St Thomas Aquinas biography
Philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was born in Lombardy, Italy, circa 1225. Combining the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason, he ranked among the most influential thinkers of medieval scholasticism. An authority of the Roman Catholic Church and a prolific writer, Aquinas died at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, Italy, on March 7, 1274.
Son to Landulph, the Count of Aquino, St. Thomas Aquinas was born in Lombardy at his family's castle in the kingdom of Naples, Italy, circa 1225. He had eight siblings, and was the youngest child. His mother, Theodora, was Countess of Teano. Although St. Thomas Aquinas' family members were the descendants of Emperors Frederick I and Henry VI, they were considered to be of lower nobility.
Before St. Thomas Aquinas was born, a holy hermit shared a prediction with St. Thomas Aquinas' mother, foretelling that he would enter the Order of Friars Preachers and become a great learner who achieved unequaled sanctity.
Following the tradition of the period, St. Thomas Aquinas was sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino to train among Benedictine monks when he was just five years old. In Wisdom 8:19, St. Thomas Aquinas is described as “a witty child,” who “had received a good soul.” At Monte Cassino, the quizzical young boy repeatedly posed the question, “What is God?” to his benefactors.
St. Thomas Aquinas remained at the abbey until he was 13 years old, at which time the political climate forced him to return to Naples.
St. Thomas Aquinas spent the next five years completing his primary education at a Benedictine house in Naples. During those years, he studied Aristotle's work, which would later become a major launching point for St. Thomas Aquinas' own exploration of philosophy. At the Benedictine house, which was closely affiliated with the University of Naples, St. Thomas Aquinas also developed an interest in more contemporary monastic orders. He was particularly drawn to those that emphasized a life of spiritual service, in contrast with the more traditional views and sheltered lifestyle he had observed at the Abbey of Monte Cassino.
Circa 1239, St. Thomas Aquinas began attending the University of Naples. In 1243 he secretly joined an order of Dominican monks, receiving the habit in 1244. When his family found out, they felt so betrayed that he had turned his back on the principles to which they subscribed that they decided to kidnap him. St. Thomas Aquinas' family held him captive for an entire year, imprisoned in the fortress of San Giovanni at Rocca Secca. During this time they attempted to deprogram St. Thomas Aquinas of his new beliefs. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, held fast to the ideas he had learned at university, and went back to the Dominican order following his release in 1245.
From 1245 to 1252, he continued to pursue his studies with the Dominicans in Naples, Paris and Cologne. In 1250 he was ordained in Cologne, Germany, then returned to the University of Paris to teach theology.
Under the tutelage of St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas subsequently earned his doctorate in theology. Consistent with the holy hermit's prediction, St. Thomas Aquinas proved an exemplary scholar, although, ironically, his modesty sometimes led his classmates to misperceive him as dim-witted. After reading Aquinas' thesis and thinking it brilliant, Aquinas' professor, St. Albert the Great, proclaimed in Aquinas' defense, “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!”
Theology and Philosophy
After completing his education, St. Thomas Aquinas devoted himself to a life of traveling, writing, teaching, public speaking and preaching. Religious institutions and universities alike yearned to benefit from the wisdom of the “Christian apostle.”
At the forefront of medieval thought was a struggle to reconcile the relationship between theology (faith) and philosophy (reason). People were at odds as to how to unite the knowledge they obtained through revelation with the information they observed naturally using their mind and their senses. Based on Averroes' “theory of the double truth,” the two types of knowledge were in direct opposition to each other. Saint Thomas Aquinas' revolutionary views rejected Averroes' theory, and asserted that “both kinds of knowledge ultimately come from God” and were therefore compatible. Not only were they compatible, according to Aquinas' view, but they could also work in collaboration. Revelation could guide reason and prevent it from making mistakes, while reason could clarify and demystify faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas' work goes on to discuss faith and reason's roles in both perceiving and proving the existence of God.
He believed that the existence of God could be proved in five ways, mainly by: 1) observing movement in the world as proof of God, the “Immovable Motor”; 2) observing cause and effect and identifying God as the cause of everything; 3) concluding that the impermanent nature of beings proves the existence of a necessary being, God, who originates only from within himself; 4) noticing varying levels of human perfection and determining that a supreme, perfect being must therefore exist; and 5) knowing that natural beings could not have intelligence without it being granted to them it by God. Subsequent to defending people's ability to naturally perceive proof of God, St. Thomas Aquinas also tackled the challenge of protecting God's image as an all-powerful being.
