Tomorrow, January 28 is the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas…
In honor of the occasion, we offer an introduction to his most important work, the Summa Theologica,
This introduction was written by D.J. Kennedy, O.P. and appeared in his 1919 book, St. Thomas Aquinas and Medieval Philosophy [ Download the book in full from Google Books ]
[ BACKGROUND ] [ OVERVIEW ] [ ASSESSMENT ]
Background of the Book
A Summa Theologica is, broadly speaking, a compendium, summary, or manual of theology. There is not in the English language an exact equivalent of the Latin word Summa as it was used by medieval writers. Perhaps the words “Complete Manual” would best convey to people using our language the idea which was in the minds of those who invented the Latin term. We always think of a compendium, or summary, as of a book or Excerpta, in which many things are omitted, some of these being either necessary or important. In a Summa there must be no such omissions. Things may be left out which properly would find a place only in a compete elucidation and development of a subject considered in all its aspects; but the Summa must contain a statement, explanation and proof of all that is necessary for the comprehension of the subject as a whole and in all its essential parts. Some latitude is allowed in the choice of divisions, arguments and illustrations. Summae composed by different men treating the same subject may not be similar in all respects. In all cases, however, the doctrine must be complete, briefly stated, sufficiently proved, illustrated and defended. Many such books were composed in the Middle Ages, some dealing with history, some with philosophy, some with theology or kindred subjects, the best known and most important of these being the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (see Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Summae).
Nearly six and a half centuries have passed since the death of St. Thomas (d. 1274), and yet his work is still considered the simplest and most perfect sketch of universal theology to be found in any language. Its value is recognized not only by Catholics but also by outsiders, even by the enemies of revealed religion. On this subject readers are referred to the Encyclical Letter “AEterni Patris,” of Leo XIII and to the article “Thomas Aquinas, Saint,” in the Catholic Encyclopedia. St. Thomas’ renowned work is a Summa in the best sense of the word. In it nothing is superfluous, nothing is wanting. It is a compendious, but complete, exposition of sacred doctrine, written in language so clear and concise that one is in constant admiration of the genius and sanctity of one who could express so well his knowledge of God and all things pertaining to God. Pope Pius X, shortly before his death, viz., in June, 1914, issued a document imposing the obligation of using the Summa of St. Thomas as the text-book in all higher schools in Italy and the adjacent islands which enjoyed the privilege of conferring academic degrees in theology. All institutions failing to comply with the Pontifical order within three years were to be deprived of the power to confer degrees. It is not probably that Benedict XV, an admirer of Leo XIII and a friend of Pius X, will revoke or modify the decree of his saintly predecessor. The Summa of St. Thomas is still a living and valuable book.
The following pages cannot claim to be even a good summary of its merits and excellencies; they are simply a few pertinent remarks which will be interesting, it is hoped, and modestly helpful to two classes of readers. For students of theology they will serve as an introduction and an incentive to deeper study of a work which cannot be fully known and appreciated until the general plan and all details of the execution have been examined in a close and reverent inspection of the immortal pages penned by the Angelic Doctor. For those who are not students of theology these sketches will furnish a coveted peep into the treasury where so many riches are said to be stored. To those who are not familiar with the Latin language the Summa of St. Thomas has been as a sealed book. Translations of the full text into French and English are now in course of publication (see Catholic Encyclopedia, l.c.), and soon will afford our laymen an opportunity to learn more about the great medieval theologian’s immortal work. For the benefit of both classes of readers it has been considered opportune to publish the plan of the Summa both in Latin and English. The chart facing gives in St. Thomas’ own words the plan which he followed in writing on God in Himself, and on God as the Alpha and Omega — the beginning and end of all things, especially of rational beings. These two charts, in their wonderful simplicity and grandeur, are more valuable than any words of explanation and comment. For the benefit of those who desire to know more about St. Thomas and his Summa there is added a short bibliography which will be helpful both to students and general readers. Sincere thanks are due to the Editor of the Catholic University Bulletin for the permission, graciously granted, to reprint the following pages.
The Summa and the Catechism. — “The Catholic Church,” writes Ozanam, a distinguished modern author, “possesses two incomparable monuments, the Catechism and the Summa Theologica (Sum of Theology) of St. Thomas Aquinas; one is for the unlettered (persons of ordinary capacity), the other is for the learned.” The truth of this remark is admitted by all theologians who have studied and examined the Summa of St. Thomas after having learned, as we must learn, the outlines of the Christian religion from that dear little book, the Catechism. The Catechism contains a compendious enumeration and short explanations of the principal doctrines of the Christian religion; the Summa of St. Thomas contains a complete list of those same doctrines, explained and developed and defended by the genius of a Master who is universally recognized as the “Prince of Theologians.” Had St. Thomas written nothing but his theology, his name would have been immortal, because nothing new is said in stating that the “Summa Theologica” is universally admitted to be the greatest masterpiece of human genius that the world has ever known. This work contains the cream of St. Thomas’ philosophy and theology, being in reality a résumé, or sum, of all his other writings; it represents the perfection of the human mind in its application to the truths of faith, the perfection of Christian philosophy and theology. Those who read it are filled with enthusiastic admiration for the author, and they know not which should be more admired, the grandeur of the plan or the extraordinary genius manifested in the execution of the grand conception.
