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From the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Touchstone


A Science of Man by R. V. Young


A Science of Man

Treatise on Human Nature: The Complete Text (Summa Theologiae I, Questions 75–102) by Thomas Aquinas, translated by Alfred J. Freddoso

St. Augustine's Press, 2010
(365 pages, $20.00, paperback)

reviewed by R. V. Young

In an ideal world there would be no need for translations of the Summa Theologiae: having an education sufficient to peruse this text would also mean having studied enough Latin to read it in the original. This is not an ideal world, and it is possible to attain an advanced degree in a learned subject and still require help in grasping the meaning of a text written in what ought to be recognized as the fundamental language of Western civilization.

While translations of St. Thomas's masterwork have long been available, translations, unlike the great work itself, need periodically to be updated. This volume is the second in Alfred J. Freddoso's undertaking to produce singlehandedly a fresh translation of the Summa in a clearer and more contemporary idiom (the first was the Treatise on Law from the Summa Theologiae I–II). These two volumes make a substantial beginning on a formidable project, and when completed, Freddoso's translation ought to be the preferred version for years to come.

I do not know how Freddoso came to issue these two particular volumes first, but what appears random may well be taken as an inspired choice. At a time when the very idea of a stable human nature is widely dismissed, along with the corollary notion of an order of law emerging from such a nature, it is a great and timely benefit to have the most luminous exposition of these essential concepts presented in language that is lively, lucid, and current. Freddoso has earned the gratitude not only of Anglophone readers with little or no Latin, but also of scholars who can read the ancient language but will still find their understanding enhanced by engaging the rendering of a shrewd and learned interpreter.

A caveat is nonetheless in order: Freddoso has produced strictly a translation without introduction, notes, or Latin text. Anyone who proposes to use it in the classroom—and it would make a superb choice—will probably wish to assign his students a general introduction to St. Thomas (something along the lines of the late Ralph McInerny's 1977 Twayne Books volume, for instance), as well as directing them to a question-by-question commentary. Even in what is an extremely readable translation, most contemporary students will find the bare text of the Treatise on Human Nature a severe test.

Both Interpretation & Translation

Continually in the course of the translation, Freddoso attempts to deal with this difficulty by means of parenthetic interpolations of phrases from the original Latin. Although a reader may not know enough Latin to read the text, someone interested in St. Thomas is likely to know enough to see what choices have been made to render the ancient language into modern idiom. The translator thus affords a glimpse into his thought processes, providing a good indicator of his principles of interpretation as well as translation.

Here, for example, is a fairly oblique sentence from Article Four of Question 76 of the first part of the Summa: "Ad cujus evidentiam considerandum est quod forma substantialis in hoc a forma accidentali differt, quia forma accidentalis non dat esse simpliciter, sed esse tale; sicut calor facit suum subjectum non simpliciter esse sed esse calidum." Here is how it is rendered in the new Blackfriars edition: "For evidence, consider how a substantial form differs from an accidental: it does not simply cause a being to exist, but to be of such-and-such a character. Heat does not cause what is heated to be, but to be hot." And here is Freddoso: "To see this clearly, note that a substantial form differs from an accidental form in that an accidental form gives such-esse (esse tale) and not esse absolutely speaking (esse simpliciter); for instance, heat makes its subject to be hot and not to be absolutely speaking."

Leaving esse in the translation seems prudent to me. It apprises the reader that something more than "being" or "existence," in their usual current meanings, is intended by St. Thomas's Scholastic Latin, and its general sense is sufficiently indicated by context in the final clause of the example involving heat. Similarly, while simpliciter is wholly captured by neither "simply" nor "absolutely," the latter certainly comes closer in current English idiom; and by including the Latin phrase in parentheses, Freddoso helps the reader whose Latin is deficient to begin at least to grasp the sense in which God is said to be "simple."

Taking Account of What Is Fitting

There is no space here to describe and discuss the myriad ways in which the "Treatise on Human Nature" remains timely and important, so let us consider just a single example. Article Five of Question 76 asks, "Is it fitting for the intellective soul to be united to the sort of body in question?" (utrum anima intellectiva convenienter tali corpori uniatur). The first objection that St. Thomas proposes focuses on the incongruity of the union of the physical and spiritual: "The matter has to be proportionate to the form. But the intellective soul is an incorruptible form. Therefore, it is not fitting for it to be united to a corruptible body."

This hypothetical objection anticipates a Darwinian ploy, which maintains that human anatomical and physiological features are not really so intelligently designed: women are, for example, excessively subject to urinary tract infections; men's genitals are preposterously exposed; and what about that appendix? This focus on specific aspects of corruptibility amounts to an objection against mortality as such.

St. Thomas observes that one might try to "evade this objection by claiming that man's body was incorruptible before sin." This answer is not "adequate" (sufficiens), because this was a result of God's grace, not the material nature of the body. The real answer involves seeing the issue from a different perspective from that of the individual human organism: the "prior disposition" that results in the good specific to human nature, as opposed to bestial or angelic nature, means that "the intellective soul needs a body that has a balanced composition, but it thereby follows, from a necessity of matter, that the body is corruptible."

The medieval "objection," like the contemporary Darwinian counterpart, falsely assumes that the purpose of the divine creation of men and women was the survival of their bodies through an endless duration of secular time. "When it comes to the constitution of natural things," St. Thomas concludes, citing St. Augustine, "one takes into account not what God can do, but instead what is fitting for the nature of things."

A Scientific Work

The Treatise on Human Nature, like all of the Summa, is a subtle and highly technical work dealing in minute detail with particular problems of what it means to be human. It is not a work of apologetics in the manner of G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis. Nevertheless, it is just this focus on technical details that makes it, rightly understood, as scientific in its own way as modern biological and psychological research. The modern "human sciences," unlike physics, chemistry, astronomy, and such, have not revealed an entirely new human world unknown to our ancestors: the problems they raise can be rationally addressed from a Thomist perspective, and this is why the availability of a fresh translation in clear, current, idiomatic English is such a blessing. •

R. V. Young R. V. Young is Professor of English Emeritus at North Carolina State University, and the editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. His most recent book is a bilingual edition of Justus Lipsius' Concerning Constancy (De Constantia libri duo). He and his wife are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dunedin, Florida. They have five grown children and thirteen grandchildren.

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