The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas

A Sketch

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Stephen L. Brock
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Co.
    , March
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Though the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas has been perennially engaged within circles both critical and approving, recent decades have seen a host of new interpreters and proponents willing to engage the Angelic Doctor at both the philosophical and theological level. Fr. Stephen L. Brock is one such interpreter. With a masterful command of the material and with engaging and lucid prose, Brock’s latest offering is a worthy contribution to the renaissance of Thomistic studies currently under way. Clearly familiar with the entire breadth of the Thomistic corpus—systematic works, opuscula, sermons, biblical commentaries—Brock lays out a path into a field of study that many may find intimidating.

In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: A Sketch, Brock acts the part of Virgil to our Dante, leading us through the intricate layers of Aquinas’s thought in a manner that consistently gets to the heart of each major area of inquiry he chooses to discuss. While the book itself is relatively short for a scholarly monograph (falling short of 200 pages), it more than makes up for its brevity in quality, and leaves the reader desiring more. The work is divided into six chapters—Matrices, Births, Souls, Firsts, Invisibles, and Ends—all dealing with a particular topic crucial to the understanding of Aquinas’s philosophical method. What Brock does masterfully is to show that to understand Aquinas’s philosophy is to understand the natural foundation of his whole body of work. It is not only in St. Thomas’s theological work that we meet the great Catholic saint, but it is in his devotion to natural reason as well.

Brock’s main goal is, fittingly, to lead us by the hand through Aquinas’s philosophy while demonstrating Aquinas’s main approach in general: that philosophy leads the human person by the hand to the things of God. As Brock adeptly demonstrates, philosophy for St. Thomas is not a competing system of thought or set of principles to those which have been divinely revealed, but remains subordinate to the science of theology even as it retains its own proper autonomy. While some authors might have stumbled here and set up a false dichotomy between Aquinas the philosopher and St. Thomas the theologian, Brock nips this issue in the bud, introducing his answer to this false dichotomy at the very outset of his project: “I have no wish to promote Thomas’s philosophical thought to the detriment of his theology. That would be silly. Thomas was a theologian. Period. And he himself denies that theology absolutely needs philosophy. Nevertheless he just happened to find philosophy useful in theology… [and] a Thomas without his philosophy would have been rather like a young David without his sling” (xviii). Brock puts it even more distinctly at the close of the book: “Thomas is convinced, and astonishingly consistent with his conviction, that being more rational, as such, means being better disposed, not worse, for adhering in thought and action to the mysteries of the faith” (162). The whole of this book is ordered by such a conviction, and in his goal of demonstrating Thomas’s mastery of philosophy (and the usefulness of such), Brock has more than succeeded.

One of Brock’s singular gifts is clearly demonstrating where modern readers may go astray in their reading of Aquinas, and illuminating the truth of the matter by contrast. For instance, when discussing Aquinas on the soul, the author guards the reader against reading St. Thomas as a dualist infected by Hellenism (or, as the case may be, by Descartes): “Thomas’s notion of soul and body, then, is hardly a specimen of ‘Greek dualism.’ Nor is Aristotle’s. It makes no sense, Aristotle says, to ask whether soul and body are one, any more than to ask whether wax and the shape impressed in it are one. Matter and form are potency and act, and what is one in the primary sense is what is one in act” (57).

In this reviewer’s opinion, Brock’s monograph is best suited as a text for graduate students of philosophy and theology. While the subtitle of the book correctly envisions this book as a “sketch,” it is certainly more than a basic introduction and seems to envision a reader with a relatively firm grasp of Thomistic vocabulary and metaphysical concepts. As a sketch, however, Brock achieves the laudable goal of providing the reader with a text that touches upon the most essential elements of Thomistic philosophy. It should find a home on every scholar’s shelf.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Madden is an independent scholar and received his Ph.D. in biblical theology from Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen L. Brock is professor of medieval philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He is the author of Action and Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (1998) and of numerous scholarly articles on Aquinas's thought.

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