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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide
Edward Feser
Oneworld Publications, 2009

Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is packed with information—this is a very systematic, comprehensive and easy-to-read presentation of Aquinas’s philosophy. I don’t think the book is meant for a neophyte, even though the subtitle claims that this is a “beginner’s guide.” Some initial knowledge of philosophy is necessary for reading this book, which I think can benefit everyone (except the professional philosophers) who is interested in studying Aquinas.

The book has five chapters. In the first chapter, Feser introduces the reader to Aquinas’s life and works and in the subsequent chapters he launches into an extended discussion on Aquinas’s metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics.

Feser emphasizes the importance of learning metaphysics because it serves as the foundation for Aquinas’s ideas in theology, psychology and ethics. The key concepts in metaphysics that the second chapter covers include: Act and potency, Hylemorphism, The four causes, Essence and existence, The transcendentals, Final causality, Efficient causality, and Being. By using the illustration of a rubber ball, Feser makes it easy for anybody with ordinary experience and knowledge to understand Aquinas’s arguments on metaphysics.

In the chapter on natural theology, Feser explains Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. The proofs are: the proof from motion, the proof from causality, the proof from the contingency of the world, the proof from the grades of perfection, and the proof from finality. Aquinas offers the five proofs for God's existence mainly in his Summa Theologiae, but Feser also looks at Aquinas’s other writings to offer a composite picture of his arguments on God. In the chapter’s later sections, Feser describes the divine attributes of Aquinas’s God: simplicity, perfection, goodness, immutability and so on.

The first two chapters —on metaphysics and natural theology — are of great interest. For these two chapters alone the book is worth acquiring.

In the chapter on psychology, Feser begins with a description of what Aquinas meant by the concept of “soul” and how he saw the relation between the body and the soul. He points out that by “soul” Aristotle and Aquinas do not mean some immaterial substance or some weird thing that humans have—they “mean the form of a living being, so that anything with such a form has a soul by definition.”

The most interesting section in the chapter on psychology is the discussion on “intellect and will”. Feser points out that Aquinas held that “the natural end or final cause of the intellect, with its capacity to grasp abstract concepts and to reason on the basis of them, is to attain truth.” Also, Aquinas believed that the natural end of the will is “to choose those courses of action which best accord with the truth as it is discovered by the intellect, and in particular in accordance with the truth about human nature.”

Feser begins the final chapter, which is on ethics, by reiterating the idea that a grasp of metaphysics is crucial for understanding the other sub-disciplines of Aquinas’s philosophy, including his ethics. While discussing Aquinas’s view on the “good,” Feser takes into account Hume’s famous argument that “conclusions about what ought to be done… cannot be inferred from premises concerning what is the case. According to Feser, in the traditional Thomistic point of view there is no “fact/value distinction” and therefore there is no fallacy because “value” is built into the structure of the facts from the get-go.

The section on “good” is followed by a discussion of Aquinas’s theory of “natural law” and his conception of “religion and morality.” Aquinas’s fundamental principle for natural law is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” Since man’s way of gaining insight into the end of human nature is reason, Aquinas posits that a good action is one which is in accord with reason. But Feser has not discussed the concept of virtue. I think it would have been beneficial to have an account of Aquinas's concept of virtue.

Overall, Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is an excellent introduction to the monumental contributions that Aquinas has made to philosophy.

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