- Thomas Aquinas's Quodlibetal Questions by Turner Nevitt and Brian Davies
The question whether the game is worth the candle is common in discussions of Thomas Aquinas's quodlibetal questions. Do they not, as Kevin White says, "seem at first sight negligible in size, redundant in content, and inferior in organization"? What can we get from these obscure exercises that is not available better and cheaper elsewhere, since "90% of the 264 quodlibetal articles are paralleled elsewhere in Thomas's work" (White). Does Aquinas not abandon a second round of commentary on the Sentences and embark on a wholly independent venture, the Summa theologiae, so as not to be constrained by the requirements of librorum expositio or derailed by an unpredictable [End Page 170] occasio disputandi? And is not unpredictability, while present in all oral disputation, the very soul of the quodlibet, where the questions can be posed by anyone and about anything?
Any successful reply to these objections will need to begin with the stubborn fact that Thomas Aquinas must have thought the quodlibetal questions important since he conducted twelve of these nonobligatory exercises—not just when beginning as a master (1256-59: Quodl. VII-XI), but "maxing out" the occasions for conducting them in his second Paris regency (1268-72: Quodl. IIII, VI, IV-V, XII) when, in addition to his regular duties, he was writing the Secunda secundae and commentaries on Aristotle. Indeed, it would be easier to defend the position that Thomas Aquinas loved disputation than the contrary. Despite his reservations about the current methods of legere et disputare for instructing beginners in theology, he adopts the disputed-question format for his Summa, and reimagines the book of Job as disputations on the nature of divine providence.
Turner Nevitt and Brian Davies, who have produced a new and complete English translation of Thomas Aquinas's Quodlibetal Questions based on the critical edition published by the Leonine Commission (1996), explain the ubiquity of this genre in Aquinas and other medieval teachers as "arising from respect for dialogue" (xxxiii). This is perhaps an anachronistic explanation—Aquinas only once uses the term "dialogue" in his opera omnia—but it serves to place the medieval disputation within the history of philosophical writings with a similar goal: namely, that a conclusion should not be put forward without a thorough vetting of the arguments for and against it. Whether it was through his experiences with disputation in the Dominican houses he lived in, his education at the University of Paris, or his role in defending the new mendicant orders, Thomas Aquinas clearly trusted this relatively new method for solving theoretical and practical problems.
The introduction to this well-designed volume contains brief but carefully sourced sections on Aquinas's life and writings, the concept of the quodlibetal question, and its place in the writings. The authors "roughly group" the topics of the quodlibets into those on "(1) the divine nature, (2) God as triune and incarnate, (3) angels, (4) blessedness, (5) damnation, (6) grace, (7) sin, (8) human nature, (9) matters concerning clerics and members of religious orders, (10) pastoral concerns, and (11) motley questions," such as the famous "Is truth stronger than wine, kings, and women." They also provide "readers an introductory and selective account" of these topics—one, however, which is rich with representative texts.
Nevitt and Davies provide several useful tools for studying this unusual work, which are more than usually welcome, since Aquinas himself provides almost no help: no introductions, and minimal division of the text (e.g., "There were three sorts of questions. The first about spiritual substances, the second about the sacrament of the altar, and the third about the bodies of the damned"). For each article of the quodlibets, a list of parallel passages from Aquinas's other writings is provided, allowing for careful comparison of his [End Page 171] treatment of similar problems with regard to content, context, and development, as well as to...