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Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae Ia, 75-89 (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.1 (2004) 99-100

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Robert Pasnau. Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae Ia, 75-89. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 500. Cloth, $75.00. Paper, $28.00.

This "philosophical study of Summa Theologiae Ia 75-89" on human nature has three parts, Essential Features, Capacities, and Functions. Spread across these parts are twelve chapters that include such standard topics as Body and Soul, Immateriality of Soul, Unity of Body and Soul,Sensation, Desire and Freedom, Mind and Reality, and so on. While a work on these topics is welcome, it is difficult to know what to make of this one because of the author's ahistorical method. Pasnau is not primarily interested in Aquinas' written work. He intends to help Aquinas out by constructing on his behalf his "ideal philosophy," "tak[ing] each of Aquinas's texts as just one more rough draft on the way toward" the "ideal" (6). Still, he must justify looking primarily at only one of these drafts, the theological Summa, while arguing that for all practical purposes Aquinas' commentaries on Aristotle ought to be neglected (10-16). He warns against taking "at face value" (15) Aquinas' justification for employing philosophy within theology. Theology isn't even really about the revelation of God, as "the real heart of Aquinas's theological project corresponds quite closely with what we consider the project of philosophy" (16). "The [ideal] history of medieval philosophy is the history of medieval theology, minus the theological stuff" (11). Aquinas' appeals to scripture and the Church fathers are little more than "theological bedtime stories" (372).

The most remarkable instance of this method is chapter four, which includes among its references Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Aquinas' crude quasi-biological-cum-philosophical account of fetal development is not discussed in q.75-89; neither are his views on abortion. Indeed, Pasnau knows that Aquinas' rare statements on abortion did not depend upon his fetal account, and that they were unequivocally negative. Yet these facts must reflect the failure of these drafts. Aquinas' "ideal" philosophy should be enlisted on behalf of abortion (105-25). The highly critical tone of the chapter reads like a polemic, particularly with Pasnau's opinions on the "trade-offs" "we" must now be willing to make when it comes to killing human lives (125). Whatever the merits of such claims in other contexts, it is quite out of place in a study of Ia 75-89.

Generally this rewrite is unnecessary, as one does not have to falsify the theological history in order to examine critically the philosophical arguments within it. Indeed, the broad danger of such falsification is that it leads to misreadings of the philosophy that does take place within the theological contexts. Pasnau claims that according to Aquinas "the theologian looks to the created world to understand God. . . . " (19). On the contrary, Aquinas holds that theology proceeds from an understanding of God through revelation to a better understanding of creation (ST Ia 1), while the philosopher looks to the created world to understand God better. The Summa follows the theological order, even as it uses philosophical resources. There are many examples, but consider two. At the beginning of q.75 Aquinas explains that he intends to limit his discussion of philosophical issues, and follow a theological order given his needs as a theologian. Prima facie this procedure explains why in the discussion of the passivity of intellect (Ia 79.2) he begins with the impassivity of God, then angels, then only by contrast with them, human beings. Read as philosophy the discussion looks like the groundless a priori speculation that our contemporaries find so abhorrent in medieval thought. On the contrary, as reflection upon a theological tradition grounded in scripture, employing philosophical resources as the theologian sees [End Page 99] fit, it is simply what Aquinas said he intended to do; qua theologian he is acting in epistemic good...