BY DAVID A. SMITHER
“WE exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”
These words of Leo XIII are no less certain today than when the Holy Father promulgated them 150 years ago. Indeed, while the neo-scholastic revival flourished for several decades in the wake of Leo’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, the “golden wisdom” of the Angelic Doctor has been conspicuously absent from many Catholic schools and even seminaries in the decades following the Second Vatican Council.
The early years of the 21st century have seen a tremendous growth of interest in the thought of St. Thomas, and many excellent books have been published for both academic and popular audiences. Nevertheless, for the average Catholic sitting in the pews of the average parish, Aquinas remains distant and largely inaccessible in his own writings. Technical jargon as well as the logical structure of the saint’s work cause many to despair of understanding.
To remedy this, on the feast of St. Thomas, we herein offer a very brief introduction to the life of this indispensable Catholic theologian, and his most famous work the Summa Theologiae, and pray that in so doing Leo’s exhortation may again be heeded in our own day.
A very brief introduction to St. Thomas
Saint Thomas was an Italian Catholic priest in the 13th century. Born to a noble family, he began his education at the famous Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, near Rome, at the age of five. His aristocratic family had planned for him to grow up to be the Abbot at Monte Cassino, a very prestigious role which would further decorate their lineage.
The young Thomas, however, made different plans. Impelled by his love of God, Thomas made clear his intention to join the Order of Preachers, a recently established fraternity of wandering beggars who devoted themselves to study and preaching the Word of God. In the early days these friars, called the Dominicans after their founder St. Dominic, were looked upon by the nobility as the religious hippies of their day. For the young aristocrat to join such an order, as opposed to the prominent Benedictines, was an outright scandal to the family from Aquino.
So opposed was his family that when Thomas set out for the University of Paris to earn his theological master’s degree with the Dominicans, they had him kidnapped and brought home. They kept him under house arrest for nearly two years, hoping to break his spirit, but according to tradition the young saint used this time to memorize the entire Bible. As a final desperate attempt to dissuade Thomas from his vocation, his brothers hired a prostitute and sent her into his room to seduce him, but rather than staining his purity Aquinas chased her out of the room with a hot iron from the fireplace. His family, so impressed by this display of virtue and resolve, finally relented and allowed Thomas to pursue his calling with the Dominicans.
Aquinas would go on to become the star pupil of St. Albert the Great, the greatest scientist of the Middle Ages. Together, Saints Albert and Thomas would successfully introduce Aristotle to the medieval Church, which had been steeped in Platonism since the time of St. Augustine. The new synthesis of Aristotelian natural science with Christian theology, accomplished by St. Thomas in the 13th century more than by anyone else, laid the intellectual foundations of what we today mistakenly call the “scientific revolution” of the 16th century. Rather than revolting, the early modern scientists in the 16th century were continuing the legacy of the St. Thomas and the Scholastic philosophers and scientists of the high Middle Ages, notably those who had come under the influence of Aristotle as mediated by St. Thomas. In the history of science, Aquinas’ successful synthesis of Aristotelianism with Christian theology is among the most important and underappreciated events.
Of course Aquinas was a theologian more than he was a scientist, but he used natural science in the service of philosophy, just as he used philosophy in the service of theology. His work forms an organic whole which embodies the medieval adage that “philosophy is the handmaid of theology.”
St. Thomas’ literary output was positively staggering. The collected works of Aquinas run to 50 large folio volumes, the equivalent of about 500 short books. In order to earn his master’s degree, like all the Masters of the 13th century, Aquinas wrote a long and detailed commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Then he went on to write many commentaries on Holy Scripture and the works of Aristotle, numerous short works devoted to specific questions in philosophy and theology, and two large “Summas,” or summaries of theology.
The Summa Contra Gentiles was written as a systematic exposition and defense of Christian belief for the persuasion of unbelievers, and it ranks among the finest texts in the history of apologetics. The Summa Theologiae, Aquinas’ undisputed magnum opus, was written as a textbook for theology students, whose faith was already presumed.
The Summa Theologiae is a systematic work comprised of three large parts. The First Part, usually referred to by its Latin name Prima Pars, is concerned with the nature of objective reality, starting with God as the Source of all being. Aquinas considers the existence and nature of God as Creator and as Trinity, the creation of the universe, and the nature of man, the crown and synthesis of creation made in God’s own image.
The Second Part of the Summa is so large that it is subdivided into two parts. The First Part of the Second Part, the Prima Secundae, deals with happiness (flourishing) as the goal of human existence, the general principles of morality which conduce to happiness, the natural law which guides man in his quest for happiness, and human and divine government, which exist to assist man in his quest. The Second Part of the Second Part, the Secunda Secundae, treats the virtues as the way that man lives out the moral principles, and the opposing vices which deter man from attaining his final end, which is happiness with God forever. The Secunda Secundae also treats of the various states of life, the vocations by which God calls man back to Himself.
The Third Part of the Summa, the Tertia Pars, considers the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation and atoning sacrifice provide man with the grace to fulfill the requirements of the moral law, and thereby to be united with God. After treating of Christ in Himself, Aquinas turns to consider the Sacraments of Holy Church, which is the mystical body of Christ wherein He pours out His grace to man, to unite man to Himself in time and in eternity.
