The Sapiential Cosmology of St. Thomas Aquinas

This semester, I am teaching an upper division seminar in medieval philosophy. I hope to post weekly updates and reflections based upon that course, which I have titled “Creator, Creation, and the Common Doctor: The Sapiential Cosmology of St. Thomas Aquinas.” This introduction, then, serves as “syllabus day” for the blog series.

The course studies the created universe according to the sapiential approach of Aquinas. The aim of the course is to learn from the insights of the Angelic Doctor into the fundamental truth, goodness, and beauty of the order of creation. The course makes substantive comparisons and contrasts between medieval and contemporary questions and debates to illustrate the continued relevance of the thought of Aquinas. The main study of the course is the substance of Summa contra Gentiles, Books II–III.

The Aim, Order, and Content of St. Thomas’s Summa contra Gentiles

“We shall first endeavor to declare that truth which is the object of faith’s confession and of reason’s researches, by adducing arguments both demonstrative and probable, some of which we have gathered from the writings of the philosophers and of holy men, so as to thereby confirm the truth and convince our opponents.” (ScG, I.9; alt. title: Liber de veritate catholicae fidei contra errores infidelium)

“Seeing, then, that we intend by the way of reason to pursue those things about God which human reason is able to investigate, the first object that offers itself to our consideration consists in those things which pertain to God in himself; the second will be the procession of creatures from him; and the third the relation of creatures to him as their end.” (ScG, I.9)

Book I (God in Himself)

         [i] Discussion of the nature of this work (I.1–9); cf. ST, Ia, q. 1

         [1] The existence of God (I.10–13); cf. ST, Ia, q. 2

         [2] The nature of God (I.14–102); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 3–26

Book II (God as Creator)

         [i] Discussion of the nature of this part of the work (II.1–5)

         [1] The production of things in being (II.6–38); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 44–46

         [2] The distinction of things (II.39–45); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 47–49

         [3] The things thus produced and distinguished (II.46–101); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 50–102

“Such being the cause of diversity among things, it remains for us to inquire into the diverse things as far as this concerns the truth of faith: for this was the third thing we proposed to do.” (II.46); unlike ST, Ia, qq. 65–74 (Hexaemeron; Genesis creation account)

                  [a] The existence of intellectual substances (II.46–55); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 75, 79

                  [b] The human substance (union of soul & body; II.56–90); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 75–89; not qq. 90–102 (Eden)

                  [c] The angelic substances (II.91–101); cf. ST, Ia, qq. 50–64

Book III (God as End) — “Since, then, in the first book we have treated of the perfection of the divine nature, and in the second of the perfection of the divine power, inasmuch as he is the Creator and Lord of all, it remains for us in this third book to treat of his perfect authority or dignity, inasmuch as he is the end and governor of all. We must therefore proceed in this order: first, to treat of him as the end of all things; second, of his universal government, inasmuch as he governs every creature; third, of that special government by which he governs creatures endowed with intelligence.” (ScG, III.1)

         [i] Discussion of the nature of this part of the work (III.1)

         [1] God as the end of all things (III.2–64); cf. ST, Ia, q. 12; Ia–IIae, qq. 1–5, various

         [2] God’s governance of all things (III.65–110); cf. ST, Ia, q. 23, qq. 103–119

         [3] The government of intelligent creatures (III.111–163); cf. ST, IIa, various

Book IV — “After this, so as to proceed from the more to the less manifest, we shall proceed to declare that truth which surpasses reason by refuting the arguments of our opponents, and by setting forth the truth of faith by means of probable arguments and authority, with God’s help.” (ScG, I.9; this fourth book contains topics covered in all parts of the Summa Theologiae)

