restricted access Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner (review)
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Reviewed by
Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 312 pp.

Professor Turner believes that Aquinas was one of the few minds in history large enough to contain a coherent universe of thought. “Thomas,” he writes, “is in that company to which Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Homer, and perhaps a few others belong.” Turner’s enthusiasm for his subject infects the reader, and the vivacity of his style makes the reading easy. He brings out the contemporary relevance of Aquinas’s thought, and he avoids encumbering his text with scholastic terminology. Not that Turner ignores the medieval context of Aquinas’s ideas — far from it. He constantly contrasts the saint’s thought with that of his Christian contemporaries. While others, Platonically, regarded human beings as souls imprisoned in bodies, Aquinas, materialistically, insisted that human persons were animals of a particular kind and that a disembodied soul would no longer be a person. While other theologians, following the Song of Songs, described the relationship between God and man in erotic terms, Aquinas, following Aristotle’s Ethics, took friendship as the guiding concept.

Turner sums up accurately key elements of Aquinas’s philosophy, wisely avoiding the topic of Being. In theology he is not afraid to present a full-frontal view of the most difficult theses, such as the claim that the persons of the Trinity are subsistent relations (pure relations that are not relationships between anything) and the claim that divine grace, though irresistible, does not constrain human freedom. Despite the genius of Aquinas and the skill of Turner, only those who are already believers are likely to find these sections convincing. Turner is at his most persuasive when discussing Aquinas’s character. He points out that the great Summae are completely devoid of ego. In other philosophers (such as Descartes [End Page 339] and Kant) and other saints (such as Augustine and Bernard), the author’s personality constantly intrudes. Not so with Thomas: he is a teacher, invisible, standing out of the light that others may see. It is fitting that he was canonized not for working miracles but for writing the Summa. The Saint’s sanctity shows itself above all in his silence about himself.

Anthony Kenny

Sir Anthony Kenny is emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, as well as former master of Balliol College and a former president of the British Academy. He is the author of more than forty books, including Aquinas on Mind; Aquinas on Being; The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays; Faith and Reason; The God of the Philosophers; Reason and Religion; Action, Emotion, and Will; The Nature of Mind; Freewill and Responsibility; Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy; Wittgenstein; A New History of Western Philosophy, in four volumes; and A Path from Rome: An Autobiography.

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