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Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Lee Cole Dive Into Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica

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HH: It is the last hour of the radio week. That means it is time for our Hillsdale Dialogue. Every single one of our Hillsdale Dialogues are available at Every course offered, and there are many and wonderful offerings at from the faculty and scholars at Hillsdale College. Today, I am joined by the president of the college, Dr. Larry Arnn and Professor Lee Cole, their Thomas Aquinas scholar in residence. And I must say, gentlemen, in my 25 years of broadcast, I often say I have only been nervous twice. Once when I appeared with Stephen Colbert, and once when I interviewed Julie Andrews. I am now nervous. I have spent the week getting ready for Thomas Aquinas, and I have hives and I am nervous. Professor Cole, I wonder if I am representative of your students.

LC: Well, think about how I feel since I teach Aquinas almost every day. Now I suspect that many of my students find themselves in that place, but as I said before, you spend a few weeks with Aquinas, you start to get to know him, you become friends, and then the hives go away. They start to recede.

HH: Well, I have pushed out on the internet, and I want to thank you for directing me last week to the DHS Priory online Summa. It’s marvelous.

LC: It’s all there.

HH: It’s really wonderful to use, and I don’t know how they got that organized, but that’s, the intertubes do some wonderful things for us, and making the Summa available that way is wonderful.

LC: It’s a great resource. I don’t even know how people did Aquinas scholarship ten years ago.

HH: And so when we last left off talking about the great doctor, we were a little bit along in his career. And before we plunge into the first part, can we finish off how his life, the last 20 years of his life, Lee Cole?

LC: Sure. So last time, I think we left off when he was under the tutelage of Albert the Great.

HH: Yes.

LC: So he was his prodigy, he was sent up from Naples where he was doing, I guess you could say his undergraduate work, although he was 18 or 19 when this came to a conclusion. And he was clearly smitten by the Dominican Order, and against the wishes of his parents, which were pretty strong, he joined the Dominicans. And his parents were so opposed to this move, they actually sent soldiers and kidnapped Aquinas and put him under house arrest. The most colorful story here, which I try to include in every class I teach on Aquinas, is that his brothers actually found a prostitute and sent her to Aquinas to try to tempt him out of becoming a Dominican. And after he was under house arrest for a little over a year and was still committed to join, they kind of, they let the door unlatched, and he escaped and went up to Paris to study with Albert the Great, then on to Cologne, and then back to Paris again where he was learning to be a master of the sacred page. So his principal duty was reading and interpreting Scripture.

HH: And they would send him, the Dominicans would send him wherever the biggest brain was needed, correct?

LC: Yeah, that seemed to be the theme later in his life. He actually had three stints at the University of Paris, which the University of Paris, I believe we said last time, was really the most cosmopolitan university in Europe at the time. It was sort of like the Harvard of Europe. And it was actually fraught with a lot of controversy even though the people teaching at Paris would have been priest, predominantly. The reintroduction of Aristotle caused quite a frenzy, and Aquinas was at first kind of caught up in this unwittingly, and then he was sent back, especially later in life, as a hired gun. And he really had a threefold task in being sent to Paris. On the one hand, he was trying to defend the Dominicans as a new order and defend the Mendicant orders themselves as a whole. He was trying to kind of push back against a really strident conservative Augustinianism that really didn’t want anything to do with Aristotle at all and was very nervous about him. And then on the other hand, he was trying to push back against those who were really becoming Aristotelians first and Christians second. So their Aristotelianism was leading them towards doctrines that stood in conflict with Christianity. So he was really trying to address these three concerns at the University of Paris all at one time.

HH: Now I have to ask you, Dr. Arnn, as the leader of an institution, for how long now have you captained Hillsdale?

LA: 14 years.

HH: In those 14 years, American higher education has been engaged in the battles for big names. And I’m sure you watch, you yourself have recruited astonishingly capable people of reputation to Western Michigan to do this. But I guess this has been for 800 years a common denominator of college presidents.

