I paced my kitchen sipping coffee, listening to the sound of heavy rainfall just outside. In my hands was a copy of Thomas Aquinas’ On Creation from the Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei (Q3). Begun in c. 1265 the Disputed Questions were begun before Thomas began writing the Summa Theologiae. It overlaps a great deal in content with Questions 1-49 of the Summa with the benefit of being somewhat shorter (only 10 Questions – roughly 200 pages). I read only Article 1, consisting of 17 objections and responses and already my head was reeling. Medieval philosophy was conducted in Quaestio format. The quaestio (Latin = question) has the following format: 1) an initial view is put forward – usually the opposite of what the author actually holds. Arguments are then given for this view. 2) “Contra” or “But against this…” a statement from various authorities (mostly scripture, Aristotle, or a church father) will be given suggesting the view is wrong. 3) The body of the quaestio – the author expounds his own view. 4) Responses to the arguments – now in light of the author’s own view, each of the previous arguments will be responded to/refuted. So as an example from On Creation, let’s see how this format works for Aquinas.
- The first thing to be asked is whether God can make something out of nothing. And it seems that he cannot.
- Argument 1: For God cannot act counter to first principles… as the Philosopher (Aristotle) says in Physics I, it is a first principle and axiom of physics that nothing comes out of nothing. Therefore, God cannot make something out of nothing.
- On the contrary Genesis 1 says, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” According to the Gloss (of Bede), to create is to make something from nothing. Therefore, God can make something from nothing.
- I answer that we must firmly hold that God can and does make something from nothing… [here follows the rest of Aquinas’ argument]
- Response to Argument 1: The Philosopher says that “nothing comes out of nothing” is a first principle or opinion of natural philosophers because the natural agent which they investigate acts only through motion, and so it is necessary that there be some subject of motion or change. In a supernatural agent this is not necessary, as has been said above (in 3).
That seemed easy enough. But there are 17 arguments and responses in just this first article (1 of 19 on only 1 question)! And the problem is that first all 17 arguments against God being able to make something out of nothing are given, then the contrary citations from authorities, then Aquinas’ own view, and then all of the responses to the arguments. So, you have to flip back and forth between argument and response. It’s really inconvenient. This problem besets philosophy articles to this day – issues and their responses are not put forth in an efficient way. It would of course probably be easier for pedagogical reasons if entire texts of medieval philosophy were restructured to deal with one argument at a time. These were the thoughts that occupied me as I sipped coffee and got ready to go to work.
It’s strange that as I checked my email in my office (a dreaded task that at least yielded the blessed news that a meeting was cancelled) a student walked in to meet with my office-mate, a recent PhD in aesthetics. She was apparently giving him feedback on a paper he had written on a work by Augustine commonly assigned to undergrads. It became apparent he was familiar with much of it. It turns out he was (somewhat predictably) a Catholic private school boy who got (in his own estimation) “twelve years of Catholic theology in school.” Still, it surprised him that much of Augustine’s worldview and philosophy is grounded in Platonism. So my colleague outlined a commonplace distinction “Oh yeah. Augustine went with Plato, Aquinas went with Aristotle.” (A little oversimplified but still true enough). Immediately the school-boy jumped in “I like Aquinas better than Augustine. Aquinas was a genius! He would just have scribes follow him around and write as he spat out thought after thought. He’s my confirmation saint.” This kind of silly fanboy attitude is common enough toward Aquinas among Catholics. I’m used to religious (Catholic) students of philosophy assuming Aquinas was the greatest Christian philosopher ever. It’s somewhat irritating, but not surprising. But what was not to be borne was what the boy said next.
“Of course, I’ve never actually read the Summa (or anything by Aquinas). It’s far too advanced. It’s above my level at least. Maybe one day I’ll get there. But I’m not there right now.”
The Summa may seem forbidding, if for no other reason than that it is enormous and its English translations somewhat archaic. But there is absolutely no reason why anyone should assume any work of philosophy is “above them” – as if you needed special access or privilege even to read the stuff. So, I turned around from my desk and interrupted the conversation the boy and my colleague were having.
Me: “You know, the Summa is large, but Aquinas wrote other things, many of which are shorter and easier to understand. For instance, this *pulls out On Creation*. He wrote this before He wrote the Summa. It deals with a lot of the same issues but is way shorter. If you read this, you’d understand the first whole section of the Summa better.
The boy was not as intrigued as I thought he might be.
