"Thomas’ writing is like a piece by Bach"

After 52 years, a theological project of dizzying magnitude has finally been completed. In September, the final volume of the Japanese translation of the Summa Theologica was published, the last of 45 volumes of the defining work of St Thomas Aquinas.

Ryosuke Inagaki, a professor emeritus of Kyushu University who translated 20 of the volumes and stuck with the project until the very end, says that despite the huge amount of time required he has not come away from the task with memories of having “worked hard.”

“Thomas’ writing is like a piece by Bach, with a rhythm that makes it easy to approach. Once I got into the translation, it went pretty quickly,” says Inagaki.

He tried to make progress each day, he adds, devoting the time between waking up and eating breakfast to this long series of books.

Written for novices of Christianity over a period of nine years from 1265, but never completed, the Summa Theologica tackles all the big questions confronting mankind, from creation to the existence of God, the latter summed up in five arguments known as the “five ways.”

But according to Inagaki, “it would be a mistake to think it is supposed to be the answer to every question. Instead, the Summa Theologica is a roadmap for life.” 

Baptized during his time as a college student, 84-year-old Inagaki discovered St Thomas through some priests he met and a high-ranking American officer who was stationed in Japan after World War II.

Japan’s first introduction to the Summa Theologica came courtesy of the economist Tokuzo Fukuda who died a decade before the outbreak of the war.

While studying in the US, Inagaki later researched Thomas’ conception of natural law theory as well as the constitution of Japan. He joined the translation project when it was still in its 11th volume.

Some 15 people had a hand in the recently-finished translation with more than half having died during the time it took to complete.

Two days after the completion of the galley proof of the final Japanese volume in May last year, the elderly founder of the publishing house responsible passed away.

Pulling out a letter from the publisher written in 2011, Inagaki notes the emphatic words of support for the lengthy, time consuming translation process which was then in its final stages.

Inagaki has held dear the writings of St Thomas for decades as the owner of an American, 1952-published copy of the pocket edition of the Summa for the mass market, My Way of Life.

“This title really brings out the defining features of the Summa Theologica,” he says. “[St Thomas] wanted to write a roadmap for people who really and truly seek happiness.”

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