Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part II

Continuing my series of posts on recommended reading in (mostly pre-Vatican II) Neo-Scholastic and Thomistic sources. This time up: works on natural theology.

As I emphasize in The Last Superstition, Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments in natural theology are often very badly misunderstood – not only by skeptics but also by many modern theists – because contemporary readers are not familiar with the metaphysical concepts underlying them and tend to read into them all sorts of alien (and from the A-T point of view, false) modern metaphysical assumptions. This is true not only of arguments for God’s existence (like Aquinas’s Five Ways), but also of arguments concerning other topics in natural theology – the divine attributes, the problem of evil, divine providence, divine foreknowledge, miracles, and so on. Indeed, there is virtually no topic that fails to take on a dramatically different complexion when seen through the lens of classical, and especially A-T, metaphysics. (For example, the contemporary tendency to think of God in terms of “theistic personalism” rather than classical theism – a tendency I have discussed here briefly a couple of times before – is, I would say, a natural outcome of the move away from classical metaphysics, and has all sorts of often-unnoticed implications, none of them good.)

In light of this, two very useful books for understanding the A-T approach to philosophical theology in general are:

John F. McCormick, Scholastic Metaphysics, Part II: Natural Theology

R. P. Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy, Volume II: Metaphysics

As their titles indicate, each of these books is part of a series of books on A-T philosophy in general. But this particular McCormick volume is entirely devoted to natural theology, and the last 100 pages or so of the Phillips volume is as well (the rest of it being an introduction to general Thomistic epistemology and metaphysics).

McCormick’s book is intended as a fairly elementary textbook, but since it shows how all the main topics mentioned above are understood from a specifically A-T point of view, it provides something that is simply not readily available in the current literature in philosophy of religion. It is probably a little bit better than Phillips on this score, though Phillips has the advantage of also treating other philosophical topics.

Phillips is also probably a little more useful in its treatment of the Five Ways, though neither McCormick or Phillips is as good on this subject as some of the books I’ll be mentioning in a moment. Overall, McCormick is probably the best book I know of for the beginner who wants a basic overview of the A-T approach to topics in natural theology other than the classical arguments for God’s existence. (I’ll mention some more advanced books below.)

Like many of the books I’m recommending in this series of posts, the McCormick volume is out of print, but used copies can be found online fairly easily for just a few dollars. An affordable reprint of Phillips is now available, though even cheaper older copies can also still be found.

Some of the same, general topics in philosophical theology are also usefully treated in the next set of works I want to mention:

Celestine Bittle, God and His Creatures

Maurice Holloway, An Introduction to Natural Theology

G. H. Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology

Henri Renard, The Philosophy of God

A more distinctive advantage of these books, however, is their treatment of the classical theistic proofs, particularly those summarized in Aquinas’s Five Ways.

Of the four of them, Bittle is probably the least helpful for someone looking for an overview of each of the Five Ways, but it does have a fairly useful treatment of several of the arguments, especially the argument from motion. Renard’s treatment of the arguments is not really any longer than that found in McCormick or Phillips, but it does seem to me to give a somewhat clearer idea of what is distinctive about the Thomistic understanding of cosmological and teleological arguments (e.g. Renard puts special emphasis on the “existential proof” from Aquinas’s On Being and Essence). Joyce and Holloway have especially good treatments of the Five Ways in general. Joyce is particularly good on the argument from motion and Holloway on the (often neglected and badly misunderstood) Fourth and Fifth Ways.

(As I keep emphasizing, A-T arguments in natural theology simply cannot be understood apart from A-T metaphysics, and this is probably even more true of the Fourth Way than of any of the other arguments. I will be devoting a future post to works in metaphysics, but it is worth mentioning now that Charles Hart’s Thomistic Metaphysics is particularly helpful in situating the theistic arguments – especially the Fourth Way – within the framework of Thomistic metaphysics in general.)

Again, all of these books also offer treatments of other topics in natural theology, though in some cases at least slightly less comprehensively than McCormick and Phillips. (In particular, while they are all useful vis-à-vis the divine attributes, they are generally less helpful than McCormick and Phillips on topics like miracles.) Only Joyce has been reprinted recently, though old copies of the others can be found fairly easily and affordably.

Overall, I’d say that anyone reading even just Holloway and McCormick (say) will come away with a pretty good introduction to the A-T approach to all the main topics in natural theology. For a more advanced treatment of the subject, you cannot do better than:

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature (in two volumes)

Garrigou-Lagrange was the greatest 20th century thinker in the period of the Neo-Scholastic revival. (Obviously lots of people would give that honor instead to Gilson or Maritain. Not me. But that’s a big topic all by itself.) This work has recently been reprinted and is a must-have for anyone who wants to pursue these issues in depth. (G-L pursued some of the same issues in other works, but this is his most substantial treatment and the one-stop place to look.)

Now, unlike much that is written today on Aquinas’s natural theology, none of these books is particularly interested in the historical or textual context of his arguments; instead, they are interested simply in whether the arguments are correct and defensible today. And that is, ultimately, what matters. Still, historical and textual context can obviously be illuminating, and can in particular help to free us from common misunderstandings. Two invaluable works providing such context are:

William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz

John Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas

Craig is very helpful vis-à-vis the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways; Wippel provides background on all five.

