How to Read St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas composed his 3,000 page tome, Summa Theologiae, in order to “instruct beginners.”

The saint had an encyclopedic memory, and was able to sift through a veritable mental library to identify the best arguments pertaining to each of the thousands of questions human reason confronts regarding God and nature.

Though reading Aquinas is still easier than reading the Western canon, the task is doubtlessly a daunting one for most contemporary souls.

The sources of wisdom over which St. Thomas possesses unparalleled mastery, as well as the profound insights he humbly adds into the mix, make it well worth the effort to learn from him.

From someone who’s been reading and teaching Aquinas for over fifteen years, here are a few recommendations for how to approach him:

Take it slow: Most of St. Thomas’s writings are divided into articles averaging a page or two in length. Those unfamiliar with his style may want to read an article a day; with time, his way of thinking becomes second nature.

Read dialogically: As Josef Pieper notes in his Guide to Thomas Aquinas, the human mind learns dialogically.

To grasp what Aquinas thinks, it may help to begin with his “On the contrary,” which states his position, and his “I answer that,” which explains it. Then consider each “Objection” together with his “Reply” to it.

Bear in mind that St. Thomas sometimes qualifies his position in response to the truth contained in an objection. His goal is not to construct an ideology, however elaborate, but rather to hold a mirror up to Creation and its Creator. To do so one must cultivate a humility willing to admit the limits of even the greatest human wisdom.

Start with selections, or shorter works: I have been working through the entire Summa over many years, while covering certain sections with my students on a more regular basis. Whenever I research a topic, I consult relevant sections of the Summa as part of my background work. Aquinas never fails to enhance my understanding of other authors and the issues they address.

Having searched high and low for a volume that selects just the right questions for my political philosophy and pre-law courses, I can recommend this edition: Readings on Virtue, Law, and Politics. The primary focus is on Aquinas’s treatment of human nature, ethics, law, and those virtues and vices most relevant to political society. These are placed in the context of his understanding of the relations between faith and reason and the divine government of the natural order.

There are many other fine ways to approach St. Thomas, some of which I have mentioned or will mention in future posts.

However you choose to read him, don’t forget to pray for his intercession, that you may be guided by the one and only Source of all Wisdom!

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