How to study St. Thomas Aquinas: An interview with Therese Scarpelli Cory

 Thomas Aquinas by Fra BartolommeoThomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, philosopher and saint, is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of the Middle Ages. However, his own writings and the scholarship about him are immense – how does a scholar begin to research this man and his ideas?

We interviewed Therese Scarpelli Cory, Assistant Professor at Seattle University. She has recently published Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge with Cambridge University Press and has done extensive research on Thomas Aquinas and medieval thought. She gives us her insights into how to study Aquinas.

1. Approaching a figure and the writings of Thomas Aquinas can seem like a daunting task. His corpus of writings is very large. How does one begin exploring him and his writings?

In fact, it’s hard to fathom how he could have written so much in approximately twenty years.  His masterwork, the Summa theologiae, is about 3200 printed pages in its English translation!  To me, though, the greatest challenge is in the comprehensive character of Aquinas’s thought.  It is typical of thinkers at the time to attempt to integrate all of human knowledge about the whole of reality into one comprehensive system, a little like today’s physicists searching for the “Theory of Everything.”  What that means is that everything Aquinas says is (ideally) interconnected with everything else he says.  So it’s very hard to appreciate the significance of any single theme unless you have some grasp of the broader big picture.

So let’s say you’re a historian studying the thirteenth century, writing on torture, or attitudes toward food, or the emerging concept of the individual.  You want to know how the topic was handled in academic contexts, so you turn to Aquinas, one of the most prominent intellectuals at the time.  Luckily, all Aquinas’s texts are available in fully-searchable form online in Latin at Corpus Thomisticum, and many are available in English translation at, with more being added all the time.  What approach should you take?

Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, one of his most widely-read works, is always a good place to start.  It’s comprehensive, well-organized, and divided up thematically so that it is easy to find articles on your topic.  As a result, the temptation is to go straight to the article about topic X, find the conclusion, and you’re ready to report “what Aquinas says about X.”  But a Summa is not an encyclopedia.  Aquinas intended his Summa theologiae to be read from beginning to end, according to the correct pedagogical order, with each new article resting on the foundation of what was said previously.  So if you skip the groundwork and fast-forward straight to, say, the discussions of torture, or fasting, or personhood, it’s easy to go wrong.

Here’s what I’d suggest (on the assumption that it is not an option to drop everything for two years to embark on an intensive study of Aquinas!):  First, get familiar with the basic essential background concepts for the theme you’re interested in. For instance, for the article on fasting, it would be essential to have some idea of what Aquinas thinks about the relationship of body and soul, free will, and what makes an act a moral act.  Secondary sources can be useful here, e.g., The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas or the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Aquinas.  Second, read two or three questions around the article you’re interested in, to get a sense of the immediate context.  Third, don’t limit yourself to the “obvious” articles.  Some of the most interesting and sophisticated things that Aquinas says show up in unexpected contexts, when he makes a passing comment while discussing something else.  One of my favorite research tools is, where you can search Aquinas’s entire Latin works by keyword or phrase.

In fact, this strategy of looking for discussion of a theme outside the “obvious” contexts has had some great success stories recently.  For instance, Tobias Hoffmann and others have shown that in Aquinas and other medieval thinkers, some of the most interesting discussions of freedom occur not where one would expect, in treatments of free will, but in theological treatments of the fall of the angels.  (The reason is that angels, pure intellectual creatures, serve as a kind of “test case” for decision-making outside the constraints of ignorance or physical passion.)  If we just read the articles from the Summa or various disputed questions that are specifically dedicated to discussing free will, we’d be missing an important piece of the picture.

2. There are also many scholars who are working on Aquinas (the amount of secondary source material on him is immense). Is the scholarship just very diverse, or are there some general themes and topics that are getting a lot of attention from the academic community?

Yes!  There are certainly many approaches one can take to such a complex body of writings, but one emerging trend that I’m especially excited about is that of reading Aquinas against the larger backdrop of the philosophical and theological developments in the thirteenth century.

Take for example, the Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ Project, which is less than a decade old. The project sponsors conferences, seminars, and publications, studying how Aquinas and his contemporaries appropriated concepts from newly-translated texts from the Jewish and Islamic tradition.  From this research, an interesting new picture is emerging.  In the past, the assumption has been that Aquinas is basically influenced by Augustine and Aristotle, whom he tries to reconcile with each other.  We’re now realizing that this story is much too simplistic.  For instance, when thirteenth-century Latin thinkers read Aristotle, they’re interpreting and even critiquing him with the help of commentaries translated from Arabic, tapping into centuries of pre-existing debate.  As a result, the introduction of Aristotle into Latin Christianity isn’t just the translating of some interesting new text.  Rather, it’s an encounter with a rich and diverse school of philosophical thought in which Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian concepts have been interpreted and expanded through centuries of interpretation and debate.

