Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide
by Edward Feser
Oneworld Publications, 224 pages, $14.95

Do not let the subtitle deter you. While Aquinas is “a beginner’s guide,” it is rigorous and accessible philosophy at its best. Even seasoned Thomists will benefit from Edward Feser’s analytic precision in interpreting and presenting Thomas’ philosophy. Placing Thomas in conversation with modern thinkers, Feser explains how so many worthies have gotten Thomas wrong and thus done battle with a straw man. More than this, Feser shows how, even on a host of contemporary debates, Thomas provides the most intellectually satisfying ways forward. With discussions of the existence of God, the relation of body and soul, the human intellect and will, and man’s moral obligations, Feser’s Aquinas satisfies a hungry mind.

Because this is a work of philosophy, important aspects of Thomas’ thought”such as his Trinitarian theology and his treatise on grace”are obviously left out. But most of the key philosophical topics are here. After a brief biographical sketch of Thomas, Feser launches into an extended discussion of Thomas’ metaphysical views. In fact, the metaphysical foundations of Thomas’ thought are a constant theme throughout. Explaining Thomas’ views on act and potency, hylomorphism, the distinction between essence and existence, the transcendentals, and the four causes, Feser demonstrates that Thomas’ thought not only withstands modern criticism, but best explains and secures much of contemporary science.

Building on Thomas’ metaphysical foundations, Feser walks the reader through Thomas’ famous “Five Ways,” presenting robust and persuasive arguments for God’s existence as the unmoved mover, the first cause, the necessary being, the perfect being, and the supreme intelligence that explains final causality. While Thomas’ presentations of these arguments are compact in his Summa , Feser appeals to Thomas’ other writings to present them in their full splendor. When this is done, one immediately realizes how so many contemporary presentations and criticisms of the Five Ways completely miss the point.

Having presented Thomas’ general metaphysics and its application to God, Feser turns to its application to man with a discussion of psychology (anthropology) and ethics. Of particular interest in these chapters is Feser’s deployment of Thomas’ account of the intellect and soul to answer many problems in contemporary philosophy of mind. This includes detailed discussion of the immateriality of the intellect and the immortality of the soul. Feser’s account of Thomistic ethics places heavy emphasis on the human good’s grounding in what we are (our human nature) and on how the ends that perfect us and the corresponding principles that direct our action can be known even apart from revelation. Feser’s cursory dismissal of Germain Grisez and John Finnis’ interpretation of Thomistic ethics is unfortunate but does not mar the book as a whole.

Long have I searched for a book to recommend to colleagues, friends, and students to introduce them to the basics of Aquinas’ philosophy; I search no longer.

Articles by Ryan T. Anderson