Layers of Meaning and Parallelisms in Summa contra Gentiles

ScG(1) Ascent–Descent
(2) Protreptic of Christian Wisdom(3) Philosophical Parallels(4) Theological Anticipations re: IV
Book IFrom effects to God as first cause; how God relates to the world; effects from God as their free and loving cause; the return anticipated: God as source of beatitudeGod as subsistent wisdom; call to unify speculative and practical lifeMetaphysics, Physics; debates re: nature of God, His relationship to the worldFrom God in Himself as One, considered in Himself as Triune
Book IIFrom God as creator to the world He creates; this a twofold descent: the order of things from God and the order of things among themselvesGod as artist; universe’s beauty as pedagogue for Christian narrativePhysics, On the Soul; debates re: the created world and the unity of the human personFrom God’s exitus as creator of the world, to a consideration of the Incarnation
Book IIITo God as the end of all things, by way of God’s providence over all things, but especially intelligent creatures bound for beatitudeGod as end and beatitude; the need and openness of history to God’s interventionEthics, Politics; debating the ultimate end and seeking the means to achieve that endFrom God as last end and His salvific means, Church’s sacramental life
Book IVFrom God as Trinity, to God as Incarnate in Christ for the salvation of the human race, by means of the Church and Her sacraments, to the end of eternal life at the end of timeThis is the very subject of Christian wisdomn/an/a
This table draws upon materials in Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative, among other sources, and adds my own embellishments.
  • Column (1) briefly describes the logical movements in ScG as well as real orders discussed.
  • Column (2) highlights key points of one (compelling) interpretation of ScG as a protreptic of Christian wisdom (see Handout #1 for more). The ScG “exhibits the truths of the Catholic faith set forth as a ‘wisdom of universal apostolic bearing.’”[1]
  • Column (3) points out how—seeing that Aquinas’s philosophical interlocutors are many of them Aristotelian commentators—his book engages with central philosophical content in the main works of Aristotle’s corpus. This helps to define the “dialectic” with the “gentiles” (see Handout #1).
  • Column (4) suggests that the first three books anticipate various theological themes of Book IV. That is, “The Father is the efficient cause and first principle of all things, the bestower of being; the first book treats of God in himself. The Son is called wisdom, the exemplar of the whole of creation; the second book considers God’s wisdom as manifest in creatures. Finally, the Holy Spirit is said to order creatures to their proper end, to move them to God, and thus to govern them; the third book treats of divine providence as evident in the movement of all creatures to their natural ends.”[2]
  • We might say that Book I is about God; Book II, God creates man; Book III, why God created man—for God; Book IV, why God became man—to lead men to God. We move from characters in search of their Author (Books I–III) to the Author come in search of His characters (Book IV).

Against the Gentiles?

The following are brief descriptions of the material and topics to be covered each week. A select bibliography included with each entry is for the sake of jump-starting student term papers.

The motive for splitting our focus between both the Summa contra Gentiles and various debates (whether medieval ones but most especially contemporary ones) is found in the nature of the “against the gentiles” itself (see more in Handout #1). Should philosophy be for the private contemplation of the individual or should it be taught actively in public? Following the Dominican motto contemplata aliis tradere, the disciples of St. Thomas must go to “the borderland” between “those who hold, as we do, that philosophy is a field of knowledge in which there can be perennial truth and those who deny it.” It is the Summa contra Gentiles that offers a model for patient, dialectical, and pedagogical engagement with “the gentiles of the present day”[3] on the path towards Christian wisdom.

1. The Polyvalent Hierarchy of WisdomsScG, I.1–9, II.1–5, III.1, IV.1

The introductory chapters of the various books define the purpose and contents of the Summa, as well as its method: both dialectical and sapiential. But which wisdom is highest? There are many forms of wisdom, and Aquinas’s account of them is not reductive but hierarchical. We consider the nature of wisdom, the varieties of wisdom, their nature and origins, and their hierarchical relationship. This allows us to understand the aim and method of Aquinas’s Summa against the nations, an explanation of the truth of the Catholic faith drawing upon the natural resources of human reason.

— Select bibliography for Week 1

Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinass Summa Contra Gentiles: A Guide and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Hibbs, Thomas S. Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. — In particular, see Chapter 1, Pedagogy and the Art of Writing”

Kwasniewski, Peter A. “Golden Straw: St. Thomas and the Ecstatic Practice of Theology.” Nova et Vetera 2, no. 1 (2004): 61–90.

2. Gods Power and Creative Act — ScG, II.6–27

These chapters consider God’s power and ability to create, the relationship between creation and God, as well as the characteristics of creation as an act and its end. We discuss many misconceptions about the relationship between creation and God. Our focus is primarily directed towards Aquinas’s interlocutors and their views: materialism, deism, or necessary creation. However, we also look at contemporary erroneous positions about the created relationship.

— Select bibliography for Week 2

Kretzmann, Norman. The Metaphysics of Theism: Aquinas’s Natural Theology in Summa contra Gentiles I. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005.

3. The Possibility of an Eternal World — ScG, II.28–38

Has the world always existed? These chapters consider the possibility of an eternally created universe, a topic that fascinated the ancient Greeks, the medievals, and even contemporary cosmologists. These chapters also consider what God owes His creation. We will consider in some detail the problem of eternity of the world, both for the ancients and medievals as well as contemporary cosmology. Is an eternally created world impossible? Is the temporal beginning of the world demonstrable by philosophy? Does the Big Bang theory prove that the world had a temporal beginning?

— Select bibliography for Week 3

St. Thomas Aquinas, Siger of Brabant, and St. Bonaventure. On the Eternity of the World (De Aeternitate Mundi). Translated by Cyril Vollert, Lottie H. Kendzierski, and Paul M. Byrne. Medieval Philosophical Texts in Translation 16. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1964.

