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Words of Wisdom: The Book

By Christopher Mirus (articles - email) | May 31, 2012

There is no questioning the importance of Thomas Aquinas for the Catholic intellectual tradition. Nor can one question the difficulty of reading him, in translation, nearly 750 years after his death. Indeed, to read any author separated from oneself by massive cultural and intellectual changes requires both good teaching and considerable effort. These difficulties are compounded when the author in question, like St. Thomas, is heir to a long intellectual tradition with a highly distinctive vocabulary. We should therefore thank John W. Carlson, professor of philosophy at Creighton University, for compiling a contemporary dictionary to explain the vocabulary of Thomistic thought: Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition.

Words of Wisdom is a work of great erudition, written with understanding and love not only for Aquinas himself, but for the Thomistic tradition as a whole. Anyone who seriously wishes to understand the works of Aquinas and of later Thomists, and who is ready to work at it, will benefit from having this dictionary on a shelf next to the Summa theologiae. It treats both introductory and advanced concepts succinctly, and as clearly as one could expect given its often challenging subject matter. With respect to the more advanced concepts and distinctions, however, the beginning student should not expect complete clarity. In any well-developed philosophical tradition, ideas acquire their meaning from a rich context that can only be mastered with time.

It would, in fact, be a mistake to think that even the more accessible concepts can be adequately explained in a brief dictionary entry. Such a work functions most effectively when paired, not with an occasional dip into Thomistic thought, but with careful and persistent study. Using a philosophical dictionary is something like reading the Summa itself. Read one article from Aquinas’s great work, and you may find yourself confused. Read four or five, and there will be glimmers of light. Read any ten groups of four or five articles, and a network of understanding will begin to emerge. Every part illuminates every other.

A note about the book’s subtitle: In introducing his work, Professor Carlson follows the practice of some twentieth-century Thomists by closely associating Thomistic philosophy with the term philosophia perennis, or perennial philosophy. He makes an important and fruitful effort to dissociate this term from an excessively narrow understanding of St. Thomas’ role in the Catholic philosophical tradition. It seems to me, however, that it might be better to retire the term altogether. In his encyclical Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II, while emphasizing the importance of Thomistic thought, wisely sets neo-Thomism alongside other recent movements in Catholic philosophical thought, pointing out that philosophical renewal and growth must come “from different quarters” (59). One might say that in the terms of this encyclical much philosophy, including that of St. Thomas, is perennial, but there is not a perennial philosophy or tradition.

This, however, is a small disagreement; in fact, Words of Wisdom contains many supplementary entries referring to other philosophical traditions, and these are balanced and respectful. These, and above all the understanding of the Thomistic tradition that Words of Wisdom embodies, make it a truly valuable book—not only for the formal study of St. Thomas but for anyone who desires a deeper understanding of the Thomistic tradition.

Christopher V. Mirus, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at the University of Dallas.

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