Summa Philosophica | Peter Kreeft

The cover of Kreeft's Summa PhilosophicaIn the second half of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote his famous Summa Theologica which became one of the most influential works of Western literature. He wrote the Summa not for advanced students, but (according to the preface) “for beginners.” In Summa Philosophica, Peter Kreeft has followed the form of Aquinas and produced a book for beginners to get started in philosophy.

Kreeft’s Summa contains 110 “short books,” or summaries of various philosophical questions such as “Whether time is infinite?” and “Whether organized religion has done more harm than good?” Each article follows the same form:

  1. The question is written in a yes or no format beginning with the word “whether.”
  2. Multiple objections to the argument are offered.
  3. The author’s own position is stated beginning with “On the contrary.”
  4. The author’s position is argued beginning with “I answer that.”
  5. Each objection is addressed.

Kreeft’s sense of humour is evident throughout the book. The “Preliminary Note,” for example, reads:

Dear Prospective reader, If you’re wondering whether this book is worth your time to read or your money to buy, don’t read the long, dull Introduction first. Browse through the book itself. (vi)

My favourite bit of humour comes at the end in the section entitled “Meta-Philosophical Evaluation of All of the Above” (245). I don’t want to spoil the surprise so I’ll save the body of this section for you to discover.

This is not a book to be read through in a few sessions—rather, it’s worth taking the time to read each summa slowly. Often times I read back in the article, reviewing the objection before reading Kreeft’s response.

While each summa is logically argued, I found myself disagreeing with a number of his replies. For example, in “Whether there is a double standard for good for states and individuals?” (201 ff.) Kreeft offers the objection that Christ both taught and practiced nonviolence (202). He answers the objection by stating that “when Christ taught nonviolence He was addressing individuals … and taught this as a counsel of perfection, not a universal command of justice” (203). This, of course, is the standard Roman Catholic view of the Sermon on the Mount—that Jesus taught a two-level ethic. I heartily disagree with this view! Many of the statements in Kreeft’s responses could merit their own summa!

Kreeft’s intelligence and ability to turn a phrase is in full display. Consider his argument “Whether all persons are beautiful?” (221 ff.). In response to the objection that some people are evil and that Hitler, for example, is “uglier than a hyena” (221), he responds by reminding us that the image of God “remains even when defaced, like a great painting beneath layers of dirt. Great evildoers are morally ugly only because they are ontologically beautiful” (222).

Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica is a book like no other. It’s both interesting and instructive to reflect on article by article. Not only are the questions themselves interesting, the style of argumentation is a good way to hone your logic skills.

—Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).

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