Saturday, January 28, 2012

A better way of reading the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas

January 28th, Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is, without question, the greatest work of theology ever written. And yet, because of the length of the treatise – some six hundred fifteen question of up to six or even eight articles, in three (or four) volumes – even the most avid fans of the Angel of the Schools find it difficult to read the whole Summa.
In this post, we intend to give an indication of not only how to read any particular portion of the Summa, but also of how to succeed in reading the whole work.

The structure of the Summa Theologica
St. Thomas’ Summa is divided into four parts: the first part, Summa Theologica I (ST I); the first part of the second part (ST I-II); the second part of the second part (ST II-II); and the third part (ST III), to this is added the “Supplement” completed by Reginald of Piperno from St. Thomas’ early writings.
1) The first part (ST I) considers God, the Trinity, and creation (especially men and angels).
2a) The first part of the second part (ST I-II) deals with morals in general – considering everything from happiness, to virtue and vice, as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit and grace.
2b) The second part of the second part (ST II-II) is on specific moral theology – dealing with the virtues and vices in particular, and also with vocational callings.
3) Finally, the third part (ST III) considers Christ Jesus himself and also the sacraments he instituted.
4) Lastly, there is the “Supplement” which was added to the Summa, since St. Thomas never finished this work – the Supplement deals with some of the sacraments and also considers the end of time and the second coming of our Savior (it is made up from the commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard which St. Thomas made as a young man).
How to read a portion of the Summa
The Summa is divided into questions, which are sub-divided into articles. Thus, for example, the thirty-fourth question of the third part considers the perfection of the Christ in his conception and is divided into four articles [read the question here]:
ST III, q.34, a.1 – Whether Christ was sanctified in the first instant of his conception?
a. 2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception?
a. 3 – Whether Christ could merit in the first instant of his conception?
a. 4 – Whether Christ was a perfect comprehensor in the first instant of his conception?
When considering any particular article, we notice that there are essentially four parts: Objections (videtur), appeal to authority (sed contra), theological proof (respondeo), and replies to objections (dicendum quod).
Now, it is helpful to the modern mind that, when reading any particular article, we begin first by reading the first words of the first objection: In the case of ST III, q.34, a.2 [read the article here], the first objection begins, “It would seem that Christ as man had not the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.” Because this is an objection which will be disproven, this means that the basic answer which St. Thomas gives is that our Lord did have the use of free-will even in his humanity from the first moment he was conceived in the womb of his Mother.
Then, without reading the rest of the objections, we proceed to the sed contra, or “On the contrary” (in which St. Thomas will appeal to an authority to settle the issue). In this particular case, St. Thomas appeals to St. Augustine (though really to St. Gregory the Great) who writes (Regist. Ix, Ep. 61): “As soon as the Word entered the womb, while retaining the reality of his nature, he was made flesh, and a perfect man.” St. Thomas concludes, “But a perfect man has the use of free-will. Therefore Christ had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.”
From this we clearly see the basic answer of St. Thomas: Our Lord, even as an embryo in the womb, was in full possession of his rational faculties including the freedom of his will.
Next, we consider the “I answer that”, which is the body of the argument. This is the most important portion of the article, since it is here that St. Thomas will explain the theological point in question.
Finally, we return to the objections and consider each together with St. Thomas’ replies.
Thus the over-all plan for each article is as follows:
1) First sentence of the first objection.
2) “On the contrary”
3) “I answer that”, or body of the article
4) Objections and replies
(those interested in a further discussion of the theological point of this article – that Christ, from the moment of his conception, had attained to the use of reason – may consider our previous articles [here] and [here])
Two methods of reading the Summa Theologica
There are two popular ways of attempting to read the Summa of St. Thomas, but neither is often successful.
First, there is the “curious” or “casual” approach to the Summa. This is the habit of picking up the Summa at random and opening to a particular question without reading anything of the immediate context. For example, one might hear that St. Thomas believes that war can sometimes be justified and so turns to ST II-II, q.40, without considering anything of the context of the question (that, for example, St. Thomas deals with war as a vice contrary to the theological virtue of charity).
Now, I do not intend to completely discredit this first approach to the Summa – even if it is a bit “curious” (which, according to the Angelic Doctor, is a vice contrary to temperance [cf. ST II-II, q.167]), at least the reader is exposed to something of St. Thomas’ thought!
There is a second approach which goes to the opposite extreme: Some will attempt to read the whole Summa by starting at the very beginning and reading word for word through the whole work. Generally, such an approach becomes extremely laborious, and the individual gives up somewhere around the discussion of man’s spirit and nature (in ST I, q.75 and following).
While this second approach respects the internal structure of the Summa, and is surely the best method, as following the system intended by St. Thomas himself; it can tend to be a bit dry and very tedious.
Another (better) way of reading the Summa
I would like to present one way of reading the Summa which combines something of a methodological system together with topics of interest to the modern man. It is possible to read the Summa from back to front – many would find the Summa much more interesting if they began with the end and read backwards to the beginning. Let me explain.
I would suggest starting with the third part, questions twenty-seven through fifty-nine, which deal with the life of Christ and are closely related to the Scriptures. This portion of the Summa (a part which many people do not even realize exists) deals with the various events and mysteries in our Savior’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, it is far more interesting to the modern man than the more theoretical discussions of the first part.
Now, starting with the treatise on the life of Christ, one could read the Summa backwards by taking the time to look up all of the references which St. Thomas makes to earlier questions and articles – the Angel of the Schools regularly references earlier portions of the Summa and, when reading the questions dealing with Jesus’ life on earth, one could pause after each article and take the time to look up all the citations to earlier articles in the Summa.
In this manner, one would be reading the Summa backwards – but the study would be very interesting, since it would be driven by the Scriptural account of Jesus’ life. Each time an earlier portion of the Summa is cited, one could go back and read that article, and then could continue to go back further still to read any previous articles which are cited.
Let us take an example: ST III, q.34, a.2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception? In this article, St. Thomas refers to a.1 of the same question, as well as to ST III, q.33, a.2, and ST III, q.11, a.2. Taking the reference to the question immediately previous (q.33), which refers to an article in which St. Thomas shows that our Lord possessed a human soul from the first instant of his conception, we then are directed to ST III, q.6, a.1 and 2). In the second article of question six, one is directed to the first part of the Summa (ST I, q.62, a.8; q.64, a.2). Thus, we have been led from the consideration of the life of Christ to the treatise on the Incarnation (III, q.6) to the treatise on the angels (I, q.62 and q.64). From here, we could continue to proceed further back still!
A plan for reading the Summa
Personally, I would recommend beginning with ST I, q.1, a.1-10. This question serves as a prologue for the rest of the Summa and stands on its own.
After the first question, one might proceed to ST III, qq.27-59, which deal with the life of Jesus (and are particularly Scriptural in nature). Looking up the citations to previous questions in the Summa would cover well the treatise on the Incarnation (III, qq.1-26) and also a good portion of the first part of the Summa.
After the treatise on the Incarnation, I recommend proceeding to the treatise on the Sacraments: ST III, qq.60 – Suppl. q.68.
Then, fall back to the treatise on virtues: ST II-II. If one were to look up all the references in the second part of the second part of the Summa, the first part of the second part would be well covered.
After all of this, looking up references all along, it would be good to skim through the whole of the Summa from start to finish, taking extra time with any article or question which is unfamiliar.
Special attention should be given to the treatises on the Trinity (I, qq.27-43), on the angels (I, qq.50-64), on grace (I-II, qq.109-114), on the Incarnation (III, qq.1-16), and on the Eucharist (III, qq.73-83).These portions of the Summa contain the most significant insights of the Angelic Doctor.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray for us!


