Thomas Aquinas, by Denys Turner

Thomas Aquinas, by Denys Turner, might be the best book on Thomas Aquinas that I’ve yet seen. It’s a book about Thomas the man, Thomas the saint, and only secondarily about Thomas the philosopher and theologian. The author says,

It is a profile sketched out in thin strokes of the pen, exaggerating a few features out of all proportion and omitting many more altogether. It is therefore a caricature. But caricatures do not always distort. At best they reveal the prominent features of a character unobscured by excess of detail. My caricature, I hope, is no more distorting than any other work on Thomas Aquinas, just differently so. For I have not attempted any sort of comprehensive survey of Thomas’s thought, even in summary. What herein I offer is more a point of entry into the man’s thought obstructed by as little of the technical jargon of the medieval philosophers and theologians as is consistent with accuracy of exposition.

And so he has done. In doing so, of course, he has to go into considerable detail about Thomas’ theology and its underpinnings; it could hardly be otherwise, because Thomas wrote nothing about himself. But he avoids the jargon and the special terms, as promised, and explains what’s at stake in each dispute clearly and well.

It’s the sort of book where I found myself highlighting passage after passage. One of the best is from the Introduction, where Turner explains how to come to terms with Thomas:

The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas’s into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril, so vast being the difference in scale between his head and yours— inevitably the result is but to cramp the one and cause splitting headaches in the other. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains.

That’s as good a description as any, I think, for the theological journey I’ve been on over the last six years: I’ve been exploring, and contemplating, and working things out. On my own, though, I’ve only scratched the surface, a tiny portion of the surface. Turner talks about some of the areas I’m familiar with in a way that comforted me with its accuracy; and he talks about many areas of Thomas’ thought that I’ve yet to approach, which is a useful foundation.

Before starting out on an expedition—and reading Thomas is nothing if not an expedition. (In fact, it’s the sort of expedition where you lose your baggage along the way and return home, full of adventures you’ll remember for life. But I digress.) Before starting out on an expedition, it’s always nice to find a map of the territory, drawn by someone who’s been there. Turner has been there, and his is the second book I will suggest to others who want to explore Thomas for themselves. (The first, of course, is Chesterton’s biography.)

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