1902 Encyclopedia > St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas
Italian theologian and philosopher
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS [THOMAS OF AQUIN or AQUINO] was of noble descent, and nearly allied to several of the royal houses of Europe. He was born in 1225 or 1227, at Rocca Sicca, the castle of his father Landulf, count of Aquino, in the territories of Naples. Having received his elementary education at the monastery of Monte Cassino, he studied for six years at the University of Naples, leaving it in his sixteenth year. While there he in all probability came under the influence of the Dominicans, who were then the rising order in the church, and were doing their utmost to enlist within their ranks the ablest young scholars of the age, for in spite of the opposition of his family, and especially of his mother (an opposition which was overcome only by the intervention of Pope Innocent IV.), he assumed the habit of St Dominic in his seventeenth year.
St. Thomas Aquinas
as depicted on the Demidoff Altarpiece
painted by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1430-95)
His superiors, seeing his great aptitude for theological study sent him to the Dominican School in Cologne, where Albertus Magnus, the most famous thinker of his age, lectured on philosophy and theology. In 1245 Albertus was called to Paris, and there Aquinas followed him, and remained with him 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. Ere he left Paris he had thrown himself with ardour into the controversy raging between the University and the Begging Friars 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 the celebrated William of St Amour, the champion of the University, and one of the most celebrated men of the day. In the year 1257, along with his friend Bonaventura, he was created doctor of theology, and began to give courses of lectures upon this science in Paris, and also in Rome and other towns in Italy. From this time onwards his life was one of incessant toil, and we marvel at the amount of literary work he was able to do, when we remember that during his short public life 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 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 1271 he was again 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 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. In January 1274 he was summoned by Pope Gregory X. to attend the council convened at Lyons, to investigate and if possible settle the differences between the Greek and Latin churches. Though suffering from illness, he at once set out on the journey; finding his strength failing on the way, he was carried to the Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nuova, in the diocese of Terracina, where, after a lingering illness of seven weeks, he died on the 7th of March 1274. After his death the highest honours which the church could bestow were awarded to the memory of Thomas. He was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XXII., and in 1567 Pius V. ranked the festival of St Thomas with those of the four great Latin fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. Still higher is the honour implied in the fact, that no theologian save Augustine has had the same influence on the theological thought and language of the Western Church, and that no man has better fulfilled the ideal of the monkish life than Thomas of Aquin.
The writings of Thomas are of very great importance for philosophy as well as for theology, for he is the spirit of scholasticism incarnate, and has done more than any other writer save Augustine to fashion the theological language of the Western Church. The medieval spirit, in all its various manifestations, aimed at universal empire by way of external and visible rule. Its idea of the State was the Holy Roman Empire actually embracing and dominating over all the countries in Europe; its idea of the Church, that visible and tangible catholicity which existed before the great Reformation; and in the department of knowledge it showed its characteristic quality in its desire to embrace in one system, under one science, the whole of human thought. It so happened that, in the break between the old world and the new, the sole institution which survived was the church, and the only science which was preserved was philosophy. Hence, when scholasticism arose, the science which it found ready to its hand was theology, and its task became that of bringing all departments of knowledge under the dominion of this one sovereign science. All through the period of scholasticism, from its beginning under Scotus Erigena down to its decline under Gabriel Biel, this aim of establishing an empire of science was kept in view, and no fresh advance in knowledge in any fresh field of investigation was ever held to be made or taken possession of until its results had been brought under the influence of the master science, and made to occupy their proper and subordinate place. Aquinas occupies the central point in the history of scholasticism, because he, more than any other, was trained by nature and education to do the most that could be done to realize the scholastic ideal, and present a condensed summary of all known science, under the title of Summa Theologiae.