Lacordair compares the Summa to the Pyramids. — “Shall I attempt,” exclaims Fr. Lacordaire, speaking of St. Thomas, “shall I attempt to describe this man and his work? As well might I attempt to give a perfect idea of the pyramids by telling their height and breadth. If you wish to know the pyramids, be not content with listening to a description; cross the seas; go to the land where so many conquerors have left their footprints; go into the sandy deserts, and there behold standing before you something solemn, something grand, something calm, immutable and profoundly simple — the pyramids!” St. Thomas’ Summa, in its majestic simplicity may well be compared to the grandest of the pyramids. We may look upon it with admiring eyes; but no tongue can tell, no pen can adequately describe the wonders of its simple grandeur; it is the masterpiece of a genius who has had neither a superior nor an equal. This great manual of theology comes to us from that much maligned thirteenth century, of which Vaughan writes: “The masterpieces of medieval science were produced at the very time that the great architectural masterpieces were conceived and at least partially realized.” The thirteenth century was an age of construction as well as of destruction. The men of those days upset and destroyed many idols of preceding centuries; but in their stead they constructed imperishable monuments both in the material and in the intellectual world, which to this day excite the unbounded admiration of all lovers of true genius; and the architects of our day would be happy if they could produce something worthy of being compared to the great cathedrals and churches and libraries and town-halls which were conceived and executed by the architects of the Middle Ages. This is a special manner true of the greatest of all masterpieces of medieval science, the Summa of St. Thomas. No writer of theology has attempted to make an improvement upon this greatest of all manuals of theology. The Church, guided by the Holy Ghost, has held her councils and has issued instructions and definitions to which not even the most enthusiastic admirer of St. Thomas would dare compare his writings when there is a question of a teacher that is infallible as well as accurate; but it is a fact well known to theologians that many of those definitions were taken almost verbatim from the works of St. Thomas. Amongst men the Summa has been looked upon as the groundwork and model for all theologies written since his time, and the greatest praise that could be bestowed upon any philosophy or theology consists in saying that the book really deserves to bear on the title-page the inscription: “ad mentem D. Thomae” — in other words, that it was formed on the model of St. Thomas and really represents his teachings.
When did St. Thomas resolve to write the Summa? — It is impossible to determine at what epoch in his lifetime St. Thomas resolved to write the Summa. We know that in his infancy those who cared for him were frequently astonished on hearing the child ask, with unexpected seriousness, “What is God?” It may be supposed that thus early in life grace was perfecting nature in this favored child, preparing him gradually to become in due time the most distinguished representative of that science which takes its name from God, of whom it treats. His sojourn at Monte Cassino, his studies at Naples, his reading of the Scriptures and of Aristotle, his study of the “Sentences,” in which Peter Lombard gave a compendium of the most important texts of the Fathers relating to theology, his training under Albertus Magnus, who was deeply impressed with the order and accuracy of Aristotle’s writings, and who was himself fond of experimenting and of collecting materials for rebuilding the edifice of philosophy and theology — all this tended to prepare St. Thomas for giving to the world what Ozanam calls “a vast synthesis of the moral sciences, in which was unfolded all that could be known of God, of man, and their mutal relations, a truly Catholic philosophy.”
Origin of the Summa. — In preceding chapters something was said of the chaos produced at Paris and elsewhere by the introduction of new studies and new methods into the universities. With brilliant professors anxious to obtain fame by giving their names to new systems, with Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle regarded at Paris as the perfection of philosophical knowledge, with rationalism and pantheism publicly taught by professors of a Catholic university, with contempt for old systems and the love of novelty growing in the minds of men, while the sweet and pious mystics of the school of St. Victor sought to induce men to give up “philosophy and empty fallacies” in order to return to the contemplation of heavenly truths and the study of the Scriptures, there was a confusion that puzzled even learned theologians, and poor beginners could do nothing but follow the systems of their masters.
Influence of Albertus Magnus on St. Thomas. — St. Thomas was a witness of this confusion. He had not suffered as much as others from the disordered state of philosophy and theology, because he had enjoyed the advantage of being instructed under a master whose clear vision was not dimmed by the darkness which surrounded him. Albertus Magnus — “honor to whom honor is due” — pointed out to St. Thomas the dangers and the needs of the thirteenth century, and to him principally, under God, we are indebted for the immortal Summa. Although St. Thomas himself had not experienced the difficulties under which others labored, he knew what those difficulties were, and he resolved with all due humility, and with the hope of assistance from heaven, to write a book that would be a remedy for the confusion and uncertainty which prevented students from forming a clear conception of the doctrines of Christianity.
The Summa written for Beginners. — In making this statement there is no necessity of drawing upon the imagination or of resorting to ex post facto suppositions. St. Thomas himself tells us — the declaration will perhaps surprise those who hear it for the first time — that his Summa was written for the special benefit of students; of beginners, as we call them. This declaration was made in the Prologue to the Summa. “We have reflected,” he writes, “that beginners in this sacred science find many impediments in those things which have been written by divers authors; partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles and arguments, partly because those things which are necessary for the education of novices are not treated according to the order of discipline (scientific order), but as the exposition of certain books or the occasion of dispute demanded, and partly because the frequent repetitions beget confusion and disgust in the minds of the learners.” Those “impediments,” or trials of beginners as we may call them, St. Thomas wished to avoid, hence he adds: “I shall endeavor, trusting to the assistance of heaven, to treat of those things that pertain to this sacred science with brevity and with clearness, in so far as the subject to be treated will permit.”
These are St. Thomas’ few plain and simple words of introduction to his immortal Sum of all theology. They contain a promise, and never was a promise more faithfully fulfilled. He did not write simply in order to explain or refute books that had been written before his time. He did not wish to make a show of learning by heaping up useless questions and arguments, thereby causing great confusion in the minds of his readers. No, with humble confidence in the Almighty, he intended to use the talents that God had given him to compose a complete, but at the same time brief and lucid, exposition of the truths made known by revelation. In other words, he promised to write a scientifically arranged theology, and he fulfilled his promise in such a manner as to become the Prince and master of all theologians, with no one to dispute his claim to the title.