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A Short Biography of St. Thomas Aquinas

September 1, 2009

Card-_20-St-Thomas-Aquinas-frontBackground The great achievement of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was that he brought together into a formidable synthesis the insights of classical philosophy and Christian theology. More specifically, Aquinas “Christianized” the philosophy of Aristotle. Although his philosophical orientation was dominated by Aristotle, he was aware of the vast scope of thought produced by the ancients, the Christian fathers, and the earlier medieval writers, including the Arabian and Jewish writers. By the time he began his literary work, a large part of Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings had become available in Western Europe. Augustine had formulated an earlier synthesis of philosophy and theology by combining the Christian faith with elements of Plato’s thought, which he had discovered in the writings of the Neo-Platonist Plotinus. Shortly after Augustine, in the sixth century, Boethius made a portion of Aristotle’s works available in Latin for the first time and thereby stimulated philosophical speculation again.

From about the seventh to the thirteenth century there were several lines of development, leading toward differences and controversies between Platonists and Aristotelians. This conflict continued after the thirteenth century as a controversy between Augustinians and Thomists, insofar as each of these theologians built his thought around Plato and Aristotle, respectively.

In these formative centuries, medieval thinkers wrestled with the problem of relating philosophy and theology, expressing this problem as the relation between faith and reason, There was also the problem of universals, which not only reflected the different viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle but also had important ramifications for the Christian faith. On all these matters, Aquinas now exerted a decisive influence by clarifying the precise questions involved, acknowledging alternative solutions offered by different authorities, and answering the major objections to his Aristotelian-Christian solutions. In this way, Aquinas perfected the “scholastic method.”

The term scholasticism in this context is derived from the intellectual activity carried on in the medieval cathedral schools, and its proponents were called doctores scholastici. Eventually, scholasticism came to refer to the dominant system of thought developed by the doctors in the schools and to the special method they utilized in teaching philosophy. Scholastic philosophy was an attempt to put together a coherent system of traditional thought rather than a pursuit of genuinely novel forms of insight. The content of this system was for the most part a fusion of Christian theology and the philosophies of Plato and especially Aristotle. Most distinctive in scholasticism was its method, a process relying chiefly upon strict logical deduction, taking on the form of an intricate system and expressed in a dialectical or disputational form in which theology dominated philosophy.

His Life Thomas was born in 1225 near Naples. His father was a Count of Aquino who had hoped that his son would someday enjoy high ecclesiastical position. For this reason, Thomas was placed in the Abbey of Monte Cassino as a boy of five, and for the next nine years he pursued his studies in this Benedictine abbey. At the age of fourteen, he entered the University of Naples, but while in that city he was fascinated by the life of some Dominican friars at a nearby convent and decided to enter their Order. As the Dominicans were particularly dedicated to teaching, Thomas had, upon entering their Order, resolved to give himself to a religious and also a teaching vocation.

Four years later, in 1245, he entered the University of Paris, where he came under the influence of a prodigious scholar whose enormous intellectual achievements had earned him the names “Albert the Great” (Albertus Magnus) and the “Universal Teacher.” During his long and intimate association with Albert both at Paris and Cologne, Thomas’ mind was shaped in decisive ways by the vast range of Albert’s learning and by his views on particular problems.

Albert had recognized the significance of philosophy and science for grounding Christian faith and for developing the capacities of the human mind. While other theologians looked askance at secular learning, Albert concluded that the Christian thinker must master philosophical and scientific learning in all its forms. He had respect for all intellectual activity, and his writings attest to his acquaintance with a vast amount and variety of learning. He knew virtually all the ancient, Christian, Jewish, and Arabian writers. His mind was encyclopedic rather than creative. Still, it was Albert who had recognized the fundamental difference between philosophy and theology, sharpening more accurately than his predecessors had the boundaries between them.

Albert thought that such writers as Anselm and Abelard, for example, had ascribed too much competence to reason, not realizing that from a rigorous point of view much of what they ascribed to reason was in fact a matter of faith. Albert’s particular objective was to make Aristotle clearly understandable to all of Europe, hoping to put into Latin all of Aristotle’s works. He considered Aristotle the greatest of all philosophers, and much of the credit for the dominance of Aristotle’s thought in the thirteenth century must be given to him. It was inevitable, under these circumstances, that his pupil Thomas Aquinas would also see in Aristotle the most significant philosophical support for Christian theology.