There is also the question of how A-T positions in natural theology relate to the sorts of issues and assumptions characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy. Four very useful books in this connection are:

Christopher F. J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations

Eleonore Stump, Aquinas

Norman Kretzmann, The Metaphysics of Theism

Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil

Martin’s book is the most thorough sympathetic examination of the Five Ways currently in print, and is written from an “analytical Thomist” point of view. Stump does not say much about the classical theistic arguments but has much of interest to say on divine simplicity and some of the other divine attributes. Kretzmann is mostly a detailed examination of Aquinas’s arguments concerning the various divine attributes. (It also treats some of Aquinas’s theistic proofs, but in my view Kretzmann is more impressed than he should be with some of the objections to these proofs.) Davies briefly defends the “existential proof” from On Being and Essence and then very helpfully distinguishes the Thomistic approach to the problem of evil from the approaches usually taken in contemporary philosophy of religion. Readers unacquainted with contemporary analytic philosophy will find these works difficult; Davies is the most accessible.

(While on the subject of analytic philosophy and Thomism, I might also briefly mention David Braine’s The Reality of Time and the Existence of God and Barry Miller’s trilogy From Existence to God, A Most Unlikely God, and The Fullness of Being. Even more than the other books mentioned, though, these books are for the more advanced reader, and go well beyond the bounds of a traditional Thomistic approach to natural theology and into issues the understanding of which requires extensive knowledge of the literature in analytic philosophy.)

These books are all very recent compared to the ones I’m emphasizing in this series of posts. Another recent book worth mentioning is:

D. Q. McInerny, Natural Theology

which is written in the style of an old Scholastic philosophy manual – indeed, it is part of a series of textbooks written in this style – but (given that it was published in 2005) addresses recent issues and objections the older manuals do not discuss.

Finally, some books devoted to miscellaneous topics:

Harry R. Klocker, God and the Empiricists

James A. Weisheipl, Nature and Motion in the Middle Ages

William A. Wallace, From a Realist Point of View

Klocker’s book is a useful study, from an A-T point of view, of the ways in which the development of empiricism affected philosophers’ understanding of the classical theistic proofs. What makes the book especially interesting is its extended treatment of Ockham as the forerunner of Locke and Co. The Weisheipl and Wallace books are anthologies largely concerned with issues in the philosophy of science and philosophy of nature, but many of the essays are relevant to understanding and evaluating the argument from motion.

More recommendations could be given, but that’s enough for now, and will already strain either your wallet or your librarian’s patience…


  1. I read Davies' book last year. It is excellent.

    I also greatly appreciate his work on bringing the late Herbert McCabe's lectures out into print. (A herculean task!)

  2. Cheers Ed, you've got me reaching for my Library/credit card and clearing my shelf already :)

    Two quick questions though
    (1)Would you happen to know where I can get hold of Father Lagrange's Philisophical works? because although his devotional works are easy to get hold of, finding somewhere which stocks the philisphical stuff is really hard

    2) As I Live in merry old England do you think it'd be a waste of time to mail dawkins a copy :)

    Keep up the good work Ed, looking foward to your book on the AD

    Dominus Vobiscum

  3. Ed

    What works would you recommend applying A-T metaphysics to ethical issues?


  4. John,

    Indeed. Davies' book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas is excellent as well.


    1. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought as well as the two-volume work I mentioned in the post have been reprinted recently by small publishing houses, and can easily be found online. But unfortunately, these more philosophical books remain impossible to find in bookstores. What they really need and deserve are new scholarly editions from big academic presses -- which may happen, since there seems to be a mini-revival of G-L's work of late. (See e.g. Richard Peddicord's book The Sacred Monster of Thomism and Aidan Nichols' book Reason with Piety.)

    2. I doubt Dawkins will even read my book, let alone the old Neo-Scholastic stuff!


    The next post in this series will cover that.

  5. Why not recommend some books actually by the scholastics? Say, for instance, St Thomas' commentaries on the Physics and Metaphysics? Although I've read a number of the books on your list here, these two Thomistic works together were the best introduction to medieval philosophy for me. They're available in complete translations from Dumb Ox Books.

    Also, I wonder why (besides their elementary character) everyone needs to emphasize the "Five Ways" to the exclusion of other medieval formulations. I would recommend St Bonaventure's discussion of God's existence in his Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, and--for advanced readers--Bl Duns Scotus' De Primo Principio, which is more sophisticated than anything St Thomas ever put together. It ought to be mentioned more in discussions like this, even if it's difficult.

  6. Ed,

    Thank you so much for this list! You're doing great work putting the word out, standing up for truth and righteousness. I can't wait to read some of these.

    God bless,

  7. Hello Michael,

    Yes, I would of course recommend those books too. The reasons for the emphasis here on Neo-Scholastic works are (a) that they take account of the development and refinement of Scholastic ideas from the time of the Scholastics themselves, including the critiques of modern philoophers,(b) they are often written in a textbook format that makes them more clear, systematic, and easier for a novice to grasp, and (c) they are less well-known and often unjustly disparaged, so that non-experts are unlikely to come across them. Someone's got to put some daylight on them -- hence the series of posts.



  8. I would say the best book on God's existence is yet to be published, a work by Australian philosopher and theologian Dr Austin Woodbury who was a student of GL. It is difficult to say that a student is greater than a master since they depend on their master for what they knew. But I would say that he plumbed the depths further. Hopefully it will all get published one day.

  9. Aquinas's commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, Metaphysics and a handful of other works are available here:

    This is the same publisher that published Dr. Feser's The Last Superstition, and has a great portfolio of philosophical offerings.

  10. I wonder, why does Fr Thomas Slater, SJ's excellent book 'A manual of moral theology for english speaking countries' not appear in this list? It was certainly one of the most prominent manuals of moral theology of the early 20th century and more in depth than Jone's.