Anonymous said...

I am a doctoral student in theology at Ave Maria University, and have spent a great deal of time reading large sections of the Summa. Yet, I have never read the entire Summa, even though I think it would be a worthwhile endeavor. Thank you so much for suggesting a practical plan for doing so!

Ted K said...

Our own times can learn a lot from the scholastic method that St Thomas uses. Too often today, writers make assertions without either considering objections to them, or refuting these objections. What is amazing is how in those "awful" middle ages between the "enlightened" eras of human civilisation as it were, thinkers were able to very efficiently and critically elaborate enormously complex ideas, both in quality and quantity, putting even many "theologians" of today to shame.

Anonymous said...

That's the way I did it except I skipped the questions and replys. No, I still haven't read the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

That's the way I did it except that I skipped the questions and replys. Still haven't read the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate this very much as I've yet to read the entire ST. Thanks!
-Mike D.

Steven R said...

Thank you very much for this article Father, it is very helpful, especially the reading backwards portion.

Another tip that I find helpful when studying St. Thomas for philosophical reasons, after perhaps reading the entire question over once or twice) and understanding the truth even more closely is to take his objections, develop them in one's mind and pretend that you are a person speaking these objections to said doctrine and then going to the reply to the objection (bearing in mind the position posited in the On the Contrary and I Answer). In this way you strive to become personally invested in the debate and further understand more deeply why St. Thomas' usually orthodox answer stands strongest.

This brings to mind the real strength of Scholastic writings and how the dialectic works. Unfortunately too many students gloss over his methodology here and claim, this is not philosophy or theology, this is just argumentation from authority; which it is not usually. St. Thomas strives to bring authoritative texts or positions and weave them in a way as to make a cohesive and very rational argument.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Those of us aspiring to low brow status find this helpful:

Anonymous said...

