“The Study of philosophy is not that we may know what men have thought, but what the truth of things is. ”
― St. Thomas Aquinas
Today, March 7th, is the anniversary of the day that St. Thomas Aquinas took his final rest and met the Lord. Taking a class on Summa Theologiae has helped me begin my journey in comprehending not only great a work of art but also a great man, the two inseparable. So to pay tribute to a man who has become one of my favorite saints and his significant contributions to the Church, it is only fitting that I introduce the Great Doctor Communis (one of his many names).
Saint Thomas Aquinas’s character and works are a significant contribution to history. I will present a clearer vision of the development of his work and how he came to be called Doctor Communis.
He was born in 1225, the youngest of 13 children to Landolph and Theodora Lombard, in the castle of Roccasecca near the town of Aquino. As a young child, he seemed highly inquisitive and observant. He frequently asked his teachers “what is God”? His natural disposition and intelligence led his parents to set him on a different path from his elder brothers. His mother thought it best that he follow the footsteps of his Uncle Sinibald the Abbot of the first Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino.
In 1232, at seven-year-old Thomas was sent away to the monastery where he studied under the Benedictine monks, who educated him in the seven liberal arts (quadrivium and trivium). The lesson plan was derived from the classical traditions of ancient Greek and Roman culture, which were poorly understood at the time. The quadrivium originated from Plato’s Republic taught four preparatory scientific arts: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. These arts then lead to trivium, the three core scientific arts: logic, grammar, and rhetoric. The program was designed to condition the student for the higher sciences of philosophy and theology. The modern equivalent of his elementary education would be that of a Bachelors degree prepping for a Masters.
It is necessary to comprehend the intensity of his studies when considering the influential impact that it had on the formation of his character. The monks’ collaborative style of education was systematic with their monastic traditions in the contemplative life of prayer and celebration of the sacraments. However, due to the military conflict that broke out in 1239 between Pope Gregory IX and Emperor Frederick II, imperial troops overran the abbey. This delayed Thomas’ education for at least a year. His parents and the head Abbott enrolled him in the Stadium Generale (University) founded by Fredrick II around 1226 in Naples. It was the first state-supported institution of higher education and research in the western world. It was also where a young and impressionable Thomas encountered the Dominican Order. This offered him a refreshing new look into the philosophical giants such Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides. The contact with the order and their philosophy would echo throughout the rest of his life.
Most of the philosophy that he was introduced to was Ancient secular and religious works (such as Aristotle, Plato, etc. ), recovered as a consequence of the Crusades and the movements for the New Evangelization. The Crusades provided clear and safe passageways for pilgrims that came to the many newly reopened eastern trade routes. In addition to the freshly established orders of Franciscans and Dominicans that came to these routes as missionaries. Both the Franciscan and Dominican orders had only been founded about a decade before Thomas was born. They offered a fresh and inviting view on how to embrace that vigorous call to religious missionary life that drew in many young people from different walks of life.
For Thomas, the Dominicans had many of the best qualities found in the monastic traditions of the Benedictine education received in his boyhood. The mission did not stop with a mere promise. Rather, it challenged him to employ his talents through virtue of practicing what he’d preach beyond the walls of the Monastery. This is why the Dominicans were called the Order of Preachers, for their primary Charisms were to preach the gospel of Truth by learning, teaching, and contemplative prayer. These aspects were intertwined with their missionary work that instructed one to live and preach the Word by imitating the life and ministry of Christ. This imitation began by taking vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in order to become living and visible signs of God’s love. Thus, it only seemed a natural calling for Thomas, as perfect as one could imagine.
It likely felt as if the Holy
Spirit was pecking and chirping into ear his saying DO IT, MAN! DO IT!! So at nineteen years old he joined the Dominican Order.
The Family Dispute
Per contra to this decision, upon receiving the news, his family was not only displeased but outright rejected this vocation. For them, this was an act of an utter betrayal with no promise of a high-end career nor an appeal to the families status of nobility. It was a very public statement to embrace poverty by renouncing his heritage. In other words, by today’s standards his decision would be like announcing to your politically ambitious family I know that you provided me with an education that could lead me to an auspicious career that will continue in honoring the family name with an award of status and power. But I think I much rather be a poor intellectual hippy that preaches Jesus and Church to people.
