Published: Wed 05 October 2016
Next up is the first part of St. Thomas Aquinas'
Summa Theologiae. This edition is fantastic. Physically, the volumes are as beautiful as they are sturdy. The English translation is solid. There are not really really any footnotes but Aquinas designed the Summa to serve as a first introduction to scholastic theology and philosophy. Some familiarity with Aristotle and Plato helps a lot but is not absolutely necessary. That said, Aquinas' language is sometimes quite complicated in a way that English just doesn't handle very well. Even with my so-so Latin, I find it much easier to follow the flow of logic in the Latin original than in the faithful English translation.
One of the first things a reader of the
Summa notices is the unusual system of argumentation. While many ancient and medieval forms of argumentation remain familiar to modern readers, the so-called summa style is mostly dead. The style has the following form: First a question is asked, usually conceptually linked to the previous question, if there is one. Then arguments against the author's view are given, usually representing varying schools of thought and methods of argumentation. Then the author's response to the question is given. Finally, each earlier argument that had opposed the author's view is given its own individual refutation. Both the author's own view and the imagined critics cite a broad range of respected sources. Nearly all the works are cited equally by both sides. Normally I would expect this style of argumentation to be an endless string of strawmen. But Aquinas, for the most part, has the humility to represent the opposing views fairly and with citations as worthy those he gives his own arguments. That said, given that he argues against such heavyweights as Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, and countless others, it is unlikely that seriously strawmanning these figures would have endeared him to the Church or the rest of the scholastic community. And you can't go wrong with humility seasoned by pragmatism. It is, however, a lot of work. The sheer amount of work involved is likely the biggest factor in this style's unpopularity.
The first part of the
Summa contains what are known as Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God. This popular description is somewhat misleading and yet it is the thing the Summa is most known for. It seems only right that I address it. While it is an argument for God's existence, it is also clearly stated to be a definition, e.g. "this is what we call God". The arguments are largely Aristotelian. First, there is classic unmoved mover argument. This is based on the Aristotelian observation that nothing moves unless moved by something else. And if one logically follows the chain back, it seems necessary that there must be some strange thing that does not have this same constraint. Otherwise, how would anything in our presentuniverse be moving at all? The second argument is about "efficient cause". This is logically much the same as the unmoved mover argument except that the chain of movement is replaced with the chain of cause and effect. The third argument is also similar, instead being about a chain of existence, i.e. you can't create something from nothing therefore there must be an original and necessary thing. The fourth argument is about gradation. In other words, we live in a universe of greater or lesser and better or worse. It is assumed that these things are intrinsic properties of the universe and not merely the product of the human mind. And it is then supposed that in such a system there must be a greatest and best being. The final argument is that our universe has a level of complexity but also order and seeming purpose that would suggest that it was deliberately designed in some way.
The first three arguments are perhaps the most persuasive, even if they are all basically a single argument. We have no real answer for the ultimate origin of the universe. Sure, we have the Big Bang. And where'd that matter come from? Maybe it all came from photons. Where did all those photons come from? With better tools, we have peeled back the onion a lot more than Aristotle ever could but we still seem to have a logical dead end. Logic would seem to suggest that somehow either the rules changed, there was a thing that could violate therules, or there is something entirely external to the system of our universe as we know it. These do not necessarily imply the popular contemporary notion of what God is, but they are what Aquinas means when he says God. He is not some bearded sky wizard. He is either the physics changer, the physics breaker, or the simulation programmer.
I find the argument from gradation pretty fascinating from a Platonist perspective. But it is hard to prove that it is not either a human construct or a simple happy byproduct of how the universe works. And while some things are said to be better than others, it is often situational. There is no magical perfect chair, for example. There could, however, be a perfect chair for a given person in a given situation. God would probably make a bad chair though.
The final argument kind of falls apart when one realizes that complexity and order are largely relative terms and we have no other universes for comparison. Maybe our universe, on some imaginary absolute scale, is a total chaotic shitshow. Or maybe our universe is, relatively speaking, ordered perfection. As for its seeming purpose, I think it would be pretty lame to have all this for no reason. But the universe probably does not care much about my feelings on the subject.
Given all these things, I think I am firmly in the camp of believing that atheism is irrational because it denies the clearly possible. On the other hand, theism is unable to definitely prove its case. Agnosticism would seem to be the most rational path. However, theism can also be rational just by acknowledging its own optimism.
On some funnier notes, Aquinas will occasionally refute arguments that cite the Old Testament by simply saying that the ancient Hebrews were simply too primitive to fully grasp God's or Moses' true meaning. In a later part, he argues against the idea of astrology in part by saying that though "necromancers" believe that the movements of the planets and stars is important for the invocation of demons, it is not actually true. Instead, demons just let necromancers believe that it is true because demons are great fun-loving trolls like that.
I have also finished
Rameau's Nephew and should be writing something short about that soon. And there will likely be at least one more Summa post before I finish reading it.