Saturday, February 19, 2005

Best introductions to Aristotle and Thomistic metaphysics

Anyone wishing to master or even gain an elementary acquaintance of Aristotelian thinking or Thomistic metaphysics must begin by learning what amounts to a new language--the language of Aristotle (the teacher of Alexander the Great). In many ways this is analogous to learning the language of computers, where one must learn about "hard drives," "USB ports," "gigabytes," "CD-ROMs," and so forth. In the case of Aristotle and Thomistic metaphysics, you have to become familiar with the vocabulary that includes words like "substance," "accidents," "quality," "relation," "essence," and so forth.

One of the best and most painless introductions to this Aristotelian language is Mortimer Adler's popular classic, Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. Adler follows the divisions of learning found in Aristotle (theoretical, practical, and productive) and divides up his book into corresponding parts, beginning in reverse order with the most easily accessible and progressing to the more difficult: (1) making, (2) doing, (3) knowing. Adler is exceptionally gifted at simplifying difficult concepts, and makes use of extensive practical illustrations which bring Aristotle's concepts readily to life. He also appends an annotated bibliography guiding the reader where to find specific passages in Aristotle's writings catalogued by topic.

When it comes to Thomistic metaphysics, one of the best introductions is Peter Kreeft's annotated anthology of St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, entitled A Summa of the Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of st Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners. Kreeft's footnotes are invaluable for the beginner in St. Thomas Aquinas's writings. Of course, there are numerous commentaries and synopses of St. Thomas's philosophy and theology available. Among the best are G. K. Chesterton's classic, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. The "Dumb Ox" is not intended as a slur on St. Thomas but refers to the biographical facts of St. Thomas's shyness and portliness as a student, when he acquired the sobriquet, or nickname. Chesterton's book is remarkably well written and insightful. Also good is Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas, as well as Etienne Gilson's more scholarly and excellent study, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Anyone wishing to make their way thence into the deeper waters of metaphysics proper would do well to start with the clear and indispensably important introductions by Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers and The Unity of Philosophical Experience. The author is clearer than any other writers to be found in English, and will prevent the reader from chasing down blind alleys and undue confusion. Gilson also offers constant reference to the historical development of metaphysical ideas, which helps to furnish the rationale for the development of various concepts in their original context. Also excellent is the work of Gilson's pupil, Joseph Owen, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, which is neither elementary nor "Christian" except in the sense that the metaphysical concepts are employed, among other things, in application to the Christian theology of God. Owens' detailed historical footnotes are invaluable for intermediate and advanced students. Those who would profit from a discussion by a philosopher equally acquainted with classic Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and contemporary physics may enjoy reading Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth by Stanley L. Jaki, a Hungarian-born Catholic priest of the Benedictine Order who has doctorates in both philosophy and physics, the author of almost forty books on philosophy and science, and the recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize for 1970 and of the Templeton Prize for 1987, and was invited to give the prestigous Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in both 1975 and 1976, as well as the Fremantle Lectures at Oxford in 1977. His books may be purchased at a discount directly from the author at
Rev. Stanley L. Jaki
P.O. Box 167
Princeton, NJ 08542-0167
Tel. 609-896-3979 (call around 8 pm.)
A full catalog of Dr. Jaki's books is available online at his homepage, and his books may also be purchased through his major distributor at Real View Books Shipping Office.