30 January 2019

‘Only Yourself, Lord’: How to Get Used to St. Thomas Aquinas

I am overjoyed to share this post by David Smither, an introduction to the Angelic Doctor.

I would suggest the following as a good way to get started 'getting used' to St Thomas after reading this article. St. Thomas Aquinas, by G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages: A Layman's Quick Guide to Thomism, by Dr Taylor Marshall, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, by Dr Edward Feser

From One Peter Five

“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 Pope Leo XIII are no less certain today than when he promulgated them 150 years ago. 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 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, with many excellent books being published for both academic and popular audiences. Nevertheless, for the average Catholic sitting in the pews of the average parish, Aquinas remains largely inaccessible in his own writings. Technical jargon and the logical structure of the saint’s work cause many to despair of understanding. To remedy this, we herein offer a brief introduction to the life of this indispensable Catholic theologian, and his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae. We pray that in so doing, Leo’s exhortation may again be heeded in our own day.
A brief introduction to St. Thomas
Saint Thomas was an Italian Catholic priest of 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 abducted 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. 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, and the brightest light of the Order of Preachers. Under the tutelage of St. Albert, Aquinas successfully synthesized the recently rediscovered natural science of Aristotle with Christian theology, accomplishing the primary intellectual project of Medieval Christendom: the marriage of faith and reason. The fruit of that marriage is enshrined in Aquinas’s vast corpus of writings. Today, in an age when faith and reason are seen as dichotomous rivals rather than spouses, we urgently need to return to St. Thomas to learn just how reasonable Christianity actually is.
A brief introduction to the works of St. Thomas
St. Thomas’s 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 (the standard theological textbook of his day). Then he went on to write many commentaries on Holy Scripture, patristic texts, and the works of Aristotle, as well as 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’s undisputed magnum opus, was written as a new textbook for theology students, whose faith was already presumed.
A brief introduction to the Summa Theologiae
The Summa Theologiae is a systematic work comprising 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 man lives out the moral principles, and the opposing vices that 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 he 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. 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 that 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, retaining the key terms like “substance,” “potency,” and “act,” which are critical to a right interpretation of Aquinas.
The second difficulty is the logical structure of Summa articles, 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. They also implicitly convey the harmony of faith and reason. The content of the Summa is primarily theological (sacred doctrine proposed for belief), but the method is largely philosophical, making clear logical arguments and parsing careful distinctions.
The basic structure is as follows.
  1. Statement of the Question, usually in a yes-no form.
  2. Objections, wherein Aquinas summarizes arguments against his own position.
  3. “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.
  4. “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’s view is to be found.
  5. “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.
(Nota bene: The juxtaposition of the “On the contrary” with the “I answer that” demonstrates the inherent harmony of faith and reason, as one may believe the same proposed conclusion on the basis of authoritative teaching or on the basis of careful reasoning. Truth cannot contradict truth.)
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 the replies are replying to. Many students of Aquinas find the following re-arrangement much easier to follow.
  1. (1) Statement of the question.
  2. (3) “On the contrary,” which points in the direction of Aquinas’s view.
  3. (4) “I answer that,” which unfolds Aquinas’s argument for his position.
  4. (2 & 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 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 prior to Aquinas, and they’re often very good arguments.
Aquinas always 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’s brilliance, because you may be convinced by the objections even though you know that Aquinas is about to refute them. This is a useful exercise, and it 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, and thereby become better formed in their faith.
We also hope that Christians will learn from Aquinas how reasonable Christianity is, and learn to articulate and defend their faith more intelligently. In our age of reactionary mass media and click-bait attention spans, a new Thomistic revival would be welcome, indeed!
Most of all, we pray that popular study of the Angelic Doctor, which we hope this essay will assist, will lead many souls to a deeper love of God, Who has revealed Himself definitively in 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!

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