Saturday, 17 October 2009

Introductory Books

"Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl 12:12)

There are many books about Aquinas, about his thought and about his intellectual and spiritual impact throughout history. Here are some suggestions for books that I have found very helpful for covering the basics of Aquinas's thought in clear language.

  • Edward Feser, "Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide", OneWorld, ISBN 1-8516-8690-8

This has now become my first recommendation for a book introducing Aquinas’s thought. Although this is entitled a "beginner's guide", it does assume slightly more background in the history of philosophy than the two books by Brian Davies that we mention below. Making this assumption allows Feser to connect Aquinas's thought with other philosophers (especially of the early modern and contemporary periods). From this book, you'll get a good idea of how the great tradition of metaphysics was rejected (without all that much in the way of rigorous refutation) in the early modern period and how it is making something of a comeback today.

  • Brian Davies, "Aquinas", Continuum, ISBN 0-8264-7095-5
  • Brian Davies, "The Thought of Thomas Aquinas", Clarendon Press, ISBN 0-1982-6753-3

Brian Davies is an English Dominican who is currently professor of philosophy at Fordham University in the USA. There's a lot of overlap between these books, but both of them are excellent and if you like one, it's worth getting the other! Davies will give you more background than Feser, but he also approaches Aquinas as a discussion partner from the point of view of modern analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition. You may find this a strength or a weakness!

  • Fergus Kerr, "Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction", Oxford University Press.

I have to admit that I haven’t read this book, but anything written by Fergus Kerr is worth reading! In my experience, the OUP "Short Introductions" tend to be pretty useful. And it's cheap!

  • GK Chesterton, "St. Thomas Aquinas" (many editions).

A classic, with the style that only GK could muster! Still worth reading today.

We've given links to a couple of online translations of the summa. In the sessions we're generally using the Freddoso translation backed up with the English Dominican translations. It's also worth mentioning:

  • Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (eds.), "Summa Theologiae, Questions on God", Cambridge University Press.

This gives a good modern translation of Questions 1-26 (omitting questions 16, 17, 23 and 24), improving (in our opinion) on the corresponding volumes of the later English Dominican translation.

  • Timothy McDermott (ed.), "Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation", Christian Classics.
This compresses the most important bits of the summa into a single volume. The ambition of this book is extraordinary and I think it’s a tribute to the author to say that he often succeeds in distilling the essence of the summa. However, I’ve found some of the choices for inclusion and omission to be slightly frustrating and the translation a little bit loose in places. Definitely worth having to hand, but the reader should be prepared to dive into the full text in places.

Another translation worth mentioning is that published by the Aquinas Institute ( This provides an update to the earlier Dominican Translation, and is published as a parallel Latin/English text.

NB: Edward Feser has also published a robust philosophical refutation of the ideas of the "new atheists" in his volume "The Last Superstition" (ISBN 1-5873-1451-7). One might note that the tone of this book is quite "bare knuckle" - not attempting to spare the feelings of his opponents. It is, however, the most accurate and accessible refutation of those opponents that I know of and a fine introduction to the metaphysical and theological thought of Aquinas.

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