The principles on which the system of Aquinas rested were these. He held that there were two sources of knowledge--the mysteries of Christian faith and the truths of human reason. The distinction between these two was made emphatic by Aquinas, who is at pains, especially in his treatise Contra Gentiles, to make it plain that each is a distinct fountain of knowledge, but that revelation is the more important of the two. It is important to mark what Aquinas means by revelation and by reason. Revelation is a source of knowledge, rather than the manifestation in the world of a divine life, and its chief characteristic is that it presents men with mysteries, which are to be believed even when they cannot be understood. Revelation is not Scripture alone, for Scripture taken by itself does not correspond exactly with his description; nor is it church tradition alone, for church tradition must so far rest on Scripture. Revelation is a divine source of knowledge, of which Scripture and church tradition are the channels; and he who would rightly understand theology must familiarize himself with Scripture, the teachings of the fathers, and the decisions of councils, in such a way as to be able to make part of himself, as it were, those channels along which this divine knowledge flowed. Aquinas's conception of reason is in some way parallel with his conception of revelation. Reason is in his idea not the individual reason, but fountain of natural truth, whose chief channels are the various systems of heathen philosophy, and more especially the thoughts of Plato and the methods of Aristotle. Reason and revelation are both of them separate sources of knowledge, which have their appropriate channels; and man can put himself in possession of each, because he can bring himself into relation to the church on the one hand, and the system of philosophy, or more strictly Aristotle, on the other. The conception will be made clearer when it is remembered that Aquinas, taught by the mysterious author of the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, who so marvelously influenced medieval writers, sometimes spoke of a natural revelation, or of reason as a source of truths in themselves mysterious, and was always accustomed to say that reason as well as revelation contained two kinds of knowledge. The first kind lay quite beyond the power of man to receive it, the second was within man's reach. In reason, as in revelation, man can only attain to the lower kind of knowledge , there is a higher kind which we may not hope to reach.
But while reason and revelation are two distinct sources of truths, coming to men by two distinct means of conveyance, the supernatural and the natural means for the delivery of truth, and apprehended by two distinct faculties, reason and faith, the truths which each reveal are not in themselves contradictory; for in the last resort they rest on one absolute truth--they come from the one source of knowledge, God, the Absolute One. Hence arises the compatibility of philosophy and theology which was the fundamental axiom of scholasticism, and the possibility of a Summa Theologiae, which is a Summa Philosophiae as well. All the many writings of Thomas are preparatory to his great work the Summa Theologiae, and show us the progress of his mind training for this his life work. In the Summa Catholica Fidei contra Gentiles he shows how a Christian theology is the sum and crown of all science. This work is in its design apologetic, and is meant to bring within the range of Christian thought all that is of value in Mahometan science. He carefully establishes the necessity of revelation as a source of knowledge, not merely because it aids us in comprehending in a somewhat better way the truths already furnished by reason, as some of the Arabian philosophers and Maimonides had acknowledged, but because it is the absolute source of our knowledge of the mysteries of the Christian faith; and then he lays down the relations to be observed between reason and revelation, between philosophy and theology. This work, Contra Gentiles, may be taken as an elaborate exposition of the method of Aquinas. That method however, implied careful study and comprehension of the results which accrued to man from reason and revelation, and a thorough grasp of all that had been done by man in relation to those two sources of human knowledge; and so, in his preliminary writings, Thomas proceeds to master the two provinces. The results of revelation he found in the Holy Scripture. and in the writings of the fathers and the great theologians of the church; and his method was to proceed backward. He began with Peter of Lombardy (who had reduced to theological order, in his famous book on the Sentences, the various authoritative statements of the church upon doctrine) in his In Quatuor Sententiarum P. Lormbardi libros. Then came his deliverances upon undecided points in theology, in his XII. Quodlibeta Disputata, and his Questiones Disputata. His Catena Aurea next