A Different Path

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1224 or 1225, the youngest son of wealthy landowners in central Italy. His family wanted him to become a monk at the famous nearby monastery of Monte Cassino, where he could have wielded considerable influence over local events. Instead, Aquinas became a friar, joining the relatively new Dominican order as a teenager.

monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life

The Dominicans must have been attractive to Aquinas because they dedicated their lives not only to poverty and abstinence, but also to knowledge.  In keeping with that goal, the order arranged for Aquinas to attend the University of Paris when he was of college age. Because this was not what Aquinas's powerful parents wanted, they did what parents have always done - they grounded the boy at home and waited for him to abandon his plans.  

University of Paris

After a year had passed, it must have been clear that Aquinas was not going to yield, and so his parents let him go off to Paris, which was at that time the intellectual capital of Europe. There he came under the influence of the greatest scholar of the time, Albert the Great, who was busily engaged in the project of commenting on the whole corpus of Aristotle's writings. Those texts had only recently become available in Western Europe, translated from their original Greek into Latin.

The notorious obscurity and density of these texts perplexed Christian readers, who desperately wanted to absorb the philosophical lessons that these works obviously offered. Albert worked systematically through the whole Aristotelian corpus, trying to make everything clear and systematic. Just as importantly, Albert tried to demonstrate that Aristotle's ideas were largely consistent with the Christian faith.  Aquinas eagerly embraced this same project, and eventually he graduated from being a student at the University of Paris to being a professor there - a master of theology.

As a master, he was expected to be expert on philosophical matters, but not to teach philosophy. (That would be left to the masters of arts, who taught undergraduates.) Aquinas's responsibility was to lecture in theology: on the Bible and such theological questions as the nature and existence of God, and God's relationship to the created world. Over the course of many years his teaching resulted in an enormous literary output. He wrote textbooks on theology, treatises on more specialized theological topics, and commentaries on the Bible. Toward the end of his life Aquinas wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle that eventually became even more influential than those of his teacher, Albert the Great.

Summa contra Gentiles, Summa theologiae

After more than a decade in Paris, Aquinas returned to Italy, where he taught and continued to write. There he completed one of his most important works, his Summa contra Gentiles , and began his largest and most influential work, the Summa theologiae .  It is hard to translate these titles, since there is no real English equivalent of  "summa",  which refers to a collection that includes the principal parts; our word "summary" is closely related to "summa" but it refers to a brief abridgement.

Thomas devoted the last decade of his life to what he must have thought of as The Sum and Substance of Theology.  The Summa theologiae comes in three parts, with the second part being itself split into two parts.  Thomas never did quite finish the Summa theologiae; the final third part is incomplete.

For most of the 1260s, Aquinas was in Italy, but then in 1268 he was called back to Paris, to serve as master for another term. His time back in Paris was filled with controversy, as he thrust himself into the middle of fierce disputes over various theological and philosophical topics. The crux of these disputes was how best to reconcile Aristotle's philosophy with the sometimes very different teachings of the Christian Church.

In the spring of 1272, Aquinas returned to Italy for the last time, nearly worn out by several decades of unrelenting writing and teaching. (His total literary output is more than eight million words!) In December of 1273 he stopped writing altogether. Famously, he told his friend and secretary, Reginald of Piperno, that "all that I have written seems like straw compared with what has now been revealed to me."

Some have argued that Aquinas had a deeply moving mystical experience.  Others have suggested that he had a nervous breakdown. In any case, the end was near. On March 7, 1274, he died near the start of one last trip across the Alps to France.

Influence and Legacy

Whereas many medieval philosophers and theologians are largely forgotten, Thomas Aquinas remains a famous figure, the only philosopher of the later Middle Ages that an educated person can reliably be expected to recognize. His unrivaled reputation is a relatively recent development, a product of the Catholic Church's championing his views over centuries.  Until recently Aquinas was literally the official theologian of the Church.

Of late, however, historians have urged a more nuanced appreciation of Aquinas's significance for medieval thought. Many scholars today regard him as just one of a number of highly significant figures, and perhaps not even the most important, at least in many areas.

Still, without question, Aquinas remains a very significant force in medieval thought. His canonization (as Saint Thomas Aquinas) in 1323 attests to the widespread appeal of his pious life and his impressive written work. His attempt to make sense of Aristotle in a Christian context remained influential. It was much-discussed throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and into the seventeenth century. His work was, however, always a target for criticism just as much as for praise.

Just a few years after his death, some of his important doctrines were the subject of condemnations in both Paris and Oxford. Even after his canonization, philosophers and theologians continued to attack his views with vigor. Although Thomists dedicated themselves to defending his views to the letter, many of those views came to be regarded as minority positions.

Yet to say that Aquinas's views were controversial and not always accepted is a way of indicating the interest of his work; he was an exciting, sometimes even a radical thinker. To be a Thomist was not always to defend the safe, uncontroversial view; sometimes it meant defending views that fell well outside the mainstream. This is part of what makes him a continually fascinating figure.


The most recent and comprehensive bibliography of Aquinas is Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume 1: The Person and His Work , tr R. Royal (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).