03.05.12, Aquinas, The Treatise on Human Nature

Main Article Content

Dr Roberto Plevano

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.012


Aquinas, Thomas. Pasnau, Robert. The Treatise on Human Nature: Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89. Series: The Hackett Aquinas. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Pp. xxi, 434. ISBN: $14.95.
ISBN: 0-87220-613-0.

Reviewed by:
Dr Roberto Plevano
University of Padua

One of the most challenging tasks for any instructor of medieval philosophy is to train students to directly read its texts, that is to say to provide critical instruments for a fruitful approach to some of the texts which are the basis of the Western philosophical heritage formed between the fall of Roman Empire and the dawn of the modern era.

Among the many hurdles that lie between these texts and the contemporary non-specialist readers stands first and foremost a problem of language. Medieval Latin is often used primarily as a tool for educational and scientific communication, with little concern with the rhetorical disposition and the overall arrangements that a living language applies towards persuasion and interaction of the speakers. Even readers with good knowledge of Latin often cannot orient themselves easily among the very restricted and technical meaning of some terms, and the complex structure of the great works of this era. Moreover, it is not a simple task to assess the proper place of each text within the literary landscape of the Middle Ages. There are issues of language, occasion, purpose, institutional environments, historical circumstances, which challenge at every turn of the page the reader's best judgment.

Thomas Aquinas' production typifies this situation. Arguably the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages, he wrote in his various capacities as friar, university professor, preacher, and apologist. In most of his works we find interwoven arguments of logic, natural philosophy, anthropology, ethics, metaphysics, theology, scriptural exegesis, canon law, mysticism. In spite of the diffusion of his works to our times, their reading proves to be demanding, even when supplied with notes and explanation. Aquinas intended to write the Summa Theologiae as an introduction to theology for a learned, but not necessarily specialist, audience, and yet he summarized and condensed in it the results of a lifetime of studies and speculation. This makes its prose apparently -- and deceptively -- simple. The language of the ST is the achievement of an intellectual clarity never before attained in the Latin Middle Ages, and for centuries a model of terseness of expression and efficacy of communication.

As component of his ongoing research on Aquinas, Robert Pasnau has just published his own new translation of questions 75-89 of the first part of the Summa, a section that deals with topics that we may call now psychology, philosophical anthropology and epistemology. In Pasnau's book, this part has been aptly renamed with the title of Treatise on Human Nature -- instead of the traditional and more generic Treatise on Man -- to stress its unity of subject matter and argumentation. Yet the reader should always bear in mind that this part is a section of a much larger whole, something to which Pasnau alerts the reader in the very beginning of the introduction. To provide as much clarification as possible, Pasnau devotes one third of the book to a running commentary of Aquinas' text, where each article is summarized, key words are emphasized and explained, and doctrines and notions encountered in the text are given their proper analysis. Although the book is mainly intended for classroom use, anyone with an interest in Aquinas and Medieval culture in general could greatly benefit from it.

The Treatise on Human Nature has been known to English readers for quite some time. Among the most scrutinized of Aquinas' texts, the existing English versions have, in Pasnau's opinion, two main shortcomings. First, previous translations were often inadequate to render Aquinas' prose with the necessary clarity in its philosophical and theological richness and nuances. Second, even when a commentary was added to the translation, as in the case of the Blackfriars edition, it failed to provide the non-specialist reader with all the tools required for an understanding and appreciation of the text. In order to introduce Aquinas' Treatise to a larger audience, Pasnau then opted to start with a clean slate, and translated the whole text anew. The result is noteworthy. In Pasnau's new translation, Aquinas' prose acquires a flowing quality which helps following the articulation of the arguments. Philosophical terms are rendered cleverly and consistently, thus letting the reader catch a glimpse of the mind behind the text. No new term is introduced without a clear and concise explanation of its meaning and function in the commentary. As an example of Pasnau's care, one could cite the translation of the terms ratio animae with the expression "defining character of soul," which at first sight seems to be a periphrasis, whereas the Blackfriars translation has "notion of a soul." Pasnau's rendering turns out to be more philosophically accurate. In medieval philosophy and theology, the ratio of a substance has the exact technical meaning of its "essential character," which is expressed by the definition. To use terms such as "notion" or "principle" would not convey the implications of semantics and levels of discourse.

