I bought this selection at the same time as the larger Aquinas Selected Writings (Penguin Classics) which has more theology. I reviewed the Penguin also. I have to say I prefer this Oxford selection because the editor has gone to much greater trouble than the Penguin editor in providing helpful editorial links between parts of the densely argued excerpts. The Oxford selection is based on groups of passages and texts which are thematically linked. This makes the task of connecting key ideas in the arguments a bit easier. The Penguin book is based on chronology and groups passages according to when Aquinas wrote them. The latter strategy seems a bit random to me. I think both books would benefit from more editorial commentary. Aquinas wrote a lot and these selections are drops in the ocean, so it would be helpful to have more background and fuller notes on key points developed by Aquinas from classical works such as Aristotle's.
- So said Mr Casaubon in 'Middlemarch' about Aquinas. And it's true to the extent that these excerpts are about the most fundamental questions of metaphysics, and that they are written in a dense, aphoristic style that makes few concessions to the reader. On the other hand, what I found here is not the simple-minded apologist or scholastic logic chopper of legend; but a razor-sharp intellect dealing with problems in philosophy of religion which are still very much on peoples' minds today. Is it self-evident God exists? Or can we prove he exists? Or can we in fact know anything definite about him?
Not a religious work per se, then, but a very challenging analytical one. McDermott's modern translation tries to ensure that it isn't harder work than needs be, but if you buy this you'd better be sure you're ready to put in a real shift.
The received opinion of Aquinas among materialists is that, as Bertrand Russell put it, his work is 'not philosophy but special pleading', because he knows in advance what he wants the answer to be. The second part is true, anyway; he set out to justify the doctrines of the church. But who are we kidding? Philosophy - and science - is always more or less an attempt to justify what we already believe. It is impossible it should be anything else, because the way we frame our investigations is dictated by our existing beliefs (and Russell, in approaching Aquinas, was no exception). What matters is whether we succeed in doing it, and whether we are honest enough to accept when we have failed to do it. By those criteria Aquinas, in the context of his time, scores pretty well.
I have two criticisms of this as an anthology. Physically it is of very poor quality; I hope it isn't representative of the Oxford World Classics range nowadays. And it contains only brief selections from Aquinas' best-known work, Summa Theologicae, which I think will be contrary to most buyers' expectation. But considering McDermott had to try and represent the eight and a half million words of Aquinas' writings, he can perhaps be forgiven for that.