For many years at Saint Louis University, as the deep winter turns, the Philosophy Club has sponsored a “Summathon.” The goal is to read aloud, in any language, the entire Summa Theologica --at least its larger, meaty responses--of St. Thomas Aquinas. I think it’s a great idea, and I have taken part over the years with our graduate and undergraduate students on the feast of the saint, Jan. 28.
At the time of this writing, we are approaching the last sections of the huge work; but somehow, I wish we could give a day to the key passages that embody Aquinas’s spirit and wisdom. If you just "drop in"on the Summa, it can be like inspecting a cathedral with a magnifying glass, concentrated on some dusty nook or corner. You can forget the great arching edifice of the cathedral itself.
As I approach my 70th year, I realize that Aquinas has been a "home plate" for me, a place where my serious thinking started and the place to which I’m always led. There are many philosophers, writers and artists whom I have held close in inspiration, but Aquinas is always on my list of top 10 historical people for whom I give thanks.
I am reluctant to recommend the long and often arduous journey of reading Aquinas, but I would like to share with you some passages--reasons why this great scholar-saint has walked with me as a vade mecum on my groping way to God. With all the problems I could write about--ecclesiastical, political and global--so pressing and sometimes depressing, the words of Aquinas serve as anchors for me, a grounding against the winds of history. If that is hard to understand, here are just a few sentences of his that are probably more important than any ideas I might offer concerning the ways of the world and its history. Each is worth a day of meditation
1. In the field of human science, the argument from authority is weakest.
2. There is nothing that does not share in goodness and beauty. Each thing is good and beautiful by its own proper form.
3. Evil does not exist, except in a good subject.
4. In every good, the supreme good is desired.
5. All desires presuppose love as their first root.
6. All fear springs from love. Ordered love is included in every virtue, disordered love in every vice.
7. Malice consists in emptiness.
8. Love is absolutely stronger than hate.
9. No human truly has joy unless that person lives in love.
10. The human person has a natural urge toward complete goodness.
11. Sins are as preposterous in morals as monsters in nature.
12. Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that whoever acts against conscience always does moral evil.
13. It must be said flatly that the will that disobeys conscience as reason’s dictate is always in the wrong.
14. It is against reason to be burdensome to others, showing no amusement and acting as a grouch. Those without a sense of fun, who never say anything ridiculous and are cantankerous with those who do, these are vicious and are called grumpy and rude.
15. Justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice is a waste.
16. Two main reasons why people fall short of justice--deference to the powerful and deference to the mob.
17. Person signifies what is noblest in the whole of nature.
These little maxims touch only the surface of Aquinas’s depths; but they are worthy of being Christian mantras. What is more, they are never contradicted in the mighty conceptual cathedral of Aquinas’s writings; and they are rock-solid, based on the teachings of Christ, for whom all of his written words were offered in love, as Aquinas said toward the end of his life.
St. Thomas Aquinas was a courageous thinker: a philosopher, a poet, a mystic. He was also a trouble-maker--condemned by the University of Paris and rejected by a number of bishops--often for his daring embrace of the pagan Aristotle and his Muslim interpreters. But what do we Catholics call him now? A doctor of the church.
Note: Most of the above translations are from Thomas Gilby’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: Philosophical Texts. The specific sources and a larger sampling of texts are available online at americamagazine.org/aquinas.