Analysis

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Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica is a treatise dating to the High Middle Ages that was intended to instruct students in Christian doctrine. Aquinas himself was a 13th-century Dominican friar, and was deeply ingrained in the Neoplatonist teachings of pseudo-Dionysus (among other philosophers, secular and Christian alike).

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His Summa Theologica (left unfinished owing to Aquinas' death) is a touchstone text in the history of both philosophy and Christianity for its ability to join both. Specifically, Aquinas does not take for granted the merits of studying church doctrine; he justifies his study by stating that Christianity and its study stands apart from the realm of science, and so constitutes a separate but greater pursuit. Aquinas quotes heavily from Scripture to support this claim.

Aquinas' quinque viae (Latin: "five ways") amounts to nothing sort of a reason-based justification for the existence of God (viz. arguments from motion--stating that God must be the "prime mover"--causation, contingency, degree, and a teleological argument"). The so-called "five ways" are not without critique from modern philosophers; however, the very fact that Aquinas sought a rational explanation for God was unique in contemporary Christian circles.

In brief, Aquinas is known for merging the studies of philosophy and doctrine, and (in related fashion) faith and reason. The latter dichotomy is exhibited, in addition to the quinque viae, by Aquinas' structure, wherein he lists a series of objections to each of his claims, followed by point-for-point responses.

The Summa is divided into three parts, the first devoted to Theology (the nature of God, Christ, and the Trinity), the second to Ethics (including human sins and virtues), and the third to the nature of Christ's incarnation and His relationship to mankind, as well as a discussion of eschatology (the end of the world). Aquinas' enduring legacy is as a comprehensive and multifaceted scholar, theologian, and philosopher.

Context

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It is a difficult task to comment on Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica briefly; it has meant and can mean many things to many people. Partly this is because of its length; it runs to many volumes. It is also because of the scope of the questions considered; they range from abstract and technical philosophy to minute points of Christian dogmatics. The situation is complicated because of Thomas’s style. Such works were common in his day, and his is only one of many that were written in this general form. The work consists entirely of questions, each in the form of an article in which the views Thomas considers important are summarized and then answered. Objections to the topic question are listed, often including specific quotations, and then an equal number of replies are given, based on a middle section (“I answer that”), which usually contains Thomas’s own position. However, this, in turn, is sometimes based on some crucial quotation from a philosopher or theologian.

Out of this complexity and quantity many have attempted to derive Thomistic “systems,” and both the commentators and the group of modern Thomists form a complex question in themselves. Thomas was considered to be near heresy in his own day, and his views were unpopular in some quarters. From the position of being not an especially favored teacher in a very fruitful and exciting era, he has come to be regarded as perhaps the greatest figure in the Catholic philosophy and theology of the day. His stature is due as much to the dogmatization and expansion of his thought that took place (for example, by Cardinal Cajetan and John of Saint Thomas) as it is to the position Thomas had in his own day. Without this further development, his writing might have been important, but perhaps it would have been simply one among a number of significant medieval works. The Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII, “On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy,” published in 1879, started the Thomistic revival. The modern developments in philosophy had gone against the Church of Rome, and Thomas was selected as the center for a revival and a concentration upon Christian philosophy. Since that time, Thomas has been widely studied, so much so that it is sometimes hard to distinguish Thomas’s own work from that of those who followed him.

Part 1 contains 119 questions, including treatises on Creation, on the angels, on humanity, and on the divine government. The first part of part 2 consists of 114 questions, including treatises on habits and law, and in general, it covers ethical matters in contrast to the metaphysical and epistemological concentration that marked part 1. The second part of part 2 is made up of 189 questions, and part 3 contains ninety. These cover laws, the ethical virtues, and questions of doctrine and Christology. Taken as a whole, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive study. Thomas’s earlier study, Summa contra gentiles (c. 1258-1264; English translation, 1923), literally, a “summation against the Gentiles,” was intended as a technical work of apologetics for those who could not accept the premises of Christian theology. Many of the arguments in the later work were first presented in the earlier work. Summa Theologica, then, has as its unspoken premise the acceptance of certain basic Christian propositions, whereas Summa Contra Gentiles attempts to argue without any such assumptions.

