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Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, or Doctor Universalis. "Aquinas" is not a surname (hereditary surnames were not then in common use in Europe), but is a Latin adjective meaning "of Aquino", his place of birth. He was the foremost classical proponent of natural theology, and the father of Thomism. His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived as a reaction against, or as an agreement with his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory.

Thomas is held in the Catholic Church to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood. The works for which he is best-known are the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. As one of the 33 Doctors of the Church, he is considered the Church's greatest theologian and philosopher. Pope Benedict XV declared: "This (Dominican) Order ... acquired new luster when the Church declared the teaching of Thomas to be her own and that Doctor, honored with the special praises of the Pontiffs, the master and patron of Catholic schools."

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 in the town of Roccasecca, near Naples, the seventh and youngest son of a nobleman, the Count of Aquino. Thomas was born to parents who were in possession of a modest feudal domain on a boundary constantly disputed by the emperor and the pope. His father was of Lombard origin; his mother was of the later invading Norman strain. His people were distinguished in the service of Emperor Frederick II during the civil strife in southern Italy between the papal and imperial forces.

Thomas was placed in the monastery of Monte Cassino near his home as an oblate (i.e., offered as a prospective monk) when he was still a young boy; his family doubtless hoped that he would someday become abbot to their advantage. In 1239, after nine years in this sanctuary of spiritual and cultural life, young Thomas was forced to return to his family when the emperor expelled the monks because they were too obedient to the pope.

He attended the University of Naples, where he became acquainted with the Dominicans and, much to the chagrin of his family, he decided to join their Order. His brothers had him kidnapped away from them and imprisoned, but he stubbornly refused to give up his plan of becoming a Dominican, so his family eventually relented. Aquinas moved to the University of Paris, where he studied under the greatest philosopher of the period, Albert the Great. Albert was a follower of the doctrines of Aristotle. Aristotle was a fairly marginal figure in the ancient world, and after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, most of his works became unavailable. In Aquinas' time, this situation was changing. Many of Aristotle's works were becoming available in Western Europe through Moorish and Byzantine channels, in Latin translations from Greek or Arabic. In addition, many commentaries on Aristotle by Arabic authors were also becoming available.

Aquinas was, therefore, steeped in the new Aristotelian philosophy, and it influenced all aspects of his thought. However, Aristotle was still a controversial figure, as many of his positions were at odds with Christian doctrine. Ultimately however, Aristotelianism came to dominate medieval philosophy, due in no small part to Aquinas, whose system of thought would end up being the official philosophy of the Catholic Church to this day. In many ways, Aquinas had Christianized Aristotle, making him compatible with Church doctrine.

Although he wrote many works, he is most famous for his Summa Theologica, which he began writing in 1267. It is a massive work, its authoritative Latin version comprising nearly 30 volumes. Apparently Aquinas sat in his magisterial chair, dictating the Summa to the various scribes and students seated before him, waiting on his every word. He did not write the work from beginning to end, but would rather simultaneously dictate various parts to different scribes.

The Summa was nothing less than a complete system of philosophy. It covered literally everything: from the existence and nature of God, angels and the soul to the natural world, ethics, law and justice, the rites of the Church and the "final things" (death and resurrection). He worked on his magnum opus for seven years, covering everything from the nature of God to law. The Summa Theologica greatly shaped Church doctrine over the coming centuries.

At the center of the system was God, a perfect being who is infinite, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent and, most importantly, benevolent. God created the universe with a grand plan in mind, and devised rational laws to govern the whole. Everything in creation, including humanity, was assigned a purpose, a role to play in a great unfolding drama, in which God is both playwright and director. Humans have a special place in this scheme, because of two characteristics they do not share with other creatures.

First, humans have reason. God made the universe according to his perfectly rational plan, and he endowed humans with reason so that they might be able to understand this plan and their place within it. Second, humans have free will. Unlike other animals, who obey God's natural law because they have no choice in the matter, humans are capable of choosing whether or not to obey. Obedience and disobedience are attended by corresponding rewards and punishments. The rewards and punishments are to be meted out in the eternal life after bodily death, thus ensuring that at the end of it all, cosmic justice will reign.

