By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary
Thomas Aquinas was a scholastic who, like all other scholastics, read a lot, wrote a lot, and taught a lot. He was not an important figure at his time, although today, he is not only one of the important theologians, he is perhaps the most important one. What happened after his death to make him such a notable character?
The scholastics were big fans of Aristotle and his ideas, while the Church believed the pagan writer could lead many astray. Thus, numerous bans were put on Aristotle’s works and on articles based on his works. Among these were the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a few of whose passages were prohibited in 1277. However, he was not the only victim; maybe he was not a victim at all.
Victims of Prohibition
When the Bishop of Paris announced the most comprehensive ban on teaching Aristotle’s writings, some teachers were heavily affected. Siger of Brabant was one of the victims, who was murdered in 1284 after he was expelled from the University of Paris.
Allegedly, his secretary had gone mad and stabbed him to death with a pen. He was accused of teaching the ‘double truth’—one could never reconcile two contradictory truths, one based on reason and the other based on faith. Somehow, both had to be accepted. Siger and Aquinas shared one thing: both had controversial reputations in their time.
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Aquinas in His Lifetime
Thomas Aquinas was an Italian and the son of a nobleman with the title ‘Count of Aquino’. He was a member of the Dominican order and spent most of his life teaching in Paris, although he had academic positions in other places as well. He wrote a lot, and later it was revealed that his philosophy was the perfect example of medieval philosophy and theology.
Sadly, Aquinas had to wait a few centuries to gain the recognition he deserved.
The Death of Aquinas
Aquinas died before he was 50, and his confessor testified that the confession of Thomas Aquinas was like that of a small child. He was a very simple individual in some aspects, and that was a benefit to sainting him.
A short while before his death, he stopped writing due to a mystical experience or maybe a kind of stroke. After the experience, he said that he would never write again, and he never did. Luckily, he had left a considerable written legacy behind that included his most important work, the Summa theologiae.
Aquinas broke away from the Augustinian intellectual tradition, and developed his own ideas in many areas, including politics, human salvation, and human knowledge.
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Aquinas and Politics
Augustine viewed the states and governments as a result of the original sin. He believed that without justice, states and kingdoms were simply bands of robbers, who took money from people.
Aquinas, on the other hand, argued that the state and political organizations were a natural part of the human condition. His view was in line with that of Aristotle, and he did not see states as tainted by original sin.
Aquinas and Salvation
Augustine believed in ‘double predestination’: humans cannot merit their own salvation due to original sin. They could only wait upon God’s decision whether to give them grace or not.
However, Aquinas accepted a much weaker form of predestination. He believed it is, in fact, God’s foreknowledge of what people were going to do. God knew what people would choose to do, but He never forced them to make those choices. He agreed that divine grace was needed for salvation, but he believed that the individual should cooperate with grace.
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Aquinas and Knowledge
Augustine believed that humans could never know anything unless they received a special, divine illumination that permitted them to have knowledge. His view was again grim, as his views on politics and salvation.
Aquinas, nevertheless, did not deem divine illuminations necessary for knowledge. He argued that all one needs to do to gain knowledge is to observe the world carefully. The natural world, the phenomena in it, and observing them were the necessary tools for humans to learn.
The observation that Aquinas proposed was not against the existence of God, but even affirming to it. He believed that all the observations lead one back to God and His existence, so much that he constructed five proofs of God’s existence.
The condemnations and prohibitions did not stop the growth of scholasticism, and people like Thomas Aquinas were even sainted after their death.
Common Questions about Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was the figure who developed ideas independent of the Augustinian intellectual tradition. His ideas were the best of scholasticism when compared to other scholastic works.
Thomas Aquinas left behind a vast body of writings, the most important of which was Summa theologiae. He had outstanding beliefs and ideas that today differentiate him from other scholars of his time.
No. Thomas Aquinas was not a very important scholastic at his time, but he left many texts behind and had a philosophy that today brings his name to the top of the scholastics’ list.
Thomas Aquinas argued that individuals did not need a special, divine illumination to have knowledge of the material world. All they needed, in his opinion, was to observe the world carefully and learn from it.