Saint Thomas Aquinas

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2802

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.

Early Life

Thomas Aquinas (Tommaso d’Aquino) was the youngest son of...

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 in Viterbo, Italy, from 1267 to 1268. Here Thomas was apparently associated with William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican who was working on more accurate translations of Aristotle than those that had come to the West via the Arabic. In 1268 or 1269, Thomas was sent back to the University of Paris for his second tenure as a professor—and found himself in the midst of a seething controversy.

Masters and students at the university had become fascinated not only with the speculative works of Aristotle but also with those of his Arab interpreter Averroës. Though at least nominally a Muslim, Averroës taught, contrary to Islam and certainly to Christianity, that there was a fundamental duality between reason and faith. That is, philosophy might conclude that the world existed from eternity (as Aristotle did), while faith might speak of Creation. Both assertions, though contradictory, would be “true” in their own realm. Averroës also brought into question the nature of the soul and, using Aristotle’s writings, concluded that it was doubtful that each individual had a separate, immortal soul, as the Church taught. In 1266, the Latin Averroist Siger of Brabant had begun to popularize Averroës’ understanding of Aristotle and to attract disciples among the university’s faculty. Thomas plunged into dispute with Siger, attempting to argue that Averroës had misinterpreted Aristotle on matters of the soul and that though the eternity of the world might be a reasonable conclusion of science, such a conclusion was not absolute. Faith supplemented or fulfilled reason (not contradicting it) by teaching the Creation.

Nevertheless, Thomas was caught in the middle. When radical Averroism was officially condemned in 1270, Thomas’ own reliance upon Aristotle’s reasoning was also brought into question. Thomas was criticized by the followers of Saint Augustine’s more mystical Platonism, who claimed that human reason had been hopelessly compromised in the Fall. While Thomas condemned the doctrine of double truth (believing, apparently mistakenly, that Siger and others were teaching it), he did maintain that natural reason can discover certain fundamental theological truths by studying the effects of God’s working in the universe—thus the celebrated five proofs for God’s existence. Reason, however, can take man only so far. Grace completes nature by revealing what cannot be learned from reason—for example, that God is Triune. There are not two truths here: Since God is responsible for both reason and revelation, the two can never be contradictory. Thomas sought to separate Aristotle from his heterodox interpreters, but at the same time was forced to defend his own use of the philosopher.

In the first three years of his return to the University of Paris, Thomas finished both the first and second sections of part 2 of Summa Theologica, dealing with happiness, virtue, sin, law, and grace and, in the second section, with specific moral questions. It is said that Thomas sometimes employed four secretaries at a time to take his dictation and that he would often dictate in his sleep. One story has Thomas sitting next to King Louis IX at a banquet. Completely forgetting himself, Thomas lifted his head from a trance, banged his hand on the table, and called for his secretary to dictate some prize answer to Christian heretics.

In 1272, Thomas returned to Naples to set up a Dominican study house at the university there. His attention was also given to completing part 3 of the Summa Theologica, on the person and work of Christ. Yet on December 6, 1273, three months before his death, he put aside his writing, explaining that all he had written seemed as straw and that he could not continue. It is not known whether Thomas suffered a stroke or received a mystical vision or whether his faculties simply collapsed as a result of overwork. In 1274, he was summoned to attend a church council at Lyons. In poor health to begin with, he found himself unable to complete his journey after he struck his head on a tree or branch which had fallen in the road. He stopped at his niece’s castle near Fossanova; a few weeks later, he was taken to the nearby Cistercian monastery, where he died on March 7, 1274.

Though Thomas never completed the Summa Theologica, a supplement drawn from his earlier work was added to round out the presentation. In its two million words, the Summa Theologica contains more than five hundred questions, twenty-six hundred articles, and ten thousand objections and replies. The prolific Thomas had produced more than one hundred other works as well.

Though in 1277 an official church body in Paris condemned some 219 theological propositions which included twelve held by Thomas, by 1319, inquiries had begun concerning Thomas’ possible canonization. Thomas Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323 (the Paris condemnation concerning his teachings was canceled in 1325), and in 1567, he was named Doctor of the Church, his works sanctioned as a repository of orthodoxy.

