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Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was an Italian Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition. He gave birth to the Thomistic school of philosophy, which was long the primary philosophical approach of the Roman Catholic Church. He is considered by the Catholic Church to be its greatest theologian and one of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church.
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 born early in 1225 at his father Count Landulf's castle of Roccasecca in the kingdom of Naples. 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. After studying at the University of Naples, however, 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 philosopher-theologian was the most important influence in his development; it made him a comprehensive scholar and won him permanently for the Aristotelian method.
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.
Aquinas had a mystical experience while celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273, after which he stopped writing, leaving his great work, the Summa Theologica, unfinished. When asked why he had stopped writing, Aquinas replied, "I cannot go on...All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me." He died on March 7, 1274.
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. Because of the keen grasp he had of his materials, in his writings Thomas does not, like Duns Scotus, make the reader his associate in the search for truth, but teaches it authoritatively. On the other hand, the consciousness of the insufficiency of his works in view of the revelation which he believed he had received was a cause of dissatisfaction for him.
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.
In 1319, the Roman Catholic Church began investigations preliminary to Aquinas's canonization and on July 18, 1323, he was pronounced a saint by Pope John XXII at Avignon. At the Council of Trent only two books were placed on the Altar, the Bible and St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica.
The writings of Thomas may be classified as
- Exegetical, homiletical, and liturgical
- Dogmatic, apologetic, and ethical
Some major works
- De Fallaciis, 1244
- De Propositionibus Modalibus, 1244-1245
- On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia), 1254-1256
- The Principles of Nature, 1255
- Disputed Questions, 1256-1272
- On Truth (De Veritate), 1256-1259
- Concerning the Teacher
- On the Power of God, 1265-1267
- On Truth (De Veritate), 1256-1259
- Contra Impugnantes Dei Cultum et Religionem, 1257
- On the Trinity of Boethius, 1257-1258
- Super Boethium de Hebdomadibus, 1258
- Summa contra Gentiles, 1258-1264
- On Kingship: To the King of Cyprus, 1265-1266
- Summa Theologica, 1265-1272
- On Spiritual Creatures, 1266-1269
- De Perfectione Vitae Spiritualis, 1269
- Contra Pestiferam Doctrinam Retrahentium Homines a Religionis Ingressu, 1270
- De Aeternitate Mundi Contra Murmurantes, 1270
- The Unicity of the Intellect, 1270
- De Substantiis Separatis, 1272-1273
- Compendium of Theology, 1273
- De Mixtione Elementorum ad Magistrum Philippe, 1273
- Two Precepts of Charity, 1273
- De Natura Materiae et Dimensionibus Interminalis
- De Natura Verbi Intellectus
- Catena aurea
- First Treatise on Univerals
- Commentary on the Logic of Aristotle
Some of Thomas's ethical conclusions are at odds with the majority view in the contemporary West. For example, he held that heresy should be punished by death (ST II:II 11:3), an opinion now repudiated by the Catholic Church, but for many years held and practised. He also maintained the intellectual inferiority of women and their subjection to men on that account (ST I:92:1), which is why he opposed the ordination of women (ST Supp. 39:1). He also said masters have the right to strike their slaves to punish them (ST II:II 65:2).
Conflict between Aquinas's view and the majority contemporary ethical view make Aquinas's position philosophically questionable if and only if the contemporary ethical view can be philosophically shown to be the correct one. However, since some of his teachings have been repudiated even by the Church, the contemporary view would seem to have been shown correct in at least those cases.
On the other hand, many modern ethicists, both within and outside of the Catholic Church, have recently become very excited about Aquinas's virtue ethics, notably Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre, as a way of avoiding utilitarianism or Kantian deontology. Through the work of 20th century philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe (especially in her book Intention), Aquinas's Principle of double effect specifically and his theory of intentional activity generally have been influential.
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 showing 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. Indeed, noting distinctions is a necessary part of true philosophical inquiry. In most cases, 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 thoroughly Christian.
- Works of Aquinas
- About Aquinas