The Summa was never finished. One day, Aquinas had a mystical vision, and could not be brought to work on the project any more. He is reported to have said: "I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw, and I now await the end of my life." Aquinas died on 7 March 1274. Although he was canonized in 1323, the witnesses during the canonization process could find no evidence of Aquinas having performed any miracles. They could only say that he "had been a pure person, humble, simple, peace-loving, given to contemplation, moderate, a lover of poetry." He became known in the Church as "Doctor Angelicus" (the Angelic Doctor), but perhaps more apt is his other nickname, "Doctor Universalis" (the Universal Doctor), for the breadth and depth of his learning.

Aquinas ended up having a profound effect on Catholic doctrine. Indeed, his can safely be called the official theology of the Catholic Church. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, Aeterni Patris, in which he urged a renewed study of Aquinas' philosophy and theology. This was an inspiration for the philosophical movement known as "neoThomism". It also set up the Leonine Commission, a group of scholars charged with editing a critical edition of Aquinas' complete body of work, the so-called "Leonine Edition". It is a testament to Aquinas' prolific pen that the Leonine Commission is still at work on the project.

Although he was an Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas was certain that he could defend himself against a heterodox interpretation of "the Philosopher," as Aristotle was known. Thomas held that human liberty could be defended as a rational thesis while admitting that determinations are found in nature. In his theology of Providence, he taught a continuous creation, in which the dependence of the created on the creative wisdom guarantees the reality of the order of nature. God moves sovereignly all that he creates; but the supreme government that he exercises over the universe is conformed to the laws of a creative Providence that wills each being to act according to its proper nature. This autonomy finds its highest realization in the rational creature: man is literally self-moving in his intellectual, volitional, and physical existence. Man's freedom, far from being destroyed by his relationship to God, finds its foundation in this very relationship. "To take something away from the perfection of the creature is to abstract from the perfection of the creative power itself." This metaphysical axiom, which is also a mystical principle, is the key to St. Thomas's spirituality.

In January 1274 Thomas Aquinas was personally summoned by Gregory X to the second Council of Lyons, which was an attempt to repair the schism between the Latin and Greek churches. On his way he was stricken by illness; he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, where he died on March 7. In 1277 the masters of Paris, the highest theological jurisdiction in the church, condemned a series of 219 propositions; 12 of these propositions were theses of Thomas. This was the most serious condemnation possible in the Middle Ages; its repercussions were felt in the development of ideas. It produced for several centuries a certain unhealthy spiritualism that resisted the cosmic and anthropological realism of Aquinas.

Little but some modest travel during a career devoted entirely to university life: at Paris, the Roman Curia, Paris again, and Naples. It would be a mistake, however, to judge that his life was merely the quiet life of a professional teacher untouched by the social and political affairs of his day. The drama that went on in his mind and in his religious life found its causes and produced its effects in the university. In the young universities all the ingredients of a rapidly developing civilization were massed together, and to these universities the Christian church had deliberately and authoritatively committed its doctrine and its spirit. In this environment, Thomas found the technical conditions for elaborating his work-not only the polemic occasions for turning it out but also the enveloping and penetrating spiritual milieu needed for it. It is within the homogeneous contexts supplied by this environment that it is possible today to discover the historical intelligibility of his work, just as they supplied the climate for its fruitfulness at the time of its birth.

Thomas Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323, officially named doctor of the church in 1567, and proclaimed the protagonist of orthodoxy during the modernist crisis at the end of the 19th century. This continuous commendation, however, cannot obliterate the historical difficulties in which he was embroiled in the 13th century during a radical theological renewal-a renewal that was contested at the time and yet was brought about by the social, cultural, and religious evolution of the West. Thomas was at the heart of the doctrinal crisis that confronted Christendom when the discovery of Greek science, culture, and thought seemed about to crush it.



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