Illustration/Carlo Crivelli, public domain

St. Thomas Aquinas’ masterwork continues to amaze

  • January 5, 2017

I have a long love affair with St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher, theologian, teacher, writer and Dominican preacher who stands among the most important Catholic thinkers of the past 2,000 years.

For years my love was at a distance. I was too overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy to think I could ever understand a brain so powerful and holy. But over the years I’ve read many books about Aquinas, even a children’s book by Raïssa Maritain called St. Thomas Aquinas. Her description of Aquinas was the sweetest passage I came across and it spurred my first inkling that, maybe, the Italian theologian was approachable after all. Here’s what she wrote:

“He is very dark, very tall, and tremendously stout. His face is gentle. His eyes are clear and calm, his forehead high. His mouth is fine and flexible. The corners of his lips go up a little, like the outspread wings of a dove. He is very delicate and sensitive, but he is afraid of nothing because he has trust in God.”

While doing all this reading I was also auditing theology courses through St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. Aquinas came up frequently, especially his masterwork, the Summa Theologica, which runs to about 1.5 million words. Serious Catholic thinkers say it is a work of genius and perhaps the most important document written about the faith since the birth of Christ.

Yet, Aquinas himself thought he had failed. As the story goes he simply stopped writing and declared all he had put down on paper as just “so much straw.” Perhaps he was just exhausted.

As a journalist my usual output for a news story was about 600 words and for feature articles less than 2,000 words. Feature writing caused me the worst kind of distress, because I never really believed I could write anything coherent at that length. So a work like the Summa Theologica is like seeing Mt. Everest magically pop up on a farmer’s field.

After years flirting with Aquinas, I decided to jump in. I thought the worst that could happen was Aquinas would prove too deep for me and I would have to lower my sights. For help, I turned to Guide To Thomas Aquinas by Josef Pieper. It helps to have a source to make clear what can be obscure to a beginner.

Pieper compared the Summa Theologica to a cathedral, with its “bold, and incidentally, wholly original architecture.”

“Its structure attempts to express the structure of reality as a whole,” he said.

What kind of mind tries to do that? For those unfamiliar with the Summa Theologica, let me explain its structure, which is almost as important as the meaning of his words.

Aquinas starts with a premise. For example: “Whether the existence of God is self-evident.” He then raises several “objections.” In this case, why God is self evident. Then Aquinas employs his famous, “on the contrary” followed by “I answer that.” Both explain why God is not self-evident.

When I first tried to read this style I thought that the initial objections were simply straw men. Given he was going to knock the arguments down, why bring them up? But here is where Pieper was helpful. Aquinas was interested in the truth — not only truth found in the Bible or the Church fathers or even in the dogmas and doctrine of the faith, but truth wherever it might be found.

These “objections” of Aquinas, Pieper explains, were ways to ensure readers understood the very best arguments against his final propositions. It was, in fact, an important part of formal dialogue that each participant be able to articulate views they opposed.

Imagine for a moment if our politicians did the same. Imagine if they understood truth was universal and that truth is not restricted to one politician or even a single political party. The Summa Theologica has brought me a kind of clarity that has helped me articulate why our civic debates are so frustrating and fruitless.

I am happy to report that reading the Summa is not only possible but it’s enjoyable. The key is patience. I may never finish, but the journey will have been worth it. Aquinas’s writings, like our faith, are eternal and unfathomably deep.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)