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the parts

Now we begin to dip our toes into the guts of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, so here's a heads-up on what's coming.


This "translation into the secular" of the thought of Aquinas is patterned after the way he organized the Summa Theologica, his systematic recap of his own thought. In the Summa, he breaks his view of God in the universe into three parts. As he says, he devotes:

  • "PART ONE of this book to God,
  • PART TWO to the journey to God of reasoning creatures,
  • PART THREE to Christ who, as man, is our road to God."

The three parts form a systematic and harmonious "theory of everything" which to my mind not only stands up quite nicely in our existential and scientific world but is the perfect way to reincorporate the essential mysteriousness of life into a rational world view. If there was anyone who was not afraid of either mystery or reason, it was Aquinas, and he draws what I think is the almost perfect boundary between the two.

Warning! Aquinas was a quite systematic fellow, so to get the full beauty of his work you have to let him unfold all the parts one by one and let him draw the connections between them to make the whole. The intelligence is not only in the ideas but in the connections between the ideas so its sweep doesn't become fully apparent until the end. Reading the Summa is like looking at a cathedral with a microscope; you just can't see it's whole shape until you're able to stitch the parts together. But understanding his world view and the sense it makes of the nature and shape of the human experience is well worth the work.


A note on pronouns: Aquinas lived in the 13th century; don't be surprised to see male pronouns used exclusively. But realize that this is a function of the translation from Latin to English; for the most part, in the original Latin, Aquinas did use the generic term for human and used Latin pronouns that were not gender-specific. Unfortuntately none of this gender-neutral language translates to English.

A note on gender: This is not to say that Aquinas shares our modern understanding of the fairer sex. When Aquinas does mention women (which actually is quite rare, spending most of his time simply talking about humans), he bases his ideas on the scientific and social understanding of the time (such as it was), which was that men were the thinkers and women produced babies. So we should obviously understand his ideas on gender as constrained by that context and read him as though when he writes about humans, he means just that.

A note on citations: Quotes from the Summa are identified by Part, Question, and Article, like 1a. 2. 1, meaning Part 1, Question 2, Article 1. And there are two parts of Part Two, so Part Two is cited as 1a2ae (for the first part of Part Two, or PRIMA SECUNDÆ PARTIS in Latin) or 2a2ae (for the second part of Part Two, or SECUNDA SECUNDÆ PARTIS), a tad counter-intuitive, but there you have it.

Note also that most of the quotes from the Summa are taken from the translation in Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation, Timothy McDermott editor.

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"But there is a general tone and temper of Aquinas, which is as difficult to avoid as daylight in a great house of windows. It is that positive position of his mind, which is filled and soaked as with sunshine with the warmth and wonder of created things."
G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, p.94


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