Peter Kreeft has a respectfully done "summa of the Summa" that I recommend as well: "A Shorter Summa" from Ignatius Press. Peter Kreeft is a champion Catholic thinker of our day, and his greatest saintly inspiration is St. Thomas Aquinas. All of his works are worth a read.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While I do agree that those works of Kreeft can be helpful ... I have to point out that he really doesn't do justice to St. Thomas' Summa.

Point in fact: Kreeft focuses far too heavily on the philosophical points and ignores the Christological and theological vision of the Summa.
The "Shorter Summa" is explicit in this, covering only the ST I and I-II ... the sub-title says "The essential PHILOSOPHICAL passages..."
The "Summa of the Summa" is more of the same ... again, not a single reference to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to Christ, to the sacraments.

Granted, Kreeft is only trying to present the philsophical points of the Summa ... but there is something wrong when he calls it a "Summa" of the Summa Theologica and doesn't even include hardly a single theological point.

For other reasons as well, I personally do not highly recommend Dr. Kreeft. But, of course, he is far better than most in our sad age.

Daniel said...

A good commentary to go with the Summa is important. St. Thomas uses a lot of terminology that is not understood by a modern audience, or is not easily translated from Latin. While not a commentary on the whole Summa, I have found Holy Teaching by Frederick Bauerschmidt to be an outstanding resource.

Felix said...

As you indicate, the basic structural unit of the Summa T is the treatise. In my view, the best way to come to terms with St Thomas' style is to study a treatise.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Also, I would recommend the commentaries of Fr Garrigou-Lagrange.
Personally, I find them to be some of the best in the entire Thomistic tradition (behind Cajetan's, of course).

You can find some of these linked in the column on the right side of this blog -- "Christ the Savior" (On the treatise on the incarnation and the life of Christ), and "Grace" (on the treatise on grace).
There are a number of others which can be purchased from TAN books and other Catholic publishers.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Rather than looking to other peoples' "shorter summa"s (like those of Kreeft), it is much better to look to St. Thomas' own summary of the Summa, which he wrote in the last two years of his life (specifically for people who would not have the time to read the whole Summa Theologica) ... you can get it here at Amazon --

or, even better (and for less), here from Aquinas and More Catholic Books --

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Father Ryan

Which Edition of The Summa do You Recommend?


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If you are looking for a Latin edition ... the best by far is the Leonine edition (which comes with the commentary of Cajetan) ... but it is hard to find and very very expensive.

If you are looking for an English edition ... my preference is the translation by the "Fathers of the English Dominican Province", which is published in both hard cover and paper back by "Christian Classics" from "Ave Maria Press" in Notre Dame, IN.
Personally, I would recommend the hard cover edition ... since it will last longer and can handle more continuous use.

On line, there is the easily navigated edition on ... unfortunately, this is not the best translation ... but it is easy to navigate.

Peace to you! +

Unknown said...

Father, you've done an excellent job explaining that who to read an article.

My greatest pet peeve is that people refer to "treatises" in the Summa, for example, the Treatise on Law. This example in particular is entirely artificial. Those that speak this way usually don't include the New Law (and printed versions often omit the questions on the Mosaic Law). Huh? Talk about abusing what Thomas says "on the Law"!

The entire Summa is a well planned "narrative" and anyone who thinks of sections as self-standing isn't presenting the text rightly.

ad Jesum per Mariam
Taylor Marshall

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

What are the Best Translations of Aquinas's other Books?

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

by the way The ST translation online is the same as the book you recommended.

De Liliis said...

I've always benefited from R.P. Pegues 'Catechism of the Summa', and Pope Benedict XV highly praised the book, which is included in the introduction.

Andrej said...

I think it is a strange approach to start reading the summa without first considering the philosophical underpinnings.

Being publicly educated my whole life, and therefore lacking in theological or philosophical instruction, I personally found the writings of Jacques Maritain to be the most helpful in resolving the natural sciences (with which I was well acquainted) with a first philosophy. His 'Introduction to Philosophy' and 'The Degrees of Knowledge' were excellent companions to my first readings of the Summa, which I undertook in the first way mentioned in the article: opening at random and studying.

In my youth I had been educated or informed by persons whose first principles were liberal or scientistic, so it was through Maritain (and other Thomists) that I was even able to get a handle of theology as a subject of study.

Different experiences in life can influence which method of introductory study will be best for the reader. It may not be perfect, but I myself am a big fan of the heavily philisophical, open-at-random method! Let it be a starting point for further structured study!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you are correct, the translation on NewAdvent is the same ... and it is a good translation. Thanks for pointing this out!

Regarding translations of other works ... I would point you to the following "Aquinas Biography" ...

