Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is one of the most famous medieval philosophers who is hailed as the Church’s best theologian and philosopher. Just like his contemporaries, Aquinas was primarily focused on theological questions but the thing that set him apart from others the most is his outstanding combination of two seemingly conflicting concepts – the Roman Catholic faith and Aristotle’s reasoning. Although he is today primarily associated with the Catholic doctrine, he has also profoundly influenced modern philosophy in many areas, particularly in metaphysics, ethics and natural law.
Aquinas was born in 1225 in Roccasecca in the castle of the Aquino family (therefore he is sometimes also referred to as Thomas of Aquino) to Landolfo Aquino and his wife Teodora of Chiety. Due to the war between Pope Gregory IX and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, Landolfo and Teodora decided to sent their youngest of nine children to Monte Cassino to receive elementary education. Young Thomas stayed at the abbey from 1231 until 1239 when Monte Cassino was occupied by the Imperial troops. He continued education at the University of Naples where he is thought to have been introduced to the works of both Aristotle and Averroes which profoundly influenced his later theological and philosophical works.
In 1244, Aquinas joined the Dominican order at Naples but he was soon sent to further education to the University of Paris. There, he did not only gained access to all the major Greek, Latin and Arab works but he also studied with Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar who is celebrated for his advocacy of coexistence of religion and science. Although he failed in his first theological disputation, he became Magnus’ favourite pupil and followed his teacher to Cologne in 1248. There, he taught as an apprentice professor until 1252 when he returned to Paris for further education. After completing training as a theologian in 1256, he was appointed master professor at the University of Paris but only after Pope’s intervention at the secular masters who disliked their Churchly colleagues.
The years between 1259 and 1268, Aquinas spent in Italy. In 1268, he returned to the University of Paris where he faced opposition by both the fraction that advocated the conservative Augustinian teachings and the Averroists who advocated Aristotlelianism. Aquinas did not belong to neither of the two groups and tried to reconcile the two concepts in his writings. Although he feared “radical” Aristotlelianism just like the Augustinians, his writings provoked hostility of the Augustinians led by Bonaventure who achieved condemnation of some Aristotle’s articles and indirectly, of Aquinas as well.
Aquinas ended his second professorship in Paris in 1272 when he returned to Italy. He lectured at Naples and continued writing but only for about a year when he gave up writing completely. Aquinas died at the Fossanova Abbey in Italy en route to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274. In 1323, he was canonized by the Catholic Church.
Today, Aquinas’ works have a much greater value for theology than for philosophy but we must not forget that his time was dominated by religion. His approach to the questions of religion and reasoning were revolutionary for both the Augustinians for whom faith was the only truth and Averroists who wanted to separate the truth from the faith. Aquinas was opponent of both approaches and advocated coexistence of faith and reason on the basis that both were given by God although he emphasised the importance of reason which he regarded as independent from faith. He managed to join the main concepts of the two opposing schools although his view was adopted only after his death. Aquinas was without a doubt above all a great theologian who criticised philosophers for being pagan. Nevertheless, he played an important role in history of Western philosophy by embracing Aristotle’s “heretic” reasoning.
Aquinas left many writings on various issues. The most significant works include the Summa theologica (Summa of Theology), Summa contra Gentiles, and commentaries on Aristotle and Bible.