Thomas Aquinas Essay - Critical Essays

Aquinas, Thomas


Thomas Aquinas c. 1222/27-1274

Italian theologian, philosopher, and composer of hymns.

Thomas Aquinas, also called the "Angelic Doctor," is one of the most revered theologians of the Catholic Church. His masterwork, the Summa Theologica [Summary of Theology, 1265-73,] is a complete exposition of Christian theology and philosophy that has been read and used for seven hundred years. Aquinas synthesized the great ideas of history, including the essence of Aristotelianism, into a systematized theology. His efforts often led him to defending himself against Church accusations of radicalism. With his roots in the common world, Aquinas championed a philosophy that searched for truth unopposed to common sense; his demonstration of the relationship between faith and reason has never been improved upon. Cardinal Bessarion has called Aquinas "the most saintly of learned men and the most learned of saints." His influence on students of the Church cannot be overestimated.

Biographical Information

Aquinas was the youngest son of Count Landulf and his second wife, Countess Theodora of Theate; he was born between 1222 and 1227 at Roccasecca, a family castle near the region of Naples, in Italy. When about five years old, Aquinas was sent for training to the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. There he remained until 1239, reading in its nearly unparalleled library, studying the Latin writings of the Saints Gregory, Jerome, and Augustine; learning the art of dictating letters; and probably receiving instruction in arithmetic, geometry, dialectic, and astronomy. From 1239 until 1244 Aquinas studied at the recently founded university at Naples, where he was exposed to the works of Aristotle and the Dominicans. Aquinas was influenced in his views on Aristotle by the Muslim commentator Avicenna, who freely paraphrased the philosopher and incorporated positions contrary to him. Aquinas rejected in particular much of Aristotle's thought on being and existence. In 1245 Aquinas was accepted into the Dominican order and he looked forward to living a life of absolute poverty. Becoming a beggar and joining the Dominicans instead of the Benedictines did not meet with the approval of Aquinas's mother; acting under her orders, Aquinas's older brother, the Lord Rinaldo, abducted Thomas, who was then sent to and held at various family estates.

During this period of confinement, which has been likened to house arrest, Aquinas prayed and pursued his writing while his family tried in vain to change his mind. Eventually Aquinas's family permitted him to leave and he traveled to the Dominican novitiate at Paris. From 1248 to 1252 Aquinas studied in Cologne under Albert of Lauingen, also known as Albert the Great. Albert had great powers of assimilation, an encyclopedic mind for matters of theology, and greatly influenced his pupil in the practice of the synthesis of ideas and materials. Aquinas's studies included the texts of Dionysius the Areo-pagite, now often referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius. Albert assigned Aquinas to lecture on the Libri Qua-tuor Sententiarum (Four Books of Sentences) written by Peter Lombard. Aquinas's commentaries on the Sentences constitute some of his most important early writing. Aquinas became a master of theology in 1256 and his teaching included lecturing and posing theological problems to his students. Aquinas registered many works during his stay in Paris. From 1259 until 1268 he taughtin Italy, returned to Paris until 1272, then returned to Naples, where he foun-ded a studium generale. Aquinas died in 1274 at a monastery in Fossanova, near Sonnino. In 1319 the canonization process for Aquinas began, and in 1323 Pope John XXII declared him a saint. Pope Pius V proclaimed Aquinas "Doctor ecclesiae" in 1567.

Major Works

Aquinas wrote several dozen works, sometimes employing the help of scribes who would take down his spoken words. In addition there are many works attributed to him that are probably the product of his disciples. Among his principal works are the treatises on disputed questions; these are more fully realized versions of Aquinas's lectures. His "Quodlibetal" works represent questions and arguments and also originated as lectures. His Summa de Veritate Catholicae Fidei contra Gentiles [Summary of the Truth of the Catholic Faith against the Gentiles, 1259-64] defended the Church against the Jews and Moors in Spain. In it Aquinas also demonstrates that science is not opposed to faith. Critics agree that Aquinas's greatest achievement is the Summa Theologiae. There, Aquinas seeks to do away with the multiplication of useless questions, arguments, and materials and to deal with the most important issues with all possible brevity and clarity.

