(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Summa Contra Gentiles is less widely known and much less widely read than Saint Thomas Aquinas’s later, longer Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921). Summa Contra Gentiles is simpler in its structure and in that sense more readable and less involved, but the Summa Theologica has become better known, perhaps because it is more widely used in church dogmatics. Summa Contra Gentiles is the more philosophical of the two works, as its author intended, and more likely to be of more interest to the non-Catholic reader. It is an earlier work, but Thomas’s ideas did not change radically, and a comparison of the basic doctrines does not reveal any wide discrepancy.

Whereas Summa Theologica begins with an apologetic approach, explaining the relation of philosophy to theology and arguing for the existence of God, Summa Contra Gentiles begins immediately with God as he is in himself. As a work directed to the non-Christian, the reverse might have been expected. However, Summa Contra Gentiles is less doctrinal in style and does not base its arguments on a prior acceptance of Scripture as authoritative, as the Summa Theologica does. The earlier work is more directly metaphysical, defining the “wise person” as one who deals with the first beginning and the last end of the universe. Truth is conceived of as the final end of the whole universe, and the...

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God and Faith

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Reason and faith must agree, however, and Thomas begins by asserting that it is impossible for the truth of faith to be contrary to principles known by natural reason. No opinion or belief, Thomas is sure, is sent to humanity from God as an item of faith that is contrary to natural knowledge. For one thing, although for human beings knowledge begins with sense objects, these retain in themselves some trace of the imitation of God. Here is Saint Bonaventure’s doctrine of the natural world seen as a sense world but also as one containing traces within itself of its supernatural origin as a creation of God. Thomas also affirms the use of the negative method, another traditional doctrine. People may have some sort of knowledge of the divine nature by knowing what it is not.

Proofs for God’s existence appear in Summa Contra Gentiles, but they are in briefer form than in Summa Theologica and seem less fully developed. One might have expected this work, directed at pagans and not dependent upon Scripture for its arguments, to make more use of the “proofs.” Instead, the proofs receive less stress, and Thomas moves directly into a discussion of the divine attributes. He discusses in sequence God’s eternality, his freedom from potentiality, his lack of composition, and his incorporeality. All of these are rather directly stated as if they needed little expansion.

Summa Contra Gentiles appears to be the framework upon which Summa Theologica was finally built. The arguments need expanding, and more biblical material is included, but the structure is very much the same. In Summa Contra Gentiles, very few authors are quoted, and the argument is simply advanced in a straightforward way. Later, in Summa Theologica, Thomas attempted to blend a number of important views and to reach a more detailed conclusion. In the earlier work, however, he seems satisfied to provide the outline of the important questions and the basic structure of each argument. Little of great significance is changed in the later work, but the arguments receive a great many refinements, and the reasoning is made both subtler and more complex in order to deal with the multiplicity of views presented there.

God’s Understanding and Nature

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Aquinas considers God’s understanding at length and describes its difference from humanity’s. God does not understand temporally but eternally. He does not understand by knowing an object directly but by knowing its intelligible counterpart in his own understanding. God’s understanding does contain a multitude of objects, but he understands all things at once and together. Propositional truth is also present in the divine understanding, and God also knows individuals, not merely universals. Nonexistent things are known by God, even though they never will become actual, and he knows individual events, contingent upon humanity’s action, as they will happen. In order to do this, God must know the motions of the human will as well as his own will, and through these he understands evil as well as good.

Aquinas agrees to the traditional self-sufficiency of God’s nature: God does not of necessity love things other than himself. Things outside God need him in a way that he does not depend on them. God’s will is free, subject to no external conditions, and has no cause other than his own wisdom. His goodness is the reason he wills all things, and in that sense it is possible to assign a reason for the choice of God’s will. Will, understanding, and goodness exist in God, but not passion, because that would indicate imperfection. There is love in God, but not such that he suffers from it or is subject to anything else because of it. God...

