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Thomas Aquinas

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Thomas Aquinas

A young man was traveling to one of the top universities in the world to pursue a desired course of study when he was abducted by his own wealthy family and held in captivity for a year! This movie-like event happened to one of the most influential Medieval thinkers, the Dominican priest Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas is known for his Scholastic thought–a mix of Aristotle with Christian theology. He addressed substantial philosophical problems, including the question of God's existence, creation, providence, and the relationship between reason and faith. Keep reading for a short biography, quotes, and more.

Thomas Aquinas Facts

Scholasticism:

A Medieval school of thought that became especially prominent in western Europe in the 13th-14th centuries. This school of thought combined the work of Aristotle, a key ancient Greek philosopher, with Christian teaching. Its curricula comprised the quadrivium and the trivium.

Aquinas wrote several works that are analyzed to this day. These works include Summa Theologica, an unfinished systematization of theology, and Summa Contra Gentiles, about God and the world.

Did you know?

The Dominicans are also connected to the Latin "Domini canes," which means "hounds of the Lord"? The Dominican Order was a Medieval order of preachers named after Saint Dominic (1170-1221). This organization was established in Toulouse, France, in 1216. It focused on Christian education.

Thomas Aquinas, Ascelin of Lombardy receiving a letter from Innocent IV, StudySmarter

Ascelin of Lombardy, a Dominican friar, receiving a letter from Innocent IV and remitting it to the Mongol general Baiju, David Aubert, 1462. The image shows the typical appearance of the Dominicans. Source: Chronique des empereurs, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Aquinas's influence was so profound that he was listed as one of the 33 doctors of the Church. This title is exclusively given to the most important Christian thinkers. Even though Aquinas lived long before the Protestant Reformation (1517), his work profoundly affected the Catholic and Protestant Churches.

Background

Even though the intellectual life of the Church was limited by its strict religious dogma, the Church underwent changes during the Middle Ages. For instance, one of the essential thinkers of early Christianity was Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine used the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, to inform Christian theology. Augustine left a significant impact and was known throughout the Christian world: North Africa, where he lived, the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, and Europe. Augustine's best-known works are Confessions and the City of God.

Later, Medieval Scholasticism developed out of Christian theology and ancient Greek philosophy in the 11th-12th centuries, reaching its peak in the next two hundred years. At this time, Christian thinkers opted to use the works of another ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle was a student of Plato. He organized much of his master's work. However, unlike the Platonic emphasis on metaphysics—the nature of reality—Aristotle also focused on logic and natural sciences to a greater extent. It was these aspects of Aristotelianism that became particularly important for Medieval Scholastics.

Thomas Aquinas: Life and Thought

Thomas Aquinas is one of the most important Catholic thinkers in the entire history of Christianity. He was canonized as a saint by Pope John XXII in 1323.


Thomas Aquinas, Altar piece of Saint Thomas Aquinas, StudySmarter

Saint Thomas Aquinas, an altarpiece, Ascoli Piceno, Italy, Carlo Crivelli, 15th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

St. Thomas Aquinas: Biography

Thomas Aquinas, or Tommaso d’Aquino, was born to Andulf of Aquino and Theodora of Teano, a well-positioned noble family, in Roccasecca, Italy. He obtained his initial education in Monte Cassino at a Benedictine Monastery. Thomas's noble family sought to amplify its social status by having the boy eventually become a high-ranking abbot.

Order of Saint Benedict:

The Order of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is an order of monks in the Catholic Church focused on liturgy and education. Its members are sometimes called Black Monks to describe the color of their garments.

In 1239, Aquinas returned home and soon began to attend the University of Naples. In this academic setting, he learned about philosophy and science from texts translated both from Greek and Arabic. At this time, Aquinas also became a Dominican, a new religious order founded in 1216. He preferred its structure because it treated the friars—its members—in a more democratic way. The Dominicans also prioritized education and preaching to a quieter monastic lifestyle of manual labor and introspection. The friars were mendicant—begging—which meant they relied on receiving alms.

Alms:

Money and values received as charity. The Medieval mendicant orders of the Church subscribed to a vow of poverty and relied on alms.

As a new Dominican, Aquinas was sent to the University of Paris to continue his studies. However, he was abducted by his own family during this trip and held against his wishes for a year. Yet, in 1245, Aquinas was able to make it to Paris after all. There, the young man studied under one of the greatest Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages, Albert the Great.

At the University of Paris, Aquinas continued to learn about science and philosophy through the works of Aristotle. Not everyone had a favorable view of fusing the works of this Greek philosopher with Christian theology. Indeed, the Church opposed using logical thinking and naturalism because this type of influence corrupted the youth in its authorities' view. Nonetheless, Aquinas continued to study Aristotle, keeping the trend of other key scholastics—like his own teacher, Albert the Great, and the English scholar Roger Bacon, who also worked in Paris at this time.

Upon completing his studies, Aquinas lectured and worked as a theological advisor at the papal Curia—the governing body of the Church—starting from 1259. He also taught at the convent of Santa Sabina back in Italy from 1265 to 1267. In 1268, he returned to Paris to be the regent master as part of his appointment by the Dominican order.