LA: Well, you know, and if you value the right things, like why did the Dominicans get Thomas Aquinas, and the answer was there was something in him that drew him to them. And you know, this teacher that he studied with, the Dominican Albert the Great, I have a question for Lee I want to ask in a minute. But this guy was a tremendous human being and a great expositor of Aristotle. And my question for Lee is why did Thomas Aquinas become more famous than Albert the Great, and quickly more? But the point is, people, you know, the professors come here because they want to do what we do. And if you do what we do, then you know that we’re the man.

HH: And you bring people in for periods of time certain, and then they leave and then they come back. And then they leave and then they come back. And it just occurred to me as I was reading through the biography that Professor Cole did, this is not new. This is something that serious institutions do when they have necessity. Go to your question, though. Professor Cole, why did he eclipse his teacher?

LC: Well, Albert was brilliant, and there’s no taking away from his brilliance. There’s an old expression that without Albert, Germany would have remained an ass, which is to say they would have stayed in a state of kind of intellectual adolescence. And Albert was a great philosopher, a great theologian, really a kind of great scientist insofar as we would understand that term in the 13th Century. But Aquinas was just still better than that. And of course, this is, we need to, and Aquinas would want us to be sort of humble and modest about this, because Aquinas’ greatness was on account of standing on the shoulders of giants like his teacher, Albert. But Aquinas was able to systematize theology in a way that Albert never quite did. And to be honest, I think Aquinas is even a better reader of Aristotle. I think in some ways, Albert is still reading Aristotle through somewhat neoplatonic lenses, and I think in Aquinas, he still had a still more accurate assessment of what Aristotle’s actually teaching.

LA: And I want to see if Lee agrees with this. I want to add something to that. The achievement of Aristotle, in my opinion, has something to do with the fact that he begins with and reinforces the authority of common sense. And so if you think about the enterprise that Albert and Aquinas are engaged in, they’re trying to go back to the classics after the birth of Jesus and the Revelation of Jesus. And this is a questionable thing to be doing, and a controversial thing to be doing. And Aristotle begins in a way, as far away from Jesus as you can get. He begins with the stuff right on the table in front of you. He discovers the good in the common nouns, and the identity of the things that you can recognize and call by their names. So it’s a tremendous achievement to go back there and read Aristotle as he read himself, and link that up with the tremendous revelations that there’s a God, and in Aristotle, there’s a God, the God is perfect. And in Aristotle, the God is perfect. And the God is love, and the God being love has a concern for us. And that’s different from Aristotle.

LC: Yeah.

LA: And so that’s a, I mean, and he, you know, that’s a massive thing to achieve. And what’s odd to me about it is it is, his superiority is recognized in Thomas’ own day, and his teacher was one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, and that, too, is recognized.

HH: Now as Aquinas was to Albert, and before him, Aristotle, has anyone ever set out since with an even, anything remotely resembling success, to be to Aquinas as Aquinas was to Aristotle?

LC: Yeah, I’m going to have to say there not exactly. It’s one of, I guess if you like Aquinas, this is perhaps one of the misfortunes of history. If you’re studying medieval philosophy, and you study right after the time of Aquinas’ death, so he dies in 1274, and when you pick up from there and study the next great medieval philosophers, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockam and so on, their way of thinking is not completely opposed to Aquinas, but they’re coming out of a slightly different tradition. And what you see is Aquinas never really had a sort of great student to kind of pick up the mantle. Now Thomism has a rich tradition, and there are a number of very prominent Thomists from the last 700 years. You know, Thomists like to think of Aquinas’ thought as the perennial philosophies, always alive and always ready to answer to the concerns of the day. And yet on the other hand, at least immediately, Aquinas did not have a successor, In fact, his thought was very controversial. It’s a surprise that he was canonized as a saint as early as he was, 50 years after his death. It’s not really until after the Reformation that Aquinas becomes the kind of principal teacher within at least Roman Catholicism.

— – – – –

HH: A quick bypass and detour. Dr. Arnn, you are a student of Leo Strauss. Many people who you have studied with were students of Leo Strauss. Did Strauss ever concern himself with Aquinas?

