Thomas Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles

A Guide and Commentary

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Brian Davies
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     504 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ever since the 13th century, the Dominicans—not least Thomas Aquinas, have been sensitive updaters of timeless truths. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles: A Guide and Commentary must be judged as a product of the ongoing effort begun by Pope Leo XIII to bring the work of the Dominicans’ greatest mind into theological and philosophical conversations in the post-industrial age. By this standard, which fits author Brian Davies’s stated purpose, the book is very successful.

This is the second “guide and commentary” that Brian Davies (also a Dominican) has written on Thomas’s major systematic works. Davies’s commentary on Summa Contra Gentiles [SCG] is a tight, mature work; the fruit of a senior analytic scholar who has spent a lifetime explaining Thomas’s intricate arguments. The book is part of the progressively more focused work Davies has been engaged with—from his Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1982), through the quite general Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford University Press, 1992), to the companion to this new volume, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2014). As Thomas brought Aristotle into Christian thought, so does Davies bring Thomas into secular and trans-sectarian debates.

This is commentary as only an analytic philosopher would write it: non-interpretational, and focused on arguments. In current debates over whether Thomas can be taken seriously today, Davies invariably thinks he can. The model success of Davies’ work is to answer all efforts to refute Thomas only after giving opponents their say. In this I found no evidence of straw men or red herrings lurking about in Davies’s summaries of contrary positions. He convincingly provides reasons for his side in every controversy, and gives disciplined exposition of every one of Thomas’s arguments that might be unclear, whether due to the abstruseness of the question, or the passage of time.

It may sound like Davies’s commentary is only for professionals, but the non-philosophical reader will also find that the book is written in the avuncular tones of a professor explaining the work to a student in his office. One way Davies does this is by posing questions which a student might puzzle over. “Does contact like this make intellect and body just one thing when an intellect is united to a body?” (186). Some of Davies’s shortest explications fail to answer every question, but this is because taking up every inquiry in equal detail would burden the reader with a book as long as the original. In any case, Davies always provides other terms to think in, and this is one point of his commentary.

Other uncle-professor qualities ease the novice’s introduction to Thomas’s work. Davies uses the pronoun of familiarity: “You might find it hard to fathom what Thomas is saying in SCG 4,81 when he discusses cannibalism. You might feel perplexed by …” (375). And when the arguments are not as strong as Thomas may have believed, Davies does not recapitulate the arguments, but enumerates the points that Thomas was trying to make. “But the basic drift of SCG 4,79-97 … seems clear enough, and the major points in these chapters, whether cogent or not, can be briefly summarized ...” (375).

Every chapter in Davies’s book opens with a précis of a topical section of Thomas’s volumes. Varying procedures follow: summaries of Thomas’s arguments with the counterpoint of the opposition; ways of understanding Thomas that answer the opposition; backing out of close textual analysis to deal with the context of the argument; and pushing ahead the snowball of general ideas in sections entitled “Comments on …” or “Some reflections on…” In the last procedure, Davies does his own work as a philosopher showing, usually, how earlier conclusions are carried forward as premises in later arguments. “Many of [the arguments in SCG 1,44-71] presuppose that God is simple in the way Thomas takes him to be in SCG 1, 16-25” (112). Thomas wants us to accumulate these conclusions in order to build towards the complete system.

Davies knows the long history of Western philosophy. His comments on SCG 4,27-29 refer to the New Testament, the Chalcedonian document, N. T. Wright, John Hick, Eleanore Stump, Kurt Gödel, and the “two-name theory of predication” (340-343). Note 5, chapter 10, cites Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, De Potentia, and De Aeternitate Mundi, and St. Bonaventure, John Pecham, Norman Kretzmann, and John Philoponus. Throughout all this, Davies protects the Doctor of the Church against mistaken opinions. When the opposition sees contradiction in Thomas’s statements about the dual nature of Jesus, Davies says, “that said, we might still wonder whether it could possibly be true that one thing is both divine and human. ‘My cat is unqualifiedly a dog’ cannot be true. Yet Thomas does not claim, without qualification, that Christ is human and divine. His claim is that, when it comes to the Incarnation, there is one subject with two distinct natures” (343). This gentleness lays a calm over the whole book.

Dense chapters from the SCG are sometimes distilled to numbered syllogisms that paraphrase and quote Thomas. These are visually helpful, breaking out difficult paragraphs into propositional nuggets. The long discussion of beatitude is an example of this (236-239).

My two-stage criticism would run along these lines: the work suffers from a stylistic fault, caused by a substantive trouble: namely, the action of analytic philosophy on the function of the Church. To be brief, the worst of its effects is to delegitimize a concern with states of affairs, and advance a concern with the truth of statements. Taken literally, Davies manages to demonstrate only “the truth of [statements like] ‘God exists’” (25). But a statement does not provide the proximity that a person needs to the state of affairs of ultimate concern. We want to know not that “God exists’ is true,” but that “God exists.” Thomas himself is always more to the point, less propositional: “what led some persons to hold this view was the weakness of the arguments which had been brought forth by others to prove that God exists” (SCG 1,12). For Thomas, propositions and verbal arguments are directly related to the reality; they must not substitute for it. I am afraid they do substitute for it in Davies. Davies’s guide is exceptionally erudite and useful after its kind, but therein is the problem: the kind of thing it is. And I am afraid that the analytic project behind the Dominican project is not what we need from Catholic philosophers today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric M. Buck is Instructor of Philosophy and History at Bunker Hill Community College.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Davies is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, New York, and Honorary Professor at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of numerous books on Aquinas, including Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (OUP 2014), Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil (OUP 2011), and Thomas Aquinas: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives (OUP 2002).

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