The more I study history, the less enthusiasm I have for starting with primary texts. I think the more I learn, the more I realize how disoriented I’ve been. I learned from Plotinus that one can’t approach him without a good grasp of what is going one beforehand, which writings one will pore over his writings for a long time before one achieves that. I suppose there are authors who don’t require as many preliminaries. But most of church history is intellectual history, and those tend to require it more. So that now I don’t even want to start dealing with primary texts until I have read three introductions. At the moment I can do that. I can count on a week for reading three or four introductions.
Which is not to say I disparage reading primary texts. I have, however, witnessed a lot of milling around trying to figure out things that could have been addressed in preliminary considerations. We read the primary texts loaded with expectation that do not coincide with what was being addressed. That’s where you get the strange growth in the secondary literature of persons trying to work up enthusiasm for concerns they perceive mostly because they project them onto the primary literature.
But now I know my way around Aquinas. I’ve done at least five introductions. You know what I find about the Summae? Reading the objections and responses is tedious and only useful if you don’t understand the answer. If you just read the answer, it is not as tedious because you see the main part of what he’s getting at. If you need to go deeper, or do not understand what is going on, there are the objections and responses to them. Of course, if you have to be careful, you want to be careful. But there is a lot of Aquinas to be reading. The great thing is not, actually, to have read Aquinas, but to understand his arguments. Until you are a specialist, you will be a generalist, and there is a lot of general knowledge to master in Aquinas. The crabwise philosophy of Aristotle stretched the scope of theology enormously.