leaving his Summa Theologiae—the summary of theology, and his masterwork—incomplete.

Jonathan Malesic, from whose Commonweal article the above quotation is taken, finds the traditional explanation "suspiciously pious." (My inclination is to say that his rejection of the traditional explanation is suspiciously post-modern.) What Malesic sees in the final days of the doctor angelicus is "burnout." Malesic builds on a suggestion of Joseph Weishepl:

The most down-to-earth account of Aquinas’s final winter that I have come across is by someone you might expect to play up Aquinas’s sanctity: Joseph Weisheipl, a Dominican writing to commemorate the seven-hundredth anniversary of his confrere’s death. But Weisheipl is interested less in hagiography than in empathy. Sensitive to the rigors of Aquinas’s schedule as a professor and member of a religious order, he argues not for a theological or mystical explanation for Aquinas’s silence, but a physiological one. In his view, “the physical basis for the experience of December 6 was a breakdown of his constitution after so many years of driving himself ceaselessly in the work he loved.” 

Burnout or visio mystica? An 'immanent' explanation in terms of physiology, or a 'transcendent' explanation in terms of supernatural insight?

Or is this a false alternative? It could be that the physiological breakdown triggered the noetic event. It could be that  the breakdown, while disabling Thomas from such exertions as writing, also occasioned an insight into the inadequacy of the discursive intellect for the knowledge of such a lofty Object as was his ultimate concern. 

Of course Aquinas knew all along about the inadequacy of the discursive intellect in respect of God, but I conjecture that it took a mystical experience for him to appreciate the fact  so fully that he saw no point in grinding out more sentences. When the meal is served, the menu is set aside.  

It seems to me that Malesic is opting for the 'burnout' explanation as opposed to the mystical one. If so, then I disagree, and I suggest that he is right in step with the post-modern enclosure with the human horizon mentioned at the outset.  Caught as far too many are these days in a web of 24-7 connectivity, it is hard for them to credit the possibility of any realm of the real beyond the human horizon.  So any explanation of religious phenomena just has to be an 'immanent' one.

So while Malesic finds that traditional explanation "suspiciously pious," I am inclined to suggest that he may be too much a product of his age and that we ought to be suspicious of his suspicion.  As I quipped above, his approach seems suspiciously post-modern.

Our age, influenced by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, to name the Big Three among the hermeneuticians of suspicion, is indeed one of deep suspicion, indications of which are the currently pejorative connotations of such words as 'pious,' 'reverence,' and 'hagiography.'  

Religion too is under suspicion along with its supposed saints and prophets and mystics. Some of this suspicion is good: it is just Athens keeping Jerusalem in line and chastening her excesses.  But it goes too far when religion's essence is denied. And what might that be? Here is my answer in seven theses. I think Aquinas would agree with all seven. I am negotiable on (4) and (6) if one cares to insist that Buddhism is a religion as opposed to a sort of philosophical therapeutics.

The Essence of Religion

1. The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53)  This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions.  It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection.  It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents.  So in its full reality it lies beyond the discursive intellect.  It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience.  An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out.  Should that occur it is called revelation.

2. The  belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53)

3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order.  Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order.  His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. 

4. The conviction  that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.

5.  The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.

6. The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.

7. The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative.  It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.