Critical Reception

The writings of Aquinas were immensely popular from the time they were first composed. Manuscript copies circulated widely even before the advent of printing. Although Aquinas strove to be widely understood, his concepts are not always easy to grasp. Many critics have tried to ascertain and explain his theology; one estimate cites some 6000 commentaries on his works. Pope Leo XIII has praised Aquinas for gathering together dispersed doctrines and forming them into one whole: "He disposed them in marvelous order and increased them to such an extent that he is rightly and deservedly considered the preeminent guardian and glory of the Catholic Church." Leo has also acclaimed Aquinas for harmonizing reason and faith. Pope John Paul II declared that one of Aquinas's greatest qualities was that "he had a great respect for the visible world because it is the work, and hence also the imprint and image, of God the Creator." Edward A. Synan has called the Summa Theologiae a classic for its "order; lucidity; respect for sources, whether biblical, ecclesial, philosophical, or simply the dicta of classical authors in their fields; and especially the cogency of argument."

* Principal Works

Scriptum in IV Libros Sententiarum [Writings on the Four Books of the Sentences] 1252-57

De Ente et Essentia [On Being and Essence] 1253

De Principiis Naturae [On the Principles of Nature] 1253

Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate [Disputed Questions on Truth] 1256-59

Quaestiones Quodlibetales [Quodlibetal Questions] 1256-72

In Librum Dionysii de Divinis Nominibus [Exposition of (Pseudo-) Dionysius's The Divine Names] 1258-65

Summa de Veritate Catholicae Fidei contra Gentiles [Summary of the Truth of the Catholic Faith against the Gentiles] 1259-64

Compendium Theologiae [Compendium of Theolȯgy] 1265-69

In VIII Libros Physicorum [Commentary on Aristotle's Physics in Eight Books] 1265-73

In X Libros Ethicorum [Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in Ten Books] 1265-73

In XII Libros Metaphysicorwn [Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics in Twelve Books] 1265-73

In Libros De Anima [Commentary on Aristotle's On the Soul] 1265-73

In Libros De Caelo et Mundo [Commentary on Aristotle's On the Heaven and Earth] 1265-73

In Libros De Generatione et Corruptione [Commentary on Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption] 1265-73

In Libros De Memoria et Reminiscentia, et De Sensu et Sensato [Commentaries on Aristotle's On Memory and Reminiscence and On Perception] 1265-73

In Libros Meteorologicorwn [Commentary on Aristotle's Meteorology] 1265-73

In Libros Peri Hermeneias [Commentary on Aristotle's On Interpretation] 1265-73

In Libros Politicorum [Commentary on Aristotle's Politics] 1265-73

In Libros Posteriorum Analyticorum [Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics] 1265-73

Summa Theologiae [Summary of Theology] 1265-73

Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei [Disputed Questions on the Power of God] 1265

Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo [Disputed Questions on Evil] 1267

Quaestio Disputatae de Anima [Disputed Question on the Soul] 1269

De Aeternitate Mundi [On the Eternity of the World] 1271

De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae [On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life] 1271

De Substantiis Separatis [On Separate Substances] 1271

In Librum De Causis [Exposition of the Book of Causes] 1271

Opera Omnia. 52 vols. 1882-

* All of Aquinas's works are theological/philosophical in nature. Dates indicated reflect approximate year of composition.

Principal English Translations

The "Summa Theologica" of St. Thomas Aquinas, Literally Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Providence. 22 vols. 1911-25.

The "Summa contra Gentiles" of St. Thomas Aquinas, Literally Translated by the English Dominican Fathers from the Latest Leonine edition. 4 vols. 1924-29.

Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. 2 vols. 1945

St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa theologiae, Latin Text and English. 61 vols. 1964-80.


G. K Chesterton (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "The Approach to Thomism" in St. Thomas Aquinas, Sheed & Ward, Inc., 1933, pp. 175-95.

[In the following excerpt, Chesterton describes Aquinas's philosophy as difficult but founded on common sense and practical, ordinary truisms.]