The influence of any single philosopher or theologian on Thomas’s thought is difficult to establish, and probably too much has been made of Thomas’s use of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It is true that Aristotle is quoted in Summa Theologica more than any other pagan author and that Thomas refers to him on occasion as “the philosopher.” The availability of Aristotle’s writings in fairly accurate translation in Thomas’s day had a decided influence upon him and upon others of his era. The works of many other Greek philosophers such as Plato were still largely unknown, so Thomas quotes few philosophers outside the Christian tradition other than Aristotle. Particularly in psychology and epistemology, Thomas seems to have followed at least an Aristotelian tradition, if not Aristotle himself.

However, the authors Thomas quotes with favor cover a wide range, including frequent citations of the Neoplatonic pseudo-Dionysius and Saint Augustine. Moreover, in a theologically oriented summa, or summation, the Bible and church tradition must play a major role, so that to sort out and label any strain as dominant is extremely difficult in view of the peculiar nature of a summa. There are positions that can clearly be recognized as Thomas’s own, but the real perplexity of understanding Thomas is to grasp the variety of sources blended in his works and to hold them all together for simultaneous consideration and questioning, as Thomas himself did.

Theology and Philosophy

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The first question, consisting of ten articles, presents Thomas’s definition of the nature and the extent of sacred doctrine or theology, and it opens by asking whether humanity requires anything more than philosophy. Thomas’s contention that the Scriptures are inspired by God and are not a part of philosophy indicates the usefulness of knowledge other than philosophy. Scriptural knowledge is necessary for humanity’s salvation, for Scripture offers the promise of salvation and pure philosophic knowledge does not. Philosophy is built up by human reason; however, certain truths necessary for humanity’s salvation but that exceed human reason have been made known by God through divine revelation. Such knowledge is not agreed to be reason; it is by nature accepted only on faith.

Now the question arises: Can such revealed knowledge be considered as a science (a body of systematic knowledge) along with philosophy? Of course, such a sacred science treats of God primarily and does not give equal consideration to creatures. This means that it is actually a speculative undertaking and is only secondarily a practical concern. Yet it is the most noble science, because of the importance of the questions it considers, and in that sense all other forms of scientific knowledge are theology’s handmaidens. Wisdom is knowledge of divine things, and in that sense theology has chief claim to the title of “wisdom.” Its principles are immediately revealed by God, and within such a science, all things are treated under the aspect of God.

Naturally, there can be no argument on these terms with one who denies that at least some of theology’s truths are obtained through divine revelation, for such a person would not admit the very premises of theology conceived of in this fashion. That is the sense in which this summa is a summa of theology intended for Christians. Because its arguments, at least in some instances, involve a claim to revealed knowledge, Summa Theologica may be unconvincing to the non-Christian. Thus, the reception of grace, sufficient to become a Christian, is necessary to understand the arguments. In the Christian conception, the reception of grace enables the receiver to accept the truth of revelation. However, Thomas’s famous doctrine here is that such reception of grace does not destroy nature (natural knowledge) but perfects or completes it. Nothing is countermanded in philosophy’s own domain; grace simply adds to it what of itself could not be known.

The Existence of God

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As compared with other classical theologians, Thomas believed in a fairly straightforward approach to questions about God. However, Thomas did admit the necessity of the familiar “negative method” because where God is concerned, what he is not is clearer to us than what he is. The proposition “God exists” is not self-evident to us, although it may be in itself. The contradictory of the proposition “God is” can be conceived.

In this case, Thomas seems to oppose Saint Anselm’s ontological argument, although the opposition is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Thomas denies that people can know God’s essence directly, even though such vision would reveal that God’s essence and existence are identical and thus support Anselm’s contention. However, the ontological argument, he reasons, is built upon a kind of direct access to the divine that human reason does not have.

The existence of God, then, needs to be demonstrated from those of his effects that are known to us. Thomas readily admits that some will prefer to account for all natural phenomena by referring everything to one principle, which is nature itself. In opposition, he asserts that God’s existence can be proved in five ways: first, the argument from motion; second, the argument from the nature of efficient cause; third, the argument from possibility and necessity; fourth, the argument from the gradations of perfection to be found in things; and fifth, the argument from the order of the world. Without attempting individual analyses of these arguments, several things can be noted about them as a group. First, all are based on the principle that reason needs a final stopping point in any chain of explanation. Second, such a point of final rest cannot be itself within the series to be accounted for but must be outside it and different in kind. Third, in each case, it is a principle that is arrived at, not God himself, but these principles (for example, a first efficient cause) are shown to be essential parts of the nature of God. God’s existence is agreed to by showing reason’s need for one of his attributes in the attempt to explain natural phenomena.

