In order to understand the arguments that Aquinas uses in the summa, it’s important to try to read him as he was rather than to try to impose upon him categories of thought that arose in later ages. To a certain extent you may have to unlearn a few things that you might currently take for granted! To help you with this, we’ve made a few suggestions about background reading and you can find these from the links below. At the very least you might read the “Introduction to Metaphysics” that will help get you through the first twenty or so questions. Beyond that, the introductory books on Aquinas that we suggest are all good reads!
The form with which the summa is set out may appear foreign to modern eyes, so here’s a short explanation. First of all, the work is divided into three books, I, II-I, II-II and III, which you’ll sometimes see in Latin form as Ia, Ia-IIae, IIa-IIae & IIIa. (There is also a “supplement” compiled, mostly from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, after his death by his confrères. The summa itself was unfinished at his death).
The books are divided into “Questions” each of which covers a general topic. Furthermore, each question is divided into a number of “Articles” each of which addresses a specific topic. Each article follows a stylized form corresponding to the medieval “disputatio” which was one of the major teaching mechanisms in medieval universities. In such a disputatio:
- The master would set a question for consideration with an implied yes/no answer.
- The students would be expected to come up with the strongest arguments against the hypothesised answer. These objections would be introduced by the formula “videtur quod…” (“it would seem that…”).
- A counter argument, supporting the original proposition would be given, often from scripture or a leading Church Father. This argument would be introduced by the formula “sed contra…” (“but against this…”)
- The master would give his analysis of the problem, coming down on one side or the other or, not infrequently, would indicate that the original question required greater precision by making distinctions of meaning. The master’s response would be introduced by the formula “respondeo dicendum…” (I reply, saying…”)
- Finally the original counter arguments would be refuted, introduced by formulae such as “Ad primum ergo dicendum quod” (“Therefore to the first saying…”)
It’s important to note that the opinions of the master are contained in the reply and the answers to the objections. All the other parts are arguments for and against the proposition under consideration that may have arisen from anywhere. One is struck by the intellectual honesty involved in medieval philosophy and theology; the master is obliged to justify his answers in the light of the strongest possible objections.
Individual elements within the summa are referred to by an extension of the notation for the individual books: so, for example, Ia Q10 a1 (or I.10.1) refers to the first article of the tenth question of book one (and sometimes more specifically to the master’s respondeo); Ia Q10 a1 ad 2 (or I.10.1 ad 2) refers to the reply to the second objection to the same question.
Another thing worth noting is that although Aquinas describes the summa as being appropriate for the “instruction of beginners”, these beginners in theology would have had many years of university level bible study and philosophy!
We are very grateful to the English Dominican Province for the assistance that they are giving us with this project. We must emphasize that any mistakes, misapprehensions or just plain complete failures-to-get-it are entirely our fault. Please let us know about the best of the howlers...
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