Here you will also find links to many on-line works.

Peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Dr. Marshall,
While I do agree that people are far too strict in separating out the "treatises" ... I do think it is good to recognize that St. Thomas himself did divide his work into parts and sections (all of which, as you point out, are related).

Thus, the so-called "treatise on the Incarnation" follows from the prologue to the third part in which St. Thomas says that there are three parts: the Savior himself, the sacraments, the immortal life.
Then, the first is divided into two parts: "the mystery of the incarnation itself", and "about such things as were done and suffered by our Saviour".

Regarding the so-called treatise on Law, St. Thomas says (at the beginning of ST I-II, q.90) that God is the extrinsic principle moving us to do good. And that God does this by instructing us through his Law, and assisting us with his grace.
Then, St. Thomas embarks on the discussion of Law, first in itself in general and then in its parts.
The first part is qq. 90-92, the second is qq.93-108.
Of course, as you mention, this second part deals explicitly with the Old Law (of the Old Testament) and the New Law (of the Gospel). So, it is really a disservice to St. Thomas when people leave revelation out of his thought on Law.

Still, I do think that there is some sense of recognizing the units within the Summa Theologica. All of these are united and bound together ... but there do seem to be real divisions and parts, which are often called "treatises".
At the same time, you are very right to point out that they are all connected and form one narrative.

Peace and blessings! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@De Liliis,
Thank you for the reference to the "Catechism of the Summa" by Pegues ... it is an excellent resource!

De Liliis said...

You're welcome. Deo gratias.

I like how it's a simple start for the laity who likely enough haven't had a course in St. Thomas. Then you can go back to the Summa and you have more of a framework.

I picked up St. Thomas again because of his feast day and am reading about the virtues. And it is quite interesting how each relates to the other, and one may be a kind of descendant of the other, and so forth. I wish I had a single book dedicated entirely to widely treating of the many virtues that handle how they interrelate this way, in simple language.

Johannes Faber said...

I was inspired by this to start doing it myself. I've wanted to do a study of it for ages.

Then I thought that my notes and summaries might be useful to my friends.

So I'm putting them on a blog. Hopefully errors won't creep in.

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Do you Recommend The Aquinas Catechism?

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father Ryan,

Thank you for your kind advice, I'm beginning, but the fomes of sin, specifically to laziness, is fighting against my good intentions! God bless you and happy St. Blaise!

Anonymous said...

Father, do you know where it is possible to find a leonine edition of the Summa?

gaiawriter said...

Excellent. I found this by searching "how to read aquinas" and it answers my questions best of the sites showed. Thankyou!

Hermit said...

Father, I have been looking for the summary of the Summa you mentioned, but in Latin. And I want it in ONE volume. But I see plenty of editions and cannot figure out what they are:
- Theologicæ Summæ Compendium Auctore Petro Alagona
- Summa Summae Sacrosanctae Theologiae D. Thomas Aquinatis... (Latin Edition) Berardo Bongiovanni
- Summa Summae S. Thomae (Latin Edition) - Charles-René Billuard
Would you please be so kind as to ditrect me to what I need? Of course, St. Thomas' own summary of the Summa would be the best, but is it available in Latin in any bookstores?
Thank you.

Spero said...

What are your thoughts on this edition and do its advantages justify the expense (given that continuing education is part of my remuneration...but I would have to give up going to conferences for a couple years):

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a terrible translation ... but the notes can be very very helpful -- especially concerning references to other authors of the time ... also, it is nice to have the latin on the facing page ... however, the essays contained in the volumes are rather pathetic (at least, I have not been impressed by most of the ones which I have read) ... so, that is that ...

If you can read latin with ease, I'd recommend the following leonine edition with the commentary of cardinal cajetan ...

These are good editions, I have them myself ... very affordable, when you consider the cost of the originals ... but you have to be able to read latin with great facility...

Otherwise, I'd recommend the handful of commentaries by Garrigou-Lagrange and the translation of the summa published by benzinger (5 volumes, i believe) ...

... but as I say, I was happy to have the 60 volume set available in my seminary library ... interesting to read -- but not something I myself am willing to purchase...

JE Dorner said...

I'm glad I found this article. I have been attempting to read through the whole Summa from start to finish. I started back in 1992 when I was in Seminary. Now a priest of 21 years I am in the treatise on temperance. I'm reading it in the Latin. I have the one volume tome, the Edizioni Paoline, 1988. If I finish it it will be my one claim to fame:>) If I ever finish, I will come pack and post again. But there is great merit in what Fr. Ryan suggests here. Keep at it ladies and gentlemen.

Sam Granger said...

For those who wanted the Leonine Edition. It's all available in the link above.

Here's all of Thomas' works in Latin:

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