St. Thomas Aquinas also uniquely addressed appropriate social behavior toward God. In so doing, he gave his ideas a contemporary — and some would say timeless — everyday context. Aquinas believed that the laws of the State were, in fact, a natural product of human nature, and were crucial to social welfare. By abiding by the social laws of the State, people could earn eternal salvation of their souls in the afterlife. St. Thomas Aquinas identified three types of laws: natural, positive and eternal. According to his treatise, natural law prompts man to act in accordance with achieving their goals.
It governs man's sense of right and wrong. Positive law is the law of the State, or government, and should always be a manifestation of natural law. Eternal law, in the case of rational beings, depends on reason and is put into action through free will, which also works toward the accomplishment of our spiritual goals.
Combining traditional principles of theology with modern philosophic thought, St. Thomas Aquinas' treatises touched upon the questions and struggles of medieval intellectuals, church authorities and everyday people alike. Perhaps this is precisely what marked them as unrivaled in their influence on the thinking of the times, and explains why they would continue to serve as a building block for contemporary thought, garnering responses from theologians, philosophers, critics and believers thereafter.
A prolific writer, St. Thomas Aquinas penned close to 60 known works ranging in length from short to tome-like. Handwritten copies of his works were distributed to libraries across Europe. His philosophical and theological writings spanned a wide spectrum of topics, including commentaries on the Bible and discussions of Aristotle's writings on Natural Philosophy.
While teaching at Cologne in the early 1250s, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a lengthy commentary on scholastic theologian Peter Lombard's Four Books of Sentences, called Scriptum super libros Sententiarium, or Commentary on the Sentences. During that period, he also wrote De ente et essentia, or On Being and Essence, for the Dominican monks in Paris.
In 1256, while serving as regent master in theology at the University of Paris, Aquinas wrote Impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem, or Against Those Who Assail the Worship of God and Religion, a treatise defending mendicant orders that William of Saint-Amour had criticized.
Written from 1265 to 1274, St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica is mainly philosophical in nature, and was followed by Summa Contra Gentiles, which, while still philosophical, comes across to many critics as apologetic of the beliefs he expressed in his prior work.
St. Thomas Aquinas is also known for writing commentaries examining the principles of Natural Philosophy espoused in Aristotle's writings: On the Heavens, Meteorology, On Generation and Corruption, On the Soul, Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics, among others.
Shortly after his death, St. Thomas Aquinas' theological and philosophical writings rose to great public acclaim and reinforced a strong following among the Dominicans. Universities, seminaries and colleges came to replace Lombard's Four Books of Sentences with Summa Theologica as the leading theology textbook. The influence of St. Thomas Aquinas' writing has been so widespread, in fact, that somewhere in the range of 6,000 commentaries on his work exist to date.
Later Life and Death
In June of 1272, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed to go to Naples and start a theological studies program for the Dominican house neighboring the university.
While he was still writing prolifically, his works began to suffer in quality.
During the Feast of St. Nicolas in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision that made writing seem unimportant to him. At Mass, he heard a voice coming from a crucifix tell him, “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” to which St. Thomas Aquinas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.”
When St. Thomas Aquinas' confessor, Father Reginald of Piperno, urged him to keep writing, Aquinas replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.” St. Thomas Aquinas never wrote again.
In January of 1274, St. Thomas Aquinas left for Lyon, France, on foot to serve on the Second Council, but never made it there. Along the way he fell ill at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, Italy. The monks wanted St. Thomas Aquinas to stay at the castle, but, sensing his death was near, Aquinas preferred to remain at the monastery, saying, “If the Lord wishes to take me away it is better that I be found in a religious house, than in the dwelling of a layperson.”
On his deathbed, St. Thomas Aquinas uttered his last words to the Cistercian monks who had so graciously attended him: “This is my rest forever and ever: here will I dwell for I have chosen it.” (Psalm 131:14) “The Universal Teacher” died at the monastery of Fossanova on March 7, 1274, and was later canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323.