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Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, 41)
Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, 41)
Bernard McGinn
Princeton University Press, 2014
272 pp., 24.95

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Joshua P. Hochschild

The Life of the "Summa"

A "biography" of Thomas Aquinas's masterwork.

Much-remarked about Princeton's series on religious classics is the cleverness of offering "biographies" of books. Once upon a time, critical theory taught us to treat everything, even persons, as texts; now we have come to the point that we can treat texts as persons. It is as if postmodernism has turned back on itself and wound up producing old-fashioned historical literary studies. How refreshing indeed, not to deconstruct greatness but to acknowledge it and trace its influence.

Less remarked about the series is what counts as a "religious book." The published and forthcoming volumes treat a very wide variety of works, serving as a reminder of how disparate are things that can be covered by that sociological category, "religious." There are liturgical texts (the Book of Common Prayer, the Haggadah), inspired sacred texts, actual or alleged (Genesis, Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Mormon), a book of apologetics (Mere Christianity), meditations and personal reflections (Bonhoeffer, Augustine), a history (Josephus' Jewish War), poems (Rumi's Masnavi, the Song of Songs), and collections of aphorisms (Indian sutras, Confucius' Analects). (Genres not represented: collection of sermons, treatise, Scripture commentary, hagiography, catechism.)

In this whole list, there is not anything else quite like Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. What sort of "religious text" is the Summa? There is a beginner's mistake, to treat this dense and sprawling work as something like an encyclopedia, a reference work for looking up answers. But answers to what? (An old joke defines a Thomist as someone with an answer to what you didn't even know was a question.) Another mistake is to treat it as a work of apologetics, setting out to prove one or another part of the Christian worldview. (Pity the generations of freshman philosophy students introduced to Aquinas through "the five ways.")

We could call the Summa a work of systematic theology or summary of Christian doctrine (and then there may be one comparable work treated in the Princeton series, Calvin's Institutes). And yet (as the comparison with the Institutes brings out), this might suggest that the Summa is primarily expository or even defensive—intended to stake out positions or define a faith. But the Summa, ambitious, analytic, and comprehensive as it is, is intended rather as a work for teaching and even meditation; its dialectical form insists that this is not only a compilation but also an enactment we are engaging with, a practice of wisdom. The Summa was meant to be studied, but in such a way that it would be applied to, and help develop, the practice of the Christian life.

The Summa's fundamental unit, the question, implies careful exploration and capacious deference to other voices and authorities, even while it attempts to synthesize and direct. Although dauntingly artificial to most modern readers, the question format of the Summa has more in common with the personal touch of a classical dialogue: the scholastic voice could be considered only a stylized version of its more dramatic literary ancestor, the dialogue. (By contrast, the Institutes, with its self-consciously ambivalent relationship to tradition and its long expositions, adopts a very different, independent voice: the essay, not the dialogue, is the signature genre of modernity.)

The Summa is consummately sapiential, to adopt a valuable word somewhat rehabilitated by John Paul II's own meditations on faith and reason. Its appeal isn't to the mind as seeking to grasp knowledge (an object to be possessed or a creed to be affirmed), but to the mind as ready to be habituated to intellectual virtue, and seeking unity with the highest source of truth. The intellectual appeal of the Summa cannot be separated from its deeply humane and spiritual appeal.

It is salutary that the author chosen to tell the story of the Summa here is not a professional Thomist. Bernard McGinn is primarily known as a historian of mysticism. His major works have been on such figures as Meister Eckardt, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Bonaventure. So he brings to the task a wide appreciation for the Christian tradition and the role of learning in moral formation. He is naturally attuned to the sapiential character of Thomas' masterpiece, and sets out to illustrate its "integral theology" or, as he calls it in the first chapter, its "cycle of wisdom."

Overall, McGinn's volume is elegantly and insightfully executed. He tackles the "life" of the Summa in five chapters (fewer chapters than most other volumes in this series). The first, a 12-page chapter on "the world that made Thomas Aquinas," covers the development of scholasticism and the Dominican order. Here the reader finds just enough background to make sense of the context in which Aquinas wrote, helping to situate scholastic theology not just as a set of teachings, but as a practice connected to other practices.

This is followed by a 56-page chapter, "Creating the Summa theologiae" (the notes, with somewhat more theological accuracy, call it "The Making of the Summa theologiae"). This second chapter could be divided into three parts: 21 pages on the life of Thomas, five on Thomas' writings, and 29 on the overall plan and purpose of the Summa. Half of this last part is given over to a close reading of the first question of the First Part—the question in which Aquinas explains the need and character of theology, or, as he calls it there, sacred teaching, sacra doctrina. Thomas seeks to overcome the apparent problem that philosophy is already a science of wisdom. Picking up a phrase from Maritain, McGinn characterizes Aquinas' view as recognizing "the grandeur and misery of metaphysics": philosophy offers a science of the highest causes that is at once "the highest form of human knowing and natural contemplation" and yet "always flawed and without salvific effect."