Considered as a whole, the Summa Theologiae may be considered as a mirror of reality. It starts with God the Creator, who as Love gives being to all things, which in their turn seek the perfection of their created natures and thereby return to their Source. Man, as the cosmic priest of creation, sums up all things in himself and by making a free gift of himself back to God thereby brings all creation back to its Source. Reality is thus likened to a vast metaphysical circulatory system, with created beings flowing out from God Who Is Uncreated Being, unfolding their essences in time and attaining their various ends, and thereby returning to their Source for which they unceasingly yearn. This is the deeply biblical vision that runs through the entire Summa Theologiae, and on which the very structure of the text is modeled.
St. Thomas died before completing the third part of the Summa. One night shortly after he had composed the treatise on the Eucharist, Aquinas was praying in his chapel and heard a locution from the crucifix on the wall. Christ spoke to him, “Thomas my son, you have written well of me. What will you have as your reward?” The saint’s answer is the perfect summary of his whole life and all his voluminous scholarly output. “Non nisi te, Domine.” “Only yourself, Lord.”
Shortly thereafter one day while Aquinas was celebrating Mass he was granted a profound grace of mystical union, which so transfixed him that he declared he could no longer continue his writing. When his brother friars begged him to explain himself, Thomas told them “Compared with what has been revealed to me, all that I have written seems like so much straw.” On his deathbed soon after, he asked his brothers to read aloud the Song of Songs, and cared not that his greatest work was left unfinished. Later, his brother Dominicans systematically anthologized excerpts from his earlier work to complete the last part of the Summa, which is called the Supplementum.
How to Read the Summa Theologiae
The Summa Theologiae is a massive work. The print edition runs to five volumes and over 3,000 pages. It’s also as dense as it is bulky. St. Thomas never wastes words and there’s really no fat to trim off the Summa. Furthermore, Aquinas deploys an array of technical terminology that can leave the philosophically uninitiated bewildered. How then ought one to approach reading this work?
There are two basic difficulties encountered in the Summa. First, the terminology can be overwhelming without a primer, and second, the structure of the articles themselves can be confusing to newcomers.
The jargon is the biggest obstacle to average readers approaching the Summa. Thankfully, there are many fine introductions to St. Thomas which gloss the main philosophical terms and concepts. Ed Feser’s Aquinas is among the best recent such works. Mortimer Adler’s classic Aristotle for Everybody is also an extremely helpful primer on Aristotelian philosophy, which Aquinas largely adopts as a framework.
The second difficulty is the logical structure of Summa articles, which are discussed below.
How to understand the Summa articles
Articles of the Summa are written in the style of a “scholastic disputation.” These are really short, systematic debates, and once you know your way around them they are a ton of fun to read. Sadly, most people who open the Summa get lost in the seemingly obtuse structure of the articles, get discouraged by this, and end up giving up on St. Thomas.
The basic structure is as follows.
Statement of the Question, usually in a yes/no form.
Objections, wherein Aquinas summarizes arguments against his own position.
“On the contrary,” wherein Aquinas quotes from an authority like the Bible, a Father of the Church, or ancient pagan philosophers like Aristotle, in support of his own position.
“I answer that,” wherein Aquinas argues for his own position. This is typically the longest part of the article and where the real substance of Aquinas’ one view is to be found.
“Replies,” wherein Aquinas answers each of the previously stated objections and explains why it’s wrong, frequently by recourse to careful distinctions that show the objection to be partly right and partly wrong.
Reading an article from beginning to end can be frustrating, because by the time one gets to the replies one may not clearly recall the arguments of the objections which the replies are replying to. Many students of Aquinas find the following re-arrangement much easier to follow.
(1) Statement of the question.
(3) “On the contrary,” which points in the direction of Aquinas’ view.
(4) “I answer that,” which unfolds Aquinas’ argument for his position.
(2 and 5) Objection 1 followed immediately by reply 1, objection 2 followed immediately by reply 2, etc., through all the objections and replies.
That said, it is encouraged of all students of Aquinas, at least some of the time, to read the articles straight through. It is a wonderful exercise in authentic mindfulness, as you have no choice but to really pay attention in order to not lose your way. It also helps to situate the articles historically, because the objections that Aquinas replies to are all real arguments that had been made by thinkers before Aquinas, and they’re often very good arguments. Aquinas always very charitably states his opponents’ views as strongly as he can, never pitting himself against straw men. Reading and thinking about the objections before reading the body of the article gives a sense of Aquinas’ brilliance, because very often you will be convinced by the objections even though you know that Aquinas is about to refute them. This is a very useful exercise, and allows you to read Aquinas the way his contemporaries would have, in the context of all the previous arguments that they would surely have already been exposed to by the time they came to study with Master Thomas.
The revival of Thomistic scholarship in recent years is admirable and to be commended. There are many wonderful scholars who are rediscovering St. Thomas after several decades of his thought being largely neglected. Our hope in publishing this essay is that we may yet see a flowering of popular devotion to “the golden wisdom” of Aquinas, that many lay Catholics will search this great saint’s writings, thereby become better formed in their faith, and ultimately grow closer to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Deep study of St. Thomas should lead us to adopt as our own his single-minded pursuit of our Source and Final End: “Only yourself, Lord.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!
Editor’s note: This essay has also been published online at National Catholic Register.