Lesson 1: Introduction to Thomas Aquinas

Here is the plan. You have seen or listened to the six lectures that form the core of this Introduction to Thomas Aquinas. If you are taking the course for credit, more is expected from you than that enjoyable experience. The Lessons that accompany the course expand on the lectures and involve reading and writing assignments. These are mandatory for those enrolled in the course for credit, but given the purposes of the International Catholic University, these materials are not withheld from those who are not interested in pursuing credits or degrees, merely in pursuing the truth of the matter. That is why all the following material is posted on our web site and accessible by anyone.

Life as Bibliography

This course is a brief effort to introduce a major thinker, always a risky enterprise. The task is compounded in the case of St. Thomas Aquinas since he was not only a theologian, but also a philosopher and a sacred poet. Chiefly, however, he was a member of the order founded by St. Dominic, the Order of Preachers, usually known as the Dominicans who sought his salvation as a priest under the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. That his life was a short one, 1225-1274, less than half a century, in no way decreases the difficulty of giving a brief introduction to his thought. An enormous number of writings by Thomas have come down to us, some of them planned, some of them products of his task as a teacher, many occasional, responses to specific requests he felt obliged to honor.

The first lecture gives an idea of the task before us. It is divided into four parts, as are all the lectures in this course, something that was done to facilitate delivery rather than due to anything mandatory in the quadripartite as such. Here I shall say things to supplement what you have seen or heard in that first lecture. A convenient way of doing this is to classify and briefly discuss his writings.

James Weisheipl, in his magisterial Friar Thomas D'Aquino, His Life, Thought, and Work, prepared for publication in the year that marked the seven hundreth anniversary of the death of Thomas, provides a useful catalog of Thomas's works, which owes much to an earlier catalog by I. T. Eshmann, which is included as an appendix to Etienne Gilson'sThe Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas (1956). A later arrangement of the works into categories can be found in Jean-Pierre Torrell's Initiation B Saint Thomas D'Aquin. Volume 1 (1993), which accepts, while slightly altering, Weisheipl's. Here are the categories proposed by Weisheipl:

  1. Theological Syntheses
  2. Academic Disputations
  3. Expositions of Holy Scripture
  4. Expositions of Aristotle
  5. Other Expositions
  6. Polemical Writings
  7. Treatises on Special Subjects
  8. Expert Opinions
  9. Letters
  10. Liturgical Pieces and Sermons
  11. Works of Uncertain Authenticity

Torrell whittles the number of categories to nine:

  1. Theological syntheses
  2. Disputed Questions
  3. Biblical commentaries
  4. Commentaries of Aristotle
  5. Other Commentaries
  6. Polemical Works
  7. Treatises
  8. Letters and expert opinions
  9. Liturgical works, sermons, prayers

1. Theological Syntheses

a. These include the early exposition of the Sentences of Peter Lombard in four books that was written in Paris from 1252-1256. The four volume work of Peter Lombard, a 12th century figure who ended as Bishop of Paris, became the standard work whereby the fledgling theologian was required to exhibit his ability to interpret and comment on a text meant to summarize Christian doctrine. Among the writings of theologians from the 13th century on will be found a commentary on Lombard. (Sometimes, as in the case of Duns Scotus, three of them which track his teaching career from Oxford to Paris to Cologne).There is as yet no English translation of this work, indeed there is no critical edition of the Latin text.

In the manual edition of the work, Scriptum super libros Sententiarum edited by Pierre Mandonnet beginning in 1929 and ending in 1947 you will find the work carefully following the divisions of Peter Lombard's four volumes. Each volume was divided into parts called distinctions and Thomas's commentary is fittingly preceded by a reprinting of the distinction of Lombard. This is followed by a divisio textus which provides a running outline of what Peter had written. There follows a discussion which is divided into questions, the questions into articles, and often further subdivisions. Here Thomas poses a thematic question suggested by the text and considers it independently of Peter Lombard. The genre of the later Summa theologiae, itself suggested by the format of quodlibetal and disputed questions, is already present. Each article of a question raises a difficulty and then gives a number of arguments on behalf of a positive or negative answer to it. This is followed by a Solution in which Thomas treats the thematic question after which he turns to a discussion of the proposed answers, sometimes rejecting them, sometimes making distinctions that bring them into accord with what he has said.

