The Ox Files

Thomas Aquinas

One of my character defects is that there is no better way to get me to read something than to have someone disparage the author. Something clicks over in my brain that says, “Hold on, if this writer is so terrible, why did they ever get into print? There must be something about this that, even if it is terrible, is at least compelling and/or entertaining and/or challenging in some way.” and I’m buying a book that someone else has said is “rubbish” or something to that effect. Anyway, in order to be consistent I figured I have to get my hands on Thomas Aquinas since so far I’ve found his (and Aristotle’s) account of causation to be absurd. So right now Summa Theologæ is sitting on my phone and I’m trying to get through it. (Sidebar: will e-readers lead to a recovery of classical thinkers since all those texts are public domain and therefore free?)

Right now I am working with a fairly bare understanding of Aquinas’ life and project: he was signed up for religious work purely to enhance family business prospects in dealing with powerful church figures, he then proceeded to throw out the script so to speak and devoted himself to what amounts to a syncretic approach to the existing Plato-via-Augustine philosophy that underpinned the church as well as Aristotelian learning as acquired from various Muslim commentators. (Sidebar: if, say, Rob Bell or Peter Rollins started writing a book based on incorporating Muslim commentary of a pagan philosopher into current Christian thought, one wonders what the Thomists of today would do.)

What I’ve gleaned from the original text thus far is mostly more questions. When he speaks of human beings acting rationally, I can’t help but think of the mountains of evidence, particularly (but not exclusively) from behavioural economics that suggests that human beings very frequently act irrationally, against their own interests and in ways the sabotage their own ends. The model that Aquinas presents for accounting for human action seems to be too simplistic thus far, I am hoping that he does elaborate. If his model is imperilled this early on, I am not sure that Feser et al can save him, at least for the purposes of my reading. I should add that I’m ready to be charitable to philosophical authors who have shaky starts to their books, I got through all of Hobbes’ pages upon excruciating pages of definitions in my first year of undergrad, so I can extend the same courtesy to others.