Like Albert, Thomas came of lordly stock, and gave up riches to win eternity. His father, Count Landulf of Aquino, belonged to the German nobility, was a nephew of Barbarossa, and was among the highest figures at the Apulian court of the impious Frederick II. His mother was descended from the Norman princes of Sicily. Though born in Italy, Thomas was on both sides of northern origin, essentially Teutonic; he had no Italian grace or deviltry in him, but grew to heavy German proportions, with large head, broad face, and blond hair, and a quiet content in intellectual industry. His friends called him “the great dumb ox of Sicily.”52

He was born in 1225 in his father’s castle at Roccasecca, three miles from Aquino, and halfway between Naples and Rome. The abbey of Monte Cassino was near by, and there Thomas received his early schooling. At fourteen he began five years of study at the University of Naples. Michael Scot was there, translating Averroës into Latin; Jacob Anatoli was there, translating Averroës into Hebrew; Peter of Ireland, one of Thomas’ teachers, was an enthusiastic Aristotelian; the University was a hotbed of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew influences impinging upon Christian thought. Thomas’ brothers took to poetry; one, Rainaldo, became a page and falconer at Frederick’s court, and begged Thomas to join him there. Piero delle Vigne and Frederick himself seconded the invitation. Instead of accepting, Thomas entered the Dominican Order (1244). Soon thereafter he was sent to Paris to study theology; at the outset of his journey he was kidnaped by two of his brothers at their mother’s urging; he was taken to the Roccasecca castle, and was kept under watch there for a year.53 Every means was used to shake his vocation; a story, probably a legend, tells how a pretty young woman was introduced into his chamber in the hope of seducing him back to life, and how, with a flaming brand snatched from the hearth, he drove her from the room, and burned the sign of the cross into the door.54 His firm piety won his mother to his purposes; she helped him to escape; and his sister Marotta, after many talks with him, became a Benedictine nun.

At Paris he had Albert the Great as one of his teachers (1245). When Albert was transferred to Cologne Thomas followed him, and continued to study with him there till 1252. At times Thomas seemed dull, but Albert defended him, and prophesied his greatness.55 He returned to Paris to teach as a bachelor in theology; and now, following in his master’s steps, he began a long series of works presenting Aristotle’s philosophy in Christian dress. In 1259 he left Paris to teach at the studium maintained by the papal court now in Anagni, now in Orvieto, now in Viterbo. At the papal court he met William of Moerbeke, and asked him to make Latin translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek.

Meanwhile Siger of Brabant was leading an Averroistic revolution at the University of Paris. Thomas was sent up to meet this challenge. Reaching Paris, he brought the war into the enemy’s camp with a tract On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists(1270). He concluded it with unusual fire:

Behold our refutation of these errors. It is based not on documents of faith but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If, then, there be anyone who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner, nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me here confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors, and bring a cure to his ignorance.56

It was a complex issue, for Thomas, in this his second period of teaching at Paris, had not only to combat Averroism, but also to meet the attacks of fellow monks who distrusted reason, and who rejected Thomas’ claim that Aristotle could be harmonized with Christianity. John Peckham, successor to Bonaventura in the Franciscan chair of philosophy at Paris, upbraided Thomas for sullying Christian theology with the philosophy of a pagan. Thomas—Peckham later reported—stood his ground, but answered “with great mildness and humility.”57 Perhaps it was those three years of controversy that undermined his vitality.

In 1272 he was called back to Italy at the request of Charles of Anjou to reorganize the University of Naples. In his final years he ceased writing, whether through weariness or through disillusionment with dialectics and argument. When a friend urged him to complete his Summa theologica he said: “I cannot; such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw.”58 In 1274 Gregory X summoned him to attend the Council of Lyons. He set out on the long mule ride through Italy; but on the way between Naples and Rome he grew weak, and took to his bed in the Cistercian monastery of Fossanuova in the Campagna. There, in 1274, still but forty-nine, he died.

