Book Review: Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide)

71R5OQ--JZL._AA1084_Edward Feser has established himself in recent times as a force to be reckoned with in philosophical circles. His most recent book is Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. He is also the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism as well as of books on Locke and on philosophy of mind. In 2009 he published Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) with Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

Following a chapter that introduces Aquinas’s life and works, Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) devotes chapters to his metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. For anyone who is familiar with Aquinas’s thought, this structure is ideally suited to inducting the student into his thought. One should not be put off by the long chapter on metaphysics – 54 pages in all. In it are covered themes that are indispensable for understanding his natural theology, psychology, and ethics: act and potency, matter and form, essence and existence, the transcendentals, final causality, and efficient causality.

The chapter on natural theology deals with all five of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God (Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3), as well as containing a short treatment of the divine attributes (God’s simplicity, perfection, goodness, immutablity, and so on). The reader will encounter in this chapter one of the most robust defences of the validity of every one of the arguments for the existence of God (Five Ways) available in the English language. Key to understanding Aquinas’s proofs are various metaphysical concepts that have been explained in the previous chapter. This reviewer certainly has benefitted from Feser’s expertise in this area, most notably with regard to the fourth proof which scholars sympathetic to Aquinas have often found difficult or wanting. In the light of Aquinas’s teaching concerning the transcendental properties of being, Feser clears up any misunderstandings or misgivings. This chapter is a tour de force and bears witness to Feser’s deserved reputation as a master of natural theology. Both students and established scholars ought to acquire a copy of the book for the sake of this chapter alone.

Feser’s treatment of Aquinas’s psychology is also quite masterful and illuminating. Again the metaphysical concepts encountered in the first chapter are called into action because trying to understand Aquinas in this area, as in so many others, risks being undermined by the metaphysical assumptions that are commonly taken for granted these days. Feser alerts the reader at the outset that “Aquinas does not mean by soul what contemporary philosophers tend to mean by it, that is, an immaterial substance of the sort affirmed by Descartes” (131). Psychology, for Aquinas as for Aristotle, is that area of philosophy devoted to the study not simply of the mind but also of that which makes an organism to be a living thing. The mind is studied insofar as it is an aspect of this organism.

Among other things Feser ably expounds Aquinas’s understanding of the human being as a composite of body and soul: I am neither my soul alone nor my body alone but rather the unity of both. Body and soul together constitute the reality of the human person. We are not ghosts (souls) living in machines (bodies). This point is crucial not only for a correct understanding of the human person but also for understanding Aquinas’s ethical theory. Feser’s exposition easily disposes of rationalist and materialist arguments. Feser also deals with Aquinas’s accounts of the intellect and will, immateriality and immortality.

The final chapter of the book turns to Aquinas’s ethics. After discussing the notion of the good he offers a brief account of Aquinas’s natural law theory and finishes with a brief section on religion and morality. While certainly a very competent introduction, this chapter does not unfortunately scale the heights of the chapter on natural theology. Lacking is a treatment of virtue.

The final words, while a little provocative to the non-Thomist, are certainly music to the ears of Thomists:

 For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is an end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we can find our true happiness. And it must be emphasized that, as with other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself. Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’s challenge to modernity. (192).

For anyone who wishes to equip himself/herself to engage critically with and to challenge the contemporary intellectual and cultural scene, this book is a must.

Finally, a note of caution: Feser’s book, while it ought to be required reading for any introductory course on Aquinas’s philosophy, is nonetheless very challenging for the neophyte. When used as part of course on Aquinas, however, it will prove to be very valuable.

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