Friday, May 4, 2012

Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Part Three)

     In St. Augustine in 90 Minutes (1997), Paul Strathern comes right out and admits that the Bishop of Hippo was most likely the brightest Western mind between the death of Aristotle and the birth of Thomas Aquinas.  Unfortunately, he spends much of the limited space in the book lamenting that Augustine spend a fair amount of time trying to stamp out or refute heresies and cults instead of advancing thought beyond the strictures of the Church.  The end result is that Strathern comes off more mean-spirited than joking in his tone.
     There is plenty of worthwhile information in the small tome, but this is one that Strathern would have been well suited to farm out to another writer.  It isn't just because he clearly has an axe to grind against the Church for restricting philosophy for over a thousand years, though that has certainly put off many who have read this.  No, Strathern should have had someone else write this because he couldn't be bothered to put in the work to separate the philosophy of Augustine from Plato or the Church, deciding instead that it was just the merging of Platonic ideas with Christian theology.

     Strathern tries to be a little too cute in Thomas Aquinas in 90 Minutes (1998).  He tells the story of young Thomas' quest to become a philosopher-monk as though it were a truthful fairytale.  It does much to humanize Thomas and take some of the severity out of the era, but it is not a solid foundation upon which to explain the contributions he made to Christian philosophy (and what would come to be known as Thomism).  It is also weird that the picture on the cover doesn't show the cow-eyed, pot-bellied figure described in the book. 
      Strathern decides to spend his energy describing the connective tissues between Aristotle and Aquinas rather than allowing Thomas to have any ideas of his own.  Maybe that is accurate, but it feels like Strathern is still grinding an axe against the Catholic Church and wanting to keep philosophy as something that can only be infected by religion.
     It isn't a bad read; I think it does a fine job of giving a rough overview of Thomas Aquinas in short order.  But it is another one where Strathern was likely not the best choice to have as the author.

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