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SOME years ago, a priest of singularly long and varied experience urged me to write “a book about God.” He said that wrong and imperfect notions of God lay at the root of all our religious difficulties. Professor Lewis Campbell says the same thing in his own way in his work, Religion in Greek Literature, where he declares that the age needs “a new definition of God.” Thinking the need over, I turned to the Summa contra Gentiles. I was led to it by the Encyclical of Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, urging the study of St Thomas. A further motive, quite unexpected, was supplied by the University of Oxford in 1902 placing the Summa Contra Gentiles on the list of subjects which a candidate may at his option offer in the Final Honour School of Literae Humaniores, -- a very unlikely book to be offered so long as it remains simply as St Thomas wrote it. Lastly I remembered that I had in 1892 published under the name of Aquinas Ethicus a translation of the principal portions of the second part of St Thomas’s Summa Theologica: thus I might be reckoned some thing of an expert in the difficult art of finding English equivalents for scholastic Latin.
There are two ways of behaving towards St Thomas’s writings, analogous to two several treatments of a church still standing, in which the saint might have worshipped. One way is to hand the edifice over to some Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments: they will keep it locked to the vulgar, while admitting some occasional connoisseur: they will do their utmost to preserve every stone identically the same that the mediaeval builder laid. And the Opera Omnia of St Thomas, handsomely bound, may fill a library shelf, whence a volume is occasionally taken down for the sole purpose of knowing what St Thomas said and no more. Another thirteenth-century church may stand, a parish church still, in daily use; an ancient monument, and something besides; a present-day house of prayer, meeting the needs of a twentieth-century congregation; and for that purpose refitted, repainted, restored, repaired and modernised; having had that done to it which its mediaeval architects would have done, had they lived in our time. Nothing is more remarkable in our old English churches than the sturdy self-confidence, and the good taste also lasting for some centuries, with which each successive age has superimposed its own style upon the architecture of its predecessors. If St Thomas’s works are to serve modern uses, they must pass from their old Latinity into modern speech: their conclusions must be tested by all the subtlety of present-day science, physical, psychological, historical; maintained, wherever maintainable, but altered, where tenable no longer. Thus only can St Thomas keep his place as a living teacher of mankind.
For the history of the Contra Gentiles I refer the reader to the folio edition printed at the Propaganda Press in 1878 cura et studio Petri Antonii Uccellii, pp. xiii-xxxlx. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) came to the University of Paris in 1245, and there for three years heard the lectures of Albertus Magnus, taking his Bachelor’s degree in 1248. He returned to the University in 1253, took his Master’s degree in 1257, and thereupon lectured in theology for two or three years, leaving the University in 1259 or 1260. He wrote the Summa contra Gentiles in Italy, under the pontificate of Urban IV (1261-1264), at the request of St Raymund of Pennafort. He went for the third time to the University of Paris in 1269, finally returning to Italy in 1271. Though the Summa contra viiiGentiles was written in Italy, there is reason to believe that the substance of it was got together during the Saint’s second residence at Paris, and formed the staple of his lectures in the University. The more celebrated Summa Theologica was a later work.
The Summa contra Gentiles is in the unique position of a classic whereof the author’s manuscript is still in great part extant. It is now in the Vatican Library. The manuscript consists of strips of parchment, of various shades of colour, contained in an old parchment cover to which they were originally stitched. The writing is in double columns, minute and difficult to decipher, abounding in abbreviations, often passing into a kind of shorthand. Through many passages a line is drawn in sign of erasure: but these remain not less legible than the rest, and are printed as foot notes in the Propaganda edition: they do not appear in the present translation. To my mind, these erasures furnish the best proof of the authenticity of the autograph, which is questioned by S. E. Fretté, editor of Divi Thomae Opera Omnia (Vivès, Paris, 1874), vol. XII, preface iv-vi. An inscription on the cover states that the manuscript is the autograph of St Thomas, and that it was brought from Naples to the Dominican convent at Bergamo in 1354: whence its name of the ‘Bergamo autograph.’ Many leaves were lost in the sack of the convent by the armies of the first French Revolution; and the whole of Book IV is missing.
The frequent erasures of the Saint himself lend some countenance to the omissions of his translator. Re-reading his manuscript in the twentieth century, St Thomas would have been not less ready than he showed himself in the thirteenth century to fulfil the Horatian precept, saepe stylum vertas.
Pope’s Hall, Oxford, Michaelmas 1905
Nihil obstat: T. M. TAAFFE S.J., Censor deputatus
Imprimatur: GULIELMUS PRAEPOSITUS JOHNSON, Vicarius Generalis
Westmonasterii, die 12 Septembris 1905ix
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