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 ]
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[ BACKGROUND ] [ OVERVIEW ] [ ASSESSMENT ]
Assessment of the Book
The Style of the Summa. — Let us consider, for instance, the style of his writings. The style of St. Thomas is something unique and inimitable; it is a most extraoardinary combination of brevity, accuracy and completeness. The Scholastics generally were not so careful of style as were the predecessors in the learned world; they were more solicitous about their thoughts than about the language in which their ideas were expressed. Hence the lamentations of John of Salisbury, who was a finished classical scholar and a writer of elegantly polished letters. St. Thomas’ style is a medium between the rough expressiveness of the ordinary Scholastic and the almost fastidious elegance of John of Salisbury. We know that his hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament are incomparably grand and beautiful. Santeuil said he would give all the verses he ever wrote for the following words of the “Verbum Supernum,” which immediately precede the “O Salutaris”:
Se nascens dedit socium
Convescens in edulium
Se moriens in pretium
Se regnans dat in praemium.
But I am speaking of his style of writing on philosophy and theology, concerning which Pope Innocent declared that, with the exception of the canonical writings, the works of St. Thomas surpass all others in accuracy of expression. In a few well chosen words he tells all that one wishes to know on a question, and after reading all that others have written, students return to St. Thomas, who always gives something satisfactory. No one can appreciate this without actually reading the writings of St. Thomas. For the sake of comparison I should like to see some modern authors attempt to put into a given space as much accurate and satisfactory information as St. Thomas usually gives in the space of one article. Bossuet, Lacordaire and Monsabré, three of the greatest of authors, studied and admired St. Thomas’ style, and in reading their discourses we can recognize the influence of the Angelic Doctor. Writers on philosophy and theology have studied his style; they could not imitate it, because it is sui generis, possessing an excellence which makes it inimitable. Cajetan knew his style better than any of his disciples, yet Cajetan is beneath St. Thomas in clearness and accuracy of expression, in depth and solidity of judgment.
Sound Judgment. — This soundness and soberness of judgment in another characteristic of St. Thomas. It is a well known fact that St. Thomas was noted for his singular calmness and meekness; even under the most trying circumstances he never lost his temper, notwithstanding the many provocations he met with in his life as a student, as a professor, and as a champion of the religious orders against the malicious attacks of William of St. Amour. This quiet self-possession runs through all his writings, so much so that every candid reader, even though he paid no attention to the supernatural meekness and humility of a saintly disciple of Jesus, would be compelled to admire him as a perfect specimen of the philosopher with a well-balanced mind. St. Thomas was full of what we take delight in praising as good, sound sense. He and Albertus Magnus introduced new methods into the schools. Besides praising and making known the works of Aristotle, upon which some looked with suspicion, they insisted on the necessity of experiment and observation in an age when men too often contented themselves with reading what had been written by others.
In philosophy, says St. Thomas, arguments from authority are of secondary importance (2 Sent. Dist. 14, Art. 2, ad. 1); experiment, and reason the thing out for yourself, and do not swear by the words of a master. “Philosophy does not consist in knowing what men said but in knowing the truth.” We now understand the importance of this principle; perhaps we should not have understood it so well, and might not have proposed it so courageously had we lived in the middle of the thirteenth century. The good judgment of St. Thomas is displayed in a remarkable manner in settling disputed questions. If he tells you that he is certain of the truth of his solution, you may rest assured that his arguments are convincing; otherwise he will simply give an opinion, stating that it is probably or more probable than the opposite; or he will admit that the question is doubtful, and then he suspends judgment. He does not hesitate at times to say plainly: This is something about which we know nothing, differing in this from many of his time and of our times who foolishly imagine that it is unphilosophical to say: “I don’t know.” On reflection we know that judgments should be formed in accordance with the nature of the arguments adduced, but as a matter of fact very few writers observe this rule. St. Thomas observed it invariably, and for this reason he has always been considered a safe guide, because he judged always in justice and in truth.
No Excellence Without Labor. — It would be a mistake to suppose that St. Thomas attained to this perfection of scholastic writing without an effort, and that he affords an exception to the general rule expressed in the old saying: “There is no excellence without labor.” He was indeed a singularly blessed genius, but he was also an indefatigable worker, and by continued application he reached that stage of perfection in the art of writing where the art disappears. Some years ago the Abbé Ucceli published a facsimile of the original manuscript of the “Summa Contra Gentiles.” The text was corrected and changed in almost as many places as it remained intact, thus proving that even the genius of St. Thomas was not dispensed from the law of labor in attaining to excellence.