The outlines of Peter Lombard which follow the reprinting of his text have not received the attention they deserve. Weisheipl and Torrell give interesting historical sidelights to the composition of the work.

b. The Summa contra gentiles was begun in Paris in 1259 and finished in Naples and Orvieto in 1264. It is not a commentary, it too is divided into four books which are divided into chapters. This may make it appear closer to modern practice, but the chapters contain without emphasizing the dialectical approach to the matters raised. A position is always developed in the light of plausible alternatives. The 'gentiles' in question were the Moslems, Jews and heretical Christians that the Dominican encountered in their work in Spain and elsewhere. This aim leads to the search for arguments which do not depend on specifically Catholic sources, since these would not be accepted by the addressee. Is the work to be called theology or philosophy? In chapter 1 of Book Four, Thomas distinguishes a threefold way in which men can consider divine things: first, according to natural reason; second, divine revelation is treated in preaching; third, the human mind is raised by what had been supernaturally revealed. Thomas then says that in the previous three books he has been concerned with natural knowledge of God and will now in the fourth book turn to treatment of revelation. St. Edith Stein was much influenced by this Summa in developing her notion of Christian philosophy. Much has been written about Thomas's self-description of his task. I direct you to the recent book of Thomas S. Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa contra gentiles (Notre Dame Press, 1995).

c. The Summa theologiae, unfinished though it be, is rightly considered to be Thomas's masterpiece. The plan of the work is into three parts. The First Part (written from 1288-1269) contains 119 questions, each divided into articles, each article following the same literary form. The thematic question is given a proposed answer which is supported by a number of arguments, usually three in number, and then the discussion is turned by an On the contrary, some authoritative text is cited to suggest that the discussion is on the wrong track. There follows the Respondeo dicendum quod in which Thomas develops an argument or arguments on behalf of an answer other than that favored by the initial arguments. He ends by taking up those arguments as objections to his own position. There is no appreciable deviation from this style throughout the parts of the work. The result is not to bore the reader but rather to make the structure translucent, drawing the mind directly into the dialectical give and take summarized by the text. The sentence structure of the articles is similarly repetitive and the vocabulary of the whole limited. It is an introduction to theology for beginners, Thomas has told us at the outset, and this is not a professorial joke. Order and argument, focusing on the essential, leaving sideshows and further precision to other occasions -- these characterize the work. Part One discusses the one God, the Trinity, creation, with emphasis on angels and men.

The Second Part is subdivided into two. The First Part of the Second Part (written in 1270) contains 114 questions and deals with man's ultimate end, aspects of human actions, the passions or emotions, habits and virtues, sin, law and grace. The Second Part of the Second Part, (written from 1271-1272), the largest volume, contains 189 questions. It discusses the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, justice and prudence, in the course of which the beatitudes and the fruits of the Holy Ghost are interwoven with the discussion. The parts of the fundamental virtues are pursued in some detail, and it ends with a discussion of states of life, especially the religious life.

The Third Part (begun in 1272 and broken off in December of 1273), contains 90 questions which deal with the Incarnation, the union of human and divine nature in Christ, and the life of Christ. The discussion of the sacraments had covered baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance -- and then is abruptly stopped. There are other unfinished works of Thomas's but the explanation of this stop is a deliberate decision, prompted by a mystical experience that convinced Thomas that all he had written was nothing but straw compared to the green pastures he had briefly glimpsed. Josef Pieper's The Silence of St. Thomas, reissued by St. Augustine's Press in 1999 is must reading on this subject.

