Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 - March 7, 1274) was a Catholic philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition. He is considered by the Catholic church to be its greatest theologian and one of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church.

Biography

Early years

The life of Thomas Aquinas offers many interesting insights into the world of the High Middle Ages. He was born into a family of the south Italian nobility and was through his mother Countess Theadora of Theate related to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Holy Roman emperors. He was probably born early in 1225 at his father's castle of Roccasecca in the kingdom of Naples, his father being Count Landulf. Landulf's brother, Sinibald, was abbot of the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, and the family intended Thomas to follow his uncle into that position; this would have been a normal career-path for a younger son of the nobility.

In his fifth year he was sent for his early education to the monastery. However, after studying at the University of Naples, Thomas joined the Dominican order, which along with the Franciscan order represented a revolutionary challenge to the well-established clerical systems of early medieval Europe. This change of heart did not please the family; on the way to Rome, Thomas was seized by his brothers and brought back to his parents at the castle of San Giovanni, where he was held a captive for a year or two to make him relinquish his purpose. According to his earliest biographers, the family even brought a prostitute to tempt him, but he drove her away.

Finally the family yielded and the Dominicans sent Thomas to Cologne to study under Albertus Magnus; he arrived probably in late 1244. He accompanied Albertus to the University of Paris in 1245, remained there with his teacher for three years, and followed Albertus back to Cologne in 1248. For several years longer he remained with the famous philosopher of scholasticism, presumably teaching. This long association of Thomas with the great polyhistor was the most important influence in his development; it made him a comprehensive scholar and won him permanently for the Aristotelian method.

Career

In 1252 Aquinas went to Paris for the master's degree, but met with some difficulty owing to attacks on the mendicant orders by the professoriate of the University. Ultimately, however, he received the degree and entered upon his office of teaching in 1257; he taught in Paris for several years and there wrote some of his works and began others. In 1259 he was present at an important chapter of his order at Valenciennes. At the solicitation of Pope Urban IV (therefore not before the latter part of 1261), he took up his residence in Rome. In 1269-71 he was again active in Paris. In 1272 the provincial chapter at Florence empowered him to found a new studium generale at such place as he should choose, and he selected Naples.

Contemporaries described Thomas as a big man, corpulent and dark-complexioned, with a large head and receding hairline. His manners showed his breeding; he is described as refined, affable, and lovable. In argument he maintained self-control and won over opponents by his personality and great learning. His tastes were simple. His associates were specially impressed by his power of memory. When absorbed in thought, he often forgot his surroundings. The ideas he developed by such strenuous absorption he was able to express for others systematically, clearly and simply.

Death and canonization

Early in 1274 the Pope directed him to attend the Second Council of Lyons and, though far from well, he undertook the journey. On the way he stopped at the castle of a niece and there became seriously ill. He wished to end his days in a monastery and not being able to reach a house of the Dominicans he was taken to the Cistercians. He died at the monastery of Fossanova, one mile from Sonnino, on March 7, 1274.

Aquinas had made a remarkable impression on all who knew him. He was placed on a level with the saints Paul and Augustine, receiving the title doctor angelicus. In 1319, the Roman Catholic Church began investigations preliminary to Aquinas's canonization; on July 18, 1323, he was pronounced a saint by Pope John XXII at Avignon. At the Council of Trent only 2 books were placed on the Altar, the Bible and St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica.

Aquinas's philosophy

Aquinas worked to create a philosophical system which integrated Christian doctrine with elements taken from the philosophy of Aristotle. Generally, he augmented the Neo-Platonic view of philosophy which, after Augustine, had become tremendously influential amongst medieval philosophers, with insights drawn from Aristotle. The extent to which this augmentation is also a rejection of Neo-Platonism is a hotly-debated issue.

In his writings Thomas does not, like Duns Scotus, make the reader his associate in the search for truth, but teaches it authoritatively. The consciousness of the insufficiency of his works in view of the revelation which he believed he had received was a cause for dissatisfaction.

The writings of Thomas may be classified as,

(1) exegetical, homiletical, and liturgical2) dogmatic, apologetic, and ethical; and(3) philosophical. Category (1) includes: Commentaries on Job (1261-65), Psalms i - li, and Isaiah; Catena aurea (1475)- a running commentary on the four Gospels, constructed on numerous citations from the Church Fathers; Commentaries on Canticles and Jeremiah; reportata, on John, on Matthew, and on the epistles of Paul, including, according to one authority, Hebrews i.-x. Officium de corpora Christi (1264). Numerous other works have been attributed to him.

Category (2): In quatuor sententiarum libros; Quaestiones disputatae; Quaestiones quodlibetales duodecim; Summa catholicae fidei contra gentiles (1261-64);

Summa theologioe. - his magnum opus. Also: Expositio in librum beati Dionysii de divinis nominibus; Expositiones primoe et secundoe decretalis; In Boethii libros de hebdomadibus; Proeclaroe quoestiones super librum Boethii de trinitate.

Category (3): Thirteen commentaries on Aristotle, and numerous philosophical opuscula of which fourteen are classed as genuine.

Writings by Aquinas


  • Summa contra Gentiles
  • Summa Theologica
  • The Principles of Nature
  • On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essencia)
  • On Truth (De Veritate)
Modern criticism

Some of the conclusions he reaches in his work, Summa Theologica, are at odds with contemporary ethics (cf. Gospel of John 7:7 (http://drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drb&bk=50&ch=007&l=7)), giving rise to questions as to whether St. Thomas may be regarded as an authority. An example of a clash between modern mores and the theology expounded by St. Thomas is that over masturbation, today regarded as a foible, or even as a means of health, yet which St. Thomas determined, in II-II 153 (http://newadvent.org/summa/315300.htm), to be a mortal sin.

On the other hand, many modern ethicists, both within and outside of the Catholic Church, have recently become very excited about Aquinas' virtue ethics, notably Philipa Foot and Alistair McIntyre, as a way of avoiding utilitarianism or Kantian deontology.

Modern readers might also find the method frequently used to reconcile Christian and Aristotelian doctrine rather strenuous. In some cases, the conflict is resolved by claiming that a certain term actually has two meanings, the Christian doctrine referring to one meaning, the Aristotelian to the second. Thus, both doctrines can be said to be true, though at the price of a vast proliferation of terms. In most cases, however, Aquinas finds a reading of the Aristotelian text which might not always satisfy modern scholars of Aristotle but which is a plausible rendering of the Philosopher's meaning and nevertheless thoroughly Christian.

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