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God’s Power

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Turning then directly to God, Aquinas asserts that God’s power and his action are not distinct. They are not two things, and this view actually results in a stronger doctrine of necessary predestination here than Thomas was to adopt in Summa Theologica. God does not create the natural world out of anything preexistent, and therefore he does not create merely by moving material. The act of creation means bringing a thing into being without any preexistent material, not even potentiality. Nor is creation a successive movement. Creation takes place in an instant. A thing is at once in the act of being created and is created. Such a drastic form of creation is an action proper to God alone, and he creates directly with no intermediaries. God’s power extends to every possible thing, except to those that involve a contradiction.

In God there is an active power but no potentiality. Whatever would necessarily involve potentiality, those things are impossible to God. Nor could God make one and the same thing to be and not to be, because that would involve a contradiction. He cannot make a thing that lacks any of its essential constituents. His will cannot be changeable; he cannot cause what once was willed not to be fulfilled. On the other hand, God’s knowledge or understanding is bounded by no limits in its view. This means that God is essentially infinite, although all other things are limited. The infinite reach of God’s understanding means that his knowledge extends even to things that neither are, nor shall be, nor have been.

Creation of the Natural Order

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

God needs nothing and depends on nothing other than himself; every other being is in his or her neighbor’s debt on God’s account. In all these matters, God is not a debtor to any creature, but a debtor to the fulfillment of his own plan. There is no absolute necessity for the being of any creature. The creature begins to exist in time exactly when God from eternity arranged that it should begin to exist. God brought into being creation and time simultaneously. Thus, questions that concern a “before creation” are improperly asked. There is no account to be given of why he produced a creature now, and not before, but only why the creature has not always been. Having thus been always willed, a new thing that has not always been may be produced by God without any change in him. However, if time has not always been, one may mark a nonexistence of time prior to its being.

Multiplicity and variety characterize creation, to the end that the perfect likeness of God can be found in creatures and in each according to his or her measure. Taken all together, they are very good, because the order of the universe is the finest and noblest creation. Of course, in created intelligences, both potentiality and actuality are present in a way in which they are not in God. The potential intellect in humanity does not subsist apart from matter but is intimately dependent on the body’s functions. In each person, it is individual, just as one’s body is...

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The End of Humanity

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Two objectives of the vast scheme remain: to consider the end of humanity and the created world in relation to God, and to consider finally what God can be said to have revealed. Using a quotation from the Psalms, Aquinas begins his discussion of the last end of humanity with the assertion that God will not abandon his creation once constituted. Every creature acts to attain some end, so that the natural world in this sense seems constantly directed toward the attainment of some goal. Furthermore, the goal desired is always some good; evil is a thing aside from the attention of an agent. In fact, the very cause of evil is something that in itself is good; and even when evil appears, it never cancels out completely the good upon which it is based.

Because the end of everything is always some good, the ordained end of all things is actually the source of all good: God. God is the end of all things in the sense that all rational creatures desire to be like God, to understand him. Happiness in any ultimate sense does not consist, for humanity, in bodily pleasures. Humans know, as rational creatures, that all final happiness lies in the contemplation of God. However, this happiness is not based on a general knowledge of God or upon the knowledge of God’s existence that is to be had by demonstration. The problem is that people cannot in this life see God as he essentially is, which means that the final happiness of humanity cannot be attained in this life....

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Christian Doctrines

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

From this point, Thomas moves on to consider specifically the utility of prayer, the question of fate, miracles (which God alone can work), and the purposes for the giving of a divine law for human conduct. The divine government of humanity here on this earth is like paternal government because people’s acts are punished or rewarded by God. Of course, not all punishments or rewards are equal. There is a distinction between venial and mortal sin, the latter being material in determining final reward or punishment. Because people cannot attain happiness for themselves, they need divine assistance, or grace. The presence in people of grace causes people to love God and produces faith. Such grace is given gratuitously. People can, it...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bradley, Denis J. M. Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good: Reason and Human Happiness in Aquinas’s Moral Science. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. Bradley argues that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a theologian first and philosopher second. He contends that to avoid misinterpretation, Aquinas’s writings should be approached from a theological, rather than a philosophical, approach.

Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933. A superb introduction to the life and thought of Thomas, “the Angelic Doctor.” Aimed at non-Christian readers, or...

(The entire section is 456 words.)