"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


On the Aristotelian foundation of St Thomas' Method

If we consider, however, the works of St. Thomas, we shall see that the common Doctor of the Church did not despise history, as was the case with Descartes, but, so far as possible in his time, he made use of the history of doctrines, appropriating whatever truth he found in the writings of the ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle, as well as in the works of the Fathers and other Doctors of the Church. Often, too, with very keen mental perception, St. Thomas has recourse to the history of errors in formulating his objections, since Providence permits errors so that the truth may become more apparent, and permits evils so that greater good may result therefrom.

If we consider the general structure of St. Thomas' articles, we detect in it a scientific application of method, which the Angelic Doctor had previously discussed at length in his commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. This work of Aristotle treats of the search for real definition by the division of the genus and the inductive and comparative inquiry into the specific difference; it also discusses a priori and a posteriori demonstrations, and especially the middle term in demonstration.

Some modern writers say that the structure of the Theological Summa is artificial, as in the case of eclectic syncretism in which heterogeneous elements are mechanically and, as it were, accidentally joined together. However, not only all the commentators of the Angelic Doctor, but many contemporary historians (e.g., Father Grabmann (20)) point out that the Theological Summa from beginning to end constitutes one organic whole. The orderly arrangement of the three parts, containing thirty-eight treatises (about three thousand articles, almost ten thousand objections), is effected with superb constructive skill. Furthermore, the divisions are not accidental, but have their foundation in the very nature of things. Notwithstanding so great a complexity of questions, the whole doctrinal edifice, as it is well called, is simple in its magnitude, like the Egyptian pyramids or the Gothic cathedrals, not even one column of which can be changed without destroying the perfect harmony of the edifice. But what is the foundation of this method of doctrinal construction?

For a closer inspection of this architecture, attention must be drawn to the general way the articles are composed in accordance with the technique of scholastic exposition, to which St. Thomas adheres, as he didactically proceeds in the Summa theologica and the Quaestiones disputatae. But he dispensed himself from this in the Opuscula and the Summa contra Gentes, where lie often juxtaposes arguments at the reader's choice, not explicitly distinguishing between direct and indirect arguments, or between those derived from proper and those from common principles.

This art or technique, which to some seems too conventional, truly corresponds to the normal progress of the intellect in the philosophical or theological investigation of truth. Why, in the Summa theologica, do we always find at the beginning of each article three objections, which are introduced by the formula, Videtur quod non? Why does an article in the Quaestiones disputatae often begin with ten objections against one part of the contradiction and ten or twelve against the other?

To some it seems that these objections should follow the demonstration of the truth. On the contrary, according to Aristotle's method and that of almost all the doctors, in the beginning there must be a statement of the question and of what is essentially the point at issue in the difficulty to be solved. It is about this that the methodical doubt is chiefly concerned, and the Stagirite spoke of it long before Descartes, and with shrewder judgment, too, not by doubting the validity of the first principles of reason, but by solving the objections of the skeptics.(21)

The necessity of this methodical doubt is well shown by St. Thomas. Aristotle said: "With a view to the science which we are investigating, we must first approach the subjects about which it behooves us first to raise doubts. . . . The difficulty to be solved must first be examined." (22) Concerning this the Angelic Doctor says: "Just as he who wishes to free himself from a chain that binds him, must first inspect the chain and the way it binds him, so he who wishes to solve a doubt must first examine all the difficulties and their causes. . . . Those who wish to search for truth, not taking doubt first into consideration, are like those who do not know where they are going . . . hence they cannot go by a direct route, unless perhaps they do so by chance . . . nor can they know when they find the truth sought, and when they do not. . . . Just as in judgments no one can give a decision unless he hears the reasons for and against, so he who has to examine philosophical questions is necessarily in a better position to judge if he has informed himself of practically all the reasons for the doubts raised by the adversaries. On account of these reasons it was Aristotle's custom in almost all his works to prepare for the search or determination of the truth by recounting the doubts raised against it." (23) In this the philosopher's critical spirit manifests itself, nor is it a matter of little importance for one to be well aware of the nature of the difficulty to be solved. Such must be the method of procedure, at least for the great and fundamental questions; otherwise the true difficulty of the problem sometimes remains almost unknown even to the very end of the thesis, or else it receives but a passing comment in the last objection.

But the state and difficulty of the question to be solved are made manifest by the opposite solutions that have already been given by the predecessors, or by the opposing arguments for and against the thesis. This was Aristotle's method of procedure, and St. Thomas followed him, especially in his Quaestiones disputatae, in which first he sets forth the opposition, so to say, between thesis and antithesis, the mind being fully aware of the nature of the difficulty to be solved before it proceeds to the development of the superior synthesis. And this is part of the truth contained in the Hegelian method, which Hegel did not retain in its purity of form. Thus the hearers do not let the merits of their case consist in the solution of accidental difficulties, nor do they ask useless questions, which distract the mind from the main point at issue; but at once they go to the very root of the difficulty. Thus the theses must be elaborated in harmony with the teaching of St. Thomas and that is why they are enunciated in the form of a question by means of the particle "Whether," and not in the form of a positive statement; for the complete solution is to be found only at the end, and often many propositions are required so as fully to express the meaning.

In the Summa theologica, because St. Thomas proceeds with more brevity of diction than in the Quaestiones disputatae, there are only three principal objections; sometimes they are most striking, gems, and, in opposition to these, there is the counterargument, which generally is taken from authority. St. Thomas does not develop these arguments from authority, but gives only one in each case, sometimes expressed in very few words, because he presupposes what was already said by him in his commentaries on Holy Scripture, especially on the Epistles and Gospels, and also in his Catena aurea. Evidently, in our days, these arguments from authority, especially on dogmatic subjects, must be developed, so that whatever is declared by the Church as the proximate rule of faith may be clearly and explicitly known and what is the foundation for this both in Scripture and in tradition.

The body of the article is variously constructed in accordance with the different questions to be solved. But, as the Angelic Doctor explains elsewhere, (24) there are four scientific questions: (i) whether a thing is, for instance, whether God is; (2) what He is; (3) whether He is such by nature, for instance, whether He is free; (4) for what purpose He is such, for instance, for what purpose or why He is free? These four questions are evidently different in nature, notwithstanding the identity of the classical formula in the Summa theologica: "Whether this is . . .

The question whether a thing is presupposes what it means in name or the nominal definition, that is, what the name of the thing means according to conventional use. This leads up to the question about what the thing is, just as the third question, whether a thing is of such a nature, leads up to the fourth: for what purpose it is of such a nature. In all these questions, as Aristotle said,(25) the middle term in the demonstration must be the subject of special consideration.
When the argumentative part of the article answers the question, whether a thing is, for instance, whether God is, then, as the Angelic Doctor says: "it is necessary to accept as the middle term the meaning of the word," (26) for instance, this name "God." That is, the name "God" means the first uncaused cause; and the first uncaused cause exists, for everything that comes into being has a cause, and there is no process to infinity in directly subordinated causes. Therefore God exists.

It must especially be taken into consideration how St. Thomas answers the question about the quiddity and purpose of things.

Index Top


20. Saint Thomas d'Aquin, p. 41.

21. Metaphysics, Bk. IV.

22. Ibid., Bk. III, chap. i, lect. i.

23. Com. on Metaphysics, Bk. III, chap. i, lect. i.

24. See his Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, Bk. II, chap. 1, lect. 1.

25. Ibid.

26.Summa theol., la, q.2, a.2 ad 2um.


"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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"God looks neither at long nor beautiful prayers, but at those that come from the heart."

The Cure D'Ars

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"If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel."

Thomas á Kempis

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