Summary

For the Roman Catholic church, the thirteenth century was a time of synthesis. The writings of Aristotle and other ancients posed a new challenge to the Christian tradition, as did the influx of teachings from the Muslim world. It was the abiding passion of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ life to integrate faith and reason, exploring systematically the teachings of the Church by taking natural reason as far as it might go and supplementing it with the reasonableness of revelation. To him, the Christian faith was both reasonable and rationally defensible.

Aristotle supplied many of the categories by which the nature and content of theology might be profitably organized. The philosopher maintained that the world was purposive, and Thomas adopted this idea of a final cause. Thomas also used Aristotle’s conception of matter and form, and act and potentiality, in formulating his Summa Theologica. Moreover, although Thomas disputed with the Augustinians, he also adapted Neoplatonism for his purposes, much as he did Aristotelianism. Creation was ordered in a kind of chain of being, with man occupying a unique place, sharing earthly existence with other creatures but also possessing the capacity of receiving the vision of God after death and thus complete happiness. Critics have called the Summa Theologica the capstone of passionless Scholasticism, the last gasp of medieval society in its effort to hold the world together by outmoded categories. Others have called Thomas an elitist who preferred order to freedom, citing his description of women as naturally inferior to men, his preference for monarchy, and his attitude toward Jews as examples of his outmoded beliefs. In response, twentieth century Thomists have attempted to demonstrate that certain historically conditioned positions should not invalidate Thomas’ method or his insights and that Thomistic thought can be modified in favor of freedom, human rights, and democracy. Through Jacques Maritain in France and Mortimer Adler in the United States, generations of intellectuals have been introduced to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas’ influence in theology has diminished since the Catholic church ceased to promulgate Thomism after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965; yet his contribution to philosophy as an interpreter of Aristotle continues to be widely recognized.

Bibliography

Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933. Praised by Thomistic scholar Étienne Gilson, Chesterton’s is a superb lay introduction to the life and thought of Thomas, “the Angelic Doctor.” Novelist Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism, at times takes great delight in contrasting what he considers positive Thomism with negative Protestantism (especially that of Martin Luther and John Calvin). In the main, however, the wry Chesterton takes aim at the irrationalities of the world, from whatever quarter, and scores elegantly.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955. A scholarly yet accessible discussion of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Spends little time in dealing with Thomas the man, but rather considers God and Creation, body and soul, and morality and society. The discussion of modern Thomism is dated. Copleston’s analysis provides insight into Thomas’ use of Aristotle (he notes that the ancients were concerned with how things came into being; Thomas was concerned with why). No footnotes. The author has also written a multivolume, authoritative history of philosophy.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by L. K. Shook. New York: Random House, 1956. A classic and scholarly treatment of Thomas as philosopher and theologian. Chapters fall under the headings of God, Nature, and Morality. The book contains a comprehensive bibliography of Thomas’ works with descriptive details.

Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This volume in the Past Masters series offers a semipopular introduction to Thomas in fewer than one hundred pages. Three chapters explore Thomas’ life, his conception of Being (which Kenny believes is hopelessly flawed), and his notion of the nature of Mind (which Kenny praises for the questions Thomas asks). The latter two chapters introduce the reader to medieval categories of thought, but Thomas Aquinas the Christian is almost submerged.

McInerny, Ralph. St. Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977. An accessible study of Thomas’ thought in chapters dealing with Aristotle, Boethius (c. 480-524, through whose writings Aristotelian concepts first reached the Middle Ages), and Platonism. In a chapter on the tasks of theology, the author explains Thomas’ distinction between believing and knowing. The book is replete with examples, a useful chronology of Thomas’ life, and a short annotated bibliography.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. and trans. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1987. A wise and varied introduction to Thomas, with eighty pages devoted to pertinent excerpts of Thomas’ work, newly translated by the editor. Selections are generally quite short and range from Thomas’ writings on government to selections from his treatise on God in the Summa Theologica. Excerpts from background sources are also presented, with the remainder of the volume devoted to interpretations of Thomas. A short bibliography points out inadequacies in present translations of Aquinas and lists useful secondary sources. Extensive notes and prefatory remarks make this book an indispensable introduction.

Weisheipl, James A. Friar Thomas D’Aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1974. A standard modern biography arranged in chronological order. The text is burdened by a continual sorting out of evidence supplied by earlier biographers of Thomas, and many of the discussions seem merely academic. A useful chronology is included, as well as an updated listing of Thomas’ works. An index and a list of primary and secondary sources are also included. Useful for basic information about Thomas.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2696

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.

