Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: "Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker" by F.C. Copleston


I don't know if it takes a dull person to want to study Aquinas, or if the study of Aquinas makes one a dull person. Which is in many ways unfortunate, because Aquinas has interesting things to say about interesting topics. This is my second foray into the Doctor's thought, and the second time I've come away slightly smarter, slightly more informed about philosophy and Medieval theology, and quite a bit disappointed in the prose style of everyone involved.
In this short book (~270 pages), F.C. Copleston engages many of the philosophical topics in Aquinas of greatest interest to modern readers. Metaphysics, apologetics, anthropology, ethics, sociology, and cosmology are all explained with brevity (relative to Aquinas himself) and elegance, if not in a way that is particularly engaging.

The big philosophical take-away from this is the two-sided approach Aquinas takes to philosophy: it is to be grounded upon the common experience of the common man, and it is to be explored by means of common sense. So, for example, if we want to ask the question "is there a God?" The philosophical approach will be to begin with what we all know and experience in everyday life, and then reflect upon that knowledge. As one example, we all know that an object in motion requires the influence of another object to start it moving. Yet, we also all know that these chains of motion (I use a pool cue on the cue ball, the cue ball strikes the 8 ball, which strikes another, and so on) are not infinite in nature. That is, there was a starting point. Therefore, common sense tells us that there must be a "first mover." The other arguments follow similar paths, which I have to admit was not something I picked up on the first few times I was exposed to Aquinas' thought. While I've been taught his five arguments for the existence of God several times, I've never been taught that he draws them (and all of his philosophy) from common experience. Of course, had I actually done the assigned reading at the time I may have picked up on that...
This method carries over into all of his thought- what is a law? Well, we know from common experience. What is the nature of existence? Why do we talk about people as having both a body and a soul? And so on.

I should point out that Copleston's book focuses mainly on Aquinas' philosophy. If you want his theology, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Like I said, this book is fairly interesting in its substance. It's just the writing that drags it down a bit (but not much, certainly not as much as a goodly number of other philosophical works out there). Yet, I'm not unhappy I took a couple of weeks to read this. It was well worth the time and effort and will undoubtedly work its way into my lectures on Aquinas.

So, if you're going to study Aquinas and just can't force yourself through the Summas, this is a good place to go. (I've also been told that Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa is good, as is his Shorter Summa.)

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