Boy: “Oh, well you see, I just really don’t like to read. I never have. Even this *referring to Augustine book he had to read in intro* I didn’t really enjoy reading.”
I was stunned. I asked him what his major was – economics!!!
This conversation truly floored me. If you are an Aquinas fanboy, there are several issues which might prevent you from grabbing the Dumb Ox by the horns, so to speak. Maybe you don’t speak Latin and have a superstitious belief in only reading things in original languages. Maybe you find his jargon too technical. Maybe the outrageous format of medieval philosophical discussion (outlined above) makes his work too difficult to navigate. Maybe you have a pathological phobia of misinterpreting his work and falling into irredeemable heresy (seems unlikely). But it seems that the most preponderant reason why the average layperson fails to dive head-on into the work of ancient and medieval saints is far more depressing. We’re lazy.
If you’ve never read anything serious by Aquinas; if your sole exposure consists in popular biographies, quaint anecdotes, and maybe a prayer or hymn, how do you know he was a genius? Why would you assume that because he was prolific he was also profound? It seems that Aquinas suffers from the same fate shared by many (far less important) popular Christian intellectuals (e.g. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, etc). Everyone who wants to seem like a smart Christian loves them – but there is an eerie lack of any critical involvement with texts. People might be impressed by the ability to spit out articles from the Summa, or chuckle at the witty shade-throwing of G.K.C. or be moved by the cozy, lukewarm, flirtations of C.S.L., but no one is willing to say straight up, “He was wrong” or “what a strange thing to say.”
It is furthermore strange that the boy would admit to “liking” Aquinas more than Augustine (at least I know he’s read something by Augustine…) because Augustine was Aquinas’ favorite and most quoted source besides the bible. It seems that for many fanboys, the Catholic imagination stops somewhere in the high middle ages. Oh sure, many people revere the idea of the early Church Fathers, but how many seriously dig deeper? It’s quite one thing to read (and be enraptured by) the Confessions or maybe even City of God. But what about De Principiis by Origin, Mystical Catechises by Cyril of Jerusalem, Contra Gentes by Athanasius, de Spirito Sancto by Basil, De Trinitate by Hilary or anything by Tertullian, the first Latin Church Father (who btw apostasized)?
Many people seem unaware that the history of Christian theology is very much an interactive legacy of scholars responding to recurring issues, questions, and each other, and that the divisions of Christianity often result from the differing answers given by key figures in different traditions. It is also overlooked that Christian philosophy and theology are not self-contained wholes, but have always existed in dialogue with pagan, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy. For instance, one simply cannot fully appreciate the constant shade-throwing of Aquinas at (the Muslim) Averroes (bastardized Latin for ibn-Rushd) unless one realizes that Aquinas’ access to Aristotle was largely mediated by the commentaries of Averroes’ coreligionist rival Avicenna (ibn-Sina). And one won’t understand the bizarre, seemingly unwarranted, allegorical interpretation of scriptures unless they understand the Jewish midrash and rabbinic traditions.
All of this comes to one central criticism. We don’t read, and even if we do, we often resent the effort, and even then, we do not always understand the connections between what we are reading and other things we have read. But why am I saying all this? Why does it bother me that a (probably) freshman would be an Aquinas fanboy without having read Aquinas? Too often in religion, we are looking not for understanding but for comfort. Authority comforts us. One of the things I hate about apologetics (similar to a criticism Bertrand Russel had of Aquinas) is that often when Christians do philosophy, we do so not disinterestedly or without ulterior motive, not even because we are desperately and genuinely seeking “the Truth,” but because we are trying to justify a belief we had – a belief we did not arrive at philosophically. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Many if not most of our beliefs were not arrived at through philosophical analysis – how could we come to believe anything if this was the sole way of believing something. We often believe things non-rationally, and later upon closer inspection, are happy to discover the philosophical underpinnings of what we believed all along. We walk away edified. Similarly, Christianity is not primarily a kind of philosophy but a religion, replete with pre- and non-philosophical commitments. Fine. The problem is that when philosophical investigation renders one of our religious beliefs unsatisfactory, or at least more complicated than we hoped, we pretend not to notice. Talk of the “limits of human reason” becomes a slogan, justifying our laziness and fear of digging deeper.