LA: Sure. Yeah, yeah, and of course, his, it’s controversial to say it, but Strauss’ best students’ first book is called Thomism and Aristotelianism.

HH: Why is that controversial?

LA: Well, he had a lot of students, and Harry Jaffa, my teacher, and in my opinion, the greatest of the Strauss students, is often at odds with everybody in the world, including his fellow students of Strauss, sometimes me. But yeah, he still lives, Harry Jaffa. And Jaffa, the book Thomism Vs. Aristotelianism is a great book. But it says some things in it that Jaffa says today he would write differently if he were writing the book again. And those things have to do with what are some differences between Aquinas and Aristotle.

HH: And so do any of the modern moderns, those of the last hundred years, do they quarrel with Aquinas’ central thesis that you have to reconcile the person of Jesus to Aristotle’s theory? Is that the problem, Lee Cole?

LC: Yeah, that’s still a, I’m not, I don’t want to say that’s the problem, but that is a significant problem in the minds of some thinkers. So to think of someone in the last hundred years, since you’ve set that out as a time for consideration, Karl Barth, who’s probably the most important Protestant theologian, I mean, you could argue, frankly, since the Reformers, and certainly the last hundred or so years. He was deeply uncomfortable with Aquinas’ relationship to Aristotle, which really is just a sign of a deeper discomfort, which is to say that the human being can use, exercise reason rightly apart from grace, and come at the knowledge of truth. And Karl Barth really sees a pretty strong divide between nature and grace, far more so than Aquinas. And he actually held that one of Aquinas’ principal theses, that in some ways our world imitates God, and being imitates God insofar as it’s the effect of God, Karl Barth said that, that Aquinas’ notion of analogy was the invention of the antichrist.

HH: Wow.

LC: So that’s a pretty, signals a pretty deep difference. And there are ongoing scholarly debates. I mean, the Dominicans on the East Coast in the last five years have hosted events at Princeton and other places where they’re bringing Barth scholars and Aquinas scholars in to dialogue with one another, trying to hash this out.

HH: As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I am curious what Luther did with Aquinas, Lee Cole. Did he put him aside? Did he wrestle with him? Or did he say that is theology, and I am dealing with governance?

LC: Yeah, well this is sort of interesting, because I think we tend to re-narrate history looking back now through the past from our present vantage point, and we think who’s the kind of principal representative of Catholic theology? Thomas Aquinas. Who is a representative of Protestant, the initiation of Protestantism? Luther. So clearly, Luther was reacting against Aquinas. I think that’s a bit unfair, in part because Aquinas’ authority became more evident after Luther and the Reformation. And Luther is clearly, clearly has a distaste for Aristotle on his bad days. We all know that Luther was very prone to being polemical. That’s just part of his spirit. He’s not a systematic theologian like Aquinas is, and he refers to Aristotle as Stolta Stotules, which means Stupid Stotle. He calls him a pagan pig. He says…

HH: What?

LC: He says the Nicomachean Ethics, there’s no work that prevents you from the reception of grace more so than the Nicomachean Ethics. So that’s Luther on Aristotle when Luther’s sort of in a grouchy mood. Now when you read Luther’s scholastic disputations against scholastic theology, you think oh, well, surely you’re going to find all sorts of comments criticizing Aquinas. Aquinas never comes up at all in that work. And he’s mostly criticizing theologians who are nominalist theologians in the 14th and 15th Century that Aquinas himself would have had really discomfort with.

HH: You know, intellectual history is so fascinating on one level that never gets talked about. We’re going to do the substance of Summa, but when Paul Johnson wrote Modern Times, for example, or his successor book, The Intellectuals, he took people inside the human side of these debates. And just because they’re 800 years in the making doesn’t make them any less riveting when you get them down to that kind of distilled edge.

LC: Right. That’s right. I mean, some of this debate is the old debate, what’s the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens. And that plays out in the Reformation in certain ways. And again, it continues to play out even in the 20th Century when you think of a figure like Karl Barth. He’s carrying on a certain Luther strand of thinking about Christianity.

