Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide

Philosophy is hard. The terminology is complicated, the words often don’t mean what you think they mean, and there’s over 2500 years of philosophical tradition to digest. Even when you think you understand what a philosopher is saying, you’re almost certainly you’re missing something.

And if you’re not a trained philosopher, it’s even harder.

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to make headway with the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. With the help of quite a many books, a lot of hard work, and encouragement from a surprising number of folks on-line, I begin to think that I’m at last beginning to understand a little of the very basics. (To quote Steven Brust, I might be putting that too strongly.) I know what some of the terms mean, and what they don’t mean; I know how some of the ideas go together. And one of the experiences I’ve had over and over again, as I read through something by St. Thomas and seen him pull yet another principle out of the air in the course of an argument, is a strong wishing for book I’ve mentally titled, Things St. Thomas Takes For Granted. St. Thomas has a number of basic assumptions, axioms, and self-evident (to him, at least) principles that he uses, and I’ve been longing to know what they are and how they fit together.

Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is the closest thing I’ve yet found, and I more or less devoured it.

Not only does he explain what St. Thomas is talking about, on such topics as metaphysics, natural theology, psychology (one of those words that doesn’t mean what you think it means) and ethics, he explains how modern philosophers typically mis-read St. Thomas, and why their objections and arguments against him fail.

I found it clearly written, explaining many hard and easily misunderstood concepts plainly and well, including a variety of my own misunderstandings, and when I got to the end I wanted more.

No doubt some of the bright light that went on in my head was illusory: things I thought I understood will slip away as I go back to wrestle with what St. Thomas actually said. And it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have found the book so helpful and enjoyable if I hadn’t put in all of the work I’d done previously. But as it is, I like, and I highly recommend it.

  • By Ryan Herr, October 27, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    Because I’ve got Maritain’s An Introduction to Philosophy and I’ve seen you mention it too, I’m wondering if you could make any comparisons between it and Feser’s Aquinas?

  • By Will Duquette, October 27, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    They are both good books; Feser’s book is much more focussed. It goes into more detail on some things, but isn’t as broad. Of the two, I think Maritain’s is the book to read first.

  • By Peter Sean Bradley, October 27, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    That’s good to hear. I’ve got the Feser book and I’m looking forward to getting to it.

    I’m in a group that has been working its way through the Summa for about 7 years. I’ve found that the process of reading and discussing each question is essential, because, as you say, when you read it, you find that you may think you got, but then it slips away.

  • By Will Duquette, October 27, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    It helps that I’ve been working through Compendium Theologiae, as it means that I’m getting hit by the most basic stuff. Although I did make it through De Ente et Essentia, which was as helpful as I was assured it would be.

  • By Peter Sean Bradley, October 29, 2009 @ 6:22 am

    For what it’s worth, as you undoubtedly know, St. Thomas wrote detailed analyses of many of Aristotle’s works. Reading those can be extremely useful for understanding the assumptions that are buried in his theological works. Interestingly, with respect to Aquinas’ Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics, that while Aquinas is a hard read and Aristotle is a hard read, Aquinas on Aristotle was surprisingly easier to comprehend.

  • By Will Duquette, October 29, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    As it happens, I’ve been (slowly) working through Aristotle’s Physics, using the Dumb Ox Books edition of St. Thomas’ commentary on the Physics. it works pretty well to read the passage of Aristotle, figure out what I can, and then see what Thomas has to say.

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