Once years ago while driving on the beltway in D.C. on my way to a meeting at NAVAIR I heard G. Gordon Liddy on his talk show explain St. Thomas Aquinas five ways of knowing God to an atheist caller. As I have previously described I count this event as the first milestone on my way to the Church. It was a slight shake up for me since I was arrogant enough as an atheist to automatically assume that there could be no logical arguments towards the existence of God and the use of reasoning would always destroy those annoyingly persistent hunter-gatherer myths. Though hearing these ways of knowing God did not make me rush out and investigate St. Thomas Aquinas’s claims or to look for how theism was defended in a rational manner. I let it slip to the back of my mind or more correctly I pushed it back there. This though did put a small crack in my atheism, thought it would be another eight or nine years before I finally entered the Church.
So now as a Catholic I have always felt a debt to St. Thomas Aquinas for this and even keep a statue of him on my computer desk. Because of this on my way into the Church I once bought a copy of The Pocket Aquinas hoping to learn more about his writings. I am loathe not to finish books, but this one I couldn’t finish. For me it was like reading some foreign language where you might understand a couple of words, but that is about it. I had about a zero understanding of philosophical terms and words I though I understood, obviously had a different connotation then what I was use to. Throughout my life I had pretty much disregarded the field of philosophy. To me it had seemed like a system used to explain away reality or in some cases to deny reality.
So after this initial reaction to the world of Thomism I pretty much put him aside besides the more biographical aspects of his life. Now though after several years of heaving reading within the faith and with more familiarity to philosophical terms and seeing how much I was reading often referred back to this great saint, I was looking for a book that would help me to dive into the Summa, but with water wings. That book turned out to be Peter Kreeft’s Summa on the Summa. Now I am a great fan of Peter Kreeft’s writings and I figured he would provide a good guide to the Summa, and indeed he has.
I really like the approach that he used in the book. There are plenty of books that summarize the Summa in the authors own words, but this book takes a different approach. Peter Kreeft believes the best way to explore the Summa Theologicae is by immersion in the work itself and not a mere summary of points made. The book starts off by defining the terms used in the book and this was highly useful. Meanings of words often shift so it is a good idea to ground them first in how they are used in philosophical language. Kreeft simply presents large chunks of the Summa along with plentiful footnotes. At around 530 pages Summa on the Summa takes a good representative sample of the Summa. Often included are the objections, the "On the contrary" (Sed Contra), the I Reply, and then the specific replies to the objections. For each article Kreeft picks from these as to what might be most helpful to the reader. Thus not always are the objections shown for each question, but mostly at least some of the objections are used.
In this day and age of writers erecting straw men and then demolishing them it is so refreshing to read Aquinas’s objections on a question since he makes them as complete as those objections could go. It becomes quite interesting as you read the objections and wonder how they are going to be answered. I found though after reading most of the book I could actually start to forecast how he would answer them. This rather surprised me since I had thought that a lot of Aquinas’s arguments were mostly going over my head. By reading the words of Thomas himself directly I got much more out of him then I had in summaries of his works. Plus I got a much deeper appreciation of his work. I also found that questions of Aquinas being rather cold in a cold as reason sense to be mistaken. I loved the way that in his Sed Contras how he would first go to scripture before laying out the case by reason.
Kreeft’s footnotes were very helpful and he has the knack of explaining things that needed to be explained and not intruding when most readers would understand directly. Though he does have the tendency of cheerleading for Thomas at points, but I pretty much enjoyed those footnote fawnings by a true lover of Thomas as Peter Kreeft is. The footnotes were often used when there would be problems for a modern reader who would normally misunderstand what the saint was saying. This is a great book for anybody who wants to go deeper into the Summa, but needs a helpful (but not intrusive) guide to help out.
On a side note I wonder if in the history of mystery fiction if there was ever a Dominican detective used. I think a Dominican detective novel could be pretty cool. It seems to be the thought processes that lead someone to the Dominican charism could certainly be used in this direction. There have been plenty of parish priest detective’s such as Fr. Brown and Fr. Dowling, so why not a Dominican one? I can just see the last chapter when the detective lays it out saying "On the contrary, I answer that." They have Monk on television, why not Mendicant.