A reading list for a crash-course in Catholic philosophy

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:
_Confessions_
_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.

Party on!

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3 responses to “A reading list for a crash-course in Catholic philosophy

  1. Nice list- but I’d suggest something a bit more balanced. I’d stretch out sections 1 & 2 to 4 months, and add CS Lewis’ _The Great Divorce_, _Dante’s Divine Comedy_, and CS Lewis’ _Screwtape Letters_ to #2, before getting into Augustine.

    Into #5, I’d balance out the Greek pagan perspective with a little modern Christian pagan study- Father Richard Rohr’s _Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition_, and for classes that are given to college Knights of Columbus chapters or similar male-dominated rebuttals to feminism, _Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation_.

    Similarly- after 7, I’d add an 8 that will bring together all of the previous- First J.R.R. Tolkien- The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. These two novels in seven parts may be swords and sorcery fantasy, but they contain a good deal of philosophy as well. And as long as we’re on swords & sorcery fantasy mixed with good Catholic philosophy- I’d also suggest CS Lewis’s _Chronicles of Narnia_ read in chronological rather than published order, and Adam Copeland’s _Echoes of Avalon_, which was just published a couple months ago and is only available from Amazon, Smashwords.com, and a scattering of small independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest.

    Finally, once one has read all that- Step 9- follow it up with a little modern theology. The seven Papal Encyclicals on Economics. The three Papal Encyclicals on The Theology of the Body (including the one that didn’t use that term, but was the precursor to it, Humanae Vitae). The ecumenical encyclicals of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium and Nostrae Aetate). John Paul II’s ghost-written _Be Not Afraid_. And Pope Benedict XVI’s recent speeches on Moral Relativism, Human Reason, and his January 11th, 2010 speech linking global climate weirding with the sin of abortion should not be missed either.

  2. I thought CSL was something other than Catholic. C of E or something like that. Wasn’t he?

    • Yes, but very high church Anglican. The only thing that kept him from being Catholic was his Ulster childhood, and there are rumors that he received Last Rites from a Catholic priest.

      Most major figures in “Lewis Studies,” as it were, end up converting to Catholicism (Tom Howard, Peter Kreeft, Walter Hooper, Richard Purtill, Mark Shea, and Sheldon Vanauken come most quickly to mind, but there are others) or else wind up as very liberal Protestants (Katherine Lindskoog, Douglas Gresham, Madeleine L’Engle).

      With the exception of certain influences from the Puritain and Unitarian Universalist traditions (e.g., George MacDonald), most of Lewis’s own influences were Catholic (most notably Chesterton and Tolkein). He himself notes in _Surprised by Joy_that “papists were popping up everywhere,” or something to that effect. Just as Lewis attempted to approach apologetics from a “sneak attack” angle as a literary scholar and former atheist, he unwittingly builds arguments that lead inevitably to Catholicism. The weaknesses in Lewis’s arguments, as Fr. Peter Milward, SJ, notes, are where he side-steps the obvious Catholic conclusions. (e.g., he claims at one point that “Mere Christianity” is the set of beliefs held by the majority of Christians over the majority of Christian history, but that means, basically, Catholics).

      Indeed, Lewis expresses strong sympathies for the Eastern Church, and I strongly believe that, if he’d had regular exposure to the Byzantine Church, he would have more readily embraced it than the Roman Church.

      In any case, in Catholic circles, it’s generaly understood that, in apologetics, interest in Lewis leads to Chesterton, and, in literature, interest in Lewis leads to Tolkein.

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