Sacred teaching, the subject of the Summa, is like philosophy in these respects: it is a science (producing certainty) and argumentative (proceeding by dialectic) and sapiential (concerned with the very object of happiness, and the highest causes of reality). But sacred teaching differs from philosophy in being able to achieve its end, by God's grace. As McGinn emphasizes, for Aquinas sacred science is scriptural. Scripture is the most often cited authority, and even if the Summa "is little concerned with the narrative or rhetorical structure of the scriptural books the way that modern biblical scholars are," still Thomas "seeks to bring out the doctrinal intelligibility" of the Bible.

Thus the overarching sapiential motivation of the Summa leads Thomas to adopt a method at once "scientific and scriptural." As McGinn puts it, because "holy teaching is always fundamentally biblical," and because "the nature of the Bible as God's words directed to humanity must be narrative and metaphorical," it follows that the theologian's role is "to transform biblical narrative and metaphor into a form of articulated scientific discourse to reveal its intelligibility."

The heart of McGinn's volume is the third chapter, "A Tour of the Summa theologiae," in 42 pithy pages. Any attempt to summarize the Summa is going to be highly selective; McGinn manages to give the flavor of the overall structure by focusing on five themes: God, Creation, Grace, Charity, and Incarnation. Here, McGinn acknowledges but does not get bogged down in various scholarly debates, and he is attentive to the Platonic (or Neo-Platonic) influence on Aquinas as much as the Aristotelian.

The Summa's legacy is covered in the last two chapters. First, "The Tides of Thomism, 1275-1850," in 45 pages (divided into four sections, covering in turn the periods 1274-1325, 1325-1500, 1500-1650, and 1650-1850), and finally, a concluding chapter on "The Rise and Fall of Neothomism," focusing especially on the effect of Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical letter proclaiming Thomas a model theologian for the church. (The book also has a short preface, introduction, and epilogue.)

This summary makes clear that what McGinn has executed is essentially a brief orientation to the Summa theologiae, followed by a brief history of Thomism. There are inherent limitations to a project like this, which must allow compromises and omissions for the sake of brevity and accessibility. On the one hand, it makes sense that McGinn does not follow too slavishly his charge to chart the history and legacy of a book. This was not the place to pursue, for instance, what a more scholarly audience might have expected, an account of the evolution of the Summa as a text, its editions, translations, and commentaries. (Still, readers who need such an introduction to Aquinas might have reasonably expected some recommendations or evaluations of English translations.) One won't even find in this book an account of the common alternative name, Summa theologica. (McGinn casually mentions that the definitive Leonine edition of the Prima Pars is "defective"—but offers no account of the nature of the defects.)

Most readers will appreciate McGinn's judicious and clear guide to the history of Thomism, but it is a shame that his story basically ends in the 1970s. A four-page epilogue briefly mentions John Paul II and a few other voices, but the recent history of Thomas' diverse influence and inspiration is not covered. There is nothing, for instance, about Alasdair MacIntyre and the virtue ethics revival, about "analytical Thomism" (in its various guises), or phenomenological Thomism (or even about what Robert Sokolowski has advocated as the basis of seminary education, "streamlined Thomism"). For that matter, the history before 1970 is surprisingly spotty. There is no mention of the great Thomist Josef Pieper, who inspired such influential thinkers as T. S. Eliot and Josef Ratzinger. And McGinn does not venture to speculate about the future of Thomism—which, if the number of young philosophers and theologians interested in Aquinas and his legacy is any indication—is very bright indeed.

Overall, the last two chapters are a fairly cursory and conventional history of Thomism as a philosophical and theological movement. There is no new insight here, nor does there claim to be—McGinn is honest about his reliance on other scholarly sources. But perhaps the most striking omission from this volume is any attention to the influence of Aquinas outside the schools of professional Thomistic thought. There is no mention of Flannery O'Connor, the "hillbilly Thomist," nor of literary critics like Marion Montgomery, nor novelists like Hermann Hesse and James Joyce. There is no mention of Richard Hooker, or of C. S. Lewis (whose annotated copies of the Summa rest in Wheaton's Wade Center). One could write a whole book on Aquinas' influence outside official Thomism: he left his mark on Umberto Eco, Henry Adams, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Graham Green, Edith Stein, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. McGinn makes no gestures toward this legacy.

Most surprisingly, McGinn makes no mention of Dante. Not only did Dante put Thomas in the circle of saints before he was officially canonized; Dante has left what is undoubtedly the unsurpassable example of and monument to the Summa's influence. In crafting the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to have taken the personal, spiritual, and even mystical orientation of the Summa to heart. The Summa deserves to be read, but its sapiential depths cannot be exhausted by modern academic discourse. Its very pedagogical goal seems too ambitious for contemporary readers. (Rare indeed is the teacher who would actually assign the text as a whole, allowing it to speak in its own voice, as opposed to selecting passages to bring into other conversations.) McGinn's modest introduction is an invitation to read, but if you want to know what the Summa can do for the heart and mind of a man, follow Dante through his long spiritual ascent. (The Divine Comedy is slated for treatment in Princeton's series.) The Summa lives on in the poets as much as, perhaps more than, in the schools.

Joshua P. Hochschild is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and associate professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary's University. He is the author of The Semantics of Analogy: Rereading Cajetan's De Nominum Analogia (Univ. of Notre Dame Press).

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