I introduced my tenth graders to Plato’s Republic on Monday. The Republic dives right into a demonstration of philosophical method that can be hard to follow for the uninitiated. So today, we did a class exercise in philosophical method and attempted to define justice, attempting to give them the experience of engaging in and experiencing a philosophical discussion. Our exercise was a success in both Western Thought classes today. I have two more sections of that class tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.
Plato (or Socrates) tends to ask questions and not arrive at a final answer. So in preparation for this exercise, I read just a tiny bit of St. Thomas Aquinas on justice in Summa Theologica, II:II, Q. 58, A. 1. My daughter gave me Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa for Christmas last year, and over this past summer, I was able to make some headway in it.
St. Thomas makes me remember that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). The Summa is an intellectual tour de force. From what I can tell, the Summa may be the high water mark of the Christian church in both philosophy and theology. I feel a little bit of a guilty pleasure in writing this, because I’m a convinced Protestant.
The reason why I find St. Thomas so beautiful and edifying is his philosophical method. St. Thomas begins to form a definition of a concept by assembling the best points of the arguments of his ideological opponents, interprets theses arguments in the most charitable and best light toward his opponents to build an ideological fortress that looks unassailable. And in every article that I’ve read of the Summa, he demolishes the ideological fortress of the ideas of his opponents to build his definition
The style, the majesty, the meticulous thinking of St. Thomas, and his humility shine through to make the Summa a beautiful thing. I’ll have to read Lombard’s Sentences, which was Thomas’ model, to see how much they are alike. But talk about “copyrighting your faults”! Here is this ponderous, methodical style that Thomas has, which many people would believe to be a great liability (I’m not sure about back in his day, but it certainly is in ours!). Yet, Thomas trademarked it, and became the “Dr. Angelicus” of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, in many ways, of all of Christendom.
The Summa is theological manual, a catechetical tool, to instruct people in the faith. But above all, I see its beauty. The beauty of expressing complex ideas in methodical way, of closing off all of the possible doors and windows that Thomas’ ideological opponents may be able to escape through, and doing this so modestly, without a hint of pompousness or unctuousness. The beauty of breaking down complex ideas and making them simple is the gift of the teacher. Every time I read in the Summa, I marvel at what a gifted teacher God has given the Church in St. Thomas, and how much can be learned from him.
What have you read lately that has given you a new appreciation for the beauty of words aptly spoken? I’d love to hear from you!