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“Questions on God”: Why?

March 31, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

I turn now to consider the inclusion of “Questions on God” on my Fundamentals list, about which I have two questions to raise:

  1. Should one read the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas?
  2. Should one read, in particular, Thomas’ “Questions on God”?
Thomas Aquinas with Summa theologica, model church, and sun on chest

Thomas Aquinas with Summa theologica, model church, and sun on chest

Article 1. Should one read the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas?

  1. It might seem that one should not put a work by Thomas Aquinas on one’s Fundamentals list. For many philosophers might be considered more fundamental than Thomas, for example, Descartes, Kant, or Hegel. For Bertrand Russell writes, “I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”
  2. Moreover, the Summa theologica, as its name demonstrates, is not a work of philosophy, but rather of theology, and so does not belong on the Fundamentals list. So Bertrand Russell writes, “Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.”
  3. Moreover, it might seem that some other work of Thomas’ might be more suitable, for example, De ente et essentia, or the Summa contra gentiles.

To the contrary,  the examinee’s Fundamentals list says: “Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae, Questions on God“.

Thomas has long been considered one of the greatest philosopher-theologians ever to live. His work sought to incorporate into medieval Christian theology the newly rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle. The naturalistic thrust of that philosophy, which argued, for example, that forms did not exist outside of the matter they informed, and that the aim of virtue was happiness in this life, posed a radical challenge to Christianity’s reliance on a more naive metaphysics for expressing its theological (stricto sensu), eschatological, and ethical doctrines. Thomas’ work navigated these difficulties and set a high water mark for the comprehensiveness of Christian philosophy. Soon after his death, nominalist worries began to chip away at his achievement. The “humanist” neo-Platonist “Renaissance” and the populist Protestant Reformation, and later the skeptical turn in Baroque philosophy, led to the transformation of Thomism into a byword for “doctrinaire” and “dogmatic”–a transformation aided by the Catholic elevation of Thomas into official Church philosopher.

Nor are these terms entirely inappropriate. The Summa theologica, Thomas’ magnum opus, was intended as an introduction to theology for students who had already mastered the study of philosophy. Its three divisions (the second divided into two sub-sections) deal with theology, ethics (principles and applications), and Christology, respectively. They add up to a summary and exposition of all of the most important Christian doctrines. Still, Thomas is not afraid to make controversial theological arguments. In fact, both before and after his death the bishop of Paris issues multiple condemnations of positions defended in his philosophy. Moreover, the Summa theologica in particular is not a work of apologetics. Arguments are given, but primarily so they can be understood, not so they can be wielded in defense of the faith. The Summa theologica is hence of particular interest for its distinctive dialectical attitude: it combines explicit argumentation–it consists of a series of questions, arguments, and counter-arguments–not with a defense of those positions from the reader, but rather with an invitation to the reader to inhabit those positions alongside the author. It seems to be among the last major philosophical works not to fear skepticism.

The biography of Thomas is not necessary for an understanding of his work, but the Catholic Encyclopedia article offers a good overview. Notably, Thomas is also the examinee’s Confirmation saint. A maxim of Thomas’ might be taken as the motto of the Fundamentals exam: “hominem unius libri timeo”: “I fear the man of a single book.” This does not mean, as is commonly thought, that it is dangerous to study only a single book; rather, it means that the man who studies only a single book, but studies it thoroughly, will know more, and be a more dangerous opponent in dialectic, than the man who studies many books superficially.

Hence:

  1. Even if other philosophers might be considered more influential historically, historical influence has no direct implication for placement on the Fundamentals list. Personal influence bears somewhat more relevance, for an ideal list does not exist, and each list must be tailored to the circumstances of the examinee. The present examinee has read little in Kant and Hegel. Descartes was considered, but the possibilities of skepticism were considered to be adequately represented by their rejection in Pascal and Wittgenstein.
  2. The Fundamentals category under which the Summa theologica falls is termed, not “philosophy” alone, but “philosophy, religion, and theology.” The Summa theologica clearly falls into this category. Also, while it deals with theology properly speaking, people do not always speak properly, and in certain contexts it might be more accurate to refer to the work as philosophy rather than theology. Russell, for example, seems to think that “theology” stands in opposition to “philosophy,” and means “doctrinal or dogmatic statement without rational argument.” So even if the category had been “philosophy” alone, an argument could have been made for the Summa theologica falling under it.
  3. The present examinee has read a limited amount of Thomas, and perhaps a superior fundamental work could have been found. Still, reasons can be given, to a certain extent, for the specific choice made. De ente et essentia was considered, but found to be too narrow in scope. The Summa theologica contains many of the same arguments in condensed form, alongside much else. The examinee has not read the Summa contra gentiles, but rumor has it that it is less doctrinal and more apologetic.

 

Article 2. Should one read, in particular, Thomas’ “Questions on God”?

  1. It might seem that one should not include on one’s Fundamentals list the 26 quaestiones of the first part of the Summa theologica, excluding 16, 17, 23, & 24. For, as this description of the contents of the so-called “Questions on God” indicates, the selection is arbitrary. But works on Fundamentals lists must be works, and so must have an intrinsic unity. So the so-called “Questions on God” cannot be Fundamental works.
  2. Moreover, while Thomas’ Treatise on Law (Ia IIae Q 90-108) has occasionally been put on a student’s Fundamentals list, the Questions on God appear never to have been. But if a work were fundamental, then it would have been put on at least some student’s list. So the “Questions on God” cannot be fundamental.

To the contrary, the examinee’s Fundamentals list says: “Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae, Questions on God“.

The examinee’s list takes a particular interest in the relation between metaphysical speculation and lived human experience, in particular as that abstract speculation has concrete ethical consequences, and as it finds concrete expression in language philosophical and poetic. The “Questions on God” thus interest him for three reasons.

First, they deal with an extremely abstract, indeed nearly incomprehensible, doctrine, namely that of divine “simplicity,” yet they are placed at the beginning of an introduction to a Christian theology which at times will lead to extremely specific practical prescriptions. Moreover, even within these apparently theocentric questions, topics of obvious relevance to humanity immediately surface, such as the possibility of free will and the problem of evil. So these questions offer an excellent opportunity for considering the relationship between metaphysics and ethics. Compare the presence on the list of Augustine and Pascal.

Second, the “Questions on God,” though they set out to explain a doctrine of divine simplicity, must also set out a theory of language so that they can talk about God at all. That theory of analogical application of words drawn from human experience to the ineffable divinity is both immensely sophisticated, and immensely problematic, assuming, as it does, both that language can for the most part adequately describe “reality” and that there is a “reality” beyond language. So these questions offer a challenge both to most modern conceptions of language, and to most modern conceptions of divinity. Compare the presence on the list of Plato and Wittgenstein.

Finally, the doctrine of divine simplicity elaborated in “Questions on God” possesses an incredible elegance, and will drastically re-orient the perspective of any mind that accepts it. So it has an aesthetic and psychological importance even if the arguments for it are found inadequate. Compare the presence on the list of Dante and Melville.

Hence:

  1. It is true that the selection of questions is not original to Thomas. However, grouping these questions together has been endorsed by Thomistic scholars Brian Davies and Brian Leftow, who have published an edition of them under the title “Questions on God.”  So this selection has at least an accidental unity, if not a substantial one. Fundamentals lists are allowed to include only portions of large works, given that the selection can be justified.
  2. The composition of previous Fundamentals exam lists ought to inform, but need not strictly determine the composition of any new Fundamentals exam list. If no work on a list had ever been included before, that would be cause for concern, but the inclusion of one or two new works need not, given that an argument can be made for the fundamental nature of the works included.
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