These days, anyone familiar with the medieval “question” format has probably met it through the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. To the modern eye it seems stuffy or even pretentious, with its stilted language and logical distinctions and its appearance of completeness. We prefer the humble “essay,” a word that means an “attempt,” an effort in the right direction.
But over the years I have come to love the “question” format. Each “article” within the “question” is a dehydrated debate. Just add imagination, and you have a rowdy crowd of objectors who even disagree with each other and an enthusiastic team of supporters whose support is sometimes as embarrassing as the objections, and in between them the master whose mental agility alone can keep order. Here are just a few of the things I like about the “question” format:
1. The scholastic question and article forces you to be explicit in your thinking
The art of the article requires that you find the best, most essential objections. If you don’t have objections, or if you only have one, then the format itself pushes you to keep thinking. The body of the article should have the most essential distinction relevant to the question, so you have to ask yourself: among all the distinctions I am making, which one strikes to the heart of the matter?
2. The scholastic question and article allows you to leave your thinking implicit
The pre-fabricated structure of the article means that you don’t have to supply all the connective tissue between arguments. You may define the same term one way in the body of article one, another way in the reply to an objection in article two, and still a third way in the body of article three, and it is up to the reader to track the progression and see what you are up to. You may relegate what seems like a key distinction to the backwaters of the reply to objection five, and it is up to the reader to see why that distinction did not make it into the body of the article. The art of the question demands that you have a reason for everything, but it does not demand that you tip your hand at every point.
3. Your supporters come up for criticism, too
The “on the contrary” section, where the prima facie argument for your side is presented, is in fact one of the objections. It just happens to be an objection that supports your conclusion. If the argument it offers is a bad one, then you reply to that argument just as incisively as you do to the others.
4. Fine distinctions make for fun theses
This is mostly for entertainment, but I love it when the author can make a startling claim and justify it with a legitimate distinction. For example, St. Thomas argues that charity demands you love yourself more than your neighbor—Hold on!, you want to say. But then he makes a few distinctions, and you say, OK, in that sense I guess you’re right. I can almost see him smiling.
5. The reader has to get involved
The modern essay lets the writer strut his stuff, and that’s fun. But the scholastic article demands that the reader get into each tersely stated premise and imagine what this statement would mean outside the printed page. A huge truth is laid out in one sentence and explained in half a sentence more. What in the world would that even mean?, the reader wonders. And then in a moment of discovery, he suddenly sees that this IS true, is true EVERYWHERE, in the kitchen and in the living room and out of doors, and he just wants to jump and run around in excitement. I love that moment! The reader who won’t put in that imaginative effort is left out, left cold, and concludes that these scholastics were ivory-tower academic types who preferred abstractions to the real world.