The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense. For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home...

(The entire section is 4513 words.)

Étienne Gilson (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas" in The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by Edward Bullough, B. Herder Book Co., 1937, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, Gilson traces the history of philosophy to the time of Aquinas; discusses the difficulties Aquinas faced in adapting the obscured essence of Aristotelianism to theology; and explains Aquinas's function as Doctor of the Church.]

The Man and His Environment

All great philosophies present themselves at first sight and externally as closed systems uncompromisingly opposed to all concessions. The history of philosophy, however, very soon discovers in pursuing its...

(The entire section is 11869 words.)

Katherine Archibald (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Concept of Social Hierarchy in the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas," The Historian, Vol. XII, No. 1, Autumn, 1950, pp. 28-54.

[In the following essay, Archibald examines Aquinas's theories concerning the proper structure of society and the importance of hierarchy, status, and privilege.]


St. Thomas Aquinas, who since the century of his birth has been a major influence in the world of theology, philosophy, and social theory, has acquired a new importance in recent decades. The Church, within which he labored, has long honored him as one of its few supreme philosophers. Less than fifty years after his death he was canonized. At the...

(The entire section is 9060 words.)

M.-D. Chenu (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Works of St. Thomas and Their Literary Forms" in Toward Understanding Saint Thomas, translated by A. M. Landry and D. Hughes, Henry Regnery Company, 1964, pp. 79-99.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in French in 1950, Chenu asserts that Aquinas's works must be studied in relation to their genre. She then proceeds to outline the history of the reading, the question, the disputation, and the article.]

I. Thought and Literary Form

After a presentation in general outline of the broad cultural contexts of the life-work of Saint Thomas, it may seem that it is taking things from too far afield to begin a study...

(The entire section is 10184 words.)

Vernon J. Bourke (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Golden Wisdom" in Aquinas's Search for Wisdom, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965, pp. 220-30.

[In the following excerpt, Bourke discusses Aquinas's reputation in the half-century following his death.]

"We earnestly exhort you, venerable brethren, to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas," wrote Pope Leo XIII in 1879.1 This is one of the best known quotations from the famous letter which touched off the modern revival of interest in Aquinas' personality and thought. Pope Leo reviewed the repeated approvals of Thomism that are found in the words of nearly all the Roman pontiffs in the years since his canonization.2 He also spoke with...

(The entire section is 4154 words.)

John Paul II (lecture date 1979)

SOURCE: "Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas for the Youth of Our Times" in The Whole Truth about Man: John Paul II to University Faculties and Students, edited by James V. Schall, St. Paul Editions, 1981, pp. 209-27.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture in 1979, John Paul II outlines three qualities for which Aquinas gained his reputation: his complete submission to divine revelation, his great respect for the visible world, and his total acceptance of the teaching office of the Church.]

Esteemed professors and very dear students!

  1. It is with a feeling of deep joy that I find myself once more, after no short space of time, in...

(The entire section is 4933 words.)

Arvin Vos (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Faith as Knowledge, Faith as Belief: Calvin vs. Aquinas" in Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought, Christian University Press, 1985, pp. 1-20.

[In the following excerpt, Vos contends that the seemingly diametrical differences between Calvin's and Aquinas's positions on the nature of faith are not substantive but the result of ambiguous terminology.]

Among Protestants today Thomas Aquinas is best known for his natural theology, specifically the famous Five Ways found in the second question of the Summa Theologiae. Indeed, for many Protestants this is the only part of Aquinas's writings known with a firsthand acquaintance. By...

(The entire section is 8414 words.)

Ralph McInerny (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Action Theory in St. Thomas Aquinas" in Miscellanea Mediaevalia, Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1987, pp. 13-22.

[In the following essay, written in 1987, McInerny examines Aquinas's thoughts on the common good and ultimate end, particularly the distinction between conceiving and realizing perfection.]