One can imagine that his parents would end up freaking out (which is exactly what they did). The family planned on a retaliating. Thus, the Dominicans attempted to send Thomas to Rome. However this action proved futile as Thomas while on the road to Tuscany he was intercepted, kidnapped, and taken back home as a prisoner by his brother Rinaldo. So for the next year, his family made persistent attempts to persuade him to give up his Dominican vocation. In spite of the restrictions brought on by his incarceration, he tutored his sister on the teachings of the Dominicans while having limited communications with the Dominicans.
Neither sweet persuasion nor abuse tempted him away from wielding chivalrous resolve for his vocation. According to legend, his brothers hired a prostitute to seduce Thomas as a way to break him. However this did not work, rather the provocation only sparked a flame of resolve that could not be put out. Bellowing like a mad warrior, he unsheathed a flaming sword to chase her away. Until her shrieks were as distant and far as the dawn is to dusk. Then taking that same sword (fire iron), he drew an ashy cross on the wall. He then prayed before fainting into an exhausted slumber, under the care of two angels that brought him comfort and strength as a sign of reassurance to his vocation.
Freedom at Last
By 1244, he was secretly released by his mother (as a way to prevent any dishonor to the family). He was finally free to rejoin with his Dominican brothers in Naples for another year until he was sent onward to continue his studies at the University Paris. His missionary journey would lead him to encounter and develop a fruitful relationship with Albertus Magnus. Also known as Albert the Great, a Dominican scholar, he became mentor and friend to Thomas (he was also considered to be one of the greatest minds of the age).
After two years the relationship led Thomas to follow Albertus through the snowy Alps into Cologne, Germany to establish a new Stadium Gentele (a Dominican school for philosophy and theology). Albertus also appointed Thomas as Magister Studentium. This contributed to Thomas’ decision to decline the Pope’s offer as the Dominican Abbott of Monte Cassino. Moreover, he had been reluctant to take either offer. Furthermore, he was in the final stages of earning his baccalaureate. His personality was very shy, often soft-spoken and quiet. Perhaps this derived from his naturally thoughtful disposition in desiring to express the truth in a manner that would be clear and concise. Resulting in him appearing as slow, as he moved to answer those difficult questions brought before him. To make matters worse, he also suffered from gigantism (think Andre the Giant from Princess Bride). As a consequence of both his physical appearance and shy demeanor, his classmates nicknamed him “the dumb ox”. Albertus delivered a prophetic response to the nickname: “you call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world”.
Development of Thomistic Theology
Thomas believed that humbly embracing the loving attitude of the Dominicans called for him to dedicate all aspects of his life towards seeking Truth. He felt that for the faith to flourish, he needed to develop a system and style that allowed him thorough examination of historical texts in a way that had not been done before. He stylized his writings and lectures in such a fashion that showed how Truth in Scripture was a calling for all men, not just a few. For the Truth is a person, so any engagement involving Truth must be a personal matter.
His methods of overviewing historical texts needed to be dealt with dialectically. It was a personal yet humble way to engage in logical conversation. Thomas’ interest was not to discern an isolated context of historical intent that the author had in mind at the time, but to sincerely address those difficult questions raised by the common man. In the Thomistic perspective, one cannot treat such antiquities as merely a dusty alien artifact that proves to be no real consequence for modern concerns. Rather, an obligation exists to define terms clearly and structure propositions soundly.
Service to the Truth
His style conceded to a devotion oriented entirely to God manifested by his imitation of Christ’s life and message. He patiently gave his time to anyone who requested it. He did not allow any ambition or emotions to arise or take away from the conversation at hand. The only matter which he would judge was the truth of the matter, never the person. For Christ calls man to love mercifully. For Mercy reveals the Truth of what man is, and who he is called to be. Thomas believed that no matter the time or the place, the virtue of the sacred mission was to be at complete service to the Truth.