Pasnau succeeds then in providing the first-time reader full access to this text. Further evidence that readability is Pasnau's overall concern comes from the many revisions made to the Latin text. To this day, no critical edition of the Summa, or portions of it, is available, in spite of its diffusion. This is a paradoxical situation, since so much of the scholarship on Aquinas' thought is based on the Summa. Pasnau bases his translation generally on the text of the 1882 Leonine edition, but he also checks some of its doubtful readings against variants of the manuscript tradition, accepting almost a hundred of them. This is an example of a translator's carefulness, although the zealous critic would note that in absence of a critically established stemma codicum, the choice of variants is invariably arbitrary, so that different readings are picked and chosen according to an individual's taste and needs. But Pasnau's claim is not that of "improving" somehow the existing printed Latin texts of the Treatise. Rather, Pasnau's purpose is to point to several passages where disturbances of the textual transmission may in his judgment have occurred, by recurring to textual internal evidence, first of all consistency and clarity of the Latin expressions. This is, I believe, the meaning of the several proposed "emendations," which present the reader with an indication of the complexity and problems of the manuscript transmission. The readings adopted contribute to the intelligibility of several passages.

The Treatise is a goldmine for the scholars of medieval philosophy. It is the place where Aquinas discussed nearly all the topics concerning human soul and knowledge debated in University classrooms and schools in the thirteenth century. All the doctrinal issues stemming from the opposition of the traditional Christian psychological tradition to the Aristotelian teachings are systematically examined and, in a magisterial fashion, resolved by replying to the various arguments against the master's view. Thus, we find in questions 75-76 crucial determinations concerning the body and soul of animals and men and the Aristotelian metaphysical assumption of hylemorphism, that is, the doctrine holding that all substance in the sublunar world is a composition of matter and form. Questions 77-81 deal with the soul and its various capacities, such as sensation, common sense, memory, imagination, natural appetite, will and intellect. In question 79 in particular Aquinas examines and refutes the thesis of unity of the agent intellect drawn from the Averroe's Long Commentary to Aristotle's On the Soul. Questions 82-83 discuss human will and free choice. Finally, questions 84-89 consider in detail man's highest capacity, intellectual knowledge. Such philosophical material is the subject of another of Pasnau's books, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a 75-89 (Cambridge, 2002), where he discussed these topics in detail and provides the necessary historical and doctrinal background. In the book reviewed here, the reader is oriented with comments explaining Aquinas' various reasonings and short references to discussions amply treated elsewhere. So, in commenting on question 76, article 4, where Aquinas refutes the thesis of a plurality of substantial forms in man, Pasnau summarizes Aquinas' doctrine and explains what exactly is entailed by the admission of such a plurality in man, and notes that Aquinas' position was controversial during and after his death. Some bibliographical reference are then given for further research. This is everything a first-time reader of the Summa needs to orient himself on the issues at stake. Moving to a more specialized literature, one then would learn that in the thirteenth century the doctrine of the plurality of forms in man was the focus of one of the main doctrinal divisions between Augustinian and Franciscan theologians on the one hand, and followers of Aristotle's philosophy on the other, and received ecclesiastical condemnations.

In addition to Pasnau's translation of Aquinas' text and commentary, there are eight short appendices with translation of other texts of Aquinas -- without commentary this time -- relevant to the issues discussed in the Treatise. A guide to the sources, a bibliography and an index close the volume. Pasnau's translation and commentary of the Treatise on Human Nature should be a required textbook of courses on Aquinas' anthropology and theory of knowledge, and will hopefully promote further teaching on Medieval philosophy.

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Author Biography

Dr Roberto Plevano

University of Padua