Divine Nature and Its Attributes

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It is probably true that Thomas’s five proofs have been given a disproportionate amount of attention, for following them, Thomas goes into elaborate detail in a discussion of the divine nature and its primary attributes. Simplicity, goodness, infinity, and perfection are taken up, and then the other chief attributes are discussed before Thomas passes on to the analysis of the three persons of the Trinitarian conception of God. Taken together, these passages form one of the most elaborate and complete discussions of God’s nature by a major theologian, and it is here that much of the disagreement about Thomas’s philosophy centers, rather than in the more formal and brief five proofs.

In spite of Thomas’s use of Aristotelian terms, he indicates his affinity with the Neoplatonic tradition by placing the consideration of “simplicity” first. This is the divine attribute most highly prized and most stressed by Neoplatonists, and Thomas concurs in their emphasis. God’s simplicity is first protected by denying absolutely that he is a body in any sense because what is corporeal is by nature subject to division and contains potentiality, the opposite of God’s required simplicity and full actuality. Nor is God within any genus, nor is he a subject as other individuals are. The First Cause rules all things without commingling with them.

God’s primary perfection is his actuality because Thomas accepts the doctrine that a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality. All created perfections preexist in God also because he is the source of all things. As such a source of the multitude of things in this world, things diverse and in themselves opposed to each other preexist in God as one, without injury to his simplicity. This is no simple kind of simplicity that Thomas ascribes to his God as a perfection. God is also called good, although goodness is defined primarily in terms of full actuality, as both perfection and simplicity were. Everything is good insofar as it has being, and because God is being in a supremely actual sense, he is supremely good. An object can be spoken of as evil only insofar as it lacks being. Because God lacks being in no way, there is absolutely no evil in his nature but only good.

When Thomas comes to infinity, he is up against a particularly difficult divine attribute. By his time, infinity had become a traditional perfection to be ascribed to God, but Aristotle had gone to great lengths to deny even the possibility of an actual infinite. Concerning this point, Thomas makes one of his most significant alterations in the Aristotelian concepts that he employs. Aristotle had considered the question of an actual infinite in the category of quantity. Thomas agrees with him: There can be no quantitative infinite and the idea is an imperfection. Form had meant primarily limitation for Aristotle, but here Thomas departs. The notion of form, he asserts, is not incompatible with infinity, although the forms of natural things are finite. In admitting the concept of the form of the infinite, Thomas departs from Aristotelian conceptions quite markedly and makes a place for a now traditional divine perfection. Nothing besides God, however, can be infinite.

Turning to the question of the immanence of God in the natural world, Thomas makes God present to all things as being the source of their being, power, and operation. However, as such, God is not in the world. For one thing, God is altogether immutable, whereas every natural thing changes. He must be, since he is pure act and only what contains potentiality moves to acquire something. It follows that in God, there is no succession, no time, but only simultaneous presence. God’s unity further guarantees that only one such God could exist. Of course, a God of such a nature may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of such an intelligible object over the finite intellect; but, as fully actual, God is in himself fully knowable. The blessed see the essence of God by grace; for others, it is more difficult. However, a proportion is possible between God and humans, and in this way, the created intellect can know God proportionally. This is not full knowledge, but it establishes the possibility for a knowledge relationship between God and humans.

The created intellect, however, cannot fully grasp the essence of God, unless God by grace unites himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it. It is necessary in the case of God only that, for a full grasp, the natural power of understanding should be aided by divine grace. Those who possess more charity will see God more perfectly and will be more beatified. This is Thomas’s statement of the goal of the beatific vision. Even here God is only apprehended and never comprehended because only an infinite being could possess the infinite mode necessary for comprehension, and none is infinite except God. God alone can comprehend himself, yet for the mind to attain an understanding of God in some degree is still asserted to be a great beatitude. God cannot be seen in his essence by a mere human being unless the person is no longer alive. Thomas echoes Exodus 33:20: “Man shall not see Me, and live.”

For Thomas, faith is a kind of knowledge because a more perfect knowledge of God himself is gained by grace than by natural reason. Such a concept of faith has had wide implications. That God is a Trinity, for instance, cannot be known except by faith, and in general, making faith a mode of knowledge has opened to Christianity the claim to a more perfect comprehension than non-Christians possess.

