For some time now I've been studying St. Thomas Aquinas on the side -- going on the assumption that the Angelic Doctor is the best guide to what the Christian faith requires of us intellectually. As part of this project, I've embarked on a slow translation of the Summa Theologiae
(slow in part because I am learning Latin by reading it; slow also because I want to think it through as I go). At this point, I have begun to type up some of my notes and include a commentary that I hope will illuminate the text somewhat, or at least stimulate me to think more profoundly about it. It ocurred to me that posting my translation and notes would reveal my work to those who know infinitely more than I do about these things, thus exposing me to a) great embarassment, b) potential correction or advice. I resolved to give it a shot, so here goes!
The first intallment is a bit lengthy, as I'm reflecting on what the backdrop of this immense work is and where it might be going. (So, of course, is Thomas.) Hope this is interesting to my readers, and please fire away with responses!
St. Thomas AquinasSumma Theologiae
Because the teacher of Catholic truth ought not to instruct only the advanced, but to him it belongs to educate even the beginner, according to the Apostle in I Corinthians III – as to the small in Christ I gave you milk to drink, not meat – the proposition of our intention in this work is to relate what belongs to the Christian religion in such a way as befits the education of the beginner. For we have considered novices in this doctrine who have been much impeded by diverse writings, partly indeed on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles and arguments; partly too because that which it is most needful to know is not set down according to the order of a discipline, but by the requirements of a book’s exposition, or according to the occasion offered by the argument; partly indeed because a surplus of frequent repetition generated both disgust and confusion in the soul of the reader. Therefore, striving to avoid this and other such things, and confident of divine assistance, we shall attempt to set down what belongs to sacred doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter allows.
[Commentary: What are we to make of this claim to brevity in a 3,000 page work? The implication would seem to be that the Christian religion raises numerous difficulties for us. This is further confirmed by the situation as St. Thomas sees it, one of repulsive confusion in prior articulations of Christianity. But St. Thomas also wrote truly brief (and very good) catechetical works – explanations of the creed, the ten commandments, etc. So something else is going on here. I think we can take our bearings in large part by his only biblical citation in this forward. As my 1952 Confraternity editors say, Corinth was “materially prosperous and morally corrupt”. “After his disappointment in the use of a philosophical approach to Christianity at Athens (Acts 17, 15ff) Paul used at Corinth a simpler presentation of his doctrine.” More specifically, St. Paul denounces the wisdom of this world and praises the “foolishness” of the revelation of “the cross of Christ” which saves us – an object of ridicule to the wise. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men” – revelation seems to be in conflict with human reason.
[This would seem at first glance to dispense Christians of the need for worldly knowledge: “the foolish things of this world has God chosen to put to shame the wise . . . lest any flesh should pride itself before him”; “Christ Jesus . . . has become for us God-given wisdom . . . [so] I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . that your faith might rest, not on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God”.
[To see the true import of this, we have to note that St. Paul himself had first turned to philosophy to elucidate the universal truths of Christianity (in Acts 17ff). As Cardinal Ratzinger argues, not only Christianity but the Wisdom literature of Judaism itself was more akin to ancient philosophy than to ancient religion – both philosophy and monotheism rested on an “enlightened” critique of pagan idols as manmade, fanciful, and vain. The problem St. Paul encountered would seem to be that philosophers were disposed to place Christianity – especially the Incarnation and Resurrection – in the same category as idolatry. There is wisdom in Christianity, but it is “the wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden”, and inscrutable to those whose only reference point is this world. Christianity requires that we transcend what eye has seen and ear has heard – that we abandon the insistence on proof that defines philosophy. Its truths have no reference to what can be verified by rational inquiry: “the things of God no one knows but the Spirit of God . . . These things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in the learning of the Spirit, combining spiritual with spiritual.” Philosophy may be able to tell us that we are all God’s offspring (Acts 17, 29), but it cannot tell us the hidden mind of God which revelation discloses to us. “the sensual man does not perceive the things that are of the Spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him and he cannot understand, because it is examined spiritually”.
[What then is the relation of philosophy to religion? This seems to be the problem St. Thomas is alluding to in citing this epistle. The ultimate answer is seen in St. Paul’s next words: “the spiritual man judges all things . . . for we have the mind of Christ”, who is the Logos by which all things on heaven and earth, visible and invisible, were made. As the Fathers established, this means that reason rightly understood cannot contradict revelation; that true philosophy is possible from the Christian perspective, so long as it accepts the spiritual truths that it cannot by itself establish, and which cannot contradict right reason. Needless to say, such philosophy presupposes a prior conversion to the faith, without which the whole package cannot but appear constraining rather than liberating to the mind. Although St. Paul is probably not making the Corinthians out to be philosophers, this seems to be what he has in mind in saying that he must begin with spiritual milk, not meat: “nor are you now ready for [meat], for you are still carnal”. That is, they are not ready to philosophize, because they have not yet reached the level of faith that permits of right reason rather than proud pseudo-wisdom.
[I could go on: the sequel establishes that nature itself is subordinate to God’s miraculous grace and that the latter is the only solid foundation for a human life. The whole idea of virtue acquired by human effort and unaided rational deliberation is repudiated. This is the backdrop against which St. Thomas begins his most comprehensive account of sacred doctrine; these are the deepest “disputes” he thinks the tradition has failed to resolve “according to the order of a discipline”. Right away we can see, though, that St. Thomas’ response is not, with St. Paul, to turn to “a simpler presentation”, though he does promise the simplest presentation “the matter allows”. In his view, anything simpler than the Summa apparently does not do justice to the matter at hand. Why not?
[The fundamental answer becomes clear when we note the first of the questions St. Thomas will address: whether it is necessary, besides the discipline of philosophy, to have another doctrine. Though the answer is of course yes – namely, sacred doctrine – the manner of his approach is telling. St. Thomas is famous for attempting the harmonization (and the Church would say, succeeding at the harmonization) of Christian dogma and Aristotelian philosophy. The significance of Aristotelianism (or Latin Averoism) at the time was its carnality and its insistence that philosophy be independent of theology. St. Thomas begins with St. Paul’s rebuttal of such a position, but shows in his own treatment that he thinks the issue is not so easy to resolve. Though St. Thomas will also subordinate philosophy to theology, he will face the challenge of a would-be sovereign philosophy head-on. This is made possible and accentuated by the disputational style of his writing, which as Joseph Pieper has said allows Thomas to enter into the mindset of his opponents and see their point of view in its strongest iteration. If the spiritual man judges of all things, Thomas seems to imply, he can be held to no lower a standard than to surpass philosophy on its own terms. Though “he himself is judged by no man”, the spiritual man would have to judge himself deficient were he not able to do so. A mature Christendom must continue what St. Paul began but under verious circumstances had never been finished: to speak wisdom "among those who are mature", after leading them from childhood to maturity. In light of this proposition, “the matter allows” only the “brevity” we find in this massive tome.]