On March 7, 1274 St Thomas Aquinas died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanuova, Italy. In the seven centuries since then scholarly interest in his life, times and particularly his thought have continued unabated. JOHN J. N. McGURK, M.Phil., F.R.Hist.S., of Notre Dame Collage of Education, Liverpool, discusses why he should be remembered by history —
To the Catholic Church St Thomas Aquinas is regarded as the Common Doctor or Teacher, the Angel of the schools; the Order to which he belonged — the Dominican Friars or Friars Preachers — revere him as much as they do their founder, St Dominic; Thomist philosophers and theologians see in his work the authentic voice of reason and, by common consent among historians, Thomas Aquinas is the greatest of the medieval schoolmen.
The occasion of the seventh centenary of his death may he an apt time to recall his manysided genius and to examine the reasons for his undying reputation in the world of thought.
Emerson once observed of Plato that great men have the shortest biographies; this is true in the case of Aquinas for not only did he have the brief span of 48 or 49 years (it is uncertain whether he was born in 1225 or 1226) but about the personal details of his life there hangs a great cloud of quiet.
If ever he wrote any personal letters they have not been preserved, not in all of his many books (and he wrote almost 100 on the most difficult of subjects) is there any expression of personal likes and dislikes.
Yet as the scant details of his biography show it was to be the fate of this calm scholar to he constantly embroiled in intellectual disputes, journeying here and there on business for his Order anti at the beck and call of successive Popes.
1-homas was horn into the large family of the Count of
Aquino in the family castle at Roccasecca, near Monte Cassino in Naples. Both sides of the family were aristocratic; the Counts of Aquino derived their pedigree from a Lombard prince and flourished in Naples for centuries before Thomas's birth. His mother the Countess Theodora of Theate was of Norman stock, both parents were related to the then reigning Emperor Frederick il.
'What is God'
in I homas, North and South met to such an extent that he never quite corresponded to the conventional notion of an Italian either in physical appearance, character or thought. Many would say that he was too large, too calm, too keen of intellect to be limited by national characteristics. At a time when many five-year-olds ask: "Who is God?" it is credibly reported that Thomas asked "What is God?"
his parents offered him as a child of the cloister to the abbey of Monte Cassino, they were apparently quite content that their seventh son should be a monk. Events proved otherwise. Monte Cassino was ransacked
and the monks expelled by the armies of Frederick II and when Thomas was about 14 his father had him sent to the new university at Naples founded by the Emperor when he closed down the famous one at Bologna. There he continued his studies and was taught by an early devotee of Aristotle probably Master Arnaldus.
In Naples the recently founded Order of Friars Preachers had a house of studies; their revolutionary mode of monastic life and their unusual black and white habit caused something of a sensation. When Thomas decided to join them in 1244 his parents thought that the youth had been carried away by the attractive habit. They had set their hearts on the Abbacy of Monte Cassino for their son.
The abbey was high in the world's esteem and to be its Abbot would have been a position worthy of Thomas's aristocratic rank and birth. As a friar no benefices and certainly no honours would come to the family. A running row ensued between Thomas and his family.
When the General of the Dominicans decided to remove Thomas to Paris for further studies the group travelling to Paris was waylaid by Thomas's brothers just north of Rome; he was seized and brought back to the family seat at Roccasecca where every means was taken to shake his vocation.
At one stage they put an alluringly dressed young woman in his bedroom. Thomas was outraged and with a burning brand from the fire drove her out and scorched the sign of the cross on his door. If we are to believe his earliest biographer William of Tocco this victory gave him supremacy ever afterwards over any form of sexual temptation.
His house arrest lasted about a year then Thomas continued his journey to the Dominican House of Studies of St Jacques in Paris and from there he attended the university to which he later added such great distinction. From Paris he went to -Cologne where he had the good fortune to have Albertus Magnus for his teacher and confrere.