Names can be applied to God positively on Thomas’s theory, but negative names simply signify his distance from creatures, and all names fall short of a full representation. Not all names are applied to God in a metaphorical sense, although some are (for example, God is a lion), but there are some names that are applied to God in a literal sense (for example, good, being). In reality, God is one, and yet he is necessarily multiple in idea, because the intellect represents him in a manifold manner, conceiving of many symbols to represent him. However, univocal predication is impossible, and sometimes terms are even used equivocally. Others are predicated of God in an analogous sense, according to a proportion existing between God and nature.

God’s Knowledge

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In the first thirteen questions, Thomas considers God as humans approach him. He then considers the world as it is viewed from the standpoint of the divine nature. Even the attributes of perfection that Thomas discussed, although they truly characterize God’s nature, are not separate when viewed from the divine perspective. The question is how God understands both himself and the world, and the first thing that must be established is that there actually is knowledge in God. This might seem obvious, but the Neoplatonic tradition denies knowing to its highest principle as implying separation and need. Thomas admits a mode of knowing into the divine nature, but he denies that God knows as creatures do. God understands everything through himself alone, without dependence on external objects; his intellect and its object are altogether the same and no potentiality is present. God’s knowledge is not discursive but simultaneous and fully actual eternally. This is true because of God’s role as the creator of the natural world; God’s knowledge is the cause of things being as they are. God knows even some things that never were, nor are, nor will be, but it is in his knowledge not that they be but that they be merely possible.

God knows future contingent things, the works of humanity being subject to free will. These things are not certain to humanity because of their dependence upon proximate, contingent causes, but they are certain to God alone, whose understanding is eternal and above time. There is a will as a part of God’s nature, but it is moved by itself alone. The will of humans is sometimes moved by things external to them. God wills his own goodness necessarily, even as people will their own happiness necessarily. Yet his willing things apart from himself is not necessary. Supposing that he wills it, however, then he is unable not to will it because his will cannot change. Things other than God are thus “necessary by supposition.” God knows necessarily whatever he knows but does not will necessarily whatever he wills. The will of God is always reasonable in what it wills. Yet the will of God is entirely unchangeable, Thomas asserts, because the substance of God and his knowledge are entirely unchangeable. As to evil, God neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but he wills to permit evil to be done; this is good because it is the basis of humanity’s freedom. However, all things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual selves. It necessarily follows that everything that happens from the exercise of free will must be subject to divine providence. Both necessity and contingency fall under the foresight of God.

The Soul and Will

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Thomas devotes considerable time to a consideration of the nature and function of angels. Part of his reason for doing so, of course, is undoubtedly their constant presence in the biblical record. Part of his interest comes from the necessity of having intermediary beings between God and humans. Having assigned to God a nature so different from humanity’s nature, beings who stand somewhere in between are now easy to conceive. When Thomas comes to describe human nature, he follows much of the traditional Aristotelian psychology, which he finds more amenable to Christianity than certain Platonistic theories. Angels are not corporeal; humans are composed of a spiritual and a corporeal substance. The soul has no matter, but it is necessarily joined to matter as its instrument. The intellectual principle is the form of humanity and in that sense determines the body’s form. Because Thomas claims that the intellect in each person is uniquely individual, he argues against some Arabian views of the universality of intellect. In addition to a twofold intellect (active and passive), humans have appetites and a will.

The will is not always moved by necessity, but in Thomas’s view, it is subject to the intellect. When he turns to the question of free will, Thomas’s problem is to allow sufficient causal power to human will without denying God’s providence and foreknowledge. His solution to this problem is complicated, but essentially it involves God’s moving humans not directly and by force but indirectly and without doing violence to human nature.

To obtain knowledge, the soul derives intelligible species from the sensible forms that come to it, and it neither has innate knowledge nor knows any forms existing independently from sensible things. The principle of knowledge is in the senses. The intellect can know the singular in material things directly and primarily. After that, intelligible species are derived by abstraction. Yet the intellectual soul cannot know itself directly but only through its operations. Nor in life can people’s intellect know immaterial substances directly. That is a knowledge reserved for angels, but it means that humans cannot understand immaterial substances perfectly (through natural means). People know only material substances, and they cannot represent immaterial substances perfectly.

