SUMMA w/ BUTT JOKES: how we know we know what we know [I Q. 1, Art. 1]

This is part of an ongoing series in which I read and interpret Thomas Aquinas’s SUMMA THEOLOGICA for butt joke aficionados. See this post for more information.


Honestly, that “know” wedge is pretty generously sized

Let’s start with how the Summa’s organized. It’s broken into three large parts: Part I is mostly about God; Part II is mostly about morality; Part III is mostly about Jesus. Each part is broken down into several “questions,” and each question is broken down into several articles (which themselves are actually phrased as actual questions, so that’s kind of weird).

I’ll be looking at an article a week. Each article has a specific structure:

  • a question, followed by
  • several objections to Aquinas’s answer;
  • (sometimes) an “On the Contrary” section, which provides a counterpoint to the objections;
  • Aquinas’s answer, and finally
  • his responses to the objections.

In other words, the objections to the answer come before the answer itself, sort of like when Fox News interviews a Democrat. I’ll break this stuff down piece-by-piece for you. Good? Good.

As a reminder: I’m doing this as a layman, from the English translation of the Summa that I have on hand. Anything I actually get right is purely coincidental.

FIRST ARTICLE [I, Q. 1, Art. 1]:

Whether, besides Philosophy, any Further Doctrine Is Required?

The first step toward knowing anything is knowing how we know what we know. Yes, there’s a paradox there, but don’t tell that to the medievalists. (If you do, they’ll tell you it’s still better than postmodernism, where we know that we know nothing, but still like to pretend we know stuff anyway.)

When Aquinas refers to “Philosophy,” he means the broad deposit of learned human knowledge, as opposed to knowledge gained by revelation. What he would have called philosophy included science, history, psychology, etc. The idea that science isn’t philosophy is something modern scientists made up so they wouldn’t have to answer your hard questions. So, the question is, can we learn everything by direct investigation, or do some things have to be revealed to us?

Onto the objections:

Objection 1: It seems that, besides philosophical science, we have no need of any further knowledge. For man should not seek to know what is above reason: “Seek not the things that are too high for thee” (Ecclus. 3:22). But whatever is not above reason is fully treated of in philosophical science. Therefore any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous.

I’m not sure who’s objecting here, but it’s a little strange to appeal to Scripture (for all you Protestants out there, he’s quoting from the Apocryphal book known as “Ecclesiasticus” or “Sirach”) in order to prove that revelation is unnecessary. Still, the point is well taken: you can’t know what you’re incapable of knowing, and it’s presumptuous to assume the human mind is capable of understanding everything. Right???

Objection 2: Further, knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save what is true; and all that is, is true. But everything that is, is treated of in philosophical science — even God Himself; so that there is a part of philosophy called theology, or the divine science, as Aristotle has proved (Metaph. vi). Therefore, besides philosophical science, there is no need of any further knowledge.

Yes, theology was once considered a science. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Richard Dawkins. Buuurrrrrrnnnnn.

On the other hand, what Aristotle is referring to as theology in Metaphysics is the study of the divine intelligence revealed by nature — not the sort of stuff that makes Calvinists all hot and bothered.


‘Sirach’ is a text known for its meditations on hot sauce

On the contrary, It is written (2 Tim. 3:16): “All Scripture inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.” Now Scripture, inspired of God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical science, there should be other knowledge, i.e. inspired of God.

So, the Bible is revealed knowledge, and we have the Bible, so we must need revealed knowledge. Or something.

Also, is it too late to make a “two-timothy” Trump joke?

You’re right. Those were never funny. On to Aquinas’s answer:

I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isa. 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation.

In other words, the human mind cannot possibly grasp God; therefore God had to reveal Himself. There’s nothing inherently illogical here: it’s perfectly reasonable to assume there are things the human brain is incapable of understanding; further, it’s reasonable to assume that the intelligence behind all of nature fits into this category. Other things the human mind cannot possibly grasp include why Kim Kardashian is popular.

As a side note, if I’m going to keep doing this, I’m going to have to stop leaning so heavily on lame celebrity jokes.

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth.

So — while you can learn things about God from nature, since the human mind is fallible, you’re bound to make errors in what you divine from experience. And since the ultimate fate of your body and soul depend upon your knowledge of God, it makes sense to ask God about Himself as opposed to trying to figure these things out for yourself.

Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

Even the most hardcore secularist would have to admit that his or her knowledge consists at least partly of things he or she has been told. “God” is at least as good a place to get knowledge as Bill Maher. I mean, just saying.

On to the replies.


This is a useful quote for those moments when you want to brag about how humble you are.

Reply Obj. 1: Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God, they must be accepted by faith. Hence the sacred text continues, “For many things are shown to thee above the understanding of man” (Ecclus. 3:25). And in this, the sacred science consists.

In other words: read the whole chapter, moron.

Apparently taking the Bible out of context is not a new thing. Who knew?

Reply Obj. 2: Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e., abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.

The first thing you should notice here: people knew the earth was round way back in the 13th century. Actually, Aristotle proved it before even the time of Christ. It’s amazing what you can learn by picking up an actual old book instead of a grade-school American history book.


If you missed the point here, what Aquinas is saying is that there’s more than one way to know the same truth. Science, history, philosophy, theology — they’re all different methods of determining facts, but they all lead to the same truth, if you practice them well.

And that’s it for now! See you next week!

One thought on “SUMMA w/ BUTT JOKES: how we know we know what we know [I Q. 1, Art. 1]

  1. Pingback: SUMMA w/ BUTT JOKES: he blinded me with the definition of “science” [I, Q. 1, Art. 2] | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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