Why I Love the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas
The few times I dipped into the Summa Theologica I found it incomprehensible. I knew that Thomas was a great and accomplished thinker, but I found him impenetrable. So, I started wondering if there was a way I could gain some degree of mastery of his thought. I wasn't looking to become an expert, I just wanted a basic understanding.
Here's what I did. I happened upon a very good path — which I highly recommend to anyone else out there who wants a basic understanding of Thomas' thought. I searched around on the Amazon site for books on Thomas Aquinas. I was a little nervous about secondary sources (that is, books about Thomas and his theology) — I didn't want to end up with ones that were primarily an exposition of the author's bias, and I didn't know which ones those were. I wanted to know enough to be able to dip into the Summa Theologica and understand what I was reading. Somewhere I encountered the view that Thomas is often easier to understand than his interpreters. That's the very concern I had about secondary sources. So, I looked around for resources that would help me engage the primary sources. I hit upon a reading plan that I would recommend to anyone who wants to do their own short course on Thomas Aquinas. I purchased the following three books:
I don't know how I could have happened on a better reading program.
Chesterton had this habit (evident in so many of his essays) of seeming to ramble on and on about irrelevant matters — until suddenly the reader realizes he's not rambling at all. As always, I enjoyed Chesterton's sly humor and I found him a good advocate for Thomas. But, it was Kreeft's book that actually opened the door. Everything he was doing was designed to help the reader understand the primary sources. He was more concerned with getting me reading Thomas in his own words, than in convincing me of his own point of view (though it was clear throughout that Kreeft had very strong views). Kreeft's book was the single most helpful resource I encountered. The book Aquinas’s Shorter Summa is a translation of Thomas's Compendium of Theology that he wrote late in life, and actually never completed. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who hadn't read the Kreeft book first. In Aquinas’s Shorter Summa, Aquinas seems to be spinning his theology out of thin air — he is summarizing his conclusions without showing the debate and reasoning that went behind it. And, because the work was never completed, there are still topics that are not discussed.
Which brings me to the things I love about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. I often disagree with him (as you might imagine) but I always benefit from reading him.
(1.) In the Summa Theologica, Thomas's theology is set out in the context of vigorous debate. This is one of the reasons I never could comprehend the
Thomas is not pretending that there is no difference of opinion on the issues. He knows there is — and he lets us know there is. Of course, as the author, he has given himself the last word — but he has also laid out for us not only his reasoning, but also the alternative views.
Often theologians set out just to give the last word on a topic. They have researched for years, they present their views. As the reader we could (foolishly) assume that anyone coming to this topic would find the author's views convincing. Thomas doesn't even pretend that there is unanimity on the topics he discusses. While it is true that the Summa can get dry and technical in it's argumentation, at it's heart is a lively debate about the meaning of life — a debate into which we are invited.
(2.) The theology of Thomas Aquinas was an awesome intellectual achievement whose influence on Western thinking cannot be calculated. Thomas brought together the Scriptures, the Christian tradition up to his lifetime, and the medieval Aristotelian school of philosophy in a grand philosophical synthesis. His intellectual program sought — and provided — answers to the main questions of (in the words of Douglas Adams) "life, the universe, and everything." In Thomas's perspective, theology was the "Queen of the Sciences" bringing all the sciences — all knowledge — together. It is easy to see why it became such a dominant perspective.
From our current point of view, we can see how deeply flawed such an Aristotelian philosophical program really is. But, on the other hand, what an amazing accomplishment! And, his theology is determinative in the Roman Catholic Church to this day. So, even if you are inclined to disagree — even at a very foundational level — the power and pervasiveness of this great medieval synthesis cannot be denied. Instead of arguing with Thomas's ideas indirectly (through those he has influenced) why not take things up directly with the man himself? And, Thomas invites you into the debate.
Strangely enough, the alternative — a scientific view — was already present in Thomas's day, in the writings of Roger Bacon, called by one writer The First Scientist. Bacon understood and wrote about and practiced the inductive, scientific method — basically as we know it today. But, of course, this method could not produce the sweeping philosophical overview of all reality that Thomas's Aristotelianism generated. Thus, Bacon's work was forgotten, until his much later namesake Francis Bacon revived it. But, for a long time until then, Thomas's views were so widely accepted that they shaped society in a pervasive way.
It would be sad to get bogged down in the sections on the proofs of God and the nature of God and of the angels, etc. and never get to the practical, ethical sections of the Summa.
(4.) The theology of Thomas Aquinas had a profound spiritual impact on the lives of those who learned it. We can see this most clearly in the poetry of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and in the spiritual writings of St. John of the Cross. Both of them obviously found the study of Thomas's theology to be a profoundly spiritual experience. Thomas Aquinas was Dante’s imagined guide through Heaven. He became seen as the Divine Doctor. And, it spite of its nit-picky philosophical character, and in spite of what can only appear to us as obvious mistakes, reading it really can be a spiritual experience. You really do feel like you are reading the writing of a man who was both a saint and a genius. Here was a man who had poured his life into the study of Scripture, and of the Fathers who had gone before him, and into the latest philosophical insights of his time. He had committed his mind and life to the pursuit of God and God's ways — not only to knowing them but to explaining them. And, this amazing devotion shines through the whole work.
Well, those are the four main points I can think of to explain my abiding love for Aquinas' theology (especially the Summa Theologica). Actually, the attraction of this material can be hard to explain to the uninitiated.
I couldn't make any judgment on the Summa except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, "Turn off that light. It's late," I with lifted finger and broad bland beautific expression, would reply, "On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes," or some such thing. In any case I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.
— Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being.