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The One-Minute Aquinas - Introduction

  • KEVIN VOST

"The One-Minute Aquinas" is for anyone who has ever despaired of comprehending the most brilliant theologian who ever lived." - Peter Kreeft


The world's smartest man?

vostlargeWho is the world's smartest man?  This is not the world's easiest question to answer.  It's not like trying to find the world's strongest man, where you can gather enormous barbells, boulders, trucks, and the like to see who can lift, heave, and pull them the best.  And besides, I don't just mean the smartest man alive today, but the smartest person of all time.

How about Albert Einstein?  It's not every day that some guy figures out that E = mc2 (whatever exactly that means).  Many say Einstein did Sir Isaac Newton (the father of the three Laws of Motion) one better when it came to grasping the mysteries of the physical universe.

Then there's Aristotle, "the Father of Logic."  When modern social scientist Charles Murray wrote his book Human Accomplishment, comparing the most influential thinkers in science, philosophy, literature, and art, this fellow from ancient Greece was the all-time, all-around MVP, and easily number one in philosophy.  In addition, Murray ranks Aristotle second only to Charles Darwin in the field of biology.  Indeed, when Darwin read Aristotle for the first time, he wrote that, although Linnaeus and Cuvier had been his "gods," he found they were "mere schoolboys to old Aristotle."

There's another candidate all lovers of science should know.  He was one of the most prolific writers of all time, the most famous German professor of his day — a veritable oneman walking encyclopedia who wrote on every topic from A (as in anatomy, anthropology, and astronomy) to Z (zoology).  He was such a towering mind that he was called Magnus ("the Great") while he still lived.  He is the patron saint of scientists and scholars — St. Albert the Great (1193–1280).  But Albert the Great had a hero he considered much greater than himself.  That hero was so brilliant that when Albert read the man's crowning masterpiece, he ceased writing himself, explaining that his hero's work could not be equaled or surpassed.  Who was the hero?  St. Albert's own former student, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).  When Thomas died at the age of forty-nine, St. Albert bemoaned the loss of "the flower and glory of the world."

It's St. Thomas Aquinas who I (and many others) believe is the smartest human being God ever graced to walk upon the earth.

Who says St. Thomas is smart?

Not that St. Thomas himself claimed to be a genius.  In the first book of his masterful Summa Contra Gentiles, he apologized to his readers that in attempting the work, he might be exceeding his "limited powers," but he embarked nonetheless with confidence "in the name of divine Mercy."

But since St. Thomas's passing on March 7, 1274, more than seven hundred years of popes, scholars, and saints have agreed that his wisdom and powers, rather than being "limited," were so extraordinary that he is called the Angelic Doctor.

Atheistic philosophers, including the Objectivist followers of Ayn Rand, acknowledge St. Thomas's towering achievements in the field of reason and in reviving and disseminating the works of Aristotle.  Charles Murray, an agnostic, lists St. Thomas among the "giants" of western philosophy, ranking him the sixth most influential of all time — above Socrates and St. Augustine.  Note that philosophy was not Thomas's specialty, but merely a tool — a "handmaiden" to theology, the highest of all branches of learning.

Thomas makes this crystal clear: "To use the words of [St.] Hilary: 'I am aware that I owe this to God as the chief duty of my life: that my every word and sense may speak of Him.' "

When groups of modern psychologists have been polled on the most defining characteristic of superior human intelligence, time and again the winner is the capacity for abstract reasoning.  That's the ability to see the concrete things and events in the world and to grasp their underlying causes and principles; and also to go the other way: to grasp the fundamental, universal principles of reality and apply them to particular things and events.

That gift was St. Thomas's strong suit and was crucial to his massive contribution to civilization — which was to teach us how to reason in God's world and find our way to real wisdom.  As Thomas himself put it: "Experience shows that some understand more profoundly than do others; as one who carries a conclusion to its first principles and ultimate causes understands it better than one who reduces it to its proximate causes."  As we will see in Part I of this book, St. Thomas even explains for us just how abstract reasoning works.  He devoted the full power of his intellect, throughout his whole life, to the highest, most important, and fundamental cause.  As he will tell us in Part II of this book: "And this we call God."

