Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
~St. Thomas Aquinas, from Summa Theologica
On January 28th the church celebrates St. Thomas Aquinas who was perhaps her greatest theologian. According to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine , one skilled in speech should “so speak as to teach, to delight, and to change; that is, to teach the ignorant, to delight the bored and to change the lazy.” To that hopeful end, the first words that Thomas Aquinas spoke in his inaugural sermon as a newly minted Master of Theology were from Augustine’s work. In the days and years to come however, where Augustine synthesized rhetorical and theological styles, Aquinas separated them.
In his book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius writes “This rhetorical-theological divide was implicit in the Aristotelian distinction between rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and dialectic (the art of reasoning) that became explicit when theology was declared a “science” and elevated beyond the liberal arts.” Aquinas is not casual reading.
John Mark Reynolds, writing in his book The Great Books Reader says:
Thomas, of all men, knew that sacred and secular must come together in the beating heart of man as created in the image of God. He lived as he thought, and his hymns are as beautiful as his philosophy is profound.
Argue with Thomas, because that is what he wants you to do, but follow his argument carefully, for it is very subtle. Few readers, perhaps, will agree with everything he says—even the Church of Rome does not—but it’s always worth considering.
Once you get the trick of reading Thomas, he is easy to “get” but also hard to exhaust. His argument is clear, but it’s also subtle, and what seems like an obvious problem will be filled in later or is anticipated in his careful wording.
D I G D E E P E R
The Truth of Saint Thomas Aquinas
I am totally convinced that Saint Thomas Aquinas was the greatest, wisest, most intelligent merely human theologian who ever lived.
Why? Let the first reason be that he told the truth. Nothing trumps that.
Second, he’s the master of common sense. What he says is always what sound reason says, even though he says it in his difficult, technical, medieval-Aristotelian vocabulary. G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox proves this brilliantly.
Third, he was not just a head but a heart: a saint and a practical man. Kings, peasants, and popes wrote to him for advice and always got back sound wisdom. (Example: his cure for depression—a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.)
Fourth, he combined the two essential goals of thinking better than anyone else: profundity and clarity. He wrote about the most difficult and profound questions a man can ask: God and man, good and evil, life and death, virtue and vice, soul and body, intellect and will, predestination and free will, nature and grace—and he did it clearly and simply. Though at first he seems difficult, he becomes amazingly straightforward and simple on subsequent readings, once the vocabulary obstacle is overcome. He is a transparent window; there are no impositions of his personality, no rhetorical tricks, no extra words, no digressions, all bottom-line, right-to-the-point answers, and always with compelling logical reasons.
Fifth, he fulfilled more than anyone else the essential medieval program of a marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the biblical and the classical inheritances. He “baptized” philosophy, especially Aristotle. He did not turn the Christian faith into a purely rational philosophy; he turned Aristotle’s purely rational philosophy into a servant of Christian faith.
Sixth, he also combined elaborate, careful detail with “the big picture,” his cosmic perspective, which is breathtakingly big.
Thomas Aquinas wrote many thousands of pages in addition to his unfinished four-thousand-page masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, which he dictated to four secretaries at once, sentence by sentence, never changing a word. Then he stopped writing and called everything he had ever written “straw” compared with “what has been revealed to me” (or, in another account, “what I have seen”). His fellow monks heard a heavenly voice ask him, “You have written well of Me, Thomas, what will you have as your reward,” and heard his absolutely perfect, absolutely simple answer: “Only Thyself, Lord.” Never was more said in fewer words.
By the way, Protestants and Anglicans and even agnostics often love and respect Thomas as much as Catholics do. Certainly, there was no greater thinker for two thousand years between the death of Aristotle and the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method (except perhaps Augustine). Whoever you are, your mind will get a wonderful workout in clarity and logic, as well as orthodox theology, by reading him.
Reading Thomas Aquinas is like eating spinach. It tastes strange at first, but it makes you stronger. His habits of clarity and order rub off on you, even when you disagree with him.
Nevertheless, read him slowly. The Summa is not a novel but a reference book.
Furthermore, Summa is an ordered summary, not a closed system. Its structural outline is a mirror of reality. It begins in God, “in the beginning,” then proceeds to the act of Creation and God’s continuing providence in dealing with creatures, centering on man, who alone is created in God’s image; it ends with man’s return to God, his end, through his moral and religious life, and finally man’s means to this end of salvation, namely Christ, who saves man through His body and His church (which is His body). It’s the universal drama of God as Alpha and Omega of all time and change. God pumps the blood of being through the arteries of creation into the body of the universe, which wears a human face, and receives it back through the veins of man’s life of free choice of faith, hope, and love. This is a cosmic circulatory system.
It’s good to be aware that, though logically outlined into many sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-subdivisions, the basic unit of the Summa is the “article,” typically a page or two long, which has five structural parts:
1. The question is formulated in a yes or no format, beginning with “Whether . . .”
2. Objections to his answer are given, fairly and clearly and completely, beginning with “It seems that . . .”
3. An argument from a past authority is given, with the formula “On the contrary . . .”
4. The body of the article, beginning with “I answer that . . .” is his main proof for his position, with explanations along the way.
5. Finally, each objection is answered, usually by distinguishing what is true and what is false in it.
This is no merely local and quaint medieval format. Not one of these steps can ever be omitted if we want to have good grounds for settling any controversial question.
Thomas Aquinas is scrupulously fair. Though his prosaic, literal, bottom-line logical style is an extreme contrast to Augustine’s charming, rambling, and singing poetry, his single-minded, pure passion for truth is strikingly similar. Neither of them seems even capable of dishonesty.
If you were a CIA agent recruiting among philosophers for spies, no two would be more hopelessly inept than these.
Sources & Resources
Peter Kreeft, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, New York. He is an acclaimed author and speaker on many philosophical and theological topics.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).