2. Academic Disputations

There are two sorts of disputation, one the so-called Quaestio disputata, the other Quaestiones quodlibetales. The occasions for and nature of the two kinds of disputation are discussed in the lectures. They represented one of the three tasks of a regnant master, to comment, to dispute, and to preach. We have eleven sets of disputed questions of Thomas. That On Truth 29 subsidiary questions and are dated by Weisheipl as taking place in Paris from 1256 to 1259. The Disputed Question on the Power of God comprises 10 articles which are said by Weisheipl to have taken place in Rome from 1265 to 1266. The Disputed Question on Evil (Rome, 1288-1267) comprises sixteen articles, that On Spiritual Creatures (Italy, 1267-1268) comprises eleven articles. The Disputed Question on the Soul (Paris, 1269) has 21 questions. That On the Virtues in General, thirteen questions, On Charity thirteen articles, On Fraternal Correction, two articles, On Hope, two articles, and On the Cardinal Virtues, four articles, are all set by Weisheipl in Paris from 1269-1272. The Disputed Question on the Incarnate Word, finally, has five articles, and is placed by Weisheipl in early April, 1272, in Paris. The articles of the disputed questions differ from those in the number of arguments with which they begin -- the Summa theologiae usually confines itself to three 'objections' -- and the far more sophisticated way in which matters are discussed, doubtless because of the setting which occasioned them. There are twelve sets of Quodlibetal Questions which are divided into two given at Christmas or Easter in Paris during the two three-year-periods, 1256-1259 and 1269-1272, when Thomas was a regnant master there. They are, as their title suggests, what-you-will disputes on all and sundry, and a delight to peruse.

3. Scriptural Commentaries

The threefold task of the master of theology was summed up, as I have mentioned, in three infinitive: legere, praedicare, disputare. The chief texts to be read were the Sentences and books of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Thomas commented on Job at Orvieto from 1281-1264, and is characterized by him as a literal interpretation. That at the Psalms is said to be guided by the nocturns of the Office, and includes psalms 1 to 51. Weisheipl places it in Naples, 1272-1273, thus very late in Thomas's short life, but a life that had been lived with the psalms as daily prayers. The commentary on Isaiah has no agreed upon dating, nor has that on Jeremiah. There is a separate commentary on the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Thomas wrote the Catena Aurea or Golden Chain, glosses on the four gospels drawn from the Greek and Latin Fathers, at Orvieto and Rome in 1262 or 1263 through 1267. We have two gospel commentaries of Thomas's own, that on Matthew (Paris, 1256-1259). And that on John (Paris, 1269-1272). Thomas commented on all the epistles of St. Paul. Mention can also be made of the Commendation of Sacred Scripture, which I have included in my Penguin Class collection of texts of Thomas, pp. 5-17.

4. Aristotelian Commentaries

As you read this summary of the writings of Thomas, with dates supplied where needed, you will see the fundamental role played in their composition by Thomas's duties as a regnant theologian. In this regard, the eleven commentaries on treatises of Aristotle, not all of which are complete, come as a surprise. They were no part of Thomas's task as a theologian. They all come late in his life although he had immersed himself in the writings of Aristotle from the beginning of his studies at Naples, if not earlier, something that received added stimulus from the influence of St. Albert the Great. Our discussion in the first lecture of the controversies that swirled around the philosophy of Aristotle at Paris give the historical reason why Thomas decided to provide close readings of the treatises. He began this work in 1268, in Rome, with the commentary On the Soul, which he completed in Paris when he returned there for his second period as regnant master, 1269-1272. Most of the commentaries were composed during this period when Thomas was extremely busy lecturing and disputing. He commented on On Interpretation (incomplete), on the Posterior Analytucs, Physics, On the Heavens and Earth (incomplete), On Generation and Corruption (incomplete), On Meteors (incomplete), On Sense and the Sensed Object, On Memory and Reminiscence, On the Metaphysics, On the Nicomachean Ethics, On the Politics (incomplete). I have lauded and discussed the importance of these commentaries several times. Perhaps you will want to read the discussion in my preface to the already mentioned Penguin Classic Selected Writings (1998). If we add the Tabula, or index, to the Nicomachean Ethics, Torrell says was composed around 1270, we have a round dozen of Aristotelian works.