The people's genius

But note well, Thomas was anything but an "egghead" or a modern academic with his head in the clouds, writing only for other professors and university students.  As a spiritual son of St. Dominic and member of his Order of Friars Preachers, Thomas used also his great intellectual gifts to explain Christ's gospel message to the minds and hearts of ordinary lay folk.  As a young man, after receiving Holy Orders in Cologne, his sermons in the German vernacular (rather than in Latin) drew enormous crowds.  In the last year of his life, he preached a series of sermons in the Neapolitan dialect at the church of San Domenico in Naples that, according to early biographers, drew "almost the whole population of Naples," and indeed, "he was heard by the people with such reverence that it was as if his preaching came forth from God."  St. Thomas, then, was a man of thought, a man of God, and a man of the common people.   

There's no point in being smart unless you're wise.  As "old Aristotle" said: "It is better to know a little about sublime things than a lot about mean things."  In other words, since none of us can know everything, the wise man will focus his attention on the things that matter the most, and that is something St. Thomas did like few who lived before him or since.

Introduction The Questions That Matter Most

What matters most to you?  Chances are I don't know you, but because you are reading this book, I know you are a human person created in the image and likeness of God (Gen.  1:26).  Of all of the species of creatures on earth, I am confident that no other, not even your pet chimpanzee or dolphin, is reading this to you.  I know that you have an intellect and a will.

I also know what matters most to you.  The most important thing that you seek is happiness.  If you are a Christian, then, you also realize that while some happiness can come upon earth, our ultimate happiness comes in an eternal life with God, the origin and end of all that is good and which makes us happy.  I'm willing to wager as well that you'd very much like for your family and friends to share in this bliss with you.  And if you've taken the message of God's Son to heart, you desire the same for your neighbor — that is, for all of mankind.

Well then, it stands to reason that nothing matters more than our relationship with God, and no subject could be more important than learning just how to improve it — how to, in the words of the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester, "know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly."  This is why the writings of St. Thomas are so important to us: He so fully submitted his unusual human powers to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.  There is no greater guide on earth, to knowing, loving, and following God while we are viators ("travelers") here, on our way to seeing God in the eternal beatific vision.

St. Thomas provides sublimely profound answers to the questions that matter the most — and yet he does not complicate things.  He teaches us about our everyday lives:

What brings us happiness? 
What does it mean to be a human being? 
Why are we here? 
In what ways are we higher than the animals and lower than the angels? 
In what way are we made in the image and likeness of God?
How can we achieve our utmost potential? 
How can we become brave, wise, and loving? 
How can we become better friends? 
Can we know if God really exists? 
Can we understand God? 
How can God be both One and Three? 
Why did God become man? 
What does Christ expect of members of his Church? 
How can we obtain eternal bliss?

St. Thomas's philosophia perennis, his timeless pearls of wisdom, are as relevant to us today as they were in the thirteenth century.  Indeed, in some ways they are more relevant today, because we hear so many attempts to answer such all-important questions by relativistic, secular, and pseudoscientific systems of thought that are so influential now — and also are shallow, contradictory, and wrong!

As Blessed Pope John Paul II tells us in his encyclical Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason"), all men from all cultures and all times want to know, "Who am I?  Where have I come from, and where am I going?  Why is there evil?  What is there after this life?" There's no surer guide to those answers than St. Thomas Aquinas.  John Paul says, "The Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology."8

Who was St. Thomas Aquinas?

Thomas Aquinas lived from approximately 1225 to March 7, 1274.  The privileged seventh child of an Italian lord and a relative of the imperial family, Thomas nonetheless sought the robe of a poor Dominican friar to live his life as a preacher and teacher.  He bore the gift of a marvelously powerful intellect and exercised it to the fullest.  In early childhood, his most burning, repeated question to all was "What is God?" He spent his whole life seeking the answer.  As a young man, he would study under the incomparably learned St. Albert the Great.  He would spend the years of his mature adulthood as a teacher of theology, most notably at the University of Paris.