Thomas Aquinas, Painting of the Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, StudySmarter

The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas sits between the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1471. Source: Louvre, Paris, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Thomas Aquinas: Key Intellectual Themes

Thomas Aquinas wrote several works analyzing many of the essential questions in Scholasticism at this time. The language he used was Medieval Latin. His best-known work is Summa Theologica, written around 1265-1273. This text was not finished when Aquinas died. Summa Contra Gentiles was another famous work written in 1258-1264. Aquinas also dedicated some of his writing to Aristotle, specifically. These works were commentaries on Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and On the Soul (De Anima). Aquinas addressed many subjects crucial for Medieval Christian thinking, including liberty, providence, reason, and faith.

One of the critical scholastic debates at this time was about the relationship between reason and faith. Scholastics questioned whether reason should be subordinate to faith or independent of it. Aquinas and his followers subscribed to the view that reason can function within the Christian faith. However, at the same time, the reason is subject to its own laws. Aquinas believed that God gave humans a rational mind and language. Thus, these divine gifts were automatically part of faith. In other words, according to Aquinas, theologians believed in the primacy of faith but could use reason to analyze the world around them and arrive at certain conclusions. Indeed, Aquinas was arguably the first prominent Christian thinker to overtly describe and systematize reason and faith in this way.

Aquinas also addressed the question of liberty, tackling it within the context of natural determinism. In turn, the order of nature was rooted in continuous creation by the God-creator. God governs everything that he creates according to the laws of providence—divine guidance. These laws are responsible for granting a particular type of nature to each being in existence and acting according to it. This system makes humans the pinnacle of rational creatures. Humans can act both intellectually and physically. Herein lies human freedom as the relationship with God defines it.

Like other Scholastics, Aquinas also subscribed to the cosmological argument. This argument can be found in the works of both Plato, such as his Laws, and Aristotle, such as his Physics and Metaphysics. The cosmological argument is about proving the existence of God as the first cause that sets everything else in motion. Aquinas was also interested in taking this argument further. He explored the question of a sustaining cause that allows things to continue existing, not just the first cause that brings them into existence in the first place.

Quotes: Thomas Aquinas

[A] man naturally desires knowledge." 1

Happiness or felicity consists essentially in intellect rather than in an act of will." 2

Only God is pure act, hence in God alone is his substance both his existence and his acting." 3

Books: Thomas Aquinas

  • On the Hebdomads of Boethius (1257)
  • Disputed Question of Truth (1256-9)
  • Summa Contra Gentiles (1259-64)
  • On Aristotle's De Anima (1268)
  • Summa Theologica (1266-73)

The Influence of Thomas Aquinas

Medieval Scholasticism eventually declined with the onset of the Renaissance in Europe in the 16th century. Gradually, Renaissance thinkers moved away from theology as the dominant force in society and focused on natural science—driven by observation rather than textual evidence—as well as rethinking classical Greek philosophy. However, Thomas Aquinas remained a significant cultural influence within and beyond Western Christian thought. For example, the well-known Irish novelist, James Joyce, was explicitly inspired by Aquinas' ideas of truth and beauty.

Thomas Aquinas - Key Takeaways

  • Thomas Aquinas was an essential Medieval thinker, a Dominican, a Scholastic, and one of the 33 Doctors of the Church.
  • Aquinas was educated at the University of Naples and the University of Paris. His best-known teacher was another scholastic, Albert the Great.
  • Like other scholastics, Aquinas combined Christian theology with the philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker, Aristotle, to tackle important questions of reason and faith and the existence of God.

1 Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, translated by Ralph McInerny, London: Penguin Books, 1998, p. 723.

2 Ibid, p. 269.

3 Ibid, p. 370.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, an important Medieval Scholastic intellectual, and, later—a saint.

Thomas Aquinas is important to the Church because he was one of the best-known theologians and intellectuals throughout the entire history of western Christianity. 

Thomas Aquinas is known as an important Medieval Scholastic intellectual and theologian who examined many key questions. These questions included the relationship between reason and faith as well as the existence of God. His best-known book is the Summa Theologica.

Thomas Aquinas died of an illness in 1274. He was about 48 or 49 years old.

Thomas Aquinas was a western Christian (Catholic). He subscribed to the dogma of the Medieval Church. At the same time, as an intellectual, he analyzed many important philosophical and theological questions. These questions included the relationship between reason and faith as well as the existence of God.

Final Thomas Aquinas Quiz

Question

To which school of thought did Thomas Aquinas belong?

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Answer

Scholasticism

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Question

Which ancient Greek philosopher influenced Thomas Aquinas the most?

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Answer

Aristotle

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Question

Which key theological question did Thomas Aquinas analyze?

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Answer

The relationship between faith and reason

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Question

To which religious order did Thomas Aquinas belong as an adult?

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Answer

Dominican Order

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Question

Who was an important teacher of Thomas Aquinas in Paris?

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Answer

Albert the Great

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Question

Which is one of the most important texts by Thomas Aquinas?

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Answer

Summa Theologica

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Question

What country is Thomas Aquinas from?

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Answer

Italy

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Question

Who was one of the most important early Christian thinkers?

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Answer

Augustine of Hippo

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Question

How did Thomas Aquinas analyze the existence of God?

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Answer

Through the cosmological argument

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Question

What is a mendicant order?

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Answer

A mendicant order is a Medieval Christian order that subscribes to the vow of poverty and relies on alms.

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