Human Nature

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The human soul is not eternal; it was created. It is produced immediately by God, not by any lesser beings (as is suggested by Plato, for instance). Soul and body are produced simultaneously because they belong together as one organism. Humans were made in God’s image, but this in no way implies that there must be equality between Creator and created. Some natures may be more like God than others, according to their disposition and the direction of their activities. All humans are directed to some end. Just as their end is worthy of blame or praise, their deeds are also worthy of blame or praise. There is, however, one last fixed end for all humans, and people must, of necessity, desire all that they desire for the sake of that last end. People’s happiness ultimately is not found in wealth, fame, honor, or even power. Thomas never doubts that the desired end is to be happy, but he does deny that the end can consist of goods of the body. No created good can be humans’ last end. Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence, although momentary happiness probably does depend on some physical thing.

It is possible for humans to see God, and therefore it is possible for people to attain ultimate happiness. Of course, there are varying degrees of happiness, and it is not present equally in all people. A certain participation in such happiness can be had in life, although true and perfect happiness cannot. Once attained, such happiness cannot be lost because its nature is eternal, but people cannot attain it by their own natural powers, although every person desires it.

Next Thomas considers the mechanics of human action, voluntary and involuntary movement, individual circumstances, the movement of the will, intention, and choice. His discussion forms an addition to his psychology and a more complete discussion of the ethical situation of humanity. Thomas acknowledges that some actions of people are evil, although they are good or evil according to circumstance. As far as the interior act of will is concerned, good and evil are essential differences in the act of will. The goodness of the will essentially depends on its being subject to reason and to natural law. The will can be evil when it abides by an erring reason. The goodness of the will depends upon its conformity to the divine will.

In his more detailed psychology, Thomas discusses the nature and origin of the soul’s passions, joy, sadness, hope, fear, and love and hate. Pleasure, pain or sorrow, hope, despair, and fear all are analyzed in a way that anticipates Baruch Spinoza’s discussion of the emotions. When Thomas comes to virtue, his opinion is largely based on Aristotle’s. There are intellectual virtues and moral virtues, and to these he adds the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Moral virtue is in a person by nature, although God infuses the theological virtues into people. For salvation, of course, there is need for a gift of the Holy Ghost.

Thomas continues with a discussion of sin, its kinds and causes. Such discussion has been extremely important both to church doctrine and in church practice. Not all sins are equal; therefore, sins must be handled in various ways. The carnal sins, for instance, are of less guilt but of more shame than spiritual sins. Mortal and venial sins are distinguished, but the will and the reason are always involved in the causes of sin. Original Sin as a concept is of course extremely important to Christian doctrine, and Thomas discusses this in detail.

The treatise on law is one of the better-known parts of Summa Theologica, for it is here that Thomas develops his theory of natural law. First, of course, there is the eternal law of which natural law is the first reflection and human (actual legal) law is a second reflection. The eternal law is one and is unchanging; natural law is something common to all nations and cannot be entirely blotted out from people’s hearts. Human law is derived from this common natural law, but human law is framed to meet the majority of instances and must take into account many things, as to persons, as to matters, and as to times.

A brief survey such as this cannot do justice even to the variety of topics considered in Summa Theologica, nor can it give any detailed description of the complex material presented or of the views Thomas distills from it. The impression that Summa Theologica gives is that of an encyclopedia to be read and studied as a kind of source book for material on a desired issue. In fact, the only way for any reader to hope to understand Thomas and his Summa Theologica is to become engrossed and involved in it for himself or herself—undoubtedly what Thomas intended.

Summa Theologica

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Human reason, according to Aquinas, is capable of proving or clarifying a number of Christian beliefs which are based on faith. Reason can prove that God exists, for instance, as well as discern certain of God’s characteristics. Reason can do this without the help of faith.

Reason is limited, however, because it must rely upon knowledge gained through the senses. By making inferences from the material world, reason can discover that God is the basis of all reality, that God is the source of all truth, and that God is the cause of everything good. Revelation provides knowledge of things that cannot be derived from the senses. It is through revelation that human beings learn of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection.

In SUMMA THEOLOGICA, Aquinas applied this understanding of reason and revelation to the Christian faith. He wrote the SUMMA in three parts. The first explains divinity: the nature of God, the Trinity, creation, and providence. The second explains ethics: theological virtues from Paul (faith, hope, and love) and cardinal virtues from Aristotle (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance). The third explains Christology: Christ, the sacraments, and eternal life.