Very frequently when we cite authors as authorities, we do so not because we have an intellectually honest interest in their life, thought, and legacy, but because we simply want to have sufficient numbers of authorities to use as proof-texts at will. It does not matter to us why Aquinas thought the things that he did, let alone whether he was always right about what he thought – what matters to us is that it is written down in some big, old, fancy-looking book which we can bust out when arguing with Protestants, or liberal Catholics, or atheists. We want to be seen as having sufficient arguments in our apologetic arsenal to evoke trust in the skeptical. And then, we exploit that trust in getting them to accept propositions we haven’t demonstrated and are not entitled to ourselves.
It’s easy to see why this kind of pandering to authority might be acute among Christians of a certain kind. Most Christian are not really interested in philosophy and do not care if they derive their beliefs from reason per se, but instead take their beliefs from another abstract source, “the Church.” The life and spiritual oevre of Christian philosophers are sacrificed to get people to believe in that rather than in them. So the faithful neglect the rich intellectual history, drama, and controversy of their religion, while their commitment to “the Faith,” “the Church,” or “the Truth” remains unwavering. No one gives a damn how things got to be this way – what matters is that they are the way that they are. And that feels really good. Much better to read holy comic books about our super-heroes Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, or anyone else, than to crack open a damn Dover thrift edition. Why not throw a philosopher under the bus to get what we’re really after – certainty, consolation, triumphalism, and the oh-so-delicious feeling of knowing you’re right without knowing why.
There are of course ways to combat this trend. If you are interested in transitioning from the status of a basic Christian intellectual fanboy to actually honoring the tradition and intentions of Christian philosophers, you might try the following. I myself am giving these things a try, so as not to be a hypocrite.
- Try reading more. Maybe you don’t have a lot of time. That’s ok. There are shorter texts, whether treatises, letters, or short sermons you can almost certainly knock out in a few sittings. Don’t feel you have to finish works in a given time frame. Simply read a few chapters, questions, or articles, and think long and hard about them.
- Read primary texts, only using secondary sources when you really need them. You might assume that a text like the Summa is “above” you and that you are better off reading a summary by some “expert.” But if their work is not “above” you, why should the Summa be? There cannot (we hope) be an infinite bibliography of texts too hard for you. You will often be startled by how accessible patristic and medieval books really are.
- When you read, do not assume that the author, be they a saint or doctor, is always right about everything they wrote. People are often unaware that during their own lifetime, authors were not always regarded. Aquinas own work was often highly suspect in his own era. Saints were often exiled, anathemized, censured, or disregarded before Christians realized the value of what they wrote. Knowing this, do not assume that the contemporary or current opinion of “the Church” is the only thing to consider when reading a Christian philosophical work. What matters most is that you try to figure out whether what is being said is “true” rather than “approved.”
- Likewise, do not assume that just because an author you are reading is not a saint, or may even be a heretic, that they have nothing important to contribute to Christian philosophy. People often fail to realize that “heretics” were frequently simply those who arrived at a different philosophical stance than the establishment and refused to lie about it. Also, the history of Christian orthodoxy is very much simply a history of Christian heresy, since the “orthodox” would have no impetus to write and articulate their own positions except in reaction to what they saw as problematic in a heterodox author.
- When you read, jot down notes, vocabulary, and questions raised by the texts. People often do not retain what they read because they do not remember what they were thinking when they read it. They consumed a text in the hope of regurgitating it, and once they have regurgitated it – it’s out of their system. Even if you only write (hopefully not in the book like a savage) “what does this mean?”, “is this correct?”, “do I agree?”, or “why would they think this?” you are providing yourself with the beginning of an investigation.
- Pay attention to sources. For instance, in On Creation by Aquinas, there are 120 references to 11 works by Aristotle, 50 references to 11 works by Augustine, and all these beside 40 references to the bible. It is obvious which sources most influenced Aquinas, which means that you will often be eavesdropping on a far more ancient (even pre-Christian) debate then you realize.
Much of what I am suggesting would of course unfortunately be easier if there were more attractively bound, neatly formatted, inexpensive editions of works in both original languages and in translation. It would also perhaps be better if universities incentivized teaching as much as research, or if one did not have to go to a university to study philosophy. Imagine seeing a couple or group of students at a coffee shop (hell even a bar) with pleather-bound editions of Migne’s Patrologia on bible paper instead of ghost-written self-help books by Christians who are essentially motivational speakers. The market would have to be significantly different.
At any rate, if we do have a genuine interest, there is no reason why we should not avail ourselves of the blessing of Wikipedia.
 John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016). Kindle location 1449.
 Thomas Aquinas, On Creation [Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, Q.3] trans. S. C. Selner-Wright, (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 3-9.