(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Although arguments have been brought forward through the centuries in an effort to show that Thomas à Kempis did not write The Imitation of Christ, this evidence has never been widely accepted, and Thomas à Kempis is usually regarded as the author of the famous work. Aside from the Bible, The Imitation of Christ is among the most famous religious works of the Christian world, translated into more than fifty languages and printed in more than six thousand editions. Widely known in manuscript, it was being circulated as early as 1420. Its first publication in English was in 1696. The original language of The Imitation of Christ is Latin, not the classical Latin of Rome but medieval Latin. Many later writers have praised it. John Wesley thought so highly of it that he published an English translation. Matthew Arnold thought that it was, next to the Bible, the most eloquent expression of the Christian spirit ever penned.

The substance of The Imitation of Christ is that God is all and humanity is nothing, that from God flows the eternal truth that humanity must seek, and that by imitating the spirit and actions of Christ one may be helped to achieve a state of grace with God. As many writers have pointed out, the greatness of Thomas à Kempis’s book does not lie in any originality; there is little that is new in the matter of the work. It is the expression of a spirit that makes The Imitation of Christ a piece of great religious literature. Traceable are most of the strands of Christian philosophy and theology of the time, including those that Christians adapted, at least in part, from the great pagan thinkers of Greece and Rome. The book has sometimes been described as a mosaic of matter and ideas taken from the early and medieval Christian mystics, the Bible, and writings of the Church fathers. Borrowings from St. Bernard, St. Gregory, St. Ambrose, St. Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and even Ovid can be found within the pages of The Imitation of Christ, each contributing in a way to the spirit of Christian example. No reader can miss, even within a few pages, the eloquence and sincerity of the author. The religious feeling is expressed so ardently that it is unmistakably a call to the reader to heed the call of Christ.

Although he calls the reader to a Christian, hence otherworldly, life, Thomas à Kempis is eminently practical in his insights into human beings, their motivations, and their psychology. More than once the author points out that virtue is only to be claimed by those who have been tempted and have proved themselves equal to the challenge of denying worldly vanities and other snares of the devil. One must have experienced temptation in order to remain in act, thought, and spirit a follower of Christ’s doctrines and example. Thomas à Kempis also acknowledges that established custom is not easily relinquished by the individual or the community and is thus always a means of keeping one from a Christian life. Relativism and Christianity do not go hand in hand...

(The entire section is 1250 words.)