HH: One last aside, then into the Summa. A lot of people make a claim that I’m aware of and I cannot judge, that Pope Benedict will be named a doctor of the Church, and as a systematic theologian, will stand astride history as one of the great thinkers. Did he have a conversation with Aquinas, Lee Cole, that throughout this massive amount of output that he had?

LC: Yeah, Benedict XVI, and of course, the man, Cardinal Ratzinger, Josef Ratzinger, was, he really, who can say whether he’ll be a doctor of the Church, but he really is, in some sense, we think of him now as the Pope, but he really is one of the great theologians of the 20th Century. And we forget, we associate, we think of him as the German Shepherd, and he’s sort of in the 80s and 90s, made his name as securing doctrine in the Church. But he was a pretty inventive theologian in the 60s and 70s, and people often forget about that. Now having said that, Ratzinger himself admitted multiple times throughout the course of his life that he always felt deeper sympathies for Augustine than for Aquinas, or at least deeper sympathies towards Augustine than Thomism as it had become, in his mind, a somewhat rigid and calcified and restricting structure. Some of that just has to do with his own sentiments and preferences, and some of that has to do with the way in which Aquinas throughout history has become, his thought has become sometimes overly rigid. And you need to always be going back to his original works to loosen that up. And much of the 20th Century theology was aimed at doing just that, turning back to the sources.

HH: Well, you would have thought I rehearsed this with you, because the next question was Benedict is this great figure of the here and now, and he defined a lot of his life as the argument between Augustine and Aquinas. And he understood them both sympathetically. Did Aquinas understand Augustine sympathetically?

LC: Yeah, absolutely. Aquinas, well, this is a very complicated issue, but I always joke with my students. I say you don’t fly solo when you’re doing medieval theology if you can have Augustine as your copilot, which means you bring Augustine into this discussion as often as possible. He’s kind of the principal Church father in the Latin West. And Aquinas will never openly contradict what Augustine says.

HH: Oh.

LC: Now with that being said, there are certain ways in which you see Aquinas kind of gently, subtly massaging Augustine, because you can’t operate in the 13th Century with the reintroduction of Aristotle responsibly, I don’t think, with just repeating what Augustine said. You have to take Aristotle seriously. And sometimes, that forces you to make decisions that Augustine himself never had to make in the 4th and 5th Century.

HH: We’ll come back and find out what those decisions are with Lee Cole, professor at Hillsdale College, and president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn.

— – – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, when you pick up the Summa, or at least you use it at the DHS Priory, I began to realize maybe my problem with Aquinas is he’s a lot harder at the beginning than he is in the middle and the end. And by that, I mean, if you go, for example, to Chapter 36, 37, 38, on the person of the Holy Ghost, on the name of the Holy Ghost, on the name of the Holy Ghost’s gift, I actually found those easier to understand than the first question. Is that because…

LA: (laughing)

HH: …it was…

LC: (laughing) Hugh, that’s…

LA: Wow.

LC: That’s weird, Hugh.

LA: That’s really weird (laughing).

HH: Well no, it’s the way that he writes in the first question is so dense, Lee. Do you find that with people?

LC: Well, and I can relate this back to the discussion of Augustine earlier. And you mentioned a couple of shows ago that it’s a lot, that you found it much easier to read Augustine. It’s easier to read Augustine. I actually think, though, it’s harder to get Augustine right, because he’s a very transitional thinker. And he doesn’t always express, he doesn’t, he aims to move you, and thus he doesn’t always express himself with the same sort of precision and accuracy that someone like an Aquinas does. But it’s undeniable that reading Aquinas initially can be an alienating experience, because there’s a kind of technical language that we are not familiar with. Now…

HH: Well, let’s go to that. Let’s start with the first part, the treaties on sacred doctrine, the nature and extent of sacred doctrine, ten articles, and just talk about the organization, because the first thing someone will find is objection one, and nobody writes this way.

