"The Student Before St. Thomas"

by James V. Schall, S. J.

From "The Maritain Notebook": 
The American Maritain Association Newsletter,
Fall, 1998, pp. 1-2

 

We have to assume that almost no student in any college or
university today knows anything about Thomas Aquinas.  There may be hints
that he existed; that he was a leadeing medieval thinker; that Catholic
thought is greatly influenced by him.  But the fact is that the student is
never actually presented with Thomas Aquinas.  And even in those few
places where he is taken more seriously, rarely is there more than a
semester given to this or that aspect of his work.  I do a course about
every four semesters on "The Political Philosophy of St. Thomas."  But of
course, the idea of talking about what Aquinas said about politics without
mentioning what he said about everything else is next to impossible.  But
the minute one wanders into everything else, the semester is gone.

 

In the intellectual disarray of contemporary universities,
secular, Catholic, and otherwise, what does one say to students about
Thomas Aquinas?  Suppose you say, "Aquinas was the greatest mind that ever
existed."  They have already been told that about a gillion other guys are
the greatest minds that ever existed, among which often was not Thomas
Aquinass.  The irony here, of course, is that Aquinas, above all, was a
teacher of beginners.  He sought to explain precisely how to learn and
what to learn.  He also taught us to know that we know when we know.
Moreover, he was never hesitant to teach about "what is," about what is
worthy of being known, including God, insofar as we can know Him.  Nor did
Aquinas intimate that because we were taught things in revelation that
this information was useless.  He taught rather that it was quite
remarkably inciting, as a means to make the mind itself more accurate and
as an answer to many perplexities that reason could not answer.

 

I recently heard of someone who was reading the "Summa
Theologiae" for the seventh time in its entirety.  This is over four
thousand pages each time, and anyone who wants to real "all" of St. Thomas
would have many times that amount to read seven times.  There is, of
course, no substitute for direct contact with what Aquinas actually says.
He too has many commentators, many summaries of his "Summae."  I would not
want to distract from this endeavor to know him directly or claim there is
a substitute for it.

 

But where we are today is that we need to begin, and more
especially to have the desire to begin.  Is there any way in a semester,
say, or simply to take a student aside, apart from all the chaos that he
is given in school and in the culture, at least to give him a chance to
begin St. Thomas?

 

Here is what I would suggest.  I would find a couple of solid
texts of Aquinas, ones in English, though I would explain that it is
quite easy to learn St. Thomas's Latin.  Learning Latin, for contemporary
students, will often come as a result of already knowing something of St.
Thomas's thought.  I would spend a considerable amount of time on the
texts chosen, though they should not be overwhelming.  Aquinas can simply
overpower us, so we must keep him at first in manageable proportions, as
he himself suggested.  We could read, say, the whole of the Treatise on
Law, then the Treatise on the End of Man in the I-II, then perhaps, the
Treatise on Justice or Prudence.  We could try those on Providence or
Evil.  We can usually find anthologies or independent texts with such
treatises in them, or they are found in various editions of the "Basic
Works."

 

Woven in and around these readings, I would read the following
four books with the students: 
1) Josef Pieper, "A Guide to the Summa,"
2) G. K. Chesterton, "St. Thomas Aquinas,"
3) Brian Davies, "The Thought of Thomas Aquinas," and
4) "Josef Pieper  -- an Anthology." 
I would keep in mind, and perhaps read, either the Weisheipl or Torrell biographies, or
something of Gilson or Maritain or McInerny.

 

I would not do more than this.  Best to keep it tight.  St. Thomas
easily leads to all things and in any reading of him, this universal
quality of his work should be constantly stressed.  But what I have in
mind here is simply a way to begin, a way to cause any half-way alert
student to begin to wonder, not just to wonder about how Aquinas himself
did all that he did, but wonder about reality, about what it was that
concerned Aquinas, reality, "what is," and its causes, insofar as we can
know them.  It is my suspicion, at least, that these readings of Aquinas
and those who were most like him leave the average student at least
wondering, at least beginning to realize that most of what he has been
taught is paltry compared to the genius of Aquinas and the paths to which
he can lead anyone open to him.