Having read through one hundred and twelve of the topics in Peter Kreeft’s Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, an accurate enough opinion of it has formed in my mind. The book–as anything written on St. Thomas’s theology–is quite dense, so I abandoned my hope of reading through its 366 pages in a month. I cannot help but admire how Kreeft either draws passages from the Summa Theologica easily applicable to everyday life or shows the relevance of more esoteric theology to living a good life. The prose and philosophy are both clear and direct, as may be expected from a Thomist. Besides St. Thomas, Kreeft quotes a wide variety of other Christian thinkers on these topics, especially C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. He also seems most at home with the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
Though, in regard to Plato, Kreeft often harps on a fallacy in Platonic philosophy: the idea that sin is only caused by ignorance. Plato believed that if ignorance were removed from a human being completely, he would not sin. We even see this idea a little in medieval philosophy when St. Bonaventure writes that Christ was like us in everything “except sin and ignorance” (See St. Bonaventure’s Tree of Life). However, Kreeft remarks that people sin despite knowing that it will make them miserable. Ignorance of goodness is not the only cause of sin. As Kreeft points out, we are all a little insane in cleaving to those things which cause us misery. Eliminating ignorance by doing things like reading philosophy and theology only goes so far: we need grace and the practice of virtue.
But if sin is insanity, then philosophy and theology do go far in helping us avoid sin through helping us meditate on good and noble things. (In my opinion, many modern philosophies do much to obscure what man ought to strive for, but ancient and medieval philosophies have more practical value. But, that’s the subject of another article.) The usefulness of Kreeft’s book lies in helping us to think about St. Thomas’s presentation of some of the deepest questions to enter the human mind: what is the good? What is happiness? What makes for happiness? What is the relationship between freedom and grace? Kreeft sets these questions up such that they build upon one another, and our understanding of prior topics is also bettered as we advance through the book.
I wish to end this review by saying that, even though Kreeft appears to be definitely answering all these deep questions for us, he does not mean for our journey to understand reality to end with his answers. As Kreeft writes in the epilogue: “The most perfect and finished work on earth is to know that all work on earth is imperfect and unfinished” (366). All the same, Thomism, with the logical clarity it derives from Aristotle, the humility and learning from St. Augustine, and the sure foundation of Revelation, provides us with an excellent foundation from which to grow in our understanding of the truth. But, the point of true philosophy is not only to understand reality, but also to live well–that practical side explained so well by St. Thomas!