Another remarkable feature of the Summa is St. Thomas’ wonderful knowledge of the Scriptures, of the Councils of the Church, of the Works of the Fathers and the writings of the philosophers. He seems to have read everything and to have understood everything. Father Daniel d’Agusta once pressed him to say what he considered the greatest grace he had ever received from God (sanctifying grace, of course, excepted). “I think, that of having understood whatever I have read,” he replied, after a few minutes of reflection. St. Antoninus says in his Life, that “he remembered everything he had once read, so that his mind was like a huge library.” Whoever has read the Summa will at once admit the truth of these statements.
Scripture. — St. Thomas must have known by heart the greater portion of the Scriptures. There is scarcely an article of the Summa that does not contain quotations from the Scriptures, and frequently he takes pains to explain the meaning of obscure passages. It must be borne in mind that he wrote at a time when there was no such book as a “Concordance,” or a “Thesaurus Biblicus,” or “Divine Armory of the Holy Scriptures,” or other books of that kind which make it easy for writers of our times to fill their pages with quotations from the holy writings. Not only did he know the Scriptures themselves, he was also acquainted with the Commentaries on the sacred text; and whenever it was necessary or useful, he was prepared to give the different opinions of various authors, sometimes refuting their interpretations, sometimes leaving the reader free to choose for himself from several interpretations, all of which were considered equally good. The bare enumeration of texts quoted or explained in the Summa fills eighty small-print columns in the Migne edition of his works, and it is supposed by many that St. Thomas learned the Scriptures by heart while he was imprisoned in the Castle of St. Giovanni, shortly after he received the habit of the Order of St. Dominic.
Tradition. — He was also filled with the deepest veneration for all the traditions of the Church. He was a man of intense faith, and no arguments had greater weight with him than those taken from the consuetudo ecclesiae — the practice of the Church, which, he said, should prevail over the authority of any Doctor (2a 2ae, Q.X.A. 12). This same spirit of faith is manifested in his quotations from the Acts of Councils, the Definitions of the Roman Pontiffs, and the works of the Holy Fathers. His acquaintance with these important souces of theological arguments is astonishing, especially when we remember that books were very rare and precious in his time — two centuries before the invention of printing. In the “Summa Theologica” he quotes from nineteen Councils, forty-one Popes, and fifty-two Fathers of the Church or learned Doctors. Among the Fathers, his favorite is St. Augustine, whose opinions, however, he does not always adopt, when St. Augustine puts forth a private opinion and is not bearing witness to a doctrine that was handed down from the ancients. In departing from St. Augustine’s opinion he usually, through respect for that Father, refrains from mentioning his name, preferring that the readers should not be unnecessarily reminded of the fact that even St. Augustine made some mistakes.
Philosophers. — In the introduction to the Summa, St. Thomas lays down the principle that a theologian can make use of the writings of philosophers, not indeed as if theology needed them, but because she has the right to use them as her servants (Q. 1, Art. 5 ad. 2) in order to illustrate the truth of faith (Q. 1, Art. 8, ad. 2). Acting on this principle he extensively used the works of the pagan philosophers and poets in order to render more intelligible and attractive his explanations of Christian doctrines and practices. In the Summa he quotes from the writings of forty-six philosophers and poets, Aristotle, Plato and Boethius being his favorite authorities. From Aristotle he learned that love of order and accuracy of expression which are the most conspicuous features of the Summa. From Boethius he learned that Aristotle’s works could be used without detriment to Christianity; and in the works of that philosopher he found several exact definitions which he adopted, and which are still used in the schools of theology (def. of Person and of Eternity). He did not follow Boethius in his vain attempt to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. St. Thomas saw that the teachings of those two great philosophers were not the same, especially in regard to the nature of universal ideas and the union of the soul and body in man. He adopted Aristotle’s doctrines on those subjects, and in general the Stagyrite was his master; but the elevation and grandeur of St. Thomas’ conceptions, and the majestic dignity which characterizes all his writings speak to us of the great and sublime Plato, who would have been greater than Aristotle, had he condescended to descend to facts rather than to soar aloft, even unto the Divinity, on the wings of sublime theories. St. Thomas is as sublime as Plato, and more reliable than Aristotle, because Aristotle backed the light of Christian faith, which alone can safely guide the human mind through the intricacies and obscurities of philosophy. St. Thomas then, is the Christian Aristotle, the greatest of all philosophers, and the Prince of Theologians. The importance and value of his Summa, which I have very imperfectly described, pointing out in a general way a few of its excellencies, were recognized and admitted as soon as it became known, and shortly after his death the Summa supplanted the Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard which for years had been the favorite text-book in the theological schools of the Middle Ages.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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