Q&A with William H. Marshner

We are delighted to have William H. Marshner join us on the blog to discuss his newly released translation of Cardinal Cajetan’s Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: Prima Pars. The translation is divided into three separate free-standing volumes. William H. Marshner is Professor Emeritus of Theology, Christendom College, and the editor and translator of Defending the Faith: An Anti-Modernist Anthology (CUA Press).  

Q: Cajetan’s commentary has never been translated in its entirety.  Why not and how important is this?

A: My translation is the first translation of any part of the Summa to follow that command of Pope Leo XIII to print Cajetan’s commentaries along with each article of the Summa.

Cajetan’s commentary is written in the high scholastic style, in which important points are debated. The points can have come from any school of theology that was functioning in the two hundred years between Aquinas and Cajetan. The Latin of these philosophical debates is often difficult, especially because it is loaded with scholastic turns of phrase which, even though they were pioneered by Thomas, did not become standard pieces of philosophical terminology until after his time. 

So long as everyone was studying Aquinas and the other scholastics in Latin, no translation seemed to be necessary. But by the 20th century, Dominican scholastics were almost the only ones still studying this material in Latin. Oddly enough, prior to the present decade, there had never been a translation of Cajetan’s Commentary on the Prima Pars even into Italian! 

After Vatican II, the collapse of scholastic culture in Latin made a translation imperative for the first time. The reason sixty years still went by before the translation was done is set forth in the answer to the next question.

Q: For 500 years scholars used to study the Summa along with this Commentary.  Why did that fall out of practice, and how will having this available help scholars moving forward?

A: Cajetan’s work as a commentator came under a cloud after Vatican II, thanks primarily to the rising influence of Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Etienne Gilson.  These and other famous writers thought that Cajetan’s commentaries were too fussy, detailed, and even nit-picking. 

When I started reading these commentaries, however, I was struck not only by how helpful they were but also how well they defended the work of Saint Thomas against objections raised in the two hundred years prior to Cajetan.  I had jumped into them because I was teaching a course on the Trinity, and St. Thomas began his treatise on the Trinity with the issue of the processions within God.  Without Cajetan’s commentary on Q. 27, A.1, the modern reader had no clue as to how controversial the issue of these processions had become in St. Thomas’s day.  That one commentary alone made it possible to understand medieval intellectual history.

Q: You made the decision to copy the early printed editions of the Summa which included this commentary in a Talmudic arrangement.  Why was that important?

A: My layout is the same as the Leonine edition. That was important because I wanted readers to experience the way things are laid out in the Leonine edition so that they can see not only footnotes but also marginal notes.

Marginal notes are the tiny notes in the margins; the Latin citation in the original are always very partial – they leave out information that a modern writer would never leave out. The marginal notes for the most part were started by Cajetan, but finished by me. Having the footnotes on the same page makes it easy for a reader to see what I thought was necessary to explain the text. 

Each page of the Talmud has a central block of text in the middle, with the commentary going all around the edges in smaller print. So this is not a Talmudic arrangement; it is the arrangement of Leo XIII who ordered an official edition prepared of the works of St. Thomas along with the printed edition of Cajetan’s commentaries. 

Q: What was the biggest challenge in this translation, and/or the most enlightening or rewarding discovery you made during your work?

A: The biggest challenge I had in doing this translation was finding the time: I began it when I was teaching full or over-full course loads while at the same time my wife and I were raising four children. The work continued until after I had retired from teaching and nine of my thus-far-twelve grandchildren had arrived!   

Also challenging was finding idiomatic English translations for Latin technical terms, especially when many of the technical terms had been traditionally mistranslated in English. Examples are in my preface.  

I suppose the biggest discovery for me was in the Commentary on Q. 76, A. 1, on the Answer to the fifth objection (this is section xxiv – xxxv of Cajetan’s Commentary). Nowhere else have I seen the difference between existence and forms laid out more clearly.  It is impossible to understand this passage without having acquired the distinction between first and second order “beings,” which is currently a hot topic in the philosophy of mathematics (of all things!). 

Of equal importance, however, was the accuracy of Cajetan’s modal logic. I invite the reader to peruse Q.14, A. 13. I had to add important footnotes both to the original article by St. Thomas and to Cajetan’s lengthy commentary, and these footnotes cost me all the knowledge of modern logic and analytical philosophy which I had been able to acquire over my lifetime. 

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