St Thomas Aquinas is, with no exaggeration, one of the most important philosophers in the history of the Church. He is also one of the most misunderstood.
Maybe you think he’s irrelevant to the problems in today’s world, or maybe you think he’s too complicated. Or, maybe, you think he’s just a bit dull. Prepare to have your ideas turned upside down.
Well educated and intelligent, Thomas (1225-1274) spent most of his life teaching his fellow Dominicans and other students in the universities that his Order had founded in France and Italy. The universities were a source of fresh thinking about law, politics, philosophy and theology.
The following books reveal sides to Aquinas you might not have discovered before. In the pages of these books, you’ll discover not just St Thomas the philosopher, but Thomas the wise and spiritual master; Thomas, the connoisseur of the heart; and Thomas, the man whose philosophy was one of the most human and relevant philosophies of all.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time with Thomas knows he is as surprising as he is intelligent.
This is one of the most recent introductions to Aquinas for lay readers, and arguably one of the most understandable, too.
Scott Hahn wrote the forward to this book and he made a great observation: people don’t often associate medieval philosophy with the topic of happiness. People don’t often associate Aquinas with the topic of happiness. But happiness was a pivotal aspect of his philosophy since everything hinged upon the realisation of our ultimate purpose, which is beatitude (or, happiness in God).
In this short book, Matt Fradd (host of the podcast Pints with Aquinas) lays out with simplicity and insight what Aquinas meant by happiness and how it could be found. Since the search for happiness is a central preoccupation today, Fradd puts to bed some myths about what happiness is before introducing us to a man whose philosophy was truly wholesome and truly human. Fradd helps us see that Aquinas is relevant to us socially, psychologically, and most of all relevant to the human heart.
Etienne Gilson, the twentieth-century Thomist philosopher, thought that G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Dumb Ox’ was ‘the best book ever written on Saint Thomas.’ He thought that Chesterton’s portrayal of Aquinas the man and his philosophy put most scholarship to shame.
Indeed, the book is entertaining and enlightening. Chesterton knew full well he was no expert on Thomas, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. What he attempts instead is ‘a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular.’
One of the things Chesterton is exceptionally good at is showing how saints stand out from their surroundings; showing us the things that make them weird and provocative. He shows us how the saint, by being upside down, is actually the right way up. We are the ones who are living upside down. This is precisely what he does with Thomas, the man who is so often depicted as dull and irrelevant, as the archaic guardian of a dead orthodoxy. On the contrary, Chesterton says.
He describes Thomas as ‘a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable.’ Yet, in the manner of a saint, he shows him to be an antidote to prevailing pathologies; pathologies both medieval and modern:
The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects.’
As always with Chesterton, there are times when he is easier to read than others. This is a relatively short book, however, and well worth the time devoted to it. If you’re too familiar with Aquinas, or not familiar at all, this is highly recommended.
This is one of Barron’s earliest books, and anyone familiar with the Bishop’s work over the years will also be familiar with some of the themes that characterise this one. What makes this book unique, however, is the way in which Barron shows us how Thomas was not a philosopher only, but a spiritual master, and how these do not exist in spite of each other, but because of each other.
We tend to see philosophy as a fairly abstract exercise, disconnected from the concrete and spiritual realities of life. The genius of Barron is in how he proves this false. The philosophy of St Thomas has direct implications for our spiritual lives.
At one point in the book, he makes mention of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, which began circulating a century or so before Aquinas.
According to this legend, a kingdom languishes under the rule of a king whose wounds will not heal, even though he possesses the Grail. His land can only be restored if a naïve and innocent man (the Knight Parsifal) finds the Grail and asks about its significance.
As Parsifal makes his way through five painful years of searching for the Grail, he gradually discovers the true significance of this object that has become his obsession.’
What we see in Aquinas, Barron says, is the idea that the Holy Grail of our lives is the beatific vision: the experience of God, which is ecstasy, or happiness. We are, even if we don’t recognise it, obsessed with this. It is the consuming desire of our lives and it leaves us restless, searching, and dissatisfied with everything in the world we use to take the place of God. The beginning and end of Aquinas is desire, Barron says, because the human heart has an infinite craving that worldly goods simply cannot satisfy. In bringing out this dimension of the human heart, Barron brings out an oft-neglected aspect of Aquinas’ philosophy that makes him much more relatable.
Now we’re moving into some deeper territory. Fortunately, Peter Kreeft is a philosopher well-known for the way in which he makes complicated ideas eminently simple. This book is no different.
It’s a bit thicker and a bit longer than the others, and here Kreeft covers 358 topics from Aquinas complete with direct quotations and his own reflections breaking down each idea. These topics range from religion and the soul, to love, desire, heaven, hell, and everything in-between. Due to the nature of the book, it’s not something to sit down and read in a few sessions. It’s a guidebook. It’s something to have on hand to nourish your soul and your mind.
What Kreeft wanted to bring out, much like Barron, was the sheer practical force of Aquinas. Emphasis on Aquinas’ philosophy has often eclipsed the more practical and existential dimensions of his work, and Kreeft brings them out on page after page. After all, the whole purpose of life is to become a saint – to be consumed by the experience of God in the beatific vision. Abstract philosophy without practical wisdom is useless, but fortunately that’s not what Thomas stands for.
In the words of Kreeft:
The ultimate reason we must become holy is that that is the only way to become real. For becoming holy is becoming what reality ultimately is, i.e., what God, the ultimate reality and the touchstone for all reality, is: true, good, and beautiful; real, loving, and joyful.’
If you want to “get real” in your spiritual life, this book is a great place to start.
Even though this book is a beginner’s guide, I’ve placed it in the “deeper territory” section because it has less to do with bringing out the practical side of St Thomas than it does with coming to understand some basic concepts of his overarching philosophy.
Ed Feser is a well-known Catholic Thomist philosopher, and when it comes to elucidating the ideas of Thomas against common misconceptions, few people are better. This book has only five chapters, covering St Thomas the man, his metaphysics, his natural theology, his psychology, and his ethics.
A common approach to understanding thinkers of the past is to look at them from a historical or social point of view, interpreting them through the lens of their context. Whilst there is value to this, Feser admits, it can often distract us from what people actually thought and what they considered to be most important. Thus, what this book represents is a companion for lay readers designed to tackle the ideas of Thomas head on and show how they are relevant to us even today.
This book is short but it packs a punch. If you’ve got the headspace for it, dive in.
Melbourne Catholic02 October 2023
Justin McLellan (CNS)02 October 2023