Thomas Aquinas

A Very Brief History

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Brian Davies
Very Brief Histories
  • London, England: 
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
    , March
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Thomas Aquinas has long stood as a seminal figure for thinkers of various stripes. While having enjoyed immense historical influence among Catholic theologians, recently there has been a growing body of Protestant scholarship on Aquinas’s moral and political theology—for instance, in the works of John Bowlin and David Decosimo. Philosophically, Aquinas remains a contender within the fields of metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy, and a renewed interest in Aristotelianism has coincided with a newfound appreciation for Thomistic thought. However, despite his importance, Aquinas remains a daunting figure. Those unfamiliar with his conceptual taxonomies often find his texts challenging, if not inscrutable. Brian Davies’s Thomas Aquinas: A Very Brief History aims to alleviate this difficulty by gently introducing Aquinas’s central ideas and legacy to readers previously unexposed to him, to medieval thought, or to academic philosophy and theology overall (xiii). What results is an accessibly brief yet lucid account that is sure to aid anyone hoping to begin exploring the angelic doctor’s work.

The book is divided into two sections: history and legacy. The former consists of an overview of Aquinas’s life, major works, literary approach, and key ideas, while the latter explicates his reception history and contemporary significance. Behind Davies’s project is a firm conviction that, with practice, Aquinas is readable. Though philosophers and theologians are often notoriously abstruse, Aquinas writes with such clarity that—as long as readers sufficiently familiarize themselves with his technical vocabulary—engaging his texts is well within reach (105-06). To that end, Davies devotes a chapter to explaining key metaphysical concepts Aquinas repeatedly employs throughout his work, such as “substance,” “form,” and “act” (15). Combined with a single page timeline of Aquinas’s life, a glossary of key terms, and clear footnotes directing readers to primary source treatments of particular topics, the book admirably orients readers to his way of thinking while suggesting resources for further study.

Of course, understanding Aquinas’s conceptual language should serve deeper investigation of his arguments. Individuals familiar with his work are no stranger to the sheer breadth of his scholarship, and Davies covers a wide variety of topics with elegant brevity. They include the existence of God, divine attributes, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the soul-body composite, human action, what constitutes happiness, virtues and vices, and the sacraments. Helpfully, Davies consistently anticipates and responds to potential objections throughout the text. In his account of Aquinas’s definition of God, Davies notes that Aquinas accepts God’s causation of the universe. Here, readers may question why the universe’s existence need not be taken as a brute fact requiring no explanation. Davies’s response is that, since existence is not built into any being’s nature—we can, after all, imagine that the universe and all its elements may never have existed—why there is something rather than nothing remains a plausible query (30-33).

In the following section, Davies discusses Aquinas’s reception history, highlighting both support (in the work of Dante Alighieri and Bartolomé de las Casas, for example) and opposition (as commonly found among early modern philosophers) toward his views, as well as his canonization and eventual incorporation into standard Catholic thought. Davies notes that while Aquinas has attracted a wide range of responses—from critique for his religiously charged thought to admiration for his complexity—there is no shortage of contemporary scholars applying his theory to a number of important philosophical issues (96-97). The book closes with some reflections on the value of Aquinas’s thought for the Christian faith. Particularly noteworthy is Davies’s explanation of how Aquinas’s philosophical God is agreeable to the Biblical God. Though concepts like divine immutability and simplicity are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, they do help elucidate common scriptural themes such as God’s transcendence and the Creator-creature distinction (109-10). Indeed, throughout the book, Davies aims for concise philosophical explanation while seriously considering traditional Christian commitments.

There is much to commend about this work. Davies’s prose is remarkably comprehensible and succinct, yet sacrifices neither rigor nor precision and, in spite of its short length, the book manages to cover an impressive range of philosophical and theological issues. Some topical lacunae remain, though that is perhaps to be expected for a volume of such short length. Aquinas’s political theory, for instance, is curiously absent throughout the work, and Davies’s treatment of human action could have been supplemented with a brief account of the passions. Regardless, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Brief History is an exceptional resource. It is easily recommendable to any newcomer to Thomistic thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph Lim is a graduate student in Moral Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Davies is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.



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