To the minds of some, the articles of the Angelic Doctor’s Summa Theologiae are captive in a historical or tradition-bound cell from which they cannot emerge. What a pity—for the articles of St. Thomas’s great Summa are complete or perfect acts of the mind. “Perfect” signifies that which lacks none of the parts due its nature as a whole. Since the quaestio articulates each part of what is naturally called for by the act of the mind, it is thereby perfect.
This fact was underscored recently by—of all things—student papers. In one assignment, I asked of my students that they write an expositio textus of one article of the Summa. They had to incorporate the character of one genre of medieval writing—the quaestio, the written form of the disputatio—into another genre, the literal commentary. Sometimes, students would invent the late scholastic habit of dealing with the objections and replies separately and—it depended upon the case—would consider the respondeo before or after the objections. Some, of course, neglected to attend to the question itself. What is the effect of asking the question itself first, before going to the objections? What must be “live issues” for readers, and what the nature of their aptitudes or dispositions? That is, what does the simple act of reading and understanding such a question presuppose on the part of the reader, especially the modern reader? (Of course, who else is around of which to ask such a question? Aren’t “we moderns” the only ones in the habit of asking rhetorical questions across an audience of centuries?)
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It is a canard to accuse the greatest student of St. Albertus Magnus of a sort of petty systematization of theological realities, a confinement of the Word within words that purport to a pellucidly divine mode of finality. The entire opus is shot through with relentless debate and disagreement: “We notice in the Summa Theologica that every article begins by giving the reader several reasons for disagreeing with what St. Thomas is about to say. Then, after giving definitive reasons for his own teaching, he shows how it enables us to answer the arguments to the contrary.”
That aforementioned modern reader treats the Summa as if it were a sort of static philosophico-theological encyclopedia. Its articles are complete actions of the human mind, not products of truth severed and incarnated upon a page. The Summa is not an encyclopedia, it is a cathedral: “The essence of it—the despotic central idea—[is] that of organic unity both in the thought and the building.” Who would think—let alone say—that Chartres or Notre Dame is sufficiently comprehended in an hour? Who would think that a descendant of John Quincy Adams would agree with that sacred monster of Thomism?
We find here something similar to that which occurs in intellectual culture. For many, adequate theological training is given by a manual that can be studied in three years, and that one does not feel impelled to reread, because all it contains is quickly exhausted. Who can claim that the perfection of theological culture is found in such a study? Others can satisfy the demands of their minds only by the profound study of St. Thomas and of his principal commentators. This study is neither an extraordinary undertaking nor a luxury for them; it is necessary for the training of their minds. They realize that even if they spend all their lives teaching the Summa Theologica, written though it is for novices, they will never exhaust it, and will never arrive at a complete grasp of its breadth, height, and depth; to do so, would require an intellect equal to that of the master. “To comprehend is to equal,” said Raphael. To study the tract on grace, some will consecrate three months to it and scarcely ever return to it; others understand that the work of a lifetime would not suffice to penetrate what the doctors of the Church wished to tell us about this great mystery.
The complete act of the mind contained in each article of the Summa is, each time, a finished movement of the music of the mind, a perfect stanza of the searching, contemplating soul. They are not the resolute analyses of technical problems. The parts interpenetrate and speak each to each of a greater whole which the whole, yet unfinished, Summa signifies. This means that each part has to be read with an “illative sense” of the breadth of that incomplete masterpiece.
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This can be illustrated by the method followed by a true disciple of St. Thomas.
Each article is framed by a question. Even to grasp the question in the barest way requires prior knowledge—thus, the Summa references a reality greater than itself even from its first pages. Yet the question focuses the mind here and now. The true student ought to read the question and attempt to arrive at arguments sic et non, for and against, in answer to it. Then, read St. Thomas’s objections, and measure the difficulties presented against your own conception of the difficulties that naturally attend the inquiry at hand. (Here the Socratic dialogue of the Summa can be seen as arising out of its pages, in the mind of the reader, and yet within an Aristotelian modality, the antistrophe to the drama of Plato.)