When he was canonized witnesses testified that he “was soft-spoken, easy in conversation, cheerful and bland of countenance… generous in conduct, most patient, most prudent; radiant with charity and gentle piety; wondrous compassionate to the poor.”59 He was so completely captured by piety and study that these filled every thought and moment of his waking day. He attended all the hours of prayer, said one Mass or heard two each morning, read and wrote, preached and taught, and prayed. Before a sermon or a lecture, before sitting down to study or compose, he prayed; and his fellow monks thought that “he owed his knowledge less to the effort of the mind than to the virtue of his prayer.”60 On the margin of his manuscripts we find, every now and then, pious invocations like Ave Maria!61 He became so absorbed in the religious and intellectual life that he hardly noticed what happened about him. In the refectory his plate could be removed and replaced without his being aware of it; but apparently his appetite was excellent. Invited to join other clergymen at dinner with Louis IX, he lost himself in meditation during the meal; suddenly he struck the table with his fist and exclaimed: “That is the decisive argument against the Manicheans!” His prior reproved him: “You are sitting at the table of the King of France”; but Louis, with royal courtesy, bade an attendant bring writing materials to the victorious monk.62 Nevertheless the absorbed saint could write with good sense on many matters of practical life. People remarked how he could adjust his sermons either to the studious minds of his fellow monks, or to the simple intellects of common folk. He had no airs, made no demands upon life, sought no honors, refused promotion to ecclesiastical office. His writings span the universe, but contain not one immodest word. He faces in them every argument against his faith, and answers with courtesy and calm.

Improving upon the custom of his time, he made explicit acknowledgments of his intellectual borrowings. He quotes Avicenna, al-Ghazali, Averroës, Isaac Israeli, Ibn Gabirol, and Maimonides; obviously no student can understand the Scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century without considering its Moslem and Jewish antecedents. Thomas does not share William of Auvergne’s affection for “Avicebron,” but he has a high respect for “Rabbi Moyses,” as he calls Moses ben Maimon. He follows Maimonides in holding that reason and religion can be harmonized, but also in placing certain mysteries of the faith beyond the grasp of reason; and he cites the argument for this exclusion as given in the Guide to the Perplexed.63 He agrees with Maimonides that the human intellect can prove God’s existence, but can never rise to a knowledge of His attributes; and he follows Maimonides closely in discussing the eternity of the universe.64* In logic and metaphysics he takes Aristotle as his guide, and quotes him on almost every page; but he does not hesitate to differ from him wherever the Philosopher strays from Christian doctrine. Having admitted that the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Last Judgment cannot be proved by reason, he proceeds on all other points to accept reason with a fullness and readiness that shocked the followers of Augustine. He was a mystic in so far as he acknowledged the suprarationality of certain Christian dogmas, and shared the mystic longing for union with God; but he was an “intellectualist” in the sense that he preferred the intellect to the “heart” as an organ for arriving at truth. He saw that Europe was bound for an Age of Reason, and he thought that a Christian philosopher should meet the new mood on its own ground. He prefaced his reasonings with Scriptural and Patristic authorities, but he said, with pithy candor: Locus ab auctoritate est infirmissimus—“the argument from authority is the weakest.”66 “The study of philosophy,” he wrote, “does not aim merely to find out what others have thought, but what the truth of the matter is.”67 His writings rival those of Aristotle in the sustained effort of their logic.

Seldom in history has one mind reduced so large an area of thought to order and clarity. We shall find no fascination in Thomas’ style; it is simple and direct, concise and precise, with not a word of padding or flourish; but we miss in it the vigor, imagination, passion, and poetry of Augustine. Thomas thought it out of place to be brilliant in philosophy. When he wished he could equal the poets at their own game. The most perfect works of his pen are the hymns and prayers that he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Among them is the stately sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem, which preaches the Real Presence in sonorous verse. In the Lauds is a hymn beginning with a line from Ambrose—Verbum supernum prodiens—and ending with two stanzas—O salutaris hostia—regularly sung at the Benediction of the Sacrament. And in the Vespers is one of the great hymns of all time, a moving mixture of theology and poetry:

Pange, lingua, gloriosi

corporis mysterium

sanguinisque pretiosi,

quem in mundi pretium

fructus ventris generosi,

rex effudit gentium.

Nobis datus, nobis nacus

ex intacta virgine,

et in mundo conversatus,

sparso verbi semine,

sui moras incolatus

miro clausit ordine.

In supremae nocte cenae

recumbens cum fratribus,

observata lege plene

cibis in legalibus,

cibum turbae duodenae

se dat suis manibus.

Verbum caro panem verum

verbo carnem efficit,

fitque sanguis Christi merum,

et, si sensus deficit,

ad firmandum cor sincerum

sola fides sufficit.

Tantum ergo sacramentum


et antiquum documentum

novo cedat ritui;

praestet fides supplementum

sensuum defectui.