Aquinas made his place in history by synthesizing Christian theology and non-Christian philosophy. For Aquinas, Christianity is not the antidote to civilization as it was to New Testament writers. Rather, Christianity is the complement of civilization. The good of the world is the result of human reason; the best of the world will be the result of reason cooperating with faith.

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.

Chenu, M. D. A Guide to the Study of Thomas Aquinas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. An in-depth study. Part 1 discusses Aquinas’ literary forms and his procedures of documentation and construction of the Summa Theologica.

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 those with little experience in theology.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955. A scholarly yet accessible discussion of the philosophy of Thomas. Spends little time in dealing with Thomas himself but instead focuses on God and creation, body and soul, morality and society. The discussion of modern Thomism is dated. Copleston’s analysis provides insight into Thomas’s use of Aristotle (he notes that the ancients were concerned with how things came into being; Thomas was concerned with why).

D’Arcy, M. C. St. Thomas Aquinas. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1953. Presents a good overview of Aquinas’ thought on the first principle of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the existence of God. One of the most important books on Aquinas.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by L. K. Shook. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957. Landmark study by one of the leading Thomists of the twentieth century. Presents Aquinas as precursor to modern existentialism.

Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This volume in the Past Masters series covers Thomas’s life in fewer than one hundred pages. Thomas’s theories are explored, including his conception of Being (which Kenny believes is hopelessly flawed) and his notion of the nature of Mind (which Kenny praises for the questions Thomas asks). Latter chapters introduce the reader to medieval categories of thought, but Thomas the Christian is almost submerged.

Kreeft, Peter. A Summa of the “Summa.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Contains essential passages from the Summa Theologica selected and translated by Kreeft. The extensive footnotes are lucid and generally helpful. A good starting place.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomastica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. 1982. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. This work is one of the finest introductions to Thomas’s moral philosophy. Covers selected themes in Thomistic moral thinking, including moral goodness, judging good and evil moral actions, work of virtues, functions of conscience, and relation of ethics to religious belief.

McInerny, Ralph. St. Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An accessible study of Thomas’s thought in chapters dealing with Aristotle, Boethius (whose philosophy was introduced to modern times through Thomas’s writings), and Platonism. In a chapter on the tasks of theology, the author explains Thomas’s distinction between believing and knowing. The book is filled with examples and includes a useful chronology of Thomas’s life plus a short, annotated bibliography.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. An introduction to Thomas, with eighty pages devoted to pertinent excerpts of Thomas’s work, newly translated by the editor. Selections are generally quite short and range from Thomas’s writings on government to selections from his treatise on God in Summa Theologica. Excerpts from background sources are also presented, with the remainder of the volume devoted to interpretations of Thomas.

Dan Barnett Lisa A. Wroble

Summa Theologica

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Purpose

Thomas Aquinas intended the Summa Theologica to provide instruction to students in Catholic theological schools who not only studied the Old and New Testaments of the Bible but also participated in oral disputations concerning controversial theological questions. The Summa is a written, if condensed, version of these theological debates.

The work was also intended to reform the teaching of sacred doctrine, which for Aquinas involved not only the exposition of those religious tenets known through revelation—such as the nature of salvation—but also the aspects of the Christian faith that are accessible to reason—such as the question of God’s existence. Reducing the confusing number of topics, arguments, and distinctions that were often arbitrarily arranged in the standard theological texts, the Summa argues its way point by point through questions concerning first the nature of God, then “the rational creature’s movement towards God,” and finally Jesus Christ (a person’s way to God). Aquinas died before finishing the third part; a supplement, drawn from his earlier writings, completes the plan of the work. Part 1 is divided into three parts (the divine essence, the persons of the Trinity, and creation, and part 2 into two parts (part 2-1, the general treatment of virtues of vices, and part 2-2, their specific treatment). Part 3 deals with Jesus Christ, the sacraments of the Church, and with resurrection and eternity.