Through textual comparisons, we’re also learning that Islamic thinkers like Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) have far more influence on Aquinas’s thought than was previously realized.  He frequently adopts concepts they developed, even from some of the very theories to whose conclusions he most strongly objects.  For instance, he famously sharply criticized Averroes for positing that there is just one universal thinking mind (a.k.a. “the Material Intellect”) that all humans share.  But if you take a closer look at Aquinas’s own theory of intellectual abstraction, he uses a model directly traceable to Averroes.

This new research not only gives us a glimpse of a fascinating “trans-cultural” philosophizing that was happening in the 13th century, but also helps us see how Aquinas understood his own scholarly work. He sees himself as continuing a common project that he’s inherited from multiple sources.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or Greek; he follows their lead where he thinks they had good insights, and makes corrections when he thinks they’ve gone wrong.  At the end of the day, I think the reason he’s so sharp in his criticisms of Averroes’s “Material Intellect” doctrine is that he is quite impressed by Averroes’s view of how the mind works, and wants to correct what he takes to be an unfortunate flaw marring an otherwise excellent theory.

Aquinas on self knowledge3. Your own book looks at Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge. How and why did you conceive of writing about this topic?

It all started, oddly enough, about ten years ago when I was working on a senior thesis for an undergraduate degree in theology, and somewhat rashly chose to study Aquinas’s theory of Christ’s human knowledge.  It’s an interesting problem because if you have one person with two complete natures, divine and human, how does a such a person understand himself?  Would Christ’s human mind necessarily see and understand his divine nature?  Aquinas says no; this kind of self-knowledge would only be possible by a special grace or gift from God.  At the time, I couldn’t get my mind around why Aquinas came to this conclusion, but I had a hunch that it had to do with underlying philosophical assumptions about self-knowledge that I just didn’t understand.

So when I had the opportunity to study medieval philosophy further in grad school, I started digging into Aquinas’s theory of self-knowledge.  His texts can initially appear relatively straightforward, even formulaic.  But if you keep working with them and widen the area of investigation outside the “usual” contexts (as I mentioned earlier), his ideas have a curious tendency to come to life.  For me that’s one of the biggest thrills of studying medieval philosophical texts.

Anyway, the more I dug into his texts on self-knowledge, the more I realized that they are driven by wonderfully common-sense reflections on how the ordinary person experiences himself or herself in daily life, and very serious consideration about what conditions need to be in place in order to have such experience of ourselves.  That’s was surprising, because we tend to think of serious theories of selfhood and self-knowledge as the product of modernity.  In the book, Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge, I try to show that medieval thinkers were just as interested in these themes; they just have a different (and philosophically very interesting) approach.

What I especially appreciate about Aquinas’s theory of self-knowledge is that it’s entirely respectful of our embodied nature: He insists that we come to understand ourselves in and through our interactions with the sensory world.  This insight into experience seems to me to be exactly right.  I don’t learn about myself, what I’m capable of, what I enjoy, what makes me happy, what it means to be human—by turning inwards and simply “looking.”  Rather, I learn about myself in the moment of engaging intentionally with the world around me, in experiencing myself as sensing or thinking or reasoning or feeling happy and sad about something.

4. Why do you think scholars find Thomas Aquinas and his writing such an interesting area to study?

Aquinas occupies a pivotal historical spot.  He’s on the cutting edge of the philosophical and theological developments driven by the introduction of so many newly-translated Greek and Arabic texts.  After his death, the next generation of scholastics felt obliged to take his thought seriously enough to use it as a reference point in outlining their own position (e.g., Duns Scotus and later William of Ockham); for instance, they sometimes begin an important discussion by describing and arguing against Aquinas’s position.  So viewed in relation to his predecessors, Aquinas’s writings are a kind of historical meeting point where many strains of thought come together in a fascinating—and history-changing—new way.   And viewed in relation to subsequent thinkers like Scotus and Ockham, he’s responsible for setting up problems that they feel compelled to address.

For me personally, there’s also a kind of ponderous clarity and simplicity about Aquinas’s writing that gets more and more attractive as I spend time with it.  He’s not the kind of thinker who wants to complicate things or show off his brilliance—he just wants to make sense of the world the best he can, within the limitations of the human mind.  It’s an admirable goal for any scholar.

We thank Professor Cory for answering our questions. You can find her research on her page

See also her article Thomas Aquinas – Toward a Deeper Sense of Self

Click here to read more about Thomas Aquinas