In his four years at Cologne (1248-1252) Thomas gained the reputation for being the Dumb Ox, more an object of pity than mockery in the classrooms. Albert, however, was aware of his ability and broke the silence with his celebrated remark and indeed prophecy: "You call him a Dumb Ox: I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his words will fill the world."
There is a well-founded tradition that Thomas never forgot anything he had once studied recalling the paucity of 13th century library resources, the difficulty of consulting and translating Greek documents, the clear referencing of Thomas's writings all make this tradition quite believable.
A colleague, F. Daniel D'Augusta, once pressed him for an answer to the question: "What is the greatest favour you have ever received from God?" Thomas replied: "I think that of having always understood whatever I have read."
Queen of sciences
It is difficult for us today to realise that when Thomas was a student there were no great philosophical systems taught in the schools; again with our specialisation of knowledge it is all the more taxing to see how all knowledge then was regarded as universal and that theology was considered the queen of the sciences.
It must be remembered too in order to appreciate what Albert and Thomas were doing, that the Church had previously banned the study of Aristotle's philosophical ideas. In any case few of the Greek philosopher's works were current in the West of Europe until the beginnings of the 13th century; Fortunately the ban was relaxed just at a time when the writings of the Greeks, Jews and Arab philosophers flooded the Western world and with them, providentially as it were, arrived the great minds of Albert and Thomas his pupil. The task they set themselves was nothing less than the reconciliation of the teachings of the pagan writers with the truths of Christianity and in this Thomas Aquinas far out-paced his teacher. In 1252 Thomas went back to Paris to teach there as bachelor and at the then early age of 31 was promoted to a mastership in theology. An immense figure of a man but of quiet retiring ways, Thomas's lectures were packed; he could not prevent his fame growing. It was noised abroad that his teaching was 'novel' in its methods and in the light it threw on old arguments. St Louis, the King of France esteemed him and often invited him to dine. A well known story is told of his so called absentmindedness at the royal table. lie was invited on a particular day when he was more than usually preoccupied with his great masterpiece the Summa Theologica and in the course of the meal he forgot where he was and grew lost in thought and suddenly in the middle of conversation he struck the table and shouted out, "Ha! that settles the Manichees." The King called for a secretary to take down the thought lest it perish.
As his fame grew so too did resentment and jealousy especially from the secular and conservative theologians in the university of Paris. When he became eligible for the doctorate and a possible chair of theology the Faculty decreed that the number of chairs held by the friars he limited to two one for each of the Franciscans and the Dominicans and that both orders be forbidden to found further houses of study and their special privileges he curtailed.
Thomas entered the lists on behalf of the friars. William of St Amour became the spokesman for the seculars. A war of pamphlets ensued. Public debates on the question attracted notice far beyond the university's circles. The authority and cogency, however, of Thomas Aquinas won the day when Rome decided in favour of the Orders. William's books were burnt and he himself was dismissed from Paris by order of St Louis.
Aquinas's reputation as a brilliant teacher and lucid writer was established in those first three years of lecturing in Paris, so great too was his worth within the Order that he was called to a general chapter to help in drawing up new rules for houses of study. At this time too he was asked to write a book of arguments to serve in the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Moors, particularly in Spain — the result was the famed Summa Contra Gentiles. This work and his treatise the De Veritate contain some of his best thought; many of their ideas reappear in the greatest work that came from his pen, the Sumena Theologica, which even his enemies admired. -Like the great Gothic cathedrals of his own age, Aquinas's Summa is a masterpiece of design and crafts-. manship and in the classical unity of its many parts. What Thomas Aquinas produced, even though he left the third part unfinished, was quite simply the greatest synthesis of human thought ever attempted; he succeeded in doing what no other thinker of his time had done — in fact what none of our modern age has done — he left a coherently rational explanation of man and his place in the universe, that was at one and the same time philosophically sound and theologically orthodox.
It is clear from the preface that Aquinas himself saw the work simply as a primer or introduction to the wisdom of thirteen centuries of Christianity. Contemporaries and successive generations judged the work more highly than its author.