The Nature of True Happiness

For Aquinas, and for Aristotle (whom the Summa calls “the Philosopher”), everything in the universe has a purpose, an “end,” a teleology. The purpose of a saw is to cut; the purpose of the acorn is to grow into a tree. Since human beings can reason and act, they are able to choose what they think will fulfill their desire for the perfect good; human moral choices, by their nature, are oriented toward this “last end.” Happiness is the fulfillment of human desire for the perfect good, but as both Aquinas and Aristotle point out, happiness is not equivalent to wealth, honor, power, or pleasure. Instead, since human beings share a common human nature, happiness involves a life full of all the things that all human beings really need, in the right order and the right proportion. For Aquinas, the perfect happiness is in the life to come and consists of the contemplation of God’s essence. In this life, however, happiness involves not only (imperfect) contemplation but also the development of practical reason to direct human actions and feelings into a life of choosing what is truly—not apparently—good, and learning to enjoy those choices.

In Aquinas’ Aristotelian view, morality touches all of life; everyday choices tend to develop in the individual either virtue (human excellence) or vice. “Right reasons” must direct human activity to acquire that which is objectively good for human beings (such as knowledge). These goods are intrinsically to be desired, but their acquisition is also a means of building the kind of stable character with which God is pleased. Without courage, for example, a person would be unable to act in accordance with right reason.

Aquinas took Aristotle’s view to be complementary to his own, not competitive. Unaided by supernatural grace, Aquinas said, reason could discern the kind of character that a human being ought to have, but a complete picture of an individual required God’s grace, which would provide the theological direction that human beings could not discover through philosophic reflection alone. Already in this life God was suffusing human beings with faith, hope, and charity (love), the three theological virtues, which were given not by human action but by the Holy Spirit. They prepared a believer for the vision of God in the life to come.

Central to the Summa’s discussion of true happiness and the final end is the concept of law. A law is made by reason for the common good by those in charge of a community, and persons cannot become truly virtuous independent of society. God’s eternal law—His divine plan—governs the universe; the natural moral law, which is made up of those precepts that human beings discern through the use of right reason, reflects the eternal law. Actions that oppose the natural moral law are forbidden not because God arbitrarily says they are wrong, but because they are contrary to the development of full human potential. In addition, there is positive divine law, in which God wills that individuals receive grace through the sacraments, and those are positive human laws, in which communities or states restrain actions that are detrimental to society and promote obedience to the natural moral law; unjust laws do not have to be obeyed. Governments exist not only to provide peace and protection but also to nurture the common good. In times of need, the resources of a community become “common property,” and thus it is not sinful for someone to take bread to feed a starving child. People may resist tyrannies and overthrow them, unless there is good reason to believe rebellion would make matters worse.

The Summa presents a synthesis of faith and reason that was declared to be of permanent value to the Catholic church by Pope Leo XIII in 1879.

Divisions of the Work

The three parts of the Summa (as well as the supplement to the third part) are divided into questions dealing with the main subtopics of each part; in turn, every question is divided into several articles. Each of the 3,112 articles in the Summa is a stylized disputation beginning with an assertion of the position contrary to the one that Aquinas will take and a presentation of several objections to Aquinas’ position. Aquinas answers by supplying a relevant quotation from the Bible or a Church father (such as Saint Augustine), followed by his own argument. The point here is to show that reason (that is, Aquinas’ reply) is in harmony with sacred Scripture and the theologians of the Church. Finally, there are specific replies to each objection.

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.

Chenu, M. D. A Guide to the Study of Thomas Aquinas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. An in-depth study. Part 1 discusses Aquinas’ literary forms and his procedures of documentation and construction of the Summa Theologica.

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 those with little experience in theology.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955. A scholarly yet accessible discussion of the philosophy of Thomas. Spends little time in dealing with Thomas himself but instead focuses on God and creation, body and soul, morality and society. The discussion of modern Thomism is dated. Copleston’s analysis provides insight into Thomas’s use of Aristotle (he notes that the ancients were concerned with how things came into being; Thomas was concerned with why).

D’Arcy, M. C. St. Thomas Aquinas. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1953. Presents a good overview of Aquinas’ thought on the first principle of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the existence of God. One of the most important books on Aquinas.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by L. K. Shook. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957. Landmark study by one of the leading Thomists of the twentieth century. Presents Aquinas as precursor to modern existentialism.

Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This volume in the Past Masters series covers Thomas’s life in fewer than one hundred pages. Thomas’s theories are explored, including his conception of Being (which Kenny believes is hopelessly flawed) and his notion of the nature of Mind (which Kenny praises for the questions Thomas asks). Latter chapters introduce the reader to medieval categories of thought, but Thomas the Christian is almost submerged.

