I'm only planning on translating parts of the Treatise on God, then maybe on Happiness and on Law. So far I'd say that Aquinas isn't half as hard as Augustine. Check out my progress so far.
Going though the Gilson some these days...
A moral doctrine whose principles are so profoundly rooted in the real, so strictly dependent upon the very structure of the being they rule, experiences no embarrassment in solving the much-debated problem of the basis of morality. The basis of morality is human nature itself. Moral good is every object, every operation enabling man to achieve the virtualities of his nature and to actualize himself according to the norm of his essence, which is that of a being endowed with reason. Thomistic morality is, accordingly, a naturalism. But it is by that very fact a rationalism because reason acts as its rule. Just as nature makes those beings which are not endowed with reason act according to what they are, so it insists that beings endowed with reason find out what they are so that they may act accordingly. Become what you are is their highest law. Actualize to their ultimate limits the virtualities of the rational being that you are!
Having finished and laid aside Faust (the second part of which reads like a classicist’s acid trip), I have moved on to Peter Kreeft’s lectures on Aquinas for the Modern Scholar. As always, Kreeft proves to be refreshingly blunt, sawing through traditionally problematic matters with his characteristic indifference to nuance and peppering his remarks with humor that rarely works. But I always like his work, precisely because his bluntness has a way of disarming me and compelling me to start all over again. Here’s a selection of themes he treats:
naturalism’s appeal to Ockham’s razor
If you can account for everything without bringing x (here: God) into the picture, throw x out. But we do well to ask whether naturalists are really accounting for everything? Or only those things they can address with their pre-selected methodology?
the reliability of science and the contingency of the brain
If the brain is nothing more than the contingent aggregate of lifeless matter, and the mind reducible to or identical with its contingent workings, why rely on it to when it yields the result that the mind is merely such an aggregate?
the primacy of intellect or will?
Or in Matthew Arnold’s parlance, whether Hellenism or Hebraism has it right. Plato, Kreeft tells us (giving us a mild heart attack in doing so, because who else these days would claim to know exactly what Plato thought?) held rationality to be supreme, while the Biblical tradition holds love, which is an act of the will, supreme. Thomas’ response involves differentiating between types of objects. It’s better to love God than to merely know him, and it’s better to know created things than to love them. This is because in love, unlike knowledge, you conform yourself to the loved object, coming to resemble it. And so it’s better to love what is higher, and best to love what's highest.
If only for the joy of nitpicking I would question this notion of Hellenism, or at least of Plato. A host of passages in Plato's works suggest that the Forms are not merely objects of knowledge but are the proper objects of love, too. Iris Murdoch comes to mind in this regard, and the Symposium, and for that matter the Phaedrus, the Republic and so forth. The philia that you might have for a friend now applies to the highest acts of knowledge, sophia, and one consequently turns away from the love of sights and sounds. In fact it is only in the Theaetetus that knowledge gets treated antiseptically after the manner of modern epistemologists, and here only in parts — the themes of friendship and social coherence play a big role in the dialogue, too. But this is only an ancillary point.
the first way and the principle of inertia
Thomas tells us that anything in motion requires a mover, but Newton would have it otherwise. Or so it would appear: the difference is that Newton’s 'motion' only covers what Aristotle would calls 'local motion', leaving other forms of motion — increase, decrease, and alteration — unaddressed.
Here I must pause and ask the obvious question: to what extent can we reduce these latter forms of motion to local motion? I think this has everything to do with the notion of substance, viz., are “atoms” in the philosophical sense more ontologically fundamental than the things they comprise? Upon consideration, the choice for atomism does not let us off the hylemorphic hook. For any atom, be it ever so small, is extended and thus composed, and as such in need of a principle of unity (read: “form”) if we are to call it a basic unit of reality. Even a particle of Plank length would have a center and extremities (recall part 2 of Plato’s Parmenides), and thus parts, and thus a form, if it does indeed exhibit unity. And thus even such an atom is a hylomorphic substance. Edward Feser snarked up the same point recently, putting it this way:
Even if atomism or some modern variation on it were the correct account of the ordinary objects of our experience (which it most definitely is not), that would not eliminate the distinction between substantial and accidental forms, but merely relocate all substantial form to the level of the atoms (or whatever the fundamental particles turn out to be) and make of everything else in the universe mere accidental forms. The idea that modern science “refuted” the doctrine of substantial form is one of the many urban legends of modern intellectual life.
I personally would go on to say that if we perforce allow tiny things to be substances, then it would be simply prejudicial to deny substantiality to larger items. Substantial forms, not being physical, have no reason to discriminate between large and small. There's a lot more to be said here, but...
Now I suppose you could take things in the Boson-Higgs direction, say that the “atom” is not extended. But it’s still composed of genus & species, potentiality & act, being & essence. And being a composed unit, and one capable of change, it exhibits Aristotle’s non-local forms of motion in a way that cannot be adequately recast as local motion. And so, even in this case, the argument of the First Way stands.
The last recourse is to give up on atomism, and banish substantial forms by recourse to radical nominalism. There’s a beauty to this, I own. But either way you go, it is here in ontology’s very basement that this all-important decision is to be made. As above, nominalism can’t assume atoms. And moreover, I don’t think it can assume resemblances, either, even though it depends on them for survival as a theory. Given some time and gumption I shall someday rhapsodize on this…
It’s not so often that you burst out laughing over philosophical reflection: "Reading the Metaphysics can give the impression of reading dispatches from the Lost Patrol" - because Aristotle keeps backing up to reiterate the question of what we are seeking. At issue in Ralph McInerny's Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers is to what extent we can follow Aquinas in his preambles of faith, viz., how far we can go in theology using natural reason alone before reverting to revelation. This in turn rests on (a) the extent to which the Metaphysics forms a coherent whole and (b) whether Aquinas preserves Aristotle’s metaphysics while building on it, or whether he takes it in a new direction entirely. Unified Metaphysics and Aquinas as Aristotelian: Leo XIII, Catejan, Garrigou-Lagrange and McInerny himself. All opposed: Etienne Gilson, Henri Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu. Yes, part of getting up to snuff on an academic problem is learning the subject matter, but the other part is following the gossip - who said what when and who said what back and who isn’t speaking to whom at all. Master this last part and they’ll think you’re an expert, too.
Make sure to check out Anthony Lisska's review of McInerny at the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.