Anderson, James F. “Time and the Possibility of an Eternal World.” The Thomist 15, no. 1 (1952): 136–61.

Walz, Matthew D. “Theological and Philosophical Dependencies in St. Bonaventure’s Argument Against an Eternal World and a Brief Thomistic Reply.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 72, no. 1 (1998): 75–98.

4. The Cosmos as Total Object of Creation — ScG, II.39–45

These chapters explore the reasons that the cosmos is a cosmos—the ordered totality of all things. The medievals considered the beauty of order in creation under the heading of “the distinction of all things.” Aquinas considers many options for the order found in creation, and many of these options have contemporary scientific relevance. The distinction of all things in contemporary thought arises due to material differences, evolutionary processes, chance events, or deterministic laws. However, many of these ideas were well known to Aquinas. We will explore the applicability of Aquinas’s ideas to the contemporary sciences.

— Select bibliography for Week 4

Blanchette, Oliva. The Perfection of the Universe According to Aquinas: A Teleological Cosmology. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1992.

De Koninck, Charles. The Cosmos. In: The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume One. Edited and translated by Ralph McInerny. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Wright, John H. The Order of the Universe in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Analecta Gregoriana 89. Rome: Gregorian University, 1957.

5. Mind and the Perfection of the Universe: How the Universe Is Most Like God — ScG, II.46–55

St. Thomas argues that the universe’s creation would be incomplete, that is, imperfect, if there were no intellectual substances. The universe is likened unto God through these created persons, and Aquinas’s exploration of the nature of mind undermines materialistic and naturalistic accounts. Even contemporary authors wonder about the relationship between the mind and the cosmos. Building upon Aquinas’s metaphysical arguments, we consider contemporary proposals concerning the evolution of homo sapiens, the cosmological anthropic principle, and the life-permitting conditions of the cosmos.

— Select bibliography for Week 5

De Koninck, Charles. The Cosmos. In: The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume One. Edited and translated by Ralph McInerny. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

George, Marie I. “On the Tenth Anniversary of Barrow and Tipler’s Anthropic Cosmological Principle: Thomistic Reflections on Anthropic Principles.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 72, no. 1 (1998): 39–58.

McMullin, Ernan. “Indifference Principle and Anthropic Principle in Cosmology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 24, no. 3 (1993): 359–89.

6. The Unity of the Human Person: A Bodily yet Intellectual Substance, Part 1 — ScG, II.56–72

If the human person is an intellectual substance, how is an incorruptible intellectual soul united to a corruptible body? St. Thomas considers the nature of the soul and its relationship to the body, eschewing materialism and dualism for a tightly knit hylomorphic union. Despite the relatively primitive biology of his day, Aquinas attempted detailed accounts of conception and the relationship of body and soul. We consider some medieval Thomistic embryology and how contemporary philosophers and scientists are trying to update it. How to understand the first moment of a human life, along with its ethical implications?

— Select bibliography for Week 6

Amerini, Fabrizio. Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Condic, Maureen L., and Samuel B. Condic. Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

Eberl, Jason T. “Aquinas’s Account of Human Embryogenesis and Recent Interpretations.” Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 30, no. 4 (2005): 379–94. — Also ch. 3 of Eberl’s Thomistic Principles and Bioethics (New York: Routledge, 2006).

7. Human Beginnings and Endings: A Bodily yet Intellectual Substance, Part 2 — ScG, II.73–90

These chapters consider the unicity of the human intellect (Averroism), as well as the beginning of the existence of the human person and the fate of the human soul after death. The afterlife is a difficulty topic to understand on this side of the veil. We will consider the difference between immateriality, incorruptibility, and immortality. Is the human being still a person after death? Is the resurrection of the body philosophically knowable? Contemporary debates on these questions are considered.

— Select bibliography for Week 7

Brown, Montague. “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body.” The Thomist 56, no. 2 (1992): 165–207.

Eitenmiller, Melissa. “On the Separated Soul According to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Nova et Vetera 17, no. 1 (2019): 57–91.

8. Angels & Demons? The Universe Is a Communion of Persons — ScG, II.90–101

After considering the intellectual substance united to a body, St. Thomas considers intellectual substances that are not united to bodies, namely, the angels. Their existence, nature, and activities are considered. (The interaction of angels and human beings is considered in ScG, Book III.) Is the existence of angels philosophically demonstrable? We consider St. Thomas’s affirmative reply. Then, we will turn to consider angelic knowledge, choice, speech, and their activity in physical place as well as the character of angelic time.

— Select bibliography for Week 8

Bonino, O.P., Serge-Thomas. Angels and Demons: A Catholic Introduction. Translated by Michael J. Miller. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.

Collins, James. The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels. Philosophical Studies 89. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947.