Early Life

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’s 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’s parents hoped that their son would one day become an abbot. The feudal system brought little prospect of family stability; perhaps Thomas’s 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 that 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’s studies included logic, grammar, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, and it was probably at Naples that he began his first serious study of the Greek philosopher 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’s older brothers to abduct and imprison him until he changed his mind. There is a story, perhaps based on fact, that when his brothers brought a prostitute into Thomas’s 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; Thomas’s mentor remarked that the bellowing of this ox would be heard throughout the world.

Life’s Work

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), by 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’s own Scriptum super “Libros sententiarum” joined more than a thousand other commentaries on the sentences. The structure of Thomas’s 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’s 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’s 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, Summa Contra Gentiles, 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 Theologica. He finished the first part, on God’s existence and attributes, during his stay at the papal court of Clement IV in Viterbo, Italy, from 1267 to 1268. There Thomas was apparently associated with William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican who was working on more accurate translations of Aristotle than those that had come to the West via the Arabic. In 1268 or 1269, Thomas was sent back to the University of Paris for his second tenure as a professor and found himself in the midst of a seething controversy.

Masters and students at the university had become fascinated not only with the speculative works of Aristotle but also with those of his Arab interpreter Averroës. Though at least nominally a Muslim, Averroës taught, contrary to Islam and certainly contrary to Christianity, that there was a fundamental duality between reason and faith. That is, philosophy might conclude that the world existed from eternity (as Aristotle did), while faith might speak of Creation. Both assertions, though contradictory, would be “true” in their own realm. Averroës also brought into question the nature of the soul and, using Aristotle’s writings, concluded that it was doubtful that each individual had a separate, immortal soul, as the Church taught. In 1266, the Latin Averroist Siger of Brabant had begun to popularize Averroës’s understanding of Aristotle and to attract disciples among the university’s faculty. Thomas plunged into dispute with Siger, attempting to argue that Averroës had misinterpreted Aristotle on matters of the soul and that though the eternity of the world might be a reasonable conclusion of science, such a conclusion was not absolute. Faith supplemented or fulfilled reason (not contradicting it) by teaching the Creation.

Nevertheless, Thomas was caught in the middle. When radical Averroism was officially condemned in 1270, Thomas’s own reliance upon Aristotle’s reasoning was also brought into question. Thomas was criticized by the followers of Saint Augustine’s more mystical Neoplatonism, who claimed that human reason had been hopelessly compromised in the Fall. Although Thomas condemned the doctrine of double truth (believing, apparently mistakenly, that Siger and others were teaching it), he did maintain that natural reason can discover certain fundamental theological truths by studying the effects of God’s working in the universe—thus the celebrated five proofs for God’s existence. Reason, however, can take people only so far. Grace completes nature by revealing what cannot be learned from reason—for example, that God is triune. There are not two truths here: Because God is responsible for both reason and revelation, the two can never be contradictory. Thomas sought to separate Aristotle from his heterodox interpreters but, at the same time, was forced to defend his own use of the philosopher.

In the first three years after his return to the University of Paris, Thomas finished both the first and second sections of part 2 of Summa Theologica, dealing with happiness, virtue, sin, law, and grace and, in the second section, with specific moral questions. It is said that Thomas sometimes employed four secretaries at a time to take his dictation and that he would often dictate in his sleep. One story has Thomas sitting next to King Louis IX at a banquet. Completely forgetting himself, Thomas lifted his head from a trance, banged his hand on the table, and called for his secretary to dictate some prize answer to Christian heretics.

In 1272, Thomas returned to Naples to set up a Dominican study house at the university there. His attention was also given to completing part 3 of Summa Theologica, on the person and work of Christ. Yet on December 6, 1273, three months before his death, he put aside his writing, explaining that all he had written seemed as straw and that he could not continue. It is not known whether Thomas suffered a stroke or received a mystical vision or whether his faculties simply collapsed as a result of overwork. In 1274, he was summoned to attend a church council at Lyons. In poor health to begin with, he found himself unable to complete his journey after he struck his head on a tree or branch that had fallen in the road. He stopped at his niece’s castle near Fossanova; a few weeks later, he was taken to the nearby Cistercian monastery, where he died on March 7, 1274.

Though Thomas never completed Summa Theologica, a supplement drawn from his earlier work was added to round out the presentation. In its two million words, Summa Theologica contains more than five hundred questions, twenty-six hundred articles, and ten thousand objections and replies. The prolific Thomas had produced more than one hundred other works as well.

