"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The saint's chief theological works are:

1. Commentaries.

a) on Scripture.
b) on the Sentences.
c) on the Divine Names.
d) on the Trinity.
e) on the Weeks.

2. Personal works.

a) Summa contra Gentes.
b) Disputed Questions.
c) the Quodlibets.
d) The Summa theologiae.

St. Thomas commented on these books of the Old Testament:

a) the Book of Job.
b) the Psalms (I-5 I).
c) the Canticle of Canticles.
d) the Prophet Isaias.
e) the Prophet Jeremias.
f) the Lamentations.

In the New Testament, he commented on the following books:

a) the Four Gospels.
b) the Epistles of St. Paul.

He wrote further a work called Catena aurea ("chain of gold"): a running series of extracts from the Fathers on the four Gospels.

Here follows a list of those Fathers of the Church whom, throughout these works, the saint cites most frequently: Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Basil, John Damascene, Anselm, Bernard.

In his commentary on the Sentences, we see that the saint is keenly aware of the omissions and imperfections of previous theological work, and we observe how his own personal thought becomes more precisely established. Peter the Lombard had divided theology, not according to its proper object, but in relation to two acts of the will: to enjoy; to use.

a) Things to be enjoyed: the Trinity, God's knowledge, power, and will.
b) Things to be used: the angels, man, grace, sin.
c) Things to be both enjoyed and used: Christ, the sacraments, de novissimis.

St. Thomas sees the necessity of a more objective division, based on the proper object of theology, namely, God Himself. Hence his division of theology:

1. God, the source of all creatures.
2. God, the goal of all creatures.
3. God, the Savior, who, as man, is man's road to God.

In the Sentences, moreover, moral questions are treated, accidentally, as occasioned by certain dogmatic questions. Thomas notes the necessity of explicit treatment, on beatitude, on human acts, on the passions, on the virtues, on the states of life, and he becomes ever more conscious of the value of the principles which underlie his synthesis, on God, on Christ, on man.

The work Contra Gentes defends the Christian faith against the contemporary errors, especially against those which came from the Arabians. In the first books the saint examines truths which are demonstrable by reason, the preambles of faith. Then in the fourth book he deals with supernatural truths. Here St. Thomas treats especially of the mysteries, of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments, the way to heaven.

In each chapter of this work he sets forth a great number of arguments bound together by simple adverbs: "again," "further," "likewise," "besides." You may at first think the arguments proceed by mere juxtaposition. Nevertheless they are well ordered. Some are direct proofs, others are indirect, showing how his opponent tends to absurdity or inadmissible consequences. We do not have as yet the simple step-by-step procedure of the Summa theologiae, where we often find, in the body of the article, only one characteristic proof, ex propria ratione. And, when many proofs do occur, we clearly see their order, and the reason why each is introduced (e. g.: a special kind of causality).

In the Disputed Questions the saint examines the more difficult problems, beginning each article with as many as ten or twelve arguments for the affirmative, proceeding then to give as many to the negative, before he settles determinately on the truth. Through this complexity, for and against, he marches steadily onward to that superior simplicity which characterizes the Summa, a simplicity pregnant with virtual multiplicity, a precious and sublime simplicity, unperceived by many readers who see there only the platitudes of Christian common sense, because such readers have not entered by patient study of the Disputed Questions. Here, in these extended questions, the saint's progress is a slow, hard climb to the summit of the mountain, whence alone you can survey all these problems in unified solution.

The most important of the Disputed Questions are these four: De veritate, De potentia, De malo, De spiritualibus creaturis. The Quodlibets represent the same mode of extended research on various contemporary questions.

The Summa itself, then, gives us that higher synthesis, formed definitively in the soul of St. Thomas. This work, he says, in the prologue, was written for beginners. [83] Its order is logical. [84] It excludes everything that would hinder the student's advance: overlapping, long-windedness, useless questions, accessory and accidental arguments.

For this end he first determines theology's proper object: God, as revealed, inaccessible to mere reason. [85] This proper object determines the divisions, [86] as follows:

1. God, one in nature, three in person, Creator of the world.
2. God, the goal of creatures.
3. God, incarnate in Christ, who is the road to God.

This work reveals the saint at his best. He is master of all details studied in previous works. More and more he sees conclusions in their first principles. He exemplifies [87] his own teaching on "circular" contemplation, which returns always to one central, pre-eminent thought, better to seize all the force of its irradiation. His principles, few in number but immense in reach, illumine from on high a great number of questions.

Now intellectual perfection is based precisely on this unity, on this pre-eminent simplicity and universality, which imitates that one simple knowledge whereby God knows all things at a glance. Thus, in the Summa, we may single out, say, fifty articles which illumine the other three thousand articles, and thus delineate the character of the Thomistic synthesis. We think therefore that the proper kind of commentary on the Summa is one which does not lose itself in long disquisitions, but rather emphasizes those higher principles which illumine everything else. Genuine theological science is wisdom. Its preoccupation is, not so much to elicit new conclusions, as to reduce all conclusions, more numerous or less, to the same set of principles, just as all sides of a pyramid meet at the summit. This process is not lifeless repetition. Rather this timely insistence on the supreme point of the synthesis is a higher fashion of approaching God's manner of knowing, whereof theology is a participation.

This permanent value of the saint's doctrine finds its most authoritative expression in the encyclical Aeterni Patris. Leo XIII speaks there as follows: "St. Thomas synthesized his predecessors, and then augmented greatly this synthesis, first in philosophy, by mounting up to those highest principles based on the nature of things, secondly by distinguishing precisely and thus uniting more closely the two orders of reason and faith, thirdly by giving to each order its full right and dignity. Hence reason can hardly rise higher, nor faith find more solid support." Thus Leo XIII.

Definitive recognition of the authority of St. Thomas lies in the words of the Code of Canon Law: "Both in their own study of philosophy and theology, and in their teaching of students in these disciplines, let the professors proceed according to the Angelic Doctor's method, doctrine and principles, which they are to hold sacred." [88].

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