9. The Will and the Rational Goodness of Ends — ScG, III.1–15

Having considered God as creator and His creation, St. Thomas considers God as end in Book III. These chapters begin by considering the nature of finality, good, and evil in relationship to free agents. The teleological grammar of Aquinas’s analyses in these chapters is explored more fully by considering the failures of voluntarism to give a rational account of free choice. Some implications of Aquinas’s rationalism will also be discussed.

— Select bibliography for Week 9

Jensen, Steven J. Sin: A Thomistic Psychology. The Catholic University of America Press, 2018.

10. The Natural Desire to See God, the End of All Things — ScG, III.16–25

While all things act for an end generally, they also act for the highest end. St. Thomas considers the natural finality of all things towards God, the various ways in which this takes place, and the special case of intellectual substances. These chapters afford us the opportunity to begin a discussion on nature and grace. We consider the knowability of the end of human nature, and the possibility the elevation of nature by grace.

— Select bibliography for Week 10

O’Connor, William R. The Eternal Quest: The Teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Natural Desire for God. New York/London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947.

11. The Eternal Law and the Natural Law: The Harmony of Law and Happiness — ScG, III.26–36

In these chapters, Aquinas considers at length what happiness is not. The insufficiency of temporal goods as sources of man’s fulfillment points towards a transcendent good as the true source. We continue our discussion of nature and grace by focusing on nature. Our understanding of natural human goods are formative of our conception of the natural law, which Aquinas argues is a participation in the eternal law. We examine aspects of contemporary debates regarding the relationship of human nature and natural law.

— Select bibliography for Week 11

Long, Steven A. “Fundamental Errors of the New Natural Law Theory.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2013): 105–31.

Pakaluk, Michael. “Is the New Natural Law Thomistic?” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2013): 57–67.

— Nota bene: See all of NCBQ 13.1 for other critiques; the response issue by the “New Natural Lawyers” is NCBQ 19.2 (2019).

12. The Twofold End of Human Nature: Happiness and Beatitude — ScG, III.37–63

In these sections, St. Thomas explains at length and strives to harmonize the natural and supernatural teleologies of happiness ordained for human nature. We complete our discussion of the elevation of nature by grace by exploring the difference between temporal happiness and eternal beatitude in light of the famous Thomistic doctrine of the natural desire in time for beatitude eternal.

— Select bibliography for Week 12

Hütter, Reinhard. “Aquinas on the Natural Desire for the Vision of God: A Relecture of Summa Contra Gentiles III, c. 25 après Henri De Lubac.” The Thomist 73, no. 4 (2009): 523–91.

White, Thomas Joseph. “Imperfect Happiness and the Final End of Man: Thomas Aquinas and the Paradigm of Nature-Grace Orthodoxy.” The Thomist 78, no. 2 (2014): 247–89.

13. The Governance of Creatures: Gods Providence in Time, Part 1 — ScG, III.64–97

Having established God as the end of all things, St. Thomas now considers the direction of all things to God by the execution of divine providence in time. Aquinas discusses the nature of providence in itself, what it includes, allows, or excludes, and the role of creatures in the governance of things. It is worth discussing how modern scientific discoveries do not conflict with Aquinas’s theses about God’s action in governance. Also worthy of consideration is the role of man in the cosmos, and our own governance or stewardship over creation. We draw upon recent Thomistic discussions of the good of creation and its use through human technology.

— Select bibliography for Week 13

Dodds, Michael J. Unlocking Divine Action. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Long, Steven A. “Thomistic Reflections on the Cosmos, Man, and Stewardship.” Nova et Vetera 10, no. 1 (2012): 193–213. — Nota bene: This issue of Nova et Vetera 10.1 includes a special section devoted to this topic (free online).

14. Church, State, and World History: Gods Providence in Time, Part 2 — ScG, III.97–121

In these chapters, St. Thomas considers apparent exceptions (miracles) and other particular cases of divine governance in creation. One special case is free intellectual beings, who are ordered to God through law throughout history. We consider, in particular, the relationship between the summit of natural and supernatural social organization and community, viz., the state and the Church. How do these networks of human agency manifest and execute God’s providence throughout the history of the world? What hope does world history contain in the light of reason and faith?

— Select bibliography for Week 14

Maritain, Jacques. Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christendom. Translated by Joseph W. Evans. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973.

———. On the Philosophy of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

Pieper, Josef. Hope and History. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.

———. The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History. Translated by Michael Bullock. London: Faber & Faber, 1954. — Nota bene: Both books by Pieper and the book on humanism by Maritain are in Dugan.

[1] Cessario and Cuddy, Thomas and the Thomists, 19–20.

[2] Thomas S. Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 148.

[3] Mortimer J. Adler, Saint Thomas and the Gentiles: The Aquinas Lecture, 1938 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1948), 19–20. URL:

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