Genitori genitoque

laus et iubilatio

salus, honor, virtus quoque

sit et benedictio;

procedenti ab utroque

compar sit laudatio.*

Sing, O tongue, the mystery

of the body glorious,

and of blood beyond all price,

which, in ransom of the world,

fruit of womb most bountiful,

all the peoples’ King poured forth.

Given to us and born for us

from an untouched maid,

and, sojourning on the planet,

spreading seed of Word made flesh,

as a dweller with us lowly,

wondrously He closed His stay.

In the night of the Last Supper,

with apostles while reclining,

all the ancient law observing

in the food by law prescribed,

food He gives to twelve assembled,

gives Himself with His own hands.

Word made flesh converts true bread

with a word into His flesh;

wine becomes the blood of Christ,

and if sense should fail to see,

let the pure in heart be strengthened

by an act of faith alone.

Therefore such great sacrament

venerate we on our knees;

let the ancient liturgy

yield its place to this new rite;

let our faith redeem the failure

of our darkened sense.

To Begetter and Begotten

praise and joyful song,

salutation, honor, power,

blessings manifold;

and to Him from both proceeding

let our equal praise be told.

Thomas wrote almost as much as Albert, in a life little more than half as long. He composed commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, on the Gospels, Isaiah, Job, Paul; on Plato’s Timaeus, on Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius; on Aristotle’s Organon, Of Heaven and Earth, Of Generation and Corruption, Meteorology, Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, Politics, Ethics-, quaestiones disputatae—On Truth, On Power, On Evil, On the Mind, On Virtues, etc.; quodlibeta discussing points raised at random in university sessions; treatises On the Principles of Nature, On Being and Essence, On the Rule of Princes, On the Occult Operations of Nature, On the Unity of the Intellect, etc.; a four-volume Summa de vertíate catholicae fidei contra Gentiles (1258–60), a twenty-one-volumeSumma theologica (1267–73), and a Compendium theologiae (1271–3). Thomas’ published writings fill 10,000 double-column folio pages.

The Summa contra Gentiles, or Summary of the Catholic Faith Against the Pagans, was prepared at the urging of Raymond of Peñafort, General of the Dominican Order, to aid in the conversion of Moslems and Jews in Spain. Therefore Thomas in this work argues almost entirely from reason, though remarking sadly that “this is deficient in the things of God.”68 He abandons here the Scholastic method of disputation, and presents his material in almost modern style, occasionally with more acerbity than befitted him whom posterity would call doctor angelicus and seraphicus. Christianity must be divine, he thinks, because it conquered Rome and Europe despite its unwelcome preaching against the pleasures of the world and the flesh; Islam conquered by preaching pleasure and by force of arms.69 In Part IV he frankly admits that the cardinal dogmas of Christianity cannot be proved by reason, and require faith in the divine revelation of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

Thomas’ most extensive work, the Summa theologica, is addressed to Christians; it is an attempt to expound and to defend—from Scripture, the Fathers, and reason—the whole body of Catholic doctrine in philosophy and theology.* “We shall try,” says the Prologue, “to follow the things that pertain to sacred doctrine with such brevity and lucidity as the subject matter allows.” We may smile at this twenty-one-volume brevity, but it is there; this Summa is immense, but not verbose; its size is merely the result of its scope. For within this treatise on theology are full treatises on metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and law; thirty-eight treatises, 631 questions or topics, 10,000 objections or replies. The orderliness of argument within each question is admirable, but the structure of the Summa has received more praise than its due. It cannot compare with the Euclidean organization of Spinoza’s Ethics, or the concatenation of Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy. The treatise on psychology (Part I, QQ. 75–94) is introduced between a discussion of the six days of creation and a study of man in the state of original innocence. The form is more interesting than the structure. Essentially it continues, and perfects, the method of Abélard as developed by Peter Lombard: statement of the question, arguments for the negative, objections to the affirmative, arguments for the affirmative from the Bible, from the Fathers, and from reason, and answers to objections. The method occasionally wastes time by putting up a straw man to beat down; but in many cases the debate is vital and real. It is a mark of Thomas that he states the case against his own view with startling candor and force; in this way the Summa is a summary of heresy as well as a monument of dogma, and might be used as an arsenal of doubt. We may not always be satisfied with the answers, but we can never complain that the Devil has had an incompetent advocate.

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