5. Other Expositions

Thomas commented on two treatises of Boethius, On the Trinity (incomplete) which Weisheipl places in Paris, 1258-1259, and on the work called De hebdomadibus (Whether everything that is is good just insofar as it is), which Weisheil dates as the same time as the first Boethian commentary. Thomas wrote a remarkable commentary on On the Divine Names by the pseudo-Denis the Areopagite (Rome, 1265-1267) and another on the work called The Book of Causes, thought to be Aristotelian but which Thomas showed to be excerpted from Proclus (Paris, 1271-1272).

6. Polemical Writings

There are two many causes for writings so described, attacks on the religious life and misunderstandings of Aristotle. The former are Against Those Impugning the Religious Life (Paris, 1256) against William of Saint-Amour, On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life (Paris, either 1269 or 1270), against Gerard d'Abbeville, Against Those who would prevent the entry into religion of boys, against d'Abbeville and Geraldni, located by Weisheipl in Paris, 1271. As for misreadings of Aristotle, Thomas wrote his extremely important On There Being only One Intellect, against the Averroists, which may be taken as a charter for his commentaries on Aristotle. This was written in Paris in 1270. On the Eternity of the World, Paris, 1270, is of basic importance for understanding Thomas on the relation of faith and reason.

7. Treatises

Thomas's treatise On Fallacies is regarded as authentic by Weisheipl who thinks it was composed when Thomas was held in confinement by his family, 1244-1245. Torrell thinks it inauthentic. On Being and Essence (Paris, 1252-1256) and On the Principles of Nature (Paris, same dating) were written before Thomas became a master. The Compendium of Theology was written late in Thomas's life, and is incomplete, perhaps like the Summa a casualty of Thomas's mystical experience. It was based on the three theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, but stops in the midst of the discussion of hope. On Separate Substances, also late, perhaps at Naples, is also incomplete. On the Rule of Princes, to the King of Cyprus, also incomplete, is dated by Weisheipl between 1265 and 1267 at Rome.

For the Letters and Expert Opinions I will simply refer you to the discussions in Weisheipl (pp. 389-400) and Torrell (pp. 511-520). Like the quodlibetal questions they are on a vast range of topics, some of them of greater interest than others. As for Thomas's liturgical writings and sacred poetry, the Office he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi takes precedence. Weisheipl places its composition at Orvieto in summer of 1264. The Eucharistic Hymns, e.g. Adoro te devote, are still sung where the faith is robust. As for the sermons, they date from the last years in Naples, and concern the Creed, the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria and the Ten Commandments. These are of great importance. We still await a critical edition of all of Thomas's sermons.

Some years ago there was an advertising campaign called "The Man Who Reads Encyclopedias." This was an effort to sell the Britannica, and Adlai Stevenson figured in the series. Reading encyclopedias seems a random enough aim, guided as one must be by the mere alphabet, but is reading lists of books, bibliographies, a more intelligent use of one's time? As a general rule, no, but this skeletal presentation of the literary production of Thomas Aquinas, together with the dating of the works, can be overlaid his life and give us a sense of his enormous productivity at the various stages of his short career through time.

Furthermore, one as knowledgeable as yourself in the biography of Thomas will find food for reflection in the conjunction of his life and work. In the course of my presentation I have mentioned a number of specific works. Somewhat shamelessly, I shall give works of my own pride of place in the writing assignments that follow these lessons.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Introduction to my Penguin Classic, St. Thomas, Selected Writings, London: Penguin, 1998.

Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas. South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 1999.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write a review of at least five typed pages in length of Pieper's book The Silence of St. Thomas.


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