Though in 1277 an official church body in Paris condemned some 219 theological propositions, including twelve held by Thomas, by 1319, inquiries had begun concerning Thomas’s possible canonization. Thomas Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323 (the Paris condemnation concerning his teachings was canceled in 1325), and in 1567, he was named Doctor of the Church, his works sanctioned as a repository of orthodoxy.

Influence

For the Roman Catholic Church, the thirteenth century was a time of synthesis. The writings of Aristotle and other ancients posed a new challenge to the Christian tradition, as did the influx of teachings from the Muslim world. It was the abiding passion of Thomas’s life to integrate faith and reason, exploring systematically the teachings of the Church by taking natural reason as far as it might go and supplementing it with the reasonableness of revelation. To him, the Christian faith was both reasonable and rationally defensible.

Aristotle supplied many of the categories by which the nature and content of theology might be profitably organized. The philosopher maintained that the world was purposive, and Thomas adopted this idea of a final cause. Thomas also used Aristotle’s conception of matter and form and act and potentiality in formulating his Summa Theologica. Moreover, although Thomas disputed with the Augustinians, he also adapted Neoplatonism for his purposes, much as he did Aristotelianism. Creation was ordered in a kind of chain of being, with humans occupying a unique place, sharing earthly existence with other creatures but also possessing the capacity of receiving the vision of God after death and thus complete happiness. Critics have called Summa Theologica the capstone of passionless Scholasticism, the last gasp of medieval society in its effort to hold the world together by outmoded categories. Others have called Thomas an elitist who preferred order to freedom, citing his description of women as naturally inferior to men, his preference for monarchy, and his attitude toward Jews as examples of his outmoded beliefs. In response, twentieth century Thomists have attempted to demonstrate that certain historically conditioned positions should not invalidate Thomas’s method or his insights and that Thomistic thought can be modified in favor of freedom, human rights, and democracy. Through Jacques Maritain in France and Mortimer Adler in the United States, generations of intellectuals have been introduced to Thomas’s thought. Thomas’s influence in theology has diminished since the Catholic Church ceased to promulgate Thomism after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965; yet his contribution to philosophy as an interpreter of Aristotle continues to be widely recognized.

Additional Reading

Bradley, Denis J. M. Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good: Reason and Human Happiness in Aquinas’s Moral Science. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. Bradley argues that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a theologian first and philosopher second. He contends that to avoid misinterpretation, Aquinas’s writings should be approached from a theological, rather than a philosophical, approach.

Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933. A superb introduction to the life and thought of Thomas, “the Angelic Doctor.” Aimed at non-Christian readers, or those with little experience in theology.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955. A scholarly yet accessible discussion of the philosophy of Thomas. Spends little time in dealing with Thomas himself but instead focuses on God and creation, body and soul, morality and society. The discussion of modern Thomism is dated. Copleston’s analysis provides insight into Thomas’s use of Aristotle (he notes that the ancients were concerned with how things came into being; Thomas was concerned with why).

Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This volume in the Past Masters series covers Thomas’s life in fewer than one hundred pages. Thomas’s theories are explored, including his conception of Being (which Kenny believes is hopelessly flawed) and his notion of the nature of Mind (which Kenny praises for the questions Thomas asks). Latter chapters introduce the reader to medieval categories of thought, but Thomas the Christian is almost submerged.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomastica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. 1982. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997. This work is one of the finest introductions to Thomas’s moral philosophy. Covers selected themes in Thomistic moral thinking, including moral goodness, judging good and evil moral actions, work of virtues, functions of conscience, and relation of ethics to religious belief.

McInerny, Ralph. St. Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An accessible study of Thomas’s thought in chapters dealing with Aristotle, Boethius (whose philosophy was introduced to modern times through Thomas’s writings), and Platonism. In a chapter on the tasks of theology, the author explains Thomas’s distinction between believing and knowing. The book is filled with examples and includes a useful chronology of Thomas’s life plus a short, annotated bibliography.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. An introduction to Thomas, with eighty pages devoted to pertinent excerpts of Thomas’s work, newly translated by the editor. Selections are generally quite short and range from Thomas’s writings on government to selections from his treatise on God in Summa Theologica. Excerpts from background sources are also presented, with the remainder of the volume devoted to interpretations of Thomas.

Bibliography updated by Lisa A. Wroble

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