An excellent example of this dedication to Truth would be at the Banquet of St. King Louis IX of France, during a most magnificent feast. Thomas became deeply entrenched in thought, until somewhere in the thick of the Feast he shouted “ERGO CONCLUSUS CONTRA MANICHAEUS” (And this ends the Manichean). He had reached a conclusion to an argument against the heresy of Manicheanism, which at that time had become rampant.
At twenty-eight years old, Thomas returned to the University of Paris to earn his doctorate. It took Thomas about four years to complete his training as well as the commentaries he took up a teaching position at the University. It was an experience that made him known as an excellent, clear and concise teacher, particularly on subjects that were relating to Holy Scripture.
Defense Against Heresies
The Dominicans were best known for their love for sacred teaching and a firm defense against heresy, and Thomas was no exception. Thomas made a great effort to preach tolerance with pagans and Jews. However, he devoutly believed in the fullness of salvation that could only be found in Christianity.
Heresy is derived from the Greek word hairesis meaning a self-chosen opinion, sect, discord or contention. It pertains to a distortion in sacred teaching or doctrines by people who claim to be Christian. To be more precise, it is about accepting and affirming a distorted scared teaching as fully real. However, the issue then takes on a new form, by forsaking the totality of Truth as it stands against much attained in reality and God. A lie can have a parasitic relationship with Truth, not loving it in its totality. Which makes truth then less objectively about reality as it relates to God but more a perspective of reality that I define as real. The truth that reality is founded on upon is no longer looked to be received as a gift, but rejected for an alternate reality that is self-made. Someone who also likes this idea of rejecting the totality of reality was was given is known as the prince of lies. He built a kingdom constructed in a way that can only perceive the world with disorder and misery of rejecting contemptuously the gifts of the truth revealed by God.
Thomas combated against a sect called Cathari (the pure ones), or Albigensians, who believed the human being were intrinsically evil, and their soul needed to be freed from their carnal prisons. The Cathari rejected marriage and thought that to produce children was also evil. They also believed the Catholic Church’s teachings of sacraments and doctrines were also evil and thus needed to be cut away from. In the Catholic perspective, this is clearly a heresy, a contention against the Truth of the Human person as God had created them. For Gods’ love for that person molding them the form of their soul and a body as the object that is the physical sign of His love. For Thomas, this was an important issue that could be combated with sources within and out of the Church.
This was an important reason as why St. Thomas began to construct the Summa Theologiae. While teaching in Orvieto, Italy, he had studied many documents introduced by Franciscans and Dominicans alike. For many in the church did not fully understand the meaning of these texts that led to various misunderstandings of the Church and her teaching at that time. It then became part of his task give upcoming generations of Dominicans. For they were to be educating, preaching and celebrating the sacraments to have a clear and concise understanding of sacred teaching in the church.
There is some small debate as to what kind of students are meant to read the Summa. Some think theologians, while some have even said entry level theology students. The work is in no way short of a masterpiece, written in a style to introduce how the truth found in sacred teachings of the church is universal and eternal. The overall structure is a flow of arguments used to explain how all things have come from God and are meant to come to Him. Thomas shows the truth to be a personal journey that requires an understanding of the human person, our limits that can be a challenge intellectually, psychologically or physically a problem that can be addressed on an individual basis. For he desired the unity of truth in the Church communion among all Christians.
All of his work was an appeal to Truth, which is universal and timeless. For the Truth is revealed to be found high above all things and it then likewise the reason in his works one shall come across a variety topics from ontology, eschatology, ecclesiology to natural theology. For all knowledge of the Truth is considered subordinate to the Truth, and all that exists is reliant on Truth because of its intrinsic relationship to reality itself.
It is what makes today’s call in the third Millenium for New Evangelization so important. The mission of the Church is also to demonstrate the applicable nature of Truth that is found in and through Christ, meaning that man must have knowledge of his incompleteness for he desires that which he lacks, and acts in seeking fulfillment. In order for him to have full awareness of the Lack, he must have an intellectual discernment in the Truth that found in reality and within himself. For the Truth has the promise of delivering unto us completeness which all men desire. This is why we say Christ is the Living Word of Truth, for He appeals to all men’s hearts, since they are intrinsically drawn by nature to Truth.