LC: No, they don’t. And now this is, when we teach students who want to expose them different genres of writing throughout the Western tradition, and genres that are associated with a certain time period, in this, the scholastic disputation is very much associated with the 12th, 13th, 14th Century. But what we’re seeing here, if you think of it in terms of context, I think it really sort of opens up, that is these disputations. So you read Aquinas, and you see objections, counter-objections, responses, responses to these objections. What you’re actually witnessing is a kind of final draft of a classroom exercise. Aquinas would have walked into his classroom, they would have proposed a question, right? And the students would have disputed this question based on authorities, based on Scripture, and Aquinas would have come back eventually and issued a kind of magisterial response, that is at least as the master, the teacher in the classroom, he would have responded to this particular issue. And we’re actually, what we’re seeing and reading the Summa is really a collection of almost kind of semesters of classroom disputes that Aquinas has organized in his own distinct way.

LA: Yeah…

HH: Now tell me, go ahead, Larry.

LA: Put that as a common sense point, right? What happens in a classroom, if it’s a good one, is somebody makes a claim, and somebody else makes a counterclaim. And then they compare them. And there are arguments evinced on each side, and you reach some resolution. And you know, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most people here at Hillsdale College, students have to go through that in order for the questions to be alive in them, right? There’s a, you know, the things that you think, Hugh, now a middle aged man, or later, the things that you think and the things that I think, about the same age, they are conclusions from a long train of reasoning over a long time.

HH: Yes.

LA: Well, you have to go through that. And so this Summa Theologica is written in this form, and this form is a way of bringing up the various chief claims that will come in regard to each question.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask, I’ve got to ask Professor Cole if his students do what I have been doing, which is I found myself going to the “I answer that” paragraphs.

LA: Yeah.

LC: Yeah.

HH: For example, I answer that sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed by a principle known by the natural light of intelligence such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of higher science. So I skipped all the objections, and I went, I just wanted to get to the answer. I’m kind of a lawyer, you know. Get to the holding is what a lot of my students do. Is that how a lot of your students read it?

LC: Well, truth be told, I’m sure that they give into that. But I do caution…

LA: (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LC: I do make it a point of cautioning them against that, because now I think if you’re just starting to read Aquinas, you should just read him in the way that you’re most comfortable with. But I think if you don’t understand what are the main problems that are on the table, and the main ways of thinking about this particular issue, you’re not really going to be best suited to understand why Aquinas is answering it in the way that he is.

— – – – –

HH: And obviously, at one million, eight hundred thousand words, we’re not going to cover in four or forty or four hundred weeks, but we’re introducing you to it. So Dr. Cole, walk back and now give us the arc of how the Summa is organized in parts and in particulars.

LC: Sure. So the Summa itself, which I want to emphasize from the beginning, was never actually completed, Aquinas decided to stop the Summa near the end, is organized into three main parts. And the second part itself, which is by far the largest, is itself divided into two parts. So what you have is the first part, the prima pars, and you have the first part of the second part, second part of the second part, and the third part. Okay, and then each of these parts are further divided into questions, sort of topics of consideration. And there are 512 of those. And then under each question, there are a handful of articles, which are sort of like sub-questions. In all told, there are almost 2,700 articles in the entire Summa. Now as we have the Summa today, some Dominicans after Aquinas kind of added some of his early writing to the end to round it out so that we have a little over 600 questions to try to finish it in the way that he would have. So this is the kind of basic structure. And then within each article, we have that structure you described before the break. We have the disputation, objections, counter-objections, response, reply to the objections.

LA: Explain about the beginners, Lee.

LC: Well, the text itself, it’s important, the prologue, you’d think for such a huge work, it would have a really long prologue. It has a very short prologue. And Aquinas just kind of contextualizes the work for us. And he says this is a work, and he’s citing Paul, right? He says we want, he’s citing I Corinthians, we want to give the little ones milk to drink and not meat.

HH: Wow.