In this paper I shall be discussing an issue in Thomistic moral theory that seems to have its parallel in Aristotle. Students of Aristotle have often considered the relation between the analysis of decision in Nicomachean Ethics III, where the model is an end/means one, and that in Nicomachean Ethics VI and VII, where the preferred model is the practical...

(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Jean Porter (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Permanent Significance of Thomas Aquinas" in The Recovery of Virtue: The Relevance of Aquinas for Christian Ethics, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990, pp. 172-79.

[In the following excerpt, Porter extols Aquinas for his unsurpassed handling of problems in his own time, as well as for providing a strong foundation on which to build in the future.]

The history of Aquinas' influence in the ecumenical church is filled with ironies. In 1879, Aquinas' intellectual authority was held up by Leo XIII, in his famous encyclical Aeterni Patris, as "a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church," because "with his own hand he vanquished all errors of...

(The entire section is 3457 words.)

Eleonore Stump (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Aquinas on Faith and Goodness" in Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology, edited by Scott Mac-Donald, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 179-207.

[In the following essay, Stump explains Aquinas's theory of the will and its relationship to the intellect, faith, and goodness; frames objections to Aquinas's accounts; and responds to those objections.]

1. Introduction

Recent work on the subject of faith has tended to focus on the epistemology of religious belief, considering such issues as whether beliefs held in faith are rational and how they may be justified. Richard Swinburne, for...

(The entire section is 14101 words.)

Oliva Blanchette (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Being with Order" in Perfection of the Universe according to Aquinas: A Teleological Cosmology, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 1-31.

[In the following excerpt, Blanchette explains Aquinas's philosophy of being, as well as what he meant by the perfection of the universe.]

The idea of the universe and its perfection is not one we think of readily. Moreover, if we do think of the universe as a whole, we are not inclined to think of it as perfect. Our idea of perfection is no less vague and vacillating than our idea of the universe. Physicists think of the universe as a whole in their cosmology, but only in terms of their abstract...

(The entire section is 15465 words.)

Paul J. Wadell (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Happiness: The One Thing Everybody Wants" in The Primacy of Love: An Introduction to the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas, Paulist Press, 1992, pp. 44-62.

[In the following excerpt, Wadell discusses Aquinas's inquiries into happiness, including the requirements for attaining true happiness, the need to purify one's desires, false notions of happiness, and why perfect happiness can be found only in God.]

Anybody who promises to make us happy has our attention. We may be skeptical, but we will listen. Everyone wants to be happy, and if we doubt this we only have to recall how much of our energy is devoted to seeking what we think will bring us joy. This is why when...

(The entire section is 8652 words.)

John I. Jenkins (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "'Scientia' and the Summa theologiae" in Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 78-98.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkins discusses the structure and nature of the Summa Theologiae and argues that its intended audience was advanced students in theology.]

The Summa theologiae is the chefd'oeuvre of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although all of Aquinas's works are powerful and important, and several are masterpieces, the Summa theologiae is his most comprehensive and is thought by most to be his greatest. The sheer organization of such a large amount of disparate material in the four volumes of this...

(The entire section is 9644 words.)

Thomas Franklin O'Meara (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Patterns in the Summa theologiae" in Thomas Aquinas, Theologian, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997, pp. 41-86.

[In the following excerpt, O 'Meara discusses some of the patterns and structures Aquinas used in his consideration of Christian theology.]

All beautiful attributes showered throughout the world in separate drops flow together whole and complete, and move toward the font of goodness. When we are drawn to the graciousness, beauty, and goodness of creatures, we ought to be borne away to the One in whom all these little streams commingle and flow.

Summa contra gentiles (2,...

(The entire section is 18168 words.)

Further Reading


Miethe, Terry L. and Vernon J. Bourke. Thomistic Bibliography, 1940-1978. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. 318p.

Reference for writings concerning Aquinas, arranged by subject.


Torrell, Jean-Pierre. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Volume I: The Person and His Work. Translated by Robert Royal. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996, 407p.

Biography that includes an extensive list of Aquinas's writings and indexes of names and subjects.

Weisheipl, James A. Friar Thomas D 'Aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. Garden City, N.Y.:...

(The entire section is 728 words.)