A Review of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club

I have spent the last couple days working my way through a selection of writings by Saint Thomas Aquinas from the Easton Press Books That Changed the World edition (pictures from this edition as well as the Limited Editions Club edition are below).   I am amazed at the depth of thinking, the complexity of thought and the timeliness/relevancy of his writing after 800 years.   This is reading that requires deep, deep thought and reflection. To have any hope of following the arguments, one must read slowly, and re-read.  Yet, doing so is incredibly fulfilling and illuminating.  I was raised Catholic, but certainly am no theologian.  Therefore, I am guessing that my first reading of this includes some mis-understandings and lack of completely “getting it”.  With that in mind….

I like that Aquinas emphasis the validity and usefulness of human reason.  He does not ask anyone to blindly believe in God.  As he says,  “Believers do not lightly believe truths that human reason cannot verify experimentally”.  His approach to understanding God, or trying to prove God’s existence, is as deeply reasoned and logical as any philosophy based on reason.  He simply goes beyond reason when saying “Mere reasoning can never discover the truths which faith perceives…our enterprise should be to draw out the analogies between the discoveries of reason and the commands of faith.”  Rationalism is a preamble to faith, not a replacement of it.

Allow me a probably pathetic attempt to summarize one of his arguments proving God’s existence.  First, some background definitions you need to keep in mind for understanding further arguments stated below.   Understanding the terms ‘God’ and ‘Eternity’ is critical to understanding Aquinas’ answer to “does God exist?”.

1) The meaning of the term God is “that then which nothing greater can be conceived.”  It does not signify a form, mode of being or time.  There is:

no composition of quantitative parts in God, for he is not a body; nor a composition of matter and form; nor are his nature and complete substantiality distinct; nor his essence and existence; nor is there a composition of genus and difference; nor of subject and accidents…God is the first thing absolutely speaking…God is everywhere and in every place, first because he is in all things giving them substance, power and operation…He displaces nothing.

2) “Eternity is a measure of permanence; time the measure of change.”  Time has a beginning and an end, whereas eternity does not.  Even granting that time always was and always will be, there still remains the difference that “eternity is simultaneously whole, whereas time is not.” Eternity is “constant and changeless” reality.  The “form of eternity lies in the apprehension of that uniformity.” Eternity has no before or no after, it is “simultaneously entire”.

With these definitions in mind, please take the time to read the following slowly and carefully, so to grasp his argument.  It is worth your time!

The first argument is based on the fact that in the universe/world, various things are constantly changing and/or in motion (when you see “motion” below, think “change”).  To quote at length:

Whatever in motion is set in motion by another….to set in motion is naught else then to bring a thing from potentiality to actuality, and from potentiality a subject cannot be brought except by a being that is actual; actually hot makes potentially hot become actually hot, as when fires changes and alters wood.  Now for the same thing to be simultaneously and identically actual and potential is not possible, though it is possible under different respects; what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot, though it may be potentially cold. It is impossible, therefore, for a thing both to exert and to suffer motion in the same respect and according to the same motion.

If that which sets in motion is itself in motion then it also must be set in motion by another, and that in its turn by another again.  But here we cannot proceed to infinity, otherwise there would be no first mover, and consequently no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers do not initiate motion unless they be moved by a former mover.  Therefore we are bound to arrive at the first mover set in motion by no other…inferring a motionless mover which we term God…..Either we have an infinite series or we arrive at a changeless mover.  But we cannot go back infinitely.  Therefore we must infer a first changeless mover.

Another approach to this argument is:

Among phenomena we discover an order of efficient causes.  But we never come across, nor ever shall, anything that is an efficient cause of itself; such a thing would be prior to itself, which is impossible.  It is also impossible to go on to infinity with efficient causes, for in an ordered series the first is the cause of the intermediate and the intermediate is the cause of the last.  Whether or not the intermediate causes one or many is irrelevant. Take away the cause and the effect also goes.  Therefore if there were not a first among efficient causes — which would be the case in an infinite series — there would be no intermediate causes nor an ultimate effect.  This is plainly not the case….For in general one is bound to say that all parts in any infinite system or magnitude or causality must be middle parts, otherwise one part would be the first and another part last; both notions are irreconcilable with the infinite, which excludes every limit, either of beginning or end…. A first cause, generally termed God, must therefore be inferred.

