Thomas Aquinas

Content:

Timeline of his Life

1225 Thomas Aquinas born at Roccasecca
1230 Begins studies at Montecassino
1239 Continues studies at University of Naples
1244 Joins Dominicans; family protests decision by imprisoning him for a year
1245 Released by his family, Thomas goes to Paris to study with Albert the Great
1248 Accompanies Albert to newly founded Dominican school at Cologne
1250 Ordained a priest
1252 Returns to Paris; writes Contra impugnantes Dei cultum, a defense of mendicant orders
1256 Named master of theology at Paris
1259 Sent to Italy, where he would teach at Anagni, Orvieto, Rome, and Viterbo
c. 1260 Begins Summa contra Gentiles
c. 1265 Begins Summa Theologica
1269 Recalled to Paris to combat Averroist Siger of Brabant and other philosophers
1273 Suddenly stops work on Summa Theologica
1274 Dies at Fossanova, en route to Council of Lyons
1277 219 Thomistic propositions condemned at Paris
1278 Dominican General Chapter formally imposes his teachings on the order

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the importance of his life and works in these words:

“Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) lived at a critical juncture of western culture when the arrival of the Aristotelian corpus in Latin translation reopened the question of the relation between faith and reason, calling into question the modus vivendi that had obtained for centuries. This crisis flared up just as universities were being founded. Thomas, after early studies at Montecassino, moved on to the University of Naples, where he met members of the new Dominican Order. It was at Naples too that Thomas had his first extended contact with the new learning. When he joined the Dominican Order he went north to study with Albertus Magnus, author of a paraphrase of the Aristotelian corpus. Thomas completed his studies at the University of Paris, which had been formed out of the monastic schools on the Left Bank and the cathedral school at Notre Dame. In two stints as a regent master Thomas defended the mendicant orders and, of greater historical importance, countered both the Averroistic interpretations of Aristotle and the Franciscan tendency to reject Greek philosophy. The result was a new modus vivendi between faith and philosophy which survived until the rise of the new physics. The Catholic Church has over the centuries regularly and consistently reaffirmed the central importance of Thomas’s work for understanding its teachings concerning the Christian revelation, and his close textual commentaries on Aristotle represent a cultural resource which is now receiving increased recognition. The following account concentrates on Thomas the philosopher.

Vita

Thomas was born in 1225 at Roccasecca, a hilltop castle from which the great Benedictine abbey of Montecassino is not quite visible, midway between Rome and Naples. At the age of five, he was entered at Montecassino where his studies began. When the monastery became a battle site—not for the last time—Thomas was transferred by his family to the University of Naples. It was here that he came into contact with the “new” Aristotle and with the Order of Preachers or Dominicans, a recently founded mendicant order. He became a Dominican over the protests of his family and eventually went north to study, perhaps first briefly at Paris, then at Cologne with Albert the Great, whose interest in Aristotle strengthened Thomas’s own predilections. Returned to Paris, he completed his studies, became a Master and for three years occupied one of the Dominican chairs in the Faculty of Theology. The next ten years were spent in various places in Italy, with the mobile papal court, at various Dominican houses, and eventually in Rome. From there he was called back to Paris to confront the controversy variously called Latin Averroism and Heterodox Aristotelianism. After this second three year stint, he was assigned to Naples. In 1274, on his way to the Council of Lyon, he fell ill and died on March 7 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova, which is perhaps twenty kilometers from Roccasecca.

Writings

Thomas’s writings by and large show their provenance in his teaching duties. His commentary on the Sentences put the seal on his student days and many of his very early commentaries on Scripture have come down to us. But from the very beginning Thomas produces writings which would not have emerged from the usual tasks of the theological master. On Being and Essence and The Principles of Nature date from his first stay at Paris, and unlike his commentaries on Boethius’ On the Trinity and De hebdomadibus, are quite obviously philosophical works. Some of his disputed questions date from his first stint as regius master at Paris. When he returned to Italy his productivity increased. He finished the Summa contra gentiles, wrote various disputed questions and began the Summa theologiae. In 1268, at Rome, he began the work of commenting on Aristotle with On the Soul, and during the next five or six years commented on eleven more (not all of these are complete). During this time he was caught up in magisterial duties of unusual scope and was writing such polemical works as On the Eternity of the World and On There Being Only One Intellect.

At Naples, he was given the task of elevating the status of the Dominican House of Studies. His writing continued until he had a mystical experience which made him think of all he had done as “mere straw.” At the time of his death in 1274 he was under a cloud in Paris and in 1277, 219 propositions were condemned by a commission appointed by the Bishop of Paris, among them tenets of Thomas. This was soon lifted, he was canonized and eventually was given the title of Common Doctor of the Church. But the subtle and delicate assimilation of Aristotle that characterized his work in both philosophy and theology did not survive his death, outside the Dominican Order, and has experienced ups and downs ever since.”

McInerny, Ralph and O’Callaghan, John, “Saint Thomas Aquinas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/aquinas/>.

Quotes

By Thomas

  • “… the believer and the philosopher consider creatures differently. The philosopher considers what belongs to their proper natures, while the believer considers only what is true of creatures insofar as they are related to God, for example, that they are created by God and are subject to him, and the like.” (Summa contra gentiles, bk II, chap. 4)
  • “…the very idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Prov. viii, 23…this kind of law must be called eternal.”
  • “among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others. Wherefore, it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end.” (ST, I-II, 91.2).
  • “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (Ibid.).

About him

  • “He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”  (Bertrand Russell)
  • His experiences included well-attested cases of levitation in ecstasy; and the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, comforting him with the welcome news that he would never be a Bishop. ( G. K. Chesterton, 1932)

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