Thomism and the manual tradition

The structure of the thomistic revival was geared towards simplifying St. Thomas’s works down to central ideas grouped in a small number of sub-sciences. This led to the idea that thomism was a system offering a complete education: one could have St. Thomas “all the way through”. This approach to St. Thomas led to some gorgeous works, and perhaps the most systematic education that had ever been attempted. The works are still very much worth reading on their own account, but they are not the way to teach thomism for several reasons:

1.) St. Thomas is not a complete education, but the completion of an education. He says himself that knowledge should begin with geometry and arithmetic, and it requires a good amount of grammar, along with appreciation of poetry. Much of what people objected to in the manuals was perhaps more due to a failure to have a solid education in the things that are presupposed to the study of St. Thomas. The idea that manual education shirked history and poetry are definitely this sort of objection. That kind of education has to be prior to the study of St. Thomas.

2.) St. Thomas wrote for people who studied Aristotle almost exclusively for 4-7 years and took him as the last authority in science. Even if we could take grammatical, poetic, and mathematical knowledge as given, the proximate knowledge requisite to understand St. Thomas is pretty daunting. It is unthinkable that one could truncate the exclusive study of Aristotle to less than two years. Also, the sort of education that rested on the more hypothetical parts of Aristotle has to be supplemented by modern hypothetical-experimental science.

3.) The manuals of logic tend to make it a relatively easy and straightforward science. This is at loggerheads with St. Thomas, who said Logic was the most difficult art to learn. No one would learn it first unless they had to. When one reads Aristotle’s logical works, they start to get a gist of this. Any attempt to reduce Aristotle to mere formalism will end up distorting him. Aristotle is ordering the relationships that things have as known. Any reduction of these things to symbols will make them wholly arbitrary. Hence we will easily fall prey to the idea that logic is sheerly arbitrary and we can have as many logics as we choose.

Apart from any methodological problems, the biggest problem with thomist systems is that thomism is not a system. One isn’t a thomist because he memorizes or uses some system but because he is a disciple to St. Thomas. Discipleship consists in submitting to a master, not in taking some course.

Again, systems are systematic wholes founded on central principles, but no thomist can crunch St. Thomas down into a set of key principles from which we can construct all of his thought. The whole idea that St. Thomas had some central thesis that dominated his work is false even to the most casual reading of him. Much of what dominates the idea of modern thomism has to do with theses that supposedly make him unique, but one cannot force these theses on the whole of his work without fundamentally distorting it. One could ignore everything that St. Thomas said about analogy, the distinction between essence and existence, the single substantial form of man, and the natural law and still be left with over 90% of his work.

This idea of thomism as a system distorts his thought beyond repair. People start imagining that St. Thomas had some grand plan to spin out all of reality from some grand foundational idea. Twice in the last two days I have read authors who claim that St. Thomas founded his idea of “essences” or “matter and form” on ideas proceeding from the eternal mind. Where is this idea coming from? Can anyone imagine St. Thomas writing a flow chart like “God—> essence—-> matter and form”? Again, there are endless debates about whether St. Thomas is a theologian or a philosopher or a political thinker… why not just say that he was really good at a lot of stuff? Again, why this need to distort him into a single system?

The thomistic manuals should definitely be read, but not in the way they were intended. They should be read as supplements to a thomistic education, not as the foundation of it. After you’re already an established student of St. Thomas, it helps to look at the manuals to see what other disciples thought (with the exception of the logical manuals, which are too wedded to the idea of logical formalism).


  1. Brandon said,

    August 7, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    I think I read (or heard) somewhere the claim that one reason the Thomistic revival failed to accomplish much of what it set out to do was that it expected too many ordinary people to learn Thomas too quickly, and then to turn around and teach him, and that was a formula for disaster. I’ve always thought that that summed up much of the problem with the manuals. There’s a sense in which it was a bit admirable — making the Common Doctor really and truly common to just about everyone; and because a great deal of ingenuity and talent was put into it, some beautiful works did indeed come out of it. But there was a sort of naivete to it, too, which had the problems you suggest.

  2. T. Chan said,

    August 8, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Could you please explain what you mean by logical formalism?

  3. a thomist said,

    August 8, 2008 at 3:56 am


    Logical formalism is the idea that arguments can be treated simply according to their syllogistic structure or shape, as opposed to he way Aristotle saw it, which was as expressing the various relationships that obtain between things as known. The chief such relation is universality.

  4. Peter said,

    August 8, 2008 at 4:45 am


    I think your judgments hold.