What next? Some authority is brought in. Did you—O true student!—think of famous loca on your own? passages from recognized authorities? The sed contra itself, then, also speaks to the conditions and context of this activity of the mind—it has already listened to a community by which is measures the progression of its thought. In each sed contra we are taught how it belongs to the student to believe, that authority is not incompatible with the sweetness of truth. Rather, the life of the mind is incompatible with its Cartesian counterfeit of feigned self-sufficiency. Who did Aquinas bring forward as an authority? Did it best yours?
After this, do not hasten to read “the answer” to the question. Think about how to resolve the issue yourself. What distinction is called for? or is a constellation of them required? What did the objections miss? Upon what must we draw from our prior determinations in prior questions? Where is the argument leading us? It is only after this that you may read the respondeo and watch the master at work.
Now your own remainder is surely much easier! For you have St. Thomas’s own preparation to answer the objections. Well then, what are the responses? “To the first …” and here, you pause, for that objection was so convincing. How did that distinction go again?—and you hurry back to the corpus of the article. Pace yourself. Which of the objector’s premises do you attack? Decide, and then go to Thomas to measure your success. As Cajetan says not infrequently in his commentary, does you mind come to rest? Is there a resolution to the question? You must see it for yourself, even if Aquinas had appended “Q.E.D.” to each article as a signal about where to stop thinking.
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The act of the mind is most fundamentally understanding the truth. This is only incompletely done in a simple act, for our intuitive acts must be completed by judgments, even when it comes to expressing definitions (our insights, like our persons, are hylomorphic). A judgment is either known through itself—that is, through the experienced evidence of its terms—or through another—that is, a mediating or “middle”—term.
The unknown or imperfect resolution of a judgment is, therefore, signified in the form of a question. Since the affirmative or negative possibilities of the answer to such a question logically imply various opposed possibilities and sub-possibilities, a dialectical field of battle immediately opens up for objections. Principles must therefore be brought to bear in such a contest, and the position not only secured but the enemy routed. That is, the clarity of the mediating or immediate terms must be attended to and discovered (or taught). This discourse of the mind is not allowed persist but must rest, at peace, not hindered by the previous opposition. This intellectual peace is the proper completion of knowledge and understanding, a grasp of the truth of things.
As is clear from the above, these are all the acts of the mind, ordered to its perfecting act, and all are enacted as a part of the format or order of an article of the Summa. Since no part of—no act within—the whole which ought to be present is left out of that whole, this activity is a complete one.
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There is a difference between St. Thomas’s habit of speaking formalissime and a pedantic “ipsissima verba-ism” of mere scholarship, however great it may be on its own terms. For the form and lines of the unfinished cathedral that is the Summa are the work of the art of arts, philosophy, at the service of participated contemplation according to the Divine art, theology. Yes, the Summa as a human work is the product of a single man in one tradition within a given historical context. Yet it is a product made in the perennial mode of the human mind—truly reading it is a sort of “performative utterance” that transcends time, uniting our “now” to thirteenth century: “In that shared time, exempted in some respects, although not in others from the temporal separation of the ‘now’ of utterance from the ‘now’ of reading or hearing, the timelessness extends to the standards of reason-giving, reason-accepting, and reason-rejecting.”
It is also a shared time in the sense that it is still unfinished. The Summa was never finished. (What sort of divine mercy was this? A terrible thought, and a consolation!) The human word is of its nature incomplete in via, for the viator, the one “on the way,” is not a comprehensor, does not yet comprehend the eternally finished Word:
This is because even an infinite number of human words cannot equal one word of God. From the beginning of the Church, Christ has been written about; but this is still not equal to the subject. Indeed, even if the world lasted a hundred thousand years and books were written about Christ, his words and deeds could not be completely revealed: “of making many books there is no end” (Eccl 12:12); “the works of God are multiplied above number” (Ps 40:5).