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22.01.20 Cary (trans.), St Thomas Aquinas. De Sortibus

22.01.20 Cary (trans.), St Thomas Aquinas. De Sortibus

Peter Carey’s recent (re)translation of Thomas Aquinas’ letter concerning the casting of lots (De Sortibus: A Letter to a Friend about the Casting of Lots) is an excellent and useful little book that will serve scholars and laymen alike. This short work is Carey’s second translation of Aquinas’ letter, the first having been a formal translation as part of his work towards a master’s in philosophy as a Dominican (xiii-xiv). [His earlier translation is available here.]Carey used the COVID shutdown to revisit and update his earlier work with the goals of “[making] it easier for readers to understand how Thomas thought, and to share his wisdom with a broader audience” (xvi).

This short book is divided into two parts. The second part is composed of brief (two-to-four page) essays by contemporary writers reflecting on the importance and place of Aquinas in the contemporary world. This part of the book will be primarily of pastoral interest to those wanting to reflect more deeply on aspects of the relationship between Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Episcopalianism.

The first part of the Carey’s book is the translation itself. The context for De Sortibus was a deadlocked election to fill the office of the bishop of Vercelli. It had been decided to break the deadlock by casting lots, but before doing so Aquinas was asked by his friend (one of the candidates for the office) about the propriety of choosing a bishop in this way (4-5). “Since a request from a friend certainly deserves a thoughtful response,” Aquinas wrote the ensuing letter exploring “the place held by casting lots among similar activities; the goals of lots; their mode and their power; and whether, in accordance with the teaching of the Christian religion, we are permitted to use them” (9). To spoil the ending, the answer is: no, a bishop ought not be selected by lot:

“…[T]his is a decision the Holy Spirit makes. Consequently in elections of this kind, it is unlawful for the lot to be used. For it would be an injury towards the Holy Spirit, who instructs human consciousness so that it judges correctly…” (31).

That said, Aquinas in his close and clever reasoning argues that there are legitimate times when lots can be used. (I will not spoil these times or walk-through Aquinas’ specific chain of reasoning, given that I’d run the risk of making this review longer than De Sortibus itself.)

Scholarly conversations in numerous fields will benefit from having this work affordably accessible in contemporary English. Philosophically De Sortibus will make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with works such as Aristotle’s discussion of good fortune inThe Nicomachean Ethics and Machiavelli’s presentation of “Fortune” in his Discourses on Livy.

In terms of the religious tradition, De Sortibus speaks both to the ongoing discussion of the proper method of selecting clergy and to theological debates over providence. In terms of the latter, this work will especially highlight the historical tension between differing views of the relationship between divine sovereignty and historical contingency, such as John Scotus Eriugena’s De Divina Praedestinatione on the one hand and the last three chapters of Book I of Calvin’s Institutes on the other. In terms of the former, while De Sortibus may not settle the argument between congregational election and hierarchical appointment, it will at least offer Aquinas’ gentle reminder not to use chance as a means of settling disputes in ecclesiological matters--however unclear the “right” method of selecting church leadership may be, there are wrong methods to be avoided.

And of course, De Sortibus will be of use to those who want to think about the ethical and theological aspects of contemporary “lots.” From jury selection to the lottery to drawing names from a hat for middle school PE teams (assuming they still do that--admittedly it’s been a while for me), far more of our modern world is governed by the regulated usage of chance than is apparent at first glance. Aquinas gives us a rubric by which to think carefully and well about these practices. Many of them would fall under the “acceptable” uses of lots in Aquinas’ view, but he would tell us that we should be sure about our reasons for using this method rather than a more deliberative or structured one.

Overall, this little book is excellent. Carey’s translation is lucid and accessible. De Sortibus: A Letter to a Friend about the Casting of Lots will be a useful volume for introducing students to Aquinas and his method. It will also be a helpful book to give to interested laymen who want to know more about the Angelic Doctor.