(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

When Pope Leo XIII in 1879 issued his encyclical Aeterni Patris (on the restoration of Christian philosophy) urging that the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas be promoted and taught within the Roman Catholic Church, he ratified a view of Aquinas already held by many: that Aquinas is not only the supreme medieval and Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher but also one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Aquinas’s synthesis of biblical teachings with the philosophies of Aristotle and of Neoplatonism reaches its best-known expression in his final major work, the Summa Theologica. Despite its daunting size, intricate structure, and occasionally difficult ideas, this “summary of theology” was actually intended as an introductory text for students.

The summa, or summary form, was quite common in Aquinas’s time; many theologians and philosophers wrote in this encyclopedic, systematic style, and Aquinas himself had previously completed the Summa contra gentiles (c. 1258-1264; English translation, 1923). The Summa Theologica is divided into three principal parts (the second part has two sections): Prima Pars, Prima Secundae Partis, Secunda Secundae Partis, and Tertia Pars. Tertia Pars, left only about half done by Aquinas at his death (up through question 90), was supplemented by his followers with additional material based on one of Aquinas’s previously written philosophical commentaries. Each part is divided into treatises on various subjects, such as the “Treatise on Law” or the “Treatise on Man,” which are themselves divided into several numbered questions (extensive essays). Each question is further divided into articles. These articles deal with a single yes-or-no question, such as whether God exists. Aquinas begins each article with a series of theological and philosophical objections to the yes-or-no answer he has in mind. He follows these objections with a short statement, always beginning with “On the contrary” (Sed contra), presenting his answer, which is based on the authority of the...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Summa Theologica Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

This towering edifice of thought, often called simply the Summa, stands as a bulwark against the forces of doubt and skepticism that invaded the Western world during the late Middle Ages, toward the close of which Saint Thomas Aquinas created this great summation of philosophical and theological knowledge. In it two of the mightiest forces in the realm of human thought meet: Hellenism and Christianity. It was their first real encounter.

Simply stated, what Saint Thomas did was collect and synthesize the philosophical knowledge and thinking of previous eras and apply them to Christian theology. This was an immensely ambitious task, and the wonder is that Saint Thomas did so well with it. Though unfinished, because of the divine doctor’s sudden death from illness, the Summa unites, or at least joins elements of thought from, the Greek, the Arabian, and the Asian traditions in a highly detailed fashion. Saint Thomas thus became a historian of philosophy; but he was a critical historian, carefully weighing and evaluating each premise and conclusion.

The largest part of this previous thought is, as might be expected, that of the Greeks. Saint Thomas is usually given the credit for having reinterpreted the philosophy of Aristotle on a Christian basis. This statement is, however, something of an oversimplification, for the reading of Aristotle and other great Greek thinkers, including Plato, was a very special one. Saint Thomas was himself a magnificent philosopher, and the Summa is unquestionably his book. What he did, in essence, was to organize the thought of Aristotle along Christian lines, to apply it to the problems and principles of religion. For example, some philosophers had interpreted Aristotle’s Physica (Physics, 1812) as a denial of Creation; Saint Thomas saw it as merely falling short of this fundamental concept.

The Summa is an exceedingly long work, running into several volumes, a necessary length in order to accomplish the goal of applying Scholasticism, the prevailing philosophical influence in the thirteenth century, to religion. In doing so, Saint Thomas gave credit for ideas and lines of thought to many earlier thinkers, and he found the seeds of much thirteenth century belief in the works of previous philosophers. His work, then, is in the nature of a summary of past thinking on the highest subjects and a setting forth of the essential principles of Christian theology as he was able to formulate them from this past material and from his own conviction and thinking.

There are three main divisions of the Summa: the first dealing with God and the divine nature of the creation of humanity and the universe; the second, often called the Moral Philosophy of Saint Thomas, treating humanity and the goal of human life and the ways of reaching that goal; the third considering Christ and his role as Savior. Within this general framework virtually every possible subject pertaining to theology is discussed: good and evil, pleasure, knowledge, duty, property. The list is almost endless.

The method of attacking these questions is the Socratic one. A basic question is asked and the negative side of it is enforced by a fictitious opponent; then Saint Thomas undertakes to...

(The entire section is 1346 words.)