Thomas Aquinas

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Depiction of St. Thomas Aquinas from The Demidoff Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli
Name: Thomas Aquinas
Birth: c.1225 (Castle of Roccasecca, near Aquino, Italy)
Death: March 7, 1274 (Monastery of Fossanova, Sonnino, Italy)
School/tradition: Scholasticism
Influences Influenced
Aristotle, Boethius, Eriguena, Anselm, ibn Rushd, ben Maimom Giles of Rome, Godfrey of Fontaines, Jacques Maritain, G. E. M. Anscombe

Thomas Aquinas [Thomas of Aquin, or Aquino] (c. 1225March 7, 1274) was an Italian Catholic philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Universalis. 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. There have been many institutions of learning named after him.


Early years

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 probably 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. However, after studying for six years at the University of Naples, he left it in his sixteenth year. While there he probably came under the influence of the Dominicans, who were doing their utmost to enlist within their ranks the ablest young scholars of the age, representing along with the Franciscan order 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 opposition of his family was overcome by the intervention of Pope Innocent IV., and Thomas assumed the habit of St Dominic in his seventeenth year.

His superiors, seeing his great aptitude for theological study, sent him to the Dominican school in Cologne, where Albertus Magnus was lecturing on philosophy and theology; he arrived probably in late 1244. He accompanied Albertus to the University of Paris in 1245, and remained there with his teacher for three years, at the end of which he graduated as bachelor of theology. In 1248 he returned to Cologne with Albertus, and was appointed second lecturer and magister studentium. This year may be taken as the beginning of his literary activity and public life. Before he left Paris he had thrown himself with ardour into the controversy raging between the university and the Friar-Preachers respecting the liberty of teaching, resisting both by speeches and pamphlets the authorities of the university; and when the dispute was referred to the pope, the youthful Aquinas was chosen to defend his order, which he did with such success as to overcome the arguments of Guillaume de St Amour, the champion of the university, and one of the most celebrated men of the day.

For several years longer Thomas 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, when along with his friend Bonaventura, he was created doctor of theology, and began to give courses of lectures upon this subject in Paris, and also in Rome and other towns in Italy. From this time onwards his life was one of incessant toil; he was continually engaged in the active service of his order, was frequently travelling upon long and tedious journeys, and was constantly consulted on affairs of state by the reigning pontiff.

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 1263 we find him at the chapter of the Dominican order held in London. In 1268 he was lecturing now in Rome and now in Bologna, all the while engaged in the public business of the church.

In 1269-71 he was again active in Paris, lecturing to the students, managing the affairs of the church and consulted by the king, Louis VIII., his kinsman, on affairs of state. In 1272 the provincial chapter at Florence empowered him to found a new studium generale at such place as he should choose, and the commands of the chief of his order and the request of King Charles brought him back to the professor's chair at Naples.

All this time he was preaching every day, writing homilies, disputations, lectures, and finding time to work hard at his great work the Summa Theologiae. Such rewards as the church could bestow had been offered to him. He refused the archbishopric of Naples and the abbacy of Monte Cassino.

Aquinas had a mystical experience while celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273, after which he stopped writing, leaving his great work, the Summa Theologiae, 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."

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

In January 1274 the Pope Gregory X directed him to attend the Second Council of Lyons, to investigate and if possible settle the differences between the Greek and Latin churches, 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 Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nuova, one mile from Sonnino, where, after a lingering illness of seven weeks, he died on March 7, 1274. Dante (Purg. xx. 69) asserts that he was poisoned by order of Charles of Anjou. Villani (ix. 218) quotes the belief, and the Anonimo Fiorentino describes the crime and its motive. But Muratori, reproducing the account given by one of Thomas's friends, gives no hint of foul play.

Aquinas had made a remarkable impression on all who knew him. He was placed on a level with the saints Paul and Augustine, receiving the title doctor angelicus (Angelic Doctor). In the Divine Comedy Dante sees the glorified spirit of Aquinas in the Heaven of the Sun, with the other great exemplars of religious wisdom.

In 1319, the Roman Catholic Church began investigations preliminary to Aquinas's canonization; on July 18, 1323, he was pronounced a saint by Pope John XXII at Avignon; and in 1567 Pius V. ranked the festival of St Thomas with those of the four great Latin fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory. At the Council of Trent only two books were placed on the Altar, the Bible and St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. No theologian save Augustine has had an equal influence on the theological thought and language of the Western Church, a fact which was strongly emphasized by Leo XIII. in his Encyclical of August 4, 1879, which directed the clergy to take the teachings of Aquinas as the basis of their theological position. stating that his theology was a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine. Also, Leo XIII decreed that all Catholic seminaries and universities must teach Aquinas' doctrines, and where Aquinas did not speak on a topic, the teachers were "urged to teach conclusions that were reconcilable with his thinking."

In 1880 Aquinas was declared patron of all Roman Catholic educational establishments. In a monastery at Naples, near the cathedral of St Januarius, is still shown a cell in which he is said to have lived.


The writings of Thomas may be classified as:

  1. exegetical, homiletical, and liturgical;
  2. dogmatic, apologetic, and ethical; and
  3. philosophical.

Exegetical, homiletical and liturgical writings

Numerous other works have been attributed to him.

Dogmatic, apologetic, and ethical writings

  • In quatuor sententiarum libros
  • Quaestiones disputatae
  • Quaestiones quodlibetales duodecim; Summa catholicae fidei contra gentiles (1261-64);
  • Summa theologiae - his magnum opus.

Also: Expositio in librum beati Dionysii de divinis nominibus; Expositiones primoe et secundoe decretalis; In Boethii libros de hebdomadibus Proeclaroe quoestiones super librum Boethii de trinitate

Philosophical writings

Thirteen commentaries on Aristotle, and numerous philosophical opuscula of which fourteen are classed as genuine.

Notable works

(major works in bold)

  • 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
  • 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 Theologiae, 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

("Bibliography", 1990)

Modern criticism

Some of Thomas's ethical conclusions are at odds with the majority view in the contemporary West. For example, he held that heretics "deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death", and thus 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 practiced. He also maintained the intellectual inferiority of women and their subjection to men on that account (ST I:92:1), which is one reason why he opposed the ordination of women (ST Supp. 39:1); he did say, however, that they were fit for the exercise of temporal power. He also held that "a parent can lawfully strike his child, and a master his slave that instruction may be enforced by correction". (ST II:II 65:2) Slavery is therefore licit, in his view, and a slave-owner is entitled to "correct" his slaves by physical force.

Conflict between Aquinas's view and the majority contemporary ethical view make Aquinas' position philosophically questionable if and only if the contemporary ethical view can be philosophically shown to be the correct one. Therefore, Aquinas' ethical views are questionable to the extent that slavery, the subjugation of women, and the execution of heretics can be shown to be wrong. 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.

Many biographies of Aquinas have been written over the centuries; perhaps the most notable is that by G. K. Chesterton.


The best modern edition of the works of Aquinas is that prepared at the expense of Leo XIII. (Rome, 1882-1903). The Abbé Migne published a very useful edition of the Summa Theologiae, in four 8vo vols., as an appendix to his Patrologiae Cursus Completus; English editions, J. Rickaby (London, 1872), J. M. Ashley (London, 1888).


  • "Bibliography of Additional Readings" (1990). In Mortimer J. Adler (Ed.), Great Books of the Western World, 2nd ed., v. 2, pp. 987-988. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.

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