appeared, which, under the form of a commentary on the Gospels, was really an exhaustive summary of the theological teaching of the greatest of the church fathers. This side of his preparation, was finished by a close study of Scripture, the results of which are contained in his commentaries, In omnes Epistolas Divi Apostoli Expositio, his Super Isaiam et Jeremiam, and his In Psalmos. Turning now to the other side, we have evidence, not only from tradition but from his writings that he was acquainted with Plato and the mystical Platonists; but he had the sagacity to perceive that Aristotle was the great representative of philosophy, and that his writings contained the best results and method which the natural reason had as yet attained to. Accordingly Aquinas prepared himself on this side by commentaries on Aristotle's De Interpretatione, on his Posterior Analytics, on the Metaphysics, the Physics, the De Anima, and on the other psychological and physical writings of the great master, each commentary having for its aim to lay hold of the material and grasp the method contained and employed in each treatise. Fortified by this exhaustive preparation, Aquinas began his Summa Theologiae, which was to be for human thought what the Holy Roman Empire was for the bodies, and the Holy Catholic Church was for the souls of men. It was to be a visible empire of thought, exhaustive, all-embracing, and sovereign. The Summa Theologiae was meant to be the sum of all known learning, arranged according to the best method, and subordinate to the dictates of the church; that was the intention of ths book; practically it came to be the theological dicta of the church, explained according to the philosophy of Aristotle and his Arabian commentators. The Summa is divided into three great parts, which shortly may be said to treat of God, Man, and the God-Man. The first and the second parts are wholly the work of Aquinas, but of the third part only the first 90 questions are his; the rest of it was finished in accordance with his designs. The first book after a short introduction upon the nature of theology as understood by Aquinas, proceeds in 119 questions to discuss the nature, attributes, and relations of God; and this is not done as in a modern work on theology, but the questions raised in the physics of Aristotle find a place alongside of the statements of Scripture, while all subjects in any way related to the central theme are brought into the discourse. The second part is divided into two, which are quoted as Prima Secundae and Secunda Secundae. This second part has often been described as ethic, but this is scarcely true. The subject is man, treated as Aristotle does, according to his telos (Greek word), and so Aquinas discusses all the ethical, psychological, and theological questions which arise; but any theological discussion upon man must he mainly ethical, and so a great proportion of the first part and almost the whole of the second, has to do with ethical questions. In his ethical discussion Aquinas distinguishes theological from natural virtues and vices: the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity; the natural, justice, prudence, and the like. The theological virtues are founded on faith, in opposition to the natural, which are founded on reason; and as faith with Aquinas is always belief in a proposition, not trust in a personal Saviour, conformably with his idea that revelation is a new knowledge rather than a new life, the relation of unbelief to virtue is very strictly and narrowly laid down and enforced. The third part of the Summa is also divided into two parts, but by accident rather than by design. Aquinas died ere he had finished his great work, and what has been added to complete the scheme is appended as a Supplementum Tertiae Partis. In this third part Aquinas discusses the person, office, and work of Christ, and had begun to discuss the sacraments, when death put an end to his labours.
The best edition of the works of Aquinas is the Venice one of 1787, in twenty-eight 4to vols. It contains the useful dissertations of Bernhard de Rubeis. The Abbe Migne has published a very useful edition of the Summa Theologiae, in four 8vo vols., as an appendix to his Patrologiae Cursus Completus. See Acta Sanct., vii. Martii; Touron, La vie de St Thomas d'Aquin avec un exposé de sa doctrine et de ses ouvrages, Paris, 1737, Dr Karl Werner, Der Heilige Thomas von Aquino, 1858;, and Dr R. B. Vaughan, St Thomas of Aquin, his Life and Labours, London, 1872. For the philosophy of Aquinas, see Albert Stockl, Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, ii.; Hauréau, De la Philosophie Scolastique, tome ii.; and Ueberweg's History of Philosophy, vol. i. (T. M. L.)
The above article was written by Rev. Thomas M. Lindsay, D.D., Principal and formerly Professor of Divinity and Church History, United Free Church, Glasgow; translated Ueberweg's System of Logic; author of The Reformation, and of commentaries on Acts of the Apostles and St Luke's Gospel.