One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is take my own readings in various areas and advise others on the best paths to follow.
In a chat session with a young convert and college student about how to get caught up in Catholic philosophy to impress even the most liberal atheist college professors, I’ve come up with a basic guide to getting familiar with philosophy, building up to Aquinas, if you don’t know where to start.
1. Start with C. S. Lewis. He’s easy. Many professors over the past 60 years have used _The Abolition of Man_ in intro philosophy classes. _Mere Christianity_, I later learned, is really just a summary of St. Augustine. So Read The Abolition of Man and then Mere Christianity (_Abolition_ must come first because the first chapters of MC summarize what it says).
2. Move to G. K. Chesterton. I have to admit, I’ve never read _The Everlasting Man_, or if I have, I forget. But this volume from Ignatius Press’s complete Chesterton series is a must-have: it’s Everlasting Man, Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi in one volume. Read Everlasting Man and the biography of Thomas Aquinas. Of course, you *must* read Orthodoxy.
Most of these books are relatively short. Abolition of Man is three 45-minute lectures Lewis gave in a conference series. Mere Christianity was a series of radio shows. It’s all fairly simple stuff, and the books aren’t that long. At a reasonable pace, one could read through Abolition, Mere Christianity, Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy and Thomas Aquinas in a couple months. A voracious reader could tackle them in a matter of weeks.
These books should really get your brain working. It’s tough to say how to proceed at this point, and it really depends upon your skill level.
You really need to know a lot of background material to read Aquinas. He draws heavily from St. Paul (“The Apostle”), Aristotle (“The Philosopher,”) and St. Augustine. One can read St. Augustine without knowing a lot of philosophy, but one can’t really read Aquinas without a firm grounding in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, St. Paul and the historical background. That’s one area where Chesterton’s biography helps.
3. Thus, here I would say that, if you are brave enough, you should tackle any of the following three by St. Augustine:
_City of God_
_On Christian Doctrine_.
Also, St. Augustine is of course in public domain, so all these works can be found online for free.
As C. S. Lewis himself would say, though, if Augustine is still too tricky, move on. When I read _City of God_, for example, I recognized a lot of it as having been summarized in _Mere Christianity_.
4. “It’s all in Plato,” says C. S. Lewis’s Professor Digory Kirke, and that’s largely true. Not everything in Plato accords with a Christian worldview, but he’s foundational to Western thought. The first real Plato I ever read was a collection called Five Dialogues, containing the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo. _The Apology_, Socrates’ defense at his trial, is a biggie (and it will explain my screen name to you). , and are also important. Of course, all of these can be found online in public-domain translations.
My philosophy senior seminar course was an in-depth study of _The Republic_ (I did two papers: one on the tripartite soul theories of Plato, Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis, and the other contrasting Aristotle’s and Plato’s views of the nature of society with the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity). Our professors’ chosen translation was a “banned book,” the Allan Bloom edition, because of its footnotes. The Bloom edition of _The Republic_, they joked, is a censored book in many campuses and conferences because his classic _The Closing of the American Mind_ is so hated.
I would say that any selection of _The Republic_, _The Apology_ and one or two other of the dialogues mentioned should be enough to get your feet wet.
5. Having introduced yourself to Augustine and Plato, you can move on to Aristotle. Aristotle’s a tough nut to crack. He’s very wordy. He’s not really that hard to understand if you can keep the train of thought, but he goes off on a lot of tangents. I strongly recommend him–and, again, he can be sampled for free online. For purposes of Thomas Aquinas, you’d want to jump straight to the “Categories,” “Logic,” “Physics,” “Metaphyics,” “Politics” and “Ethics.” Or else, you can save yourself time by a great book that explains Aristotle to the layman the way C. S. Lewis explains theology to the layman:
Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer J. Adler.
Adler really breaks Aristotle down, so if you’re eager to sink your teeth into Aquinas, you can get the basic terminology and theories of Aristotle down without having to read all those other books (though I recommend them). Or else by reading Adler first, having also read Plato and Augustine and Lewis and Chesterton, you’ll be well prepared for reading the real Aristotle.
6. Now, you have the contemporary writers to explain things to you. You’ve dipped into some of the classics yourself. Next step: Medieval philosophy.
You may want to go back and take a gander at Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas, if you haven’t done that yet, or else review it slightly.
Unfortunately, Amazon only has it in various out-of-print editions, but the next step in your journey *has* to be Etienne Gilson’s classic Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. This book is crucial to explaining the historical and academic situations into which Aquinas appeared: the “dark ages,” the return of Aristotle to the west via some Muslim philosophers known to the Latin-speaking academic world as Averroes and Avicenna, etc.
7. If you’ve followed all these steps successfully, you should be ready for “the big guy.” For your first venture into St. Thomas Aquinas, you *have* to read Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa. This book is fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough about it. Kreeft takes out passages from _Summa Theologiae_ that are relevant to the modern reader and provides wonderful explanatory footnotes, written as a teacher’s explanation, not a scholar’s exegesis.
Ralph McInerny has his own book of selections from Aquinas, and, of course, being perhaps the greatest Thomistic scholar of the past generation, McInerny has a *ton* of books about Aquinas and Medieval philosophy, but his style is a little bit more “dry” than some of the people I’ve recommended. And, of course, McInerny has numerous EWTN series and some fine DVDs out there.
Another great medieval scholar of the mid-twentieth century was Vernon J. Bourke, who also has a bunch of anthologies of Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle, as well as his own textbooks and commentaries.