There are not many philosophers in history as influential as Saint Thomas of Aquinas. His works have influenced western philosophy for centuries and found a way to conciliate theological thought and reason. He was a man of his age, one who followed tradition and sought nothing more than to remain faithful to Christ and his church, but knew how to introduce long rejected philosophical systems that were considered contrary to the interests of the clergy. This work is gives an account of the life of Thomas of Aquinas, his academic works, his philosophy and the impact he had on the western world.
LIFE OF AQUINAS
The counts of Aquinas were related to the Lombardian nobility, but were a not very powerful family from the Kingdom of Sicily, in Italy. Thomas was born in 1225 in Roccasecca in the Aquino County, what is known today as the region of Lazio, in Italy. He was descendant of a Lombardian prince, and had blood ties with Frederick II and King Henry VI . As was usual at that time, his brothers followed a military career, while he was encouraged to pursue religious studies since he was 5 years old . He is described as even of temper, generous and always dedicated to god, not too eager to talk but always spoke to the point . He was recommended to go to a university when he was but ten years old by the abbot of Mount Cassino, finally going to Naples where the Emperor Frederick II had established a university. Later in life he sought to join the Order of Saint Dominick, but was seized by his brothers and was locked away for about one year . It is said that his mother tried to change his mind about pursuing his career as a holy man, and even tried to make him fall victim to sin introducing a young lady into his chambers to seduce him, but Thomas ousted her and committed himself to prayer . After infructuous attempts to persuade him, his mother let him escape and he joined the Dominican Order .
Thomas went to study to the University of Paris, where he met Albert Magnus, who foresaw the great impact this young mind would have in the world. He was not viewed thus by all students and professors, being called the Great Sicilian OX because most considered him slow due to his reluctance to speak and reflective character, but he was impervious to both praise and humiliation, only finding comfort in silence and prayer . The talks he held with Albert Magnus fueled his interest in the Aristotelian philosophy and definitely influenced his lifetime work .
He lived a very religious life, and published many works defending the Aristotelian philosophy, which was at the time very controversial and was linked with the interpretations given by Averroes. Thomas had to defend Aristotle´s work by separating it from Averroists line of thinking and proving that the church could benefit from it. He did this with such coherency that the system was ultimately accepted and adopted by the church.
Thomas was travelling to the council in Lyon in 1274 when he fell ill. He finally died at the Cisternian Abbey in Fossanova .
THE WORKS AND IDEAS OF THOMAS
Since his early days, Thomas was educated under the classical system of knowledge. This system included grammar, rhetoric and logic (which are called the Trivium), and arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry (known as the Cuadrivium) . Thomas pursued studies based on the knowledge of the bible and philosophy, reading the works of Averroes and Boethius. The first products of this education were his commentaries, but other more profound reflections are found on the essay called On Being and Essence and The Principles of Nature . His most famous works are the Summa Contra Gentiles and his Summa Theologiae, both of which are books that explain the Christian faith and give its followers arguments against non-believers. His most controversial works were those commenting Aristotle, and the essays On the Eternity of the World and On There Being Only One Intellect.
Thomas did not finish many of his works because, according to him, he believed that all of his writings were not more than “ mere straw”. He made that assertion after he had a divine revelation .
When discussing his ideas, there is an important aspect that surrounds the line of thought of Thomas. He made a colossal attempt to separate reason and belief. In a time when all arguments were measured by their compatibility with Christian beliefs, Thomas tried to establish a difference between philosophical knowledge and theological knowledge . Of course this drew a lot of resistance from the church, but the fact that Thomas prescribed that whenever a philosophical conclusion entered in contradiction with a theological one the theological conclusion would prevail , ultimately helped in the acceptance of his system of thought.
Thomas asserted that the source of philosophical and theological knowledge were essentially different. There are for him theological truths that are given by divine revelation and held by faith, and there are other truths that are both theological and philosophical which are revealed but also can be reached by reflection . The difference between them is not material, but merely formal, and discourses can be declared to be theological or philosophical by observing the way a person talks about them . So there cannot be contradictions between faith and reason, if one finds that reason leads to a contradiction with faith, one has encountered an impenetrable truth .
Nonetheless, Thomas pursues a deeper understanding and description of how philosophy helps acquiring new knowledge. Thomas is concerned with the proper order to be followed when searching for the truth. This order was established as follows: logic, mathematics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy and metaphysics , each step having more complex demands to meet than the other.
There were of course other topics that interested Thomas of Aquinas. The nature of God is well discussed in the Summa Contra Gentiles, and Thomas provides proof that he exists. He states there are five arguments that clarify the existence of God : a) Motion, based on the prime mover principle, he states that if there is movement, something must have started the movement; b) First Causation, which is similar to the first argument; c) Existence of necessary and unnecessary; d) Gradation, which supposes that if everything can be measured by grades, there must be a superlative being; e) Ordered tendencies of nature, which refers to the assumption that unaware things act upon the desires of aware beings, and the actions of nature must respond then to god .
Other important contribution of Aquinas is the development of the concept of just war, started by Augustine centuries before. Aquinas established that there must be three conditions for a war to be just: a) It must be waged by a proper authority; b) It must be waged for a just cause, other than self-gain or pure exercise of power; c) It must be waged with a right intention, and having peace as the ultimate goal .
The difference between the natural law, the divine law and the human law, was another aspect that interested Aquinas. He established that the natural law and the eternal law were different, and that natural law was just a rationalization of the eternal law . In the case that men did not fully understand eternal law, it had to be complemented with divine law, such as that given by revelation .
The works and ideas of Thomas Aquinas were held in great esteem by the church authority for centuries, though during the Reformation its influence waned. It was during the nineteenth century that there was a renewed interest in the ideas of Aquinas.
The most important contribution of Aquinas is the one made in the field of epistemology. Having recognized the origins of both philosophical and the theological arguments, it gave way to a church increasingly more open to accepting philosophical arguments more easily. He also persuaded the church that the aristotelic system was a better foundation for Catholicism than Platonism, and ever since 1879 every catholic school that teaches philosophy must teach Aquinas’s system as the only right one .
The philosopher also supplies arguments that evaluate the legitimacy of human or positive laws. For example, all laws can be contrasted with the natural law, in its modern conception, to see if they are just laws or only have the appearance of law. An unjust law would just retain certain formal characteristics, such as the enforcement and its inclusion in a legal system, but would not be a real law .
Thomas of Aquinas made a great contribution to the world, and it was a product of a much disciplined life totally committed to study and religious activity. So great was his advance in the field of philosophy and science, that for centuries any serious work would contain some refutation of his ideas or would include him as a reference . Although there might be some criticism about the way Aquinas viewed philosophical and theological knowledge , there is no denying that it opened the way to all other future philosophers for finding truths outside religion using his coherent system.
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—. Summa Theologica. London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1920.
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