To know the Fullness of Truth, one would need to find themselves in the realm of the divine. This conceptually is not possible as man is not only an intellectual being but a physical being as well and to deny this would in many ways deny the Truth that reality is founded upon. Since we know that we desire the fullness of Truth, we are made for it but cannot fully obtain it based on our natural limitation. The fact we know this about Truth in fragments is through natural observation of the world. The fragmentation is a result of intellectual limitations and our fallen nature which mixes up how we can come to know the truth. That is what makes understanding ancient philosophy and scripture so necessary. It ties in with the nature of Church as an institution that is fully divine and human. The task of the Church from its establishment is to be one in the spirit of Christ. Who reveals the Truth given in Sacred Doctrine or Teaching. With Sacred Teaching Christ unlocks our potential for comprehending the order and harmony of the universe that has emerged from and moves toward returning to God. In order demonstrate this claim of sacred teaching means proficient understanding the relationship between man and God. For once this relationship is clearly understood, Truth can be found in any language, culture, or philosophy because it is jointly universal and timeless. This is what makes the words of St Thomas such a powerful appeal to Truth. Regardless of the age or the people who come into contact with his works, he charted a gateway for the Truth by the using scripture and philosophy as a way to maximize the effectiveness of the New Evangelization.
The Theologiae Summa was not his only work, but it was his largest contribution to the church. He had many other different works. For Thomas this was his main task in life was to give himself up to complete service for God. Which meant for him endless hours of work, revisions, travel and dismissal to comforts he could have easily obtained but would not satisfy him. He tried where others had failed.
Giving himself to fully to God. This exhausted him by the end of his life. He had begun an increase in mystical experiences. The Summa was not yet even complete by the time he had one of his most well-known visions. On December 7, 1273, is it a vision Christ while celebrating mass. He stopped writing after that exchange. Even after being pressured to write again he replied: “all of my work is like straw to me”. Following, this time, his health begin to decline and he worked more on a contemplative prayer life.
Sometime in February, he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to a council in Rome. While traveling, he was struck by a Low Branch. Brought to the monastery of Monte Cassino where recovered and went back to travel. Only to be struck by illness, his health going further into decline.
So on March 7, 1274, Thomas passed away in a Cistercian Fossanova Abbey. Ironically even after being given his final rites, he was giving a commentary on the Song of Songs before passing away, (even at deaths door he needed to show words if devotion). It makes a reasonable point in why he was both a saint and a doctor.
I will say that I am thankful to God as well as I am entirely sure that the Church is, that we were granted such a Great Theologian and Philosopher as St. Thomas Aquinas. I will merely end with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI gave to a general audience in Saint Peter’s Square Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Regarding Thomas Aquinas
“Together with the agreement between reason and faith, we must recognize on the other hand that they avail themselves of different cognitive procedures. Reason receives a truth by virtue of its intrinsic evidence, mediated or unmediated; faith, on the contrary, accepts a truth on the basis of the authority of the Word of God that is revealed. St Thomas writes at the beginning of his Summa Theologiae: “We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of the intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science, because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed” (ia, q. 1, a.2).
This distinction guarantees the autonomy of both the human and the theological sciences. However, it is not equivalent to separation but, rather, implies a reciprocal and advantageous collaboration. Faith, in fact, protects reason from any temptation to distrust its own abilities, stimulates it to be open to ever broader horizons, keeps alive in it the search for foundations and, when reason itself is applied to the supernatural sphere of the relationship between God and man, faith enriches his work. According to St Thomas, for example, human reason can certainly reach the affirmation of the existence of one God, but only faith, which receives the divine Revelation, is able to draw from the mystery of the Love of the Triune God.”
I ask for St Thomas pray for me and those have read this. Thank You for Reading and God Bless 😊
P.S. My St Thomas Special extra stuff if you would like to explore more of the works of St Thomas Aquinas
Loughlin, Stephen. Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide (London, T&T Clark, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-567-55094-1
Copleston, F. C. Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker (London, Penguin, 1955; 1991). ISBN: 0-14-0136474-6
Torrell, Jean-Pierre. St. Thomas Aquinas: Volume I: The Person and His Work (Washington, Catholic University of America Press, 1996). ISBN: 0-8132-0853-x