LC: He says given that principle, I’m writing this text. And it’s a teaching text, principally. It’s a teaching text. I’m writing it in a way that befits the instruction of beginners. Now that’s a very controversial statement, because we read this and say wait, beginners are supposed to be reading the Summa Theologica, because you know, I’m 22 years old and liberally educated, and I can’t make headway into it, or I’m 60 and I can’t make headway into it. So clearly, we have to scare quote beginners here. It’s, the beginners at least have a pretty strong base in the liberal arts and philosophy. But it puts us in our place. So if a 19 year old Dominican was expected to be able to handle this, we have to ask ourselves are we educating children in the way that we ought if our 22 year olds can’t handle reading this?

LA: So I wanted Lee to mention the beginners, because I have a point to make about reading this book. So I studied this book with Harry Jaffa a long time ago, and I’ve read it consistently since. And here’s one thing I find useful about it. You can, it is a very well-organized book. It’s huge, but it’s really well-organized. And do you want to know, for example, what is the relation between reason and faith? You can find the parts that are about that.

HH: Yes.

LA: And you can find an outline that explains what Thomas Aquinas thinks, and what he thinks are the main points that bear on that question. And come to find out, then, that although this thing is huge, I mean, you know, two million words is pretty big, it’s also handy. And you shouldn’t think of it as formidable unless you think you can’t have supper until you’ve read it all.

HH: That is, I can’t tell you how, and I want to remind the audience, go to Google and insert the term DHS Priory and Aquinas, and you have to include Summa. If you just do the first two terms, you’ll get all of Aquinas, and you’ll be lost. But if you get to the Summa, then you can pick and choose some examples. And I direct you to the infinity of God in four articles, whether God is infinite, whether anything beside Him is infinite in essence, whether anything can be infinitude in magnitude, and whether an infinite multitude can exist. That’s actually fascinating. And it’s digestible, Larry Arnn.

LA: Yeah, I mean, like I’m on a different page, and here’s a claim. The claim is that you can only know what is true, and you can only know what is, because everything that is, is true. Being and truth, one can deduce, are the same thing

HH: Do that again. Do that again.

LA: He claims that you can only know what is true, because by the way, a false thing doesn’t have complete being, and therefore, it cannot be known. And everything that is, is true. And so you can know whatever is. He claims that, right? Now if you want to understand that, and you know, I claim to have some understanding of that. Aquinas is a tremendous place to put together the arguments about that. Like there’s a place in here where he’s explaining about the perfections of God, and one of the things that happens to this disputed question form is that he eliminates some things that can’t be true of God, because if they were true of God, they couldn’t, God wouldn’t be perfect. And the same thing happens in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And those things are simply fascinating to know. For example, God can’t be moving around, because if he were, then that would mean that either the new place where he was, was a decline or an improvement.

HH: Right.

LA: And if it’s an improvement, then He wasn’t perfect in the previous place. And if it’s a decline, then He was vulnerable to a decline. Well, there’s a lot of arguments like that. Now we do know that God became man, and there’s a great motion in that. And you have to understand the activity of God is love in order to be able to understand how that can be and still be perfect. Well, that’s in this book. And it is findable in this book. And each one is encapsulated in a discreet place with the chief arguments about it. And that means in that sense, it is in fact a book for beginners.

LC: Right.

HH: When we come back next week, we will dive into how Professor Cole teaches it. I just have 30 seconds. Do you ever feel like Ahab and you’ve got the whale and it’s taking you under?

LA: (laughing)

LC: (laughing)

LA: That’s good.

LC: There’s a little bit of that. You’ve got to divide and conquer. So the first area you can make is tying yourself to have to cover large portions of the Summa. I restrict myself to teaching about 5% of it a semester, and that’s about how much we cover. And that allows you the leisure to really work through and think along with Aquinas, because we really have to give our students a fighting chance to actually read the material and think along with him.

HH: Next week, the project, how to do it, America. Do not miss part 4 of our discussion of Thomas Aquinas with Dr. Larry Arnn, Professor Lee Cole of Hillsdale College. If you missed parts 1 and 2, they and every other Hillsdale Dialogue available at And all of the Hillsdale courses at

End of interview.


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