Thomas Aquinas: His Life and Contribution

I am studying the life and works of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. So I figured I would do a few posts on Aquinas’ life and works. In this post I want to consider Thomas Aquinas’ life and contribution to the church.

First, who was Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was born in the 13th century, in 1225, near the town of Aquino — hence he was named Thomas of Aquino, or Aquinas. Aquinas was born into a wealthy royal family. Taylor Marshall tells us,

His father was the Count of Aquino and his mother was the Countess of Theate. This noble bloodline related Thomas to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire — a dynasty that includes the infamous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. (Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 3)

We also know that one of Aquinas’ relatives was the Roman Emperor. Because of his noble birth, his parents had planned to make him Abbot over the monastery in Monte Cassino. Marshall tells us that this monastic house was considered “the motherhouse of medieval monasticism…To be the Abbot of Monte Cassino was to reign as a prince” (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 3).

In 1230, Aquinas’ parents sent him to the same monastery for education; however, during his teenage years, his parents were forced to relocate him due to war in the surrounding region. His parents sent him away to the University of Naples. It was during this time that Aquinas came under the influence of men who would change his direction in life forever. Taylor Marshall explains:

As a student in Naples, the young Thomas fell under the influence of an inspired preacher by the name of John of Saint Julian. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new order of religious that did not identify themselves as “monks”, but rather as “brothers” or “friars”. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new movement, considered fanatical by some, known as the Order of the Preachers or “Dominicans”…This Order of Preachers was simply…a brotherhood of itinerant preachers who went from town to town, often barefoot and begging for food. They slept in fields, barns, or wherever they were allowed. Unlike Benedict Abbot of Monte Cassino, who rode stately horses and wre jewels and silk, the Dominicans lived a radical life of poverty and preaching. This life of penance appealed to the young Thomas, to the shock of his parents (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 4)

It was this influence that led Thomas to denounce his calling to be Abbot. Instead, Thomas would live in poverty, a beggar and traveling preacher — he would be a Dominican Friar! To be a Dominican, one would swear himself to poverty, to literally be a “dog for the Lord”, which is what Dominican means in Latin (Domini canes). At age 19, in 1244, he joined the order, and journeyed north to Rome to start his studies.

His family, however, would not have it. During his trip, his own brothers (at the request of his mother) kidnapped him and locked him in their castle in Monte San Giovanni Campano. This “house arrest” lasted for one year; and during this time, his mother and brothers attempted to dissuade him from joining the friars.

Feser comments on this time:

In hope of getting him to change his mind, his brothers abducted him and put him under house arrest at the family castle… for about a year, though he spent time committing to memory the entire Bible and four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Notoriously, they even went to the extent of sending a prostitute into his room on one occasion, but he chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterward to make a sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord. Eventually his brothers relented and he was allowed to return to the Dominicans (Aquinas, 3-4)

After being released in 1245, Thomas’ order assigned him to the university in Paris where he would study theology under Albert the Great. It was during this time that Thomas Aquinas was given the name “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his large, yet quiet stature. GK Chesterton tells us this of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness… [He] was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools in which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce (Dumb Ox, 4)

Understandably, it was because of this trait that Thomas struggled to integrate with his fellow students. Feser tells us that during those years, Albert the Great, seeing Aquinas’ great intellect, warned his class that “the Ox’s ‘bellowing’ would someday be heard throughout the world” (ibid, 4). How right he was!

It was also during this time under Albert, that Aquinas was greatly influenced by Aristotle. And while Thomas loved Aristotle, the university was quite apprehensive to philosophy. In fact, in order to study him, Aquinas had to take an extra “track” at the university, because philosophy was considered a “secular” subject rather than theological.

After graduating with a masters, Thomas Aquinas went on to teach in the university in Paris and in other Dominican houses for the next 13 years (1259-72). We are told by Ralph McInerny, that it was customary for Dominican masters to teach for a three year segment in the formal university, and then move on to teach in houses of the Dominican Orders. However, because of Thomas’ great intellect, he was invited to teach a second three-year stint (McInerny, Aquinas, 16-23).

During Aquinas’ second stint teaching in the university of Paris, a controversy arose over the place of Aristotle and pagan philosophy in the church: a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists espoused a theory called the “two truth” theory, which argued that something could be true philosophically that is not true theologically — hence, two types of “truth”. Aquinas argued against this position, seeing the inherent danger. He ultimately argued that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be philosophical, theological, or scientific. I will take up this topic in another post.

Thomas Aquinas was an avid writer. In fact, McInerny tells us that “Thomas’ output during…[his] years in Paris seems scarcely credible” (ibid, 23). To write faster, McInerny tells us that Thomas would write in shorthand. McInery explains:

A feature of Thomas’ manuscripts is the obvious haste with which they were written, in shorthand Latin, in a scrawl which led to calling a text of Thomas litera inintellgibilis, unreadable writing. Eventually he would be assigned secretaries, among them Reginald of Piperno, who took down Thomas dictation, a process which doubtless increased his productivity. (ibid, 18)

Thomas wrote many works under this method, with his most important being the unfinished Summa Theologica, which he began in 1265.

After his time in Paris was finished, in 1272, he returned to Naples and lived in the Dominican house there. McInerny tells us that it was during this time that Thomas did something strange: he stopped writing altogether. McInerny explains:

On December 6, 1273, Thomas decided to stop writing. Some biographers conjecture that he had a kind of mental breakdown. But it was a mystical experience that silenced Thomas. After what he had seen, he told Reginald (his secretary), everything he had written seemed mere straw. He could not bring himself to complete the Summa (ibid, 25).

Apparently a heavenly vision halted Thomas’ writing. Thomas never spoke of the details of what he saw, but the magnificence of it made his writings seem inadequate. Fortunately, some of Thomas’ disciples supplemented his incomplete Summa with other commentaries of his after his death. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was summoned to a council in Lyons in 1274. While on his way to that council, he hit his head on a branch, and died soon after from complications on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 years old when he died.

What was Aquinas’ greatest contribution to the church? GK Chesterton is helpful with this question: he says simply that Thomas “reconciled Aristotle with Christ” (Dumb Ox, 8). What he means is that Thomas Aquinas synthesized philosophy with Christianity. Many Christians then (and today) did not believe that reason and philosophy could be trusted or reconciled with the Christian worldview. However, Thomas argued that this was not the case.

Chesterton goes on to explain:

Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were windows to the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies…It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted (ibid, 11)

Faith and reason, in other words, were what Thomas labored to reconcile. We will go on in later posts to examine just what that means.