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Reading Suggestions for Aquinas’ Five Ways

Five Ways

Editor’s note: In a series for Evolution News, Dr. Egnor has been summarizing and analyzing the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas. See, “Introducing Aquinas’ Five Ways,” by Michael Egnor. For more on Thomas Aquinas, intelligent design, and evolution, see the website Aquinas.Design.

 In discussions with atheists and materialists, theists have powerful resources at our disposal. Our perspective is supported by a rigorous and elegant metaphysical framework, that began with Plato and particularly Aristotle, is synthesized by St. Thomas Aquinas, and continues with the work of many superb philosophers today.  

At the core of our dispute with atheists is the evidence for the existence of God. Of course, His existence can be proven — as convincingly as any question about existence can be proven and more convincingly than any scientific theory can be proven (which is grist for another post). The famous Thomistic proofs for God’s existence are logically sound and irrefutable arguments. The proofs are simple but subtle, and have a profundity and logical beauty all their own. For readers interested in exploring these proofs in more detail, and in acquiring a deeper understanding of Thomistic philosophy, these reading recommendations may be of help.

Starting with Feser

Ed Feser’s marvelous books on Thomistic metaphysics are best place to start. Feser is a superb philosopher in his own right, and he has a genius for explaining subtle complex metaphysics is clear readily understandable language. His is Aristotle’s and St. Thomas greatest expositor for us moderns.  

His books include:

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide: the essential introduction to Aquinas. A must-have, and the only place to start for anyone not already conversant with the work of the Angelic Doctor. Feser clearly and systematically explains all five proofs, and much more (theology, psychology, ethics, etc.). 

The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism: a searing take-down of New Atheists. Beautifully and mercilessly argued, with an excellent discussion of the Prime Mover argument in particular. After reading, you won’t be able to look at Dawkins without laughing (if you haven’t reached this stage already). Feser almost makes you feel sorry for New Atheists. Almost. 

Scholastic Metaphysics: a Contemporary Introduction: a masterpiece. An elegant exposition of basic scholastic metaphysics, in considerable detail. A great choice after Aquinas. Feser takes you into the intricacies of the Thomistic understanding of nature. This volume does not discuss Thomistic dualist philosophy of mind, which Feser has said will be a separate book. 

For readers interested in an excellent overview of philosophy of mind, Feser’s The Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction. There’s no Thomistic proofs here, but it’s the best general introduction to philosophy of mind and there’s a good chapter on Thomistic dualism. 

Five Proofs of the Existence of God: brilliant exposition of five proofs for God’s existence. Not Aquinas Five Ways, but the proofs of many classical thinkers — Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists, St. Augustine, St. Thomas and the Rationalists. St. Thomas’ proof here is not one of the five — he had six! A great book by Feser, and essential for a reader who wants to go even beyond the Five Ways. 

Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science: a comprehensive and rigorous examination of the metaphysics of natural science — if you’ve wondered how Aristotle relates to quantum mechanics, this is where to look. Very challenging and very worthwhile if you are so inclined. Feser takes you into the metaphysical fabric of science. This is not an easy read, but Feser’s knowledge and skill at explication are remarkable. 

Feser also has a great blog, where he tackles the issues of the day and goes into greater detail on many of the points he raises in his books. 

Beyond Feser

After Feser, there are a  number of excellent authors for those interested in the Five Ways. I do emphasize that the Thomistic world has its own language, and it is nearly impossible to grasp without a good introduction, which Feser provides in spades. If you wish to go further, consider:

Walter Farrell, O.P.  Second only to Feser in clarity of exposition, and the best prose stylist in the Thomistic camp. Farrell is a Dominican scholar from the early 20th century, and a renowned American Thomist. He writes like Chesterton — with clarity, brevity and irony. His intro to Thomism My Way of Life is a gem, a short book you can carry in your pocket, and it’s a guide to Thomism often given to fresh novices in the Dominican Order. It is a marvelous introduction and delightful to read. Farrell’s Companion to the Summa is a massive four-volume exposition of the great work — My Way of Life on steroids — and it’s Farrell’s magnum opus. Essential for every passionate Thomist’s library (and it’s on Kindle!) and a great guide as you read the Summa itself. It will take a few years of your life to get through, but it really deepens your insight into St. Thomas. Farrell is a joy to read.   

Etienne Gilson Gilson was a leading 20th century French Thomist. His The Christian Philosophy Of St Thomas Aquinas is magnificent — meticulously written and profound. It was what I read next after Feser and I got a lot out of it. Gilson was brilliant, and you can spend a day just exploring the implications of one of Gilson’s sentences about Thomistic metaphysics. Like Farrell, Gilson is a challenging read, but very worthwhile if you want to take St. Thomas seriously. I think Gilson’s chapter on Thomistic psychology is the best discussion on the topic out there. 