    I wonder: could a course be written that avoids the defects you mention? I mean, is the very idea flawed, or would it be possible to write a good and thorough course that covers what Aristotle says and includes the thomistic developments? (To re-argue what Aristotle argued, in effect, but with illustrations and examples taken from common life today.)

  5. a thomist said,

    August 8, 2008 at 6:10 am


    Aristotle and St. Thomas can never be a course, they can only be an institution. They can only be learned by disciples, and disciples for the most part need some kind of institutional help. Most of us have to muddle along on our own, but we will never get as far in ten years as people in Aristotelian or thomistic institutions would get in months. When I read old articles written by 25-30 year old kids in old editions of the Laval Theologique, I am overwhelmed that it would take a freelance thomist 50 years of study and error to get to the point of writing such wisdom. Which means, of course, that we could never write that kind of article at all.

    I’m putting up something more on the formal logic problem, though.

  6. Niggardly Phil said,

    August 8, 2008 at 6:27 am

    The 24 theses were pretty quickly twisted into principles from which Thomism arose, or worse as a summary of his teaching. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a thomist will agree with them and be able to reach them easily from the teachings of St Thomas. I think they were intended as a touchstone.

    Another problem with the systems is the loss of community. Thomism requires a community in which to thrive and grow and develop, as opposed to an isolated academic locked in his office, reviewing the doctrine he has received, thinking about it in a dark room, adding his bit and then handing it on to the protege. The notion of learning as a one way process is foreign to the tradition. I think that started in the Enlightenment (snicker), where the wiseman would lecture and the students were there to absorb. Instead, every student should have a chance to take a shot at their teacher and fellow students, and receive many shots from their teachers and fellow students. Sort of a theological cage match. That engages the whole person.

    Now, the written systems are not inherently opposed to that, but they do seem to follow more the Enlightenment model, and to give the impression of completion.

    Instead of systems (a Hegelian notion?), they should have just written commentaries and called it that.

  7. Peter said,

    August 8, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Good points. Anyone who doesn’t have institutional help (me) knows how hard it is. ‘Daunting’ is the right word.

    You seem pretty pessimistic about the state and future of Thomism; and I suppose you are correct since most of those great institutions of Thomism are gone. Do you have any suggestions for remedying this? Maybe the internet can be used as a basis for a “virtual institution” or community for Thomistic discipleship….this blog certainly helps.

  8. a thomist said,

    August 8, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Oh I’m not pessimistic at all! It’s always been like this, and always will be! Thomism has always survived and it always will. I can see in my minds eye a monk carefully copying the Summa with the ancient ruins of New York City in the background. It’s true that thomism had something of a golden age between the two Vatican councils that is now over, but that core of truth will always be there for those who seek it. St. Thomas will keep his door wide open to anyone in the same way he always has, but his “fees” are too much for most people: discipleship, careful reading of Aristotle, putting aside others and loving only him for years and years, etc. He’s not a system to be discovered but a master to be loved and obeyed. Those who find him love him too much for his flame ever to die out. Even if it did die out, in a sense it wouldn’t matter- as Aristotle says in Book XII of the Metaphysics: all this wisdom has probably been discovered and lost many times.

  9. Niggardly Phil said,

    August 8, 2008 at 11:40 am

    the Pecci brothers studies under a thomist Jesuit, under great hostility from the university and the congregation who felt thomism was a thing of the past and should be relegated. The Jesuit knew his stuff and thoroughly succeeded in his educational efforts. His students never forgot that, one of whom went on to become Leo XIII.

  10. a thomist said,

    August 8, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Right! In a certain way, there is no better time than now to be a thomist. All the texts are at everyone’s disposal, and there is less persecution than in the past in some ways. Maritain took it for granted that as soon as he became a Catholic- still less a thomist- his whole academic career would be over.

  11. T. Chan said,

    August 9, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    a thomist, thank you for your explanation.

    I have heard that the Legionaries of Christ here in the United States are interested in studying the Aristotelian tradition.

  12. Breier Scheetz said,

    July 9, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    If you admit a difference genuine and truthful distinction Thomists, Scotists, and Suarezians, you have to admit that St. Thomas had a system. Or pawn the system off on someone else, but there has to be coherency of thought and first principles, or we’re just left with eclectic cafeteria theology. I would the commentarial tradition would be evidence of there being an ordered “system” of St. Thomas’ thought. That’s not to say one can dispense with St. Thomas, but is to say that St. Thomas’ thought, at least in part, is an ordered whole that has principles that unify it. Indeed, I think we see such an order playing out in the first part of the Summa as the divine attributes are drawn out.

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