Every article in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae begins with a series of objections to the position ultimately to be defended by St. Thomas. Reading through these objections and Thomas’s replies to them can often seem a bit tedious, yet they do serve an important function. To begin, the objections do help focus the discussion, often helping (though not always) give the reader a sense of what precisely is at stake in the issue under discussion. Why is St. Thomas asking this question? Why might it be important? Who cares? These are questions to which the objections help provide some preliminary answers.
In each individual article, the origin and nature of the objections raised to the position ultimately defended by St. Thomas can vary in nature. Some of the objections may represent positions actually held and taught by theologians or philosophers who were contemporaries of St. Thomas, and therefore represent real, historic debates of the time. Other objections might represent positions held by past theologians or philosophers, whether Christian, pagan, Jewish, or Muslim. Many of the positions represented by the objections, on the other hand, have no historical instantiation at all, but were invented ad hoc, either by St. Thomas himself or by one of his students, in an effort to help further define the issue under discussion. Thus, the objections represent either ways in which thinkers have gotten a particular issue wrong, or ways in which they might get it wrong, even if no one ever has. The impression one receives is that the knowledge of a thing is always dialectical: to know a thing in the right way is also to know what it would mean to get it wrong. It is also worth noting that, while the objections will usually be conceptually unrelated to each other, one can nevertheless often detect a certain order or hierarchy to the way the objections proceed, as when a subsequent objection will in a way presuppose the truth of Thomas’s reply to the previous objection, all the while discovering a new and possibly even more subtle or nuanced way of getting the issue wrong. In such cases, the set of objections and replies have the effect of triangulating on or spiraling in on the resolution of the problem that Thomas finally lays out in the body of the article. In this way Thomas reminds us that a given position on a matter is rarely as simple a matter as being flat right or wrong, but often involves being right or wrong in varying degrees.