Let’s take another angle:

We observe in our environment how things are born and die away; they may or may not exist; to be or not to be — they are open to either alternative.  All things cannot be so contingent, for what is able not to be may be reckoned as once a non-being, and were everything like that once there would have been nothing at all.  Now were thing true, nothing would ever have begun, for what is does not begin to be except because of something which is, and so there would be nothing even now.  This is clearly hallow.  Therefore all things cannot be might-not-have-beens; among them must be being whose existence is necessary……Everything that is possible-to-be has a cause, since its essence as such is equally uncommitted to the alternatives of existing and not existing.  If it be credited with existence, then this must be from some cause. (Which takes you back to the causation argument quoted above).

Lastly, some thoughts that seem related to what some today, in a much less effective fashion, call intelligent design.

Contrary and discordant elements cannot always, or nearly always, work harmoniously together unless they be directed by something providing each and all with their tendencies to a definite end.  Now in the universe we see things of diverse natures conspiring together in one scheme, nor rarely or haphazardly, but approximately always or for the most part.  There must be something, therefore, whose providence directs the universe….We observe that things without consciousness, such as physical bodies, operate with a purpose, as appears from their co-operating invariably, or almost so, in the same way in order to obtain the best result.  Clearly then they reach this end by intention and not be chance.  Things lacking knowledge move towards an end only when directed by someone who knows and understands, as an arrow by an archer.  There is consequently an intelligent being who directs all natural things to their ends….When diverse things are co-ordinated the scheme depends on their directed unification.  The arrangement of diverse things cannot be dictated by their own private and divergent natures; of themselves they are diverse and exhibit no tendency to make a pattern. It follows that the order of many among themselves is either a matter if chance or it must be resolved into one first planner who has a purpose in mind.  What comes about always, or in the great majority of cases, is not the result of accident.  Therefore…

As you can see, these are deeply philosophical arguments being offered by one not afraid to use human faculties of reason to form a foundation on which faith resides.  His writings go deeply into many other questions, such as the problem of evil, the creation, and the incarnation.  For today, however, I will leave you with another thought that I found a particularly illuminating way of thinking.

In approaching what happens in time, we should remark that a mind bound up in it is differently placed from a mind entirely outside its series.  When many are travelling the same road, each of the  company knows those ahead and those behind; he sees his immediate companion, he sees those who have gone ahead, but those well behind he cannot see.  But he who  is no part of the throng but watches from high above is in a position to take in the whole convoy.  He is able to see simultaneously all who are on the march….Because our knowledge is enclosed in the order of time, either directly or indirectly, the time-factor enters into our calculations, and our knowledge reckons things as past, present, or future.  Past, in memory; present, in experience; future, by anticipation in present causes. Future events are either certainties, when they are wholly predetermined in their causes, or conjectures, when they can usually be forecast, or unknown, when their causes are not yet committed to action.  God, however, is entirely above the order of time.  He is at the peak of eternity, surmounting everything all at once.  Thence the stream of time can be seen in one simple glance.

Aquinas is certainly profound, at least to this theological and philosophical neophyte.   There exists some deep thinking and rationale intellectual atheists in the world….too bad Aquinas is not physically here to debate them (and likely make them look quite small).  But his words still exist, and remain as powerful as ever.

About the Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition

  • Selections from George N. Shuster
  • Wood engravings by Reynolds Stone created for this edition, book signed by Stone
  • Printed by W&J Mackay & Co Ltd., Chatham, Kent
  • Typographic plan by Will Carter
  • Limited to 1500 Copies, this is 1136

Pictures of the LEC Edition

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Illustration
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Page with Text
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Third Sample Pages with Text
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

3 thoughts on “A Review of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Limited Editions Club

  1. I have the 1969 LEC from when I was a club member. It is in near Mint comdition since I haven’t opened it except for the initial inspection. You have isnpired me, so it will go on my wish reading list.

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