Thomas Aquinas, Saint

Thomas Aquinas, Saint
(ca. 1224–1274)
   St. Thomas Aquinas is generally considered the most important philosopher in the scholastic tradition that had begun with St. ANSELM more than a century earlier. He was associated most often with the University of Paris, though he maintained ties with his native Sicily throughout his life. His SUMMA THEOLOGICA, left unfinished upon his death, remains his greatest achievement, and perhaps the high point of scholasticism. Its goal is no less than the reconciliation of Aristotelian rationalism with Christian doctrine.
   Thomas was born in his family’s castle in Aquino. His family had ties to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1231, Thomas began school at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he learned Latin and studied the church fathers. But he was forced to return home in 1239, when hostilities broke out between the emperor and the pope. Back in Sicily he attended the University of Naples from 1239 to 1244. The university was the first in Europe founded independently of the church, and it had ties to Frederick’s court, where translations of Aristotle and his Muslim and Jewish commentators in Arabic and Greek texts were revolutionizing the way people thought about intellectual inquiry. In about 1242 Thomas joined the Dominican order. His family opposed the move, wishing to have him named abbot of Monte Cassino, but Thomas was drawn by the Dominican commitment to teaching and preaching, and he soon left to complete his studies at the University of Paris with the most important thinker of his day, Albertus Magnus.
   When the Dominicans started an international college in Cologne in 1248, Albert was sent to Germany to take charge of the college, and he took Thomas with him as his assistant. It is likely that Thomas began teaching there, and that he was made priest about 1250. In 1252 he returned to Paris to lecture on the Scriptures and on PETER LOMBARD’s Sentences, the most common university textbook of the time. In the Sentences Peter had put in one volume all of the most important opinions of the church fathers on various theological questions. But Aquinas saw that these opinions raised a number of problems, and wrote a commentary on the Sentences in which he tried to apply the new Aristotelian method to theological questions. In 1256 Thomas received his appointment to a major divinity chair at the University of Paris. At the time he was working on a major text, the Summa contra Gentiles, which was intended to be a handbook for missionaries. The Dominicans were establishing a center in Barcelona to train missionaries to the Jews and Muslims, and Thomas’s work, intended to prove the truth of the Christian faith, was meant to help them in their work—particularly the first three of its four books, which explore the basic principles available to Christians and nonbelievers alike.
   Thomas finished this Summa in 1259, and in that same year he was sent to Italy, where he taught at Anagni, then at Rome and Viterbo. It was in Italy that Thomas did most of his writing.Here he produced several works and wrote the bulk of the Summa Theologica. The structure of the Summa is a model of scholastic dialectic method: Thomas divides the work into hundreds of related questions. For each question he first gives several arguments against his own position. He then gives a quotation that supports his stance, usually from “The Philosopher” (i.e., Aristotle) or from one of the church fathers like St.AUGUSTINE. He then gives his argument, and finishes by specifically countering each of the opposing arguments with which he had begun the question.
   Thomas was in Paris again from 1268 to 1272, though, and here he took part in an intellectual debate with Siger of Brabant, the chief exponent of Averroism in Paris. The theories of AVERROËS (Ibn Rushd) had been causing a stir in Paris since the 1230s, and some of these theories—notably Averroës’s doctrine that the passive intellect (the individuating portion of the human soul) does not survive death (and therefore there is no individual immortality)—were incompatible with Christian doctrine, and Thomas wrote a number of commentaries on Aristotle aimed chiefly at disputing this Averroist doctrine.
   Ultimately Thomas returned to Naples in 1272 where he began the third part of his huge Summa Theologica. However, on the evening of December 6, 1273, Thomas had a life-changing experience that he said rendered everything he had previously written meaningless. Most believe it was a mystical vision of some kind, but Thomas never returned to his writing. Then, invited by Pope Gregory X to take part in the Council of Laon, Thomas fell ill on the way to the council and died. Thomas remains indisputably the greatest Christian philosopher and theologian of the 13th century. Although some of his doctrines were condemned in 1277 in a general crackdown on philosophical “errors” made by scholastic philosophers, the Dominicans themselves officially adopted his methods at about the same time. His opinions ultimately came to represent the solid expression of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. He also seems to have been particularly influential on DANTE, who places him in a lofty position in paradise. The fourfold method of scriptural exegesis that Thomas discusses (an idea that goes back to St.Augustine) is one that Dante applies to his DIVINE COMEDY as well. Thomas was canonized in 1323 as “Doctor Angelicus.”
   Bibliography
   ■ Aquinas, Thomas, Saint. Summa Theologiae. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackfriars, 1964ff.
   ■ Clark, Mary T., ed. An Aquinas Reader. Rev. ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
   ■ Davies, Brian. Aquinas. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.
   ■ Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Hugh Bredin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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