McDermott’s Aquinas

I’ve been reading Timothy McDermott’s Aquinas anthology (Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993). Overall I recommend it, though with reservations.

Aquinas will often begin a discussion with a numbered list of questions and then, many pages later, refer back to these by their numbers alone, requiring the reader to flip back through the book trying to find where exactly Aquinas said what “the fourth question” was. (This annoying feature of St. Thomas’s style makes any attempt to read his work on an e-reader an exercise in futility, as I know from experience. Actual pages to flip are a must.) McDermott ameliorates this considerably with bracketed additions to the text. For example:

[Article 7] The seventh question [Does the goal determine the kind more specifically than the object, or vice versa?] we approach as follows: . . . (p. 352, brackets and boldface in the original).

It’s hard to overstate how much more enjoyable such little touches make the reading experience.

Another plus of McDermott’s translation is that he is not a slave to etymology, as so many Aquinas translators apparently are. Just because the original Latin uses the word accidens, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best English translation is accident — a word which no longer means in modern English what it meant to Aquinas — so McDermott opts for incidental properties instead. This often makes Aquinas’s meaning much more transparent. One downside, though, is that most other Aquinas translators are slaves to etymology, so someone who reads only this translation will not learn the etymologically correct technical terms (such as accident) which most English-speakers use when discussing Aquinas. A translator’s note at the beginning of one of the passages highlights the sort of confusion that may arise:

Deliberately, ‘condition’ translates dispositio, ‘disposition’ habitus, and ‘habit’ and ‘custom’ consuetudo. ‘Moderation’ and ‘courage’ translate temperantia and fortitudo; ‘deiform virtue’ translates virtus theologica.

This is obviously bound to lead to misunderstanding when the reader attempts to discuss this passage with someone who has learned the more etymologically conventional technical meanings of disposition and habit. And, while many people have heard of the “theological virtues” — faith, hope, and charity — no one who hasn’t read McDermott is going to know what you’re talking about if you start throwing around the word deiform.

McDermott, however, is evidently sensitive to these possible sources of confusion, which is why he includes several helpful “notes on the translation” like the one quoted above. The index also includes the original Latin in parentheses for certain key terms. All in all, his approach is perhaps an acceptable compromise between clarity and “backward compatibility” with other translations.

One slightly annoying feature of the translation is McDermott’s insistence of referring to Muslim scholars by their original Arabic names, using Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā in place of the more familiar Averroës and Avicenna. — the equivalent of insisting on calling Confucius Kǒngzǐ. Since the Latinized names are of course the ones Aquinas used, and are also the ones that modern English-speakers will be familiar with, it’s hard to justify translating them back into Arabic, and I have to assume he did so for political (not to say politically correct) reasons.

More grating is McDermott’s decision to “translate” Dionysius as Pseudo-Dionysius — ridiculous, since, whatever modern scholarship may have to say about it, Aquinas believed he was quoting the actual Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of Paul, and he referred to him as such. McDermott’s anachronistic rendition is the equivalent of translating Romans 10:16 as “For Deutero-Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

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