Dante took Aquinas as his guide to the highest heaven; the Church adopted him as the pattern of philosophic wisdom; even as late as the 16th century the Popes placed the great Summa with the Bible on the altar at the sessions of the Council of Trent.
To appreciate the style and structure of the apparently formidable Summa with its questions, articles, strings of objections, answers and conclusions it is necessary to recall that such a lay-out roughly corresponded to the formal lecturing methods in the medieval university.
BreVity is the chief feature of Aquinas's style precisely because he had the gift of seizing on what was of primary importance. The main commentaries that were written on his work, and still continue to be written often obscure his meaning so that for light on the commentaries it is often a relief to go hack to the Master!
For the next few years of his life Aquinas was in Italy; reign ing Popes called on him for important work they had in hand. The Papal Court then was itinerant and Aquinas followed it to Anagni, Orvieto, Viterbo and Rome. He was in Italy from 1259-68 writing, teaching, preaching and doing what may he called consultancy work for the papacy.
It was a time when the papacy was at the height of its power in the worldly sense, but it is remarkable that Thomas Aquinas nowhere in his writings lends any support to the papal ambitions of the age, nor to the arguments of the Canon lawyers in boosting those ambitions.
Instead we find him forming a friendship with the Greek scholar William of Moerbeke, a fellow Friar Preacher, who did much translation work for Thomas. At the order of Pope Urban IV St Thomas Aquinas, composed the Mass and Office. for the Feast of Corpus Christi, the hymns of which show him a master of prosody. There are no other signs in his writings that he had any poetic sense, yet the Office of Corpus Christi touches notes of great emotion akin to great poetry. During his stay in Italy he also wrote several commentaries on Scripture and continued with his great Summa. But in 1268 a crisis in the university of Paris demanded his presence.
A rival school of philosophy the Averrhoists under the able Siger of Brabant was gaining popularity to the detriment of Thomas's system so patiently built up. More insidiously the conservative theologians under cover of attacking Averrhoist ideas also threatened the Thomist system, so that when Thomas returned to Paris he had to fight an intellectual battle on two fronts.
To his mind no genuine philosopher could accept that there were two spheres of truth; for the sake of all he loved and tautht this error must he defeated. The conflict between Thomas and Siger became reRowned and the artistic world caught the flavour of the famous battle. Paintings representing both disputants can be seen in Florence, Pisa and in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. Perhaps the representation in the Louvre in Paris by Benozzo Gozzoli in which Thomas stands over Siger in a George and Dragon motif is the better known. The victory deserved its popularity for Thomas achieved his one great aim the freeing of Aristotle from the errors of' Averrhoes and of integrating Aristotelianisni with the Christian faith.
In 1272 Aquinas left Paris once more; he was called away to Naples to reorganise studies in the university, but maybe because his victories aroused so much opposition. They certainly helped to cause a serious split in the university and a student strike; and yet in the midst of this turmoil Aquinas found time to complete the second part of his great Summa.
Naples, however, was home to Aquinas, but it was to be a short-lived home-coming. Although his strength was burnt out with constant debates and the rigours of writing he continued his professorial activity at Naples until in 1274 Pope Gergory X sent word that he wanted Thomas to be present at the great council summoned to Lyons — the chief item on the agenda being the healing of the breach between the Greek Orthodox Church and Rome.
Thomas set out on his journey with his companion — they travelled by donkey! Thomas grew weak en route so they stopped at his sister's in the Campagna. There it became clear that further travelling was out of the question and with the approach of death Thomas asked to he taken to the nearby Cistercian house of Fossanuova where he malingered a month and died on March 7, 1274.
The 13th century is so full of heroic types that historians often regard it as the greatest of the medieval centuries, nothing contributed more to that greatness than the intellectual achievement of Thomas Aquinas. He is, however, much inure than a representative of his age for Aquinas gave human reason a new dignity, knowledge a new synthesis and truth a new champion.