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An Aquinas Primer

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Feb 21, 2014

Sophia Institute Press has published a new popular presentation of the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s work defined Catholic theology for the greater part of the past millennium, guaranteeing that any properly catechized Catholic will have been influenced by the Angelic Doctor at least indirectly, but most are still not familiar with his thought in any systematic way. A book such as Kevin Vost’s The One-Minute Aquinas, then, which lays out the fundamentals of Thomas’s thought in a clear and approachable manner, will be a welcome addition to many Catholic libraries.

Vost, a Thomistic psychologist, has based his book on the structure of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which begins with God, proceeds onward to man, God’s creation, and ends with Christ, who is man’s way of returning to God. Vost alters this order, beginning with man and nature in order to better meet the intellectual needs of twenty-first-century readers, but the material seems to develop organically enough from one concept to the next regardless.

As the title hyperbolically indicates, Vost presents Thomas’s thought in brief, digestible chapters. These are occasionally interspersed with even shorter boxes which give Thomas’s answers to intriguing miscellaneous questions such as “Is it fair to lay an ambush in war?” and “Is it a sin to be boring?” Vost generally manages a decent balance of brevity and clarity; while his explanations of various philosophical concepts seem bare-bones at times, the essential skeleton is always there. The sole exception I found to this was in the chapter on the Trinity, which would have benefited from a clarification as to the difference between person and nature. Vost’s writing is simple, clear and casual – sometimes almost too casual. As a psychologist, he understandably wants to emphasize the practical usefulness of Thomas’s ideas, but I found his habit of directly asking the reader how he or she could apply this or that insight today somewhat annoying.

Since this is a popular book rather than a presentation of original ideas, and Vost handles his material competently enough, the only question is what sort of reader will find The One-Minute Aquinas most useful. A reasonably bright and well-catechized high school student should be able to follow the concepts laid out in the book with relative ease. Philosophy and theology went hand in hand for Aquinas; Vost’s book is about sixty percent philosophy and forty percent theology, and after 14 years of Catholic schooling and only two college classes’ worth of formal philosophical education, I was already familiar with a good deal of the material, if not in a specifically Thomistic context. Even so, the ten or so chapters on the virtues included a good deal of new territory for me, and I benefited more generally from Vost’s systematic approach even when I already knew the individual concepts. Catholics already familiar with St. Thomas’s basic philosophical framework will find this book largely redundant, but for most, it would serve as a solid introduction to the Doctor whose influence on Catholic theology and philosophy was such that Pope Pius XI said he “should be called not only Angelic but Common or Universal Doctor of the Church.”

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