15 September 2014


Bernard McGinn. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

David Gordon White. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series is continuing: McGinn begins by observing that few people have ever read the whole of the Summa theologiae, which runs to a million and a half words. Personally, I have only read the sections on demonology. Even Bertrand Russell’s compendious History of Western Philosophy deals mainly with the shorter Summa Contra Gentiles. 🔻
From the age of five Aquinas (1225-1274, the author usually refers to him as Thomas) was brought up in a Benedictine monastery, but at sixteen he joined the Dominicans, a preaching order who had only recently been founded. Over the course of his life he wrote more than a hundred books, most of which he dictated to secretaries. About twenty-six of these were commissioned by his ecclesiastical superiors, but the rest were entirely his own inspiration.

His writings combined traditional Christian theology with the newly rediscovered Greek philosophy. I was under the impression that the versions of Aristotle that circulated in western Europe in the Middle Ages were all Latin translations of Arabic translations of the original Greek, but in fact another Dominican, William of Moerbeke, had spent time in Greece, learned the language, and produced ‘improved’ translations.

One attractive feature of scholastic theologians is that, when attacking rival opinions, they would normally state them in detail before attempting to refute them (unlike some modern authors). This was even true of the fanatic authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.

The Summa began by discussing the nature of God. Since Thomas accepted that God is essentially unknowable, this caused him some difficulties. Moreover, whilst he held that the existence of God could be demonstrated logically, there were other Catholic doctrines, such as the Trinity, that could only be known through divine revelation. Some of the issues are hard to follow nowadays, such as “the nature of separate subjects (i.e. angels), individuation by matter, and the operation of the intellect.”

‘Thomism’ went out of fashion after about 1700. But later it came back, to the extent that in 1914 Pope Pius X laid it down that scholasticism meant the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and that “all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as one iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” He did not specify the nature of the risk.

White’s book has a novel feature: his text was rather longer than the standard size required by the publishers, so he abridged it, but put the excised sections up on the internet, their former presence being indicated by crucifixes in the margin.

Whilst the Summa theologiae is gargantuan, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is a brief work, consisting of 195 short one-line verses. This is unusual, given the vast corpus of Hindu scripture, Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Dharmasutras, Tantras and Puranas, enough to fill several bookcases. It is concerned with what may loosely be termed meditation, rather than getting into funny postures.

Nothing is known about Patanjali, not even when he lived. The British Orientalist Henry Colebrooke went so far as to describe him as ‘a mythological being’. All one can say for certain is that the Yoga Sutra was in existence by the fifth century. One theory is that it is a compilation of works by different authors. It has also been suggested that the fourth section was added later, since it was not included in the Arabic and Old Javanese translations. Another idea is that the commentary by Vyasa was written by Patanjali himself. (Not a ridiculous idea – Aleister Crowley wrote commentaries on some of his own works, such as The Book of Lies.)

Strangely, in 195 verses there are only four verbs. This is partly because, in Sanskrit, as in many languages (such as classical Greek and Hebrew) the verb ‘to be’ is usually omitted, unless the author wants it for emphasis (as in “Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde”), The second verse reads: “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha”, which might be literally rendered as “Yoga-mind-thought-cessation”. White lists twenty-two different translations, including “Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind”, and “Disciplined meditation involves the cessation of the functioning of ordinary awareness.”

Whilst the existence of commentaries from the fifth to the twelfth centuries showed that the book was often read in these centuries, it came to be neglected thereafter. In the 1890s, however, it was incorporated into a book entitled Raja Yoga, by Swami Vivekenanda, which was widely distributed in the west – I have a copy whose title page describes it as Fifteenth Edition, 1955.

White refers to “such fraudulent self-proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga as Alistair [sic] Crowley”. It is worth noting that Crowley (sorry to bring him into this twice) included both The Aphorisms of Patanjali and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (as if they were separate works) in a recommended reading list of mystical books that he published in 1909. They were omitted in an otherwise longer version that he published a few years later (perhaps from an oversight), but his Eight Lectures on Yoga, delivered in the 1930s, show a clear influence of Patanjali. – Gareth J. Medway

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