Unlike Albert, who did not change anything in the philosophers he quoted in his works, Thomas used Aristotle more creatively, systematically, and with a more specific recognition of the harmony between what Aristotle said and the Christian faith. After an interval of teaching under the auspices of the Papal Court from 1259 to 1268, Thomas returned once again to Paris and became involved in the celebrated controversy with the Averroists. In 1274, Pope Gregory X called him to Lyons to participate in a council, and while on his way there, he died in a monastery between Naples and Rome, at the age of forty-nine.

Thomas left a huge literary legacy, the vastness of which is all the more remarkable when one recalls that it was all composed within a twenty-year span. Among his principal works are his commentaries on many of Aristotle’s writings, careful arguments against the errors of the Greeks and the Averroists, a brilliant early work on essence and existence, a political treatise on rulers, and many other notable works. His most renowned literary achievements are his two major theological works, the Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.

The University of Paris The first universities grew out of what were called “cathedral schools.” The University of Paris evolved from the Cathedral School of Notre Dame, its formal rules of organization and procedures being approved officially by the Papal representative in 1215. Originally, like all early universities, Paris consisted of masters and students without any special buildings or other features we now associate with universities, such as libraries and endowments. These were added in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But the most important ingredients were there, namely, masters and students with a passion for learning. Being originally church institutions, universities shared a common theological doctrine. This meant, too, that of the four faculties, theology, law, medicine, and arts, the theological faculty enjoyed undisputed supremacy.

Besides its theological orientation, the University of Paris had a receptivity to universal knowledge. This accounts for the gradual acceptance and triumph of Aristotle’s philosophy at Paris. It is easily apparent, however, that the invasion of Aristotelianism would raise problems of orthodoxy. There was, however, not only the concern over the impact of Aristotle’s philosophy upon Christian thought, but also serious questions over whether Aristotle had been faithfully and accurately interpreted by the Arabians.

In addition, whereas Augustine and Platonism had triumphed at Oxford, this mode of thought, although not dominant at Paris, was nevertheless strongly represented there at this time by Bonaventura, a contemporary of Aquinas. Bonaventura was critical of Aristotle, holding that by denying the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, Aristotle’s thought would, if incorporated into theology, produce serious errors. For example, to deny the Platonic Ideas would mean that Cod does not possess in Himself the Ideas of all things and would therefore be ignorant of the concrete and particular world. In turn, this would deny God’s providence or His control over the universe. This would also mean that events occur either by chance or through mechanical necessity.

Even more serious was Bonaventura’s charge that if God does not think the Ideas of the world, He could not have created it. On this point Aquinas was later to have serious difficulties with the church authorities, for in following Aristotle, he could discover no decisive reason for denying that the world always existed instead of being created at a point in time. But, said Bonaventura, if the world always existed, there must have existed an infinite number of human beings, in which ease there must be either an infinite number of souls, or, as Averroists argued, there is only one soul or intellect, which all human beings share. If this Averroist argument were accepted, it would annul the doctrine of personal immortality. This was strongly urged by the leading Averroist of the thirteenth century, Siger de Brabant, who said that there is only one eternal intellect and that while individual men are born and the, this intellect or soul remains and always finds another human being in which to carry out its functions of organizing the body and the act of knowing. In short, there is only one intellect, which all men have in common.

Against Aristotelian philosophy, which Bonaventura considered dangerous to Christian faith because of all these errors it engendered, he offered the insights of Augustine and Platonism. Still, because Aristotle’s thought was so formidable and so systematic, particularly concerning matters of nature and science, its forward march was irresistible, and its triumph virtually inevitable. If most parts of the University were to be oriented to Aristotle’s thought, the theologians could not avoid coming to terms with this monumental thinker. If Aristotle was to be accepted, the specific task of the theologians would now be to harmonize his philosophy with Christianity, that is, they would have to “Christianize” Aristotle. This is what Aquinas set out to do, contending at the same time against Bonaventura’s Augustinianism and Siger de Brabant’s version of Aristotle.

We will next turn to how Aquinas dealt with philosophy and theology or between reason and faith and show his philosophical approach through his attempts to demonstrate the existence of God. Stay toon-ed. .I’m taking the material for this from “Socrates to Sartre” an older but oft used text in its day by Samuel Enoch Stumpf that I was recommended to and enjoyed. So much of theology requires a background in philosophy and Dr. Stumpf’s concise work gives the amateur enthusiast like myself all I need to know to look like fabulous genius (a modest goal of mine).

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