Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas

Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas

Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas

Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas


In Teaching Bodies, leading scholar of Christian thought Mark D. Jordan offers an original reading of the Summa of Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Reading backward, Jordan interprets the main parts of the Summa, starting from the conclusion, to reveal how Thomas teaches morals by directing attention to the way God teaches morals, namely through embodied scenes: the incarnation, the gospels, and the sacraments. It is Thomas's confidence in bodily scenes of instruction that explains the often overlooked structure of the middle part of the Summa, which begins and ends with Christian revisions of classical exhortations of the human body as a pathway to the best human life. Among other things, Jordan argues, this explains Thomas's interest in the stages of law and the limits of virtue as the engine of human life.

Rather than offer a synthesis of Thomistic ethics, Jordan insists that we read Thomas as theology to discover the unification of Christian wisdom in a pattern of ongoing moral formation. Jordan supplements his close readings of the Summa with reflections on Thomas's place in the history of Christian moral teaching--and thus
his relevance for teaching and writing in the present. What remains a puzzle is why Thomas chose to stage this incarnational moral teaching within the then-new genres of university disputation--the genres we think of as "Scholastic." Yet here again the structure of the Summa provides an answer. In Jordan's deft analysis, Thomas's minimalist refusal to tell a new story except by juxtaposing selections from inherited philosophical and theological traditions is his way of opening room for God's continuing narration in the development of the human soul.

The task of writing theology, as Thomas understands it, is to open a path through the inherited languages of classical thought so that divine pedagogy can have its effect on the reader. As such, the task of the Summa, in Mark Jordan's hands, is a crucial and powerful way to articulate Christian morals today.


I may have read a few words from the Summa of Theology for the first time in middle school. They were a quotation, in English, from the “five ways,” the rational ascents to God that help to begin Thomas’s book—and that become for some its only memorable passage. I was writing a wistful term paper on medieval religious orders and found the quotation (or was it only a paraphrase?) in a popular panorama of medieval history. A few years later, when I was fifteen or sixteen and deliberating conversion, I began to study Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, champions of paired Thomisms from the last century. Only in college was I encouraged to read as much Thomas as I could. I even took my first steps into his Latin, guided by the Blackfriars edition that put the comfort of the English on facing pages. Two years later, I went off to graduate school in philosophy to become a licensed teacher of Thomas because it seemed the only practical way to buy more time for reading him. Perhaps I also wanted for a while to become a Dominican—or at least a Jesuit. Clearly, I had already absorbed some of the old rivalries among Thomas’s interpreters.

All of this took place decades ago. I tell it now on the way to asking what it means to read and reread the Summa for a long time—the time of a moral formation, a mortal life, or an interpretive tradition. These questions can be put to any book read over decades, but they apply especially to the Summa since they are also its central concerns. From the book’s prologue forward, Thomas urges readers to consider moral reading as moral shaping. His insistence raises many questions. Which dispositions does the Summa suppose in those who would read it seriously? How does it understand its own role in eliciting or fostering those dispositions? What changes does it hope to encourage over a properly long reading? These questions are topics for the Summa itself. They animate its plan and determine its topics. They reveal the unity in the Summa of form and content, purpose and procedure.

Pursuing these questions, I will sometimes contend with what I judge to be misreadings. The word “misreading” may itself mislead. My concern . . .

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