Kreeft, Peter. A Summa of the “Summa.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Contains essential passages from the Summa Theologica selected and translated by Kreeft. The extensive footnotes are lucid and generally helpful. A good starting place.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomastica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. 1982. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. This work is one of the finest introductions to Thomas’s moral philosophy. Covers selected themes in Thomistic moral thinking, including moral goodness, judging good and evil moral actions, work of virtues, functions of conscience, and relation of ethics to religious belief.

McInerny, Ralph. St. Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An accessible study of Thomas’s thought in chapters dealing with Aristotle, Boethius (whose philosophy was introduced to modern times through Thomas’s writings), and Platonism. In a chapter on the tasks of theology, the author explains Thomas’s distinction between believing and knowing. The book is filled with examples and includes a useful chronology of Thomas’s life plus a short, annotated bibliography.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. An introduction to Thomas, with eighty pages devoted to pertinent excerpts of Thomas’s work, newly translated by the editor. Selections are generally quite short and range from Thomas’s writings on government to selections from his treatise on God in Summa Theologica. Excerpts from background sources are also presented, with the remainder of the volume devoted to interpretations of Thomas.

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Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

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.

Chenu, M. D. A Guide to the Study of Thomas Aquinas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. An in-depth study. Part 1 discusses Aquinas’ literary forms and his procedures of documentation and construction of the Summa Theologica.

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 those with little experience in theology.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955. A scholarly yet accessible discussion of the philosophy of Thomas. Spends little time in dealing with Thomas himself but instead focuses on God and creation, body and soul, morality and society. The discussion of modern Thomism is dated. Copleston’s analysis provides insight into Thomas’s use of Aristotle (he notes that the ancients were concerned with how things came into being; Thomas was concerned with why).

D’Arcy, M. C. St. Thomas Aquinas. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1953. Presents a good overview of Aquinas’ thought on the first principle of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the existence of God. One of the most important books on Aquinas.

Davies, Brian, ed. Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae”: Critical Essays. Oxford, England: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Contains background on the work and critical essays on the varied content of Aquinas’s thought, with a special focus (four out of eleven essays) on Aquinas’s description of the soul and its powers.

Farrell, Walter. A Companion to the “Summa.” 4 vols. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1945-1949. In addition to providing more than an explanatory commentary on each consecutive section of the work, Farrell engages Aquinas’s thought philosophically.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by L. K. Shook. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957. Landmark study by one of the leading Thomists of the twentieth century. Presents Aquinas as precursor to modern existentialism.

Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This volume in the Past Masters series covers Thomas’s life in fewer than one hundred pages. Thomas’s theories are explored, including his conception of Being (which Kenny believes is hopelessly flawed) and his notion of the nature of Mind (which Kenny praises for the questions Thomas asks). Latter chapters introduce the reader to medieval categories of thought, but Thomas the Christian is almost submerged.

Kreeft, Peter. A Summa of the “Summa.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Excerpts and explains the work’s essential philosophical passages for beginning students of Aquinas. Only covers the first part and the first section of the second part.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomastica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. 1982. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. This work is one of the finest introductions to Thomas’s moral philosophy. Covers selected themes in Thomistic moral thinking, including moral goodness, judging good and evil moral actions, work of virtues, functions of conscience, and relation of ethics to religious belief.

McInerny, Ralph. St. Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An accessible study of Thomas’s thought in chapters dealing with Aristotle, Boethius (whose philosophy was introduced to modern times through Thomas’s writings), and Platonism. In a chapter on the tasks of theology, the author explains Thomas’s distinction between believing and knowing. The book is filled with examples and includes a useful chronology of Thomas’s life plus a short, annotated bibliography.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. An introduction to Thomas, with eighty pages devoted to pertinent excerpts of Thomas’s work, newly translated by the editor. Selections are generally quite short and range from Thomas’s writings on government to selections from his treatise on God in Summa Theologica. Excerpts from background sources are also presented, with the remainder of the volume devoted to interpretations of Thomas.

Torrell, Jean-Pierre. Aquinas’s “Summa”: Background, Structure, & Reception. Translated by Benedict M. Guevin. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005. A brief work that nonetheless covers much material, from an account of Aquinas’s life to an assessment of the Summa’s literary structure, historical context, and doctrinal influence.

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