St. Thomas lived his life humbly and gently, absorbed in the contemplation of God and in sharing with others the fruits of his contemplation.  He was perhaps the greatest integrator and synthesizer of truths in human history.  He is the man who "baptized" Aristotle, the greatest of pagan philosophers, harnessing the truths Aristotle taught for the service of the Church.  His knowledge of and reverence for the Church Fathers was so great that Pope Leo XIII declared in his encyclical Aeterni Patris that St. Thomas had "inherited the intellect of them all."  But by far the greatest font of wisdom for Thomas was God's divine revelation provided in the Scriptures.  The Summa Theologica absolutely bristles with scriptural citations and insights.

St. Thomas was canonized in 1323 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1567.  He is known as the Angelic Doctor because of his detailed writings on the angels and because of his angelic demeanor.

What did St. Thomas write?  Some of his most notable works include:

Summa Contra Gentiles: A masterful work of more than 350,000 words explaining and defending the faith.  Books 1 through 3 address theological issues accessible to human reason, such as God's existence and the fundamentals of human nature, while book 4 addresses issues of faith surpassing reason, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Compendium of Theology:  A shorter, more accessible book addressing important theological issues for the layman.  Written by a mature St. Thomas near the end of his life, it was dedicated to his friend Reginald of Piperno.  Arranged in three parts under headings of Faith, Hope, and Charity, it is more than 350 pages long, but was never completed.

Commentaries on Aristotle: St. Thomas commented line-for-line on many of Aristotle's works.  Two commentaries of great value to this writer have been on the Nichomachean Ethics (a wonderful treatise on virtue and friendship) and on Aristotle's On the Soul (a marvelous guide to human psychology).  It's not every day you get one of the world's greatest minds commenting on another of them within the same book!

Biblical Commentaries: St. Thomas wrote penetrating commentaries on many books of the Bible.  His Catena Aurea is an astounding "golden chain" of commentary from the Church Fathers (twenty-two Latin Fathers and fifty-three Greek Fathers) on every line of all four Gospels!  His Commentary on the Gospel of St. John is especially rich and sublime.

What about the Summa Theologica?  (And how many frail, old librarians does it take to reshelve it?)

St. Thomas's magnum opus is his Summa Theologica.  This unfinished work of the last seven years of his life is more than 1,500,000 words (3,000 pages) in length.  It is a matchless synthesis of Scripture, philosophical wisdom, and Patristic insights of all the Latin and Greek Church Fathers before him.  Three centuries after its composition, it sat alongside the Bible at the altar during the Council of Trent.  It has been called a "Gothic cathedral of words."

The Summa Theologica contains thirty-eight treatises, each in itself a full-scale book by modern standards.  The three major "parts" (summarized in this book, although not in the original order) are devoted to God, man, and Christ, respectively, and are interrelated in an overarching exitus-reditus (out from God, back to God) theme.

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From God flows all creation, including man, who is made in his image and likeness.  This is the stuff of Part I.  Part II (subdivided into two parts of its own — I-II and II-II) focuses on man's return to God through an examination of moral living and virtue.  Part III completes man's return to God via Christ and His Church.  On the opposite page is a diagram of its fundamental structure.

The Summa is structured in a very formal way.  Each of the three major parts, as we've noted, is divided into a series of questions (611 in all), and each question is divided into several articles.  Each article, in turn, begins with the presentation of a few objections, including reference to the biblical or other sources from which they derive.

Thomas then states, "On the contrary" and provides a paragraph or so in which he typically includes a quotation in support of his conclusion.  Next he states, "I answer that .  .  ."  and proceeds to give his own, well-reasoned conclusions.  Not finished yet, he replies to each one of the objections he presented at the start, typically revealing how the objection presented an incomplete or misconstrued interpretation of the scriptural, Patristic, or philosophical passage on which it was based.

Talk about rigorous reasoning and writing! But we have just a matter of minutes here.  That's why I won't be able to provide all the wonderful give-and-take format of the original, along with all the great saint's citations.  But thank God and St. Thomas we can go to the Summa itself for that.  In this book, we will focus on the bottom lines that all those other lines point to.  The bulk of our one-minute summaries will derive from St. Thomas's "I answer that .  .  ."  conclusions, although we'll sometimes bring in his objections, citations, and replies to objections when they're helpful or entertaining.

Why do you need this book?

