The Philosophy of Aquinas

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Tuesdays, September 29 to November 3, 2009

After a general introduction to Aquinas, highlighting especially his relationship to Aristotle, this course will focus where he focuses at the beginning of the Summa Theologica, on the concept of God.  This is relevant to the jurisprudence of the First Amendment, and also lays a foundation for our subsequent course on Natural Law.

The most powerful philosophical idea of God and the strongest arguments for God’s existence are widely considered to be those developed by Aquinas.  His account of God has become the philosophical standard, so far as there is one.  It is based on Aristotle, who had developed the ideas of actuality and potentiality as tools for explaining many different kinds of being, and describes God as pure actuality, while all other beings contain an admixture of potentiality.  Aquinas also draws on Plato, who describes God as the original self-mover and the source of all change. But both the Greek thinkers assumed the existence of numerous Gods. Aquinas aims to reshape their ideas to fit in better with Christian belief, especially as developed by Augustine, in a single God who created heaven and earth.

Aquinas’s account of God has influenced many generations of thinkers and writers, including poets.  If the Founding Fathers considered their own belief in God was rationally based, it was to some extent because of Aquinas’s work, even though they may not have been aware of it.

This work is especially relevant today in light of the recent assertions of atheism by Dawkins, Harris, et al. For among other things Aquinas’s treatment is notable for its respect for scientific method: unlike some of his modern opponents, he believes in being scrupulously fair to the other side.