Friday, March 7, 2014

Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition of Scholasticism

Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas
by Andrea di Bonaiuto
On March 7, 1271, Thomas Aquinas, Italian Dominican friar and priest and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, passed away. His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived in development or refutation of his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory.

Thomas Aquinas was born around 1225 in the Kingdom of Sicily and his family intended for him to follow his uncle into the abbacy. He enrolled at the university that was recently established by Frederick in Naples, where he was presumably introduced to Aristotle, Averroes and Maimonides, which influenced him significantly. Another important influence was a Dominican preacher in Naples, John of St. Julian. At the age of nineteen, Thomas resolved to join the recently founded Dominican Order, which certainly did not please his family. In order to change his mind, Thomas was held prisoner for about a year. However, he used his time to contact members of the Dominican Order and teach his younger siblings. In 1244, Thomas managed to flee and met Johannes von Wildeshausen, the Master General of the Dominicam Order in Rome.

Thomas enrolled at the University of Paris one year later and it is assumed that he met the scholar Albertus Magnus there. Thomas followed Albertus to Cologne in 1248 where started teaching as an apprentice professor. Back in Paris, he continued his studies and soon worked on his first of four theological syntheses. His reputation grew and he was appointed regent master on theology at Paris and wrote numerous works including 'Questiones disputatae de veritate' (Disputed Questions on Truth), a collection of twenty-nine disputed questions on aspects of faith and the human condition. By the end of his regency, Thomas was working on one of his most famous works, 'Summa contra Gentiles'.

The following years, Thomas traveled around Paris, Naples and Orvieto, where he completed his 'Summa contra Gentiles', wrote the 'Catena aurea', (The Golden Chain), and produced works for Pope Urban IV such as the liturgy for the newly created feast of Corpus Christi and the 'Contra errores graecorum' (Against the Errors of the Greeks). Thomas became the papal theologian under Pope Clement IV and continued teacher philosophical subjects. While occupied at Santa Sabina, Thomas started his most famous work, 'Summa Theologica', which however, stayed unfinished. Still, it is referred to as "one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature". It was intended as an instructional guide for moderate theologians and a compendium of all of the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church. It presents the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West. The Summa's topics follow a cycle: the existence of God, Creation, Man, Man's purpose, Christ, the Sacraments, and back to God.

Thomas was assigned back to Paris for another regency which is presumably due to the rise of Averroism and "radical Aristotelianism" in the universities. Thomas wrote works in respond to the new movements, but was accused of encouraging Averroists, even though he was deeply disturbed by them. It was feared that the introduction of Aristotelianism and the more extreme Averroism might somehow contaminate the purity of the Christian faith. In the 1270s, Thomas decided to establish a studium generale in Naples where he taught religiious topics. Later in the decade, Thomas fell critically ill and passed away on 7 March, 1274.

A yovisto you may be interested in a short introduction to the works of Thomas Aquinas by Dr Simon Oliver.

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