Saint Thomas Aquinas
Article abstract: By adapting pagan philosophy as a handmaiden to Christian doctrine, Thomas created both a magisterial systematization of medieval Catholic faith and a philosophical system with implications for ethics, law, psychology, semantics, and the nature of reason itself.
Thomas Aquinas (Tommaso d’Aquino) was the youngest son of Count Landulf (Landolfo) of Aquino and his second wife, Donna Theodora of Naples, who was descended from Norman nobility. Landulf, along with his older sons, had been employed as a soldier by Emperor Frederick II to defend Sicily from the Papal States to the north. Thomas was born in the family castle near the old city of Aquino in 1224 or 1225 (the testimony from Thomas’ first biographers is conflicting). When he was five, he was taken to the nearby Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino; there he received his early religious instruction. Hostilities between Frederick II and the pope had calmed for the moment, and it is thought that Thomas’ parents hoped that their son would one day become an abbot. The feudal system brought little prospect of family stability; perhaps Thomas’ eventual clerical influence would provide for the future.
The emperor was excommunicated in 1239; in return, he threatened Monte Cassino; most of the monks there were sent into exile. That year, Thomas returned to his parents, who sent him to the studium generale (later to become the university) in Naples, a school which had been founded by the emperor in 1224 to compete with similar church institutions. Frederick welcomed the introduction of Islamic as well as Christian scholarship into his university. Thomas’ studies included logic, grammar, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, and it was probably at Naples that he began his first serious study of Aristotle. Portions of Aristotle’s works were being translated from the Greek, making their way into the Latin West often accompanied by interpretations of Arabic scholars, most notably the twelfth century Islamic philosopher Averroës.
It was an age of ferment: Intellectually, the new learning, especially Aristotle’s teaching on the eternity of the world, threatened Christian doctrine. Politically and militarily, with the continued clash of secular and ecclesiastical powers, the old feudal order was coming to an end.
At Naples, Thomas was drawn to the Order of Friars Preachers, the Dominicans, founded in France in 1216 by Saint Dominic. The Dominicans taught obedience and poverty (and thus the begging of alms), as did the Franciscan Order (founded by Saint Francis of Assisi less than a decade earlier), but the Dominicans also put special emphasis on the life of study, preaching, and teaching. The order penetrated many of the universities of Western Europe, opening study houses devoted to theology and philosophy. Though reared to appreciate the Benedictine cycle of prayer, worship, sleep, and manual labor, Thomas found the new order better suited to his temperament.
His decision to join the Dominicans in 1244 was not without controversy. His mother, now a widow, persuaded Thomas’ older brothers to abduct and imprison him until he changed his mind. There is a story, perhaps based in fact, that when his brothers brought a prostitute into Thomas’ cell to break his resolve, he picked up a burning stick from the fire and drove her from the room. Taken to Roccasecca, Thomas remained steadfast, and after about a year of detention he was permitted by his family to join his Dominican brothers at the University of Paris in 1245. His novitiate was under the tutelage of the German Dominican theologian Saint Albertus Magnus.
An early biographer notes that in 1248 Thomas joined Albert in Cologne and a new studium generale there, where Thomas was often referred to as the “dumb ox.” This sobriquet did not pertain to his intelligence, but to his massive physique: Though Thomas was a bit taller than his peers, he was corpulent, slow of movement, quiet, and often withdrawn. Yet Albert saw deeper; his mentor remarked that the bellowing of this ox would be heard throughout the world.
Upon Albert’s recommendation, Thomas returned to the University of Paris in 1252 to prepare for his degree in theology. Not yet thirty years of age, Thomas would have little more than two decades of life remaining. In that time, he was to produce an enduring systematization of the Catholic faith, numerous commentaries on the works of Aristotle, liturgical works, and polemical pieces.
Already he was discussing theological issues in public disputations and lecturing on the era’s standard theological textbook, Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; books of sentences) of Peter Lombard. The “sentences,” or opinions, were collected from church fathers and medieval theologians and arranged by doctrines. Book 1, for example, treated God; book 2, the Fall of Man. Theology students, “bachelors of the Sentences,” tried to harmonize the varying viewpoints and elucidate the fine points; nuance was everything. Thomas’ own Scriptum super “Libros sententiarum” (1252-1256; writings on the books of sentences) joined more than a thousand other commentaries. The structure of Thomas’ book was derived from the oral tradition of the public disputation. The master would employ his students in framing theological arguments, both pro and con, with debate sometimes lasting six or eight hours. The master then met in private with his students, analyzing the arguments and formulating a written version of the dispute. Many of Thomas’ theological works are based on the form of the disputation and thus were not intended for lay audiences. In the multiplicity of distinctions and definitions, Thomas’ writings exemplified a Scholastic style popular during the Middle Ages but stigmatized in later eras as hollow and pedantic.
In 1256, Thomas obtained his license to teach theology at the university. For three years thereafter, he continued to lecture, primarily on the Gospel of Matthew, and to participate in public disputations. During this time, he began work on a theological guidebook for Dominican missionaries as they engaged in disputes with Muslims, Jews, and heretical Christians in North Africa and Spain. This treatise, the Summa contra gentiles (c. 1258-1264; English translation, 1923), was completed after he returned to Italy to lecture at the papal court in 1261. In 1265, he left Orvieto and Pope Urban IV for a two-year stay in Rome. It was while he was in Rome, teaching Dominican students, that Thomas began his masterwork, Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921). He finished the first part, on God’s existence and attributes, during his stay at the papal court of Clement IV...
(The entire section is 2802 words.)