Sometimes, you want to get to the heart of things with one of the greatest minds in history, and you have only a minute (or two).  St. Thomas could be called the Apostle of Common Sense.  Yet his books are detailed and scholarly.  One shudders to think of the intellectual prowess and academic background of the "beginners" to whom St. Thomas directed his Summa Theologica.  They were very learned seminary students.  And although St. Thomas strove for brevity and died before the book's completion, it's more than 3,000 pages long, as we noted.  The version I use is in five hefty volumes. 

I assume the vast majority of Catholics have never read the Summa Theologica.  Those who have even heard of it doubtless expect to find it full of profound theoretical reflections — which it is! But many would be surprised at what a practical and useful book it is too.  Besides guiding us through common questions of faith, morals, the nature of God, and the many sides of human experience, Thomas gives us detailed, specific advice on how to perfect ourselves, with the help of God's grace — so that we may live more joyfully here on earth.

In The One-Minute Aquinas, we seek to provide the reader with a simple and swiftly readable summary of St. Thomas's greatest work in a book that is a fraction of the length of most summaries of the Summa — never mind the work itself.  In these pages, you'll find small, digestible portions of life-giving wisdom and doctrine you can enjoy one minute at a time.

We will follow the Summa Theologica's own unique order as we progress through this book, with one important modification.  St. Thomas begins his Summa with quite heady stuff on the nature of God.  But The One-Minute Aquinas is written for twenty-first-century lay readers.  We thought it best to let readers start with questions covering the more familiar territory of human nature and happiness.  Then, once your brain is warmed up and ready for action, we'll dive into Part II, on the existence, nature, and glories of God (Part I of the Summa Theologica).  Both this book and the Summa conclude with Part III, on Christ and the sacraments.

What's here besides the Summa?

Most of the contents of this book will consist of summaries of St. Thomas's enlightening arguments and conclusions, although you will also find some commentary along the way, to help make things clear for modern readers.  Further, we have felt free at times to add insights from St. Thomas's other writings besides the Summa Theologica, where relevant.  There are also tables and graphics you're not going to find in the Summa Theologica itself.  These are designed to help the modern reader grasp and remember St. Thomas's key ideas with a minimum of time and effort.  By employing a fast-paced question-and-answer format — with most questions handled in one or two pages — we do what we can to turn timeless wisdom into easily digestible minutes.

What about those "Dumb Ox" boxes?

Thomas was barely out of his teens when he went to the University of Paris to study with St. Albert the Great.  Judging from Thomas's massive frame and quiet demeanor, his fellow students assumed he was a not-very-bright country bumpkin.  They called him the Dumb Ox of Sicily.  (He wasn't from Sicily, but his mother was.)  One day, one of those students offered to "help" the young ox with a difficult lesson.  The normally taciturn Thomas proceeded to explain the passage to him with a depth of understanding that made the student's jaw drop.

St. Albert, their master, had been aware of Thomas's prodigious mental powers all along.  He informed his students that the "bellowing" of the Dumb Ox would one day be heard around the world.

The "Dumb Ox" boxes you'll find periodically in this book are brief samples of St. Thomas's insights in answer to questions that surely have been nagging you for a lifetime — and to others that might not have occurred to you.

Got a minute?

Then what are we waiting for?  Pope John XXII (1244–1334) said that starving Egyptians of old were told, "Go to Joseph," to receive corn to nourish their bodies.  The Pope advised readers starving for the truth to "Go to Thomas, and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of substantial doctrine — wherewith to nourish your souls unto eternal life."

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Acknowledgement

vost1Kevin Vost, "Preface and Introduction." The One-Minute Aquinas: The Doctor's Quick Answers to Fundamental Questions (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2014). 

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press. 

The Author

vost1vost2Kevin Vost, Psy. D. has taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College, and MacMurray College. He is a Research Review Committee Member for American Mensa, which promotes the scientific study of human intelligence. He is the author of One-Minute AquinasSeven Gifts of the Holy SpiritMemorize the Faith!, Fit for Eternal Life!Catholic Guide to LonelinessUnearthing Your Ten Talents, and Hounds of the Lord.

Copyright © 2014 Sophia Institute Press
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