Thomas Aquinas Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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."