These are notes from the book A Shorter Summa by Peter Kreeft (1993).
- the Summa is the greatest, most ambitious, most rational book of theology ever written
- it contains much philosophy
- not to know St. Thomas means ignoring the most important intellectual development between 384 B.C. (the death of Aristotle) and 1637 A.D. (the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method)
On St. Thomas
One of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, for at least eight reasons:
- He tells the truth.
- Common sense - St. Thomas is plain and reasonable as your uncle.
- Practicality (dish of herring).
- Clarity. Those who love truth passionately usually also love simplicity and clarity of style so that as many people as possible can benefit from this precious thing, Truth.
- Profundity. No philosopher since St. Thomas has ever so successfully combined the two fundamental ideals of philosophical writing: clarity and profundity.
- Orthodoxy [authorized or generally accepted theory]. St. Thomas it the primary theological Doctor (Teacher) of the Catholic Church. You can never understand philosophy from its critics or dissenters, only from a disciple.
- Marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the Biblical and the classical inheritances. Aquinas stands as a shining example of an alternative to both the fundamentalists and the liberals of his day and of any day. For a brief moment it seemed that a synthesis was possible.
- St. Thomas is important for us today precisely because of our lack of seven Thomistic syntheses: (1) of faith and reason, (2) of the Biblical and the classical, the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman heritages, (3) the ideals of clarity and profundity, (4) of common sense and technical sophistication, (5) of theory and practice, (6) of understanding, intuitive vision and a demanding, accurate logic, and (7) of the one and the many, a cosmic unity or “big picture” and carefully sorted out distinctions.
Of course St. Thomas cannot be the be-all and end-all of our thought. He cannot be an end, but he can be a beginning, like Socrates. There is no better bottom story to our edifice of thought.
On the Summa Theologica
- a Summa is simply a summary (many philosophers and theologians of the time wrote Summas)
- it’s more like an encyclopedia than a textbook
- there is extreme economy in the use of words (should appeal to us busy moderns)
- medievals had passion for order
- a summarized debate (shared journey to discovery)
- St. Thomas believed not only that there was all truth Somewhere but also that there was some truth everywhere
Summa Theologica mirrors the structural outline of reality:
The “Article” is the basic thought-unit and it has five structural parts:
- A question in a yes or no format.
- Objections (usually three) to the answer he will give.
- His own position (“On the contrary …”).
- The body of the Article (“I answer that …”).
- Answer to each objection.
If our question is vaguely or confusedly formulated, our answer will be, too. If we do not seriously consider opposing views, we spar without a partner and paw the air. If we do not do our homework, we only skim the shallows of our selves. If we do not prove our thesis, we are dogmatic, not critical. And if we do not understand and refute our opponents, we are left with nagging uncertainty that we have missed something and not really ended the contest.
Like Socratic dialogue with Plato, this medieval method of philosophizing was very fruitful in its own day - and then got neglected, especially in our day. That is one of the unsolved mysteries of Western thought. Perhaps what stands in the way is our craze [sialenstvo] for originality and our proud refusal to be anyone’s apprentice.
St. Thomas chops his prose bite-sized segments for the same reason Mommy cuts Baby’s meat into bite-sized chunks.
The best preparation for reading the Summa is a review of basic, common sense logic, i.e., Aristotelian logic, especially the “Three Acts of the Mind”, as the medievals labeled them: understanding, judging and reasoning, with their respective logical expressions: terms, propositions, and arguments.
On this book
I noticed a remarkable improvement in my mental sharpness and order after doing long and slow reading of St. Thomas. The Master’s habits rub off on his apprentices, if they have the good sense to stay close to him.