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange Probably the leading Thomist of the 20th century and professor at the Angelicum in Rome. He wrote extensively on Thomism, and I think his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomist Thought is his best introduction to… well… reality. Very profound and very clear, and Lagrange beautifully explains the enduring relevance of Thomism to modern life and science. An excellent choice after Feser’s introduction. 

Fredrick Copelston Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker: Copelston’s very good intro to St. Thomas. I prefer Feser, but Copelston’s work is highly respected and widely used. In my view, Copelston lacks Feser’s clarity for the modern reader, but there is much to be recommended in his work. 

Jacques Maritain Prolific (and somewhat controversial) Thomist. His Introduction to Philosophy is highly readable and well-regarded. He wrote extensively on the application of Thomistic philosophy and theology to the 20th century. Fascinating stuff if you are so inclined. 

Aristotle Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s works are not finished products, but are probably lecture notes. Aristotle is a very challenging read in the original (in English) — his genius is evident, but he jumps from place to place, uses shorthand, assumes concepts not fully explained —  as one might expect from lecture notes. Unless you’re a scholar, it’s not wise to start with Aristotle in the flesh. You have to know his system fairly well, before you read him. Metaphysics and De Anima are good places to start for the Thomist. It won’t be easy. Before reading Aristotle himself you should read…

Mortimer Adler Adler is a fine 20th century philosopher and writer, and he is an excellent introduction to Aristotle. I suggest reading his Aristotle for Everyone before reading Aristotle himself. You can never be fully prepared for reading Aristotle in the flesh — he’s a challenge to the best scholars. But Adler is a big help — he helps you see where The Philosopher is going. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes is an Aristotelian perspective on the folly of modern philosophy. It is a masterpiece—if I were dictator of the world, I’m make it mandatory reading for all of humanity. It’s a fairly easy read. His first two chapters on philosophy of mind are essential, and his chapters on language and meaning, free will and gradations of being are fascinating and shed light on many modern conundrums. Much of what we call modern philosophy is just mistakes — like basing a system of mathematics on 2 + 2 = 5. Adler explains what went wrong, and how to fix it. 

The Angelic Doctor

Aquinas Of course, the ultimate source on Thomism is the Angelic Doctor himself. I tried reading him years ago (before I read Feser), and it might as well have been in the original Latin. I understood nothing. Nothing. So I started with Feser, and got a handle on the terminology, which is great, because the terminology, while alien to us moderns, is consistent, accurate and logically coherent. We don’t easily understand St. Thomas because we are opaque, not because he is.

Obviously the Thomist text to read is the Summa Theologica, although the Summa Contra Gentiles has more detail on the Five Ways. Thomas is more succinct on it in the S.T. The best way to read the S.T. is: 1) Know the terminology and the basic concepts before you start — this is where Feser is indispensable. 2) A guide to the S.T., like Farrell’s Companion to the Summa, is a huge help, but the guide is difficult as well. There is no easy way here. 3) The S.T. is best digested by daily reading of individual short sections. Aquinas uses the “quaestiones disputatae” framework, in which he makes a assertion that is actually a question, he gives the answers (objections) that other major philosophers have given, he provides (usually) a brief scriptural commentary, then he gives his answer, then he replies to each original assertion by other philosophers individually. For us ordinary humans, it’s wisest to just read the assertion and St. Thomas answer. The objections are profound, but unless you’re a scholar, you get lost in them. Reading the assertion and St. Thomas’s answer will keep you busy for years by itself. 

A Profound Contribution

Over time, you get two things out of reading the S.T. First, once you get past the terminology, St. Thomas really has profound things to say. His rigor and scope are astonishing. Second, you get to see genius in front of you at work on every page. You don’t really grasp what a mind can do until you’ve sat for a while with Thomas Aquinas. 

We I.D. folks should always be ready to defend design and its implications when challenged. In my view, the Thomistic framework offers the most effective tool to do so. The great strength of Thomism, aside from its truth and beauty, is its integration of our understanding of nature, of ourselves and of God. St. Thomas shows how it fits together. 

I’ve found that Thomistic metaphysics is, from the atheist perspective, unanswerable. None of these guys have a clue about it, and it provides a very effective tool for reducing atheist arguments to self-refuting gibberish, which is what they are. 

So, if you are interested, go buy Feser’s Aquinas and get started!