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7. Thomas Aquinas |
The fat man of Aquino who helped Christians unite reason with faith

Thomas Aquinas is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 176, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The jovial friar they once called “Dumb Ox Thomas” set forth a case for Christian truth that was extolled and denounced in his lifetime and for centuries after

Thomas Aquinas - The fat man of Aquino who helped Christians unite reason with faith

Thomas Aquinas - The fat man of Aquino who helped Christians unite reason with faith
“There!” boomed the fat man. “There is the final conclusive argument against the Manichaean heresy!” Such an outburst at the banquet table of the king of France was outrageous. But ignoring the disruption, Louis IX had a different interest: what was this conclusive argument against the Manichaean heresy? After all, the heresy had been around since the days of the apostles.

A thirteenth-century banquet, judging from the description in the Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, must have been a joyous yet semi-sacramental affair, and a banquet hosted by the king of France an occasion demanding especially strict regard for one’s conduct. How very regrettable, then, was the sudden outburst by the gigantic guest seated on a bench not far from King Louis IX himself.

This obtrusive gent wore the black-and-white garb of a Dominican friar, and a great deal of garb there was, for he was a very corpulent man. Powerful, too: his fist slamming down upon the delicacy-laden table made the dishes jump and clatter. “There!” he boomed out. “There is the final and conclusive argument against the Manichaean heresy!”

A Dominican colleague tugged the man’s sleeve, whispering, “Master Thomas, Master Thomas, do be careful. You are sitting at the table of the king of France!” We do not know the big man’s response, but from his conduct on similar occasions, we can guess it. “Good heavens!” he would have said. “What have I done? What a dreadful way to behave! But I was thinking, you see. I was thinking.”

The king, who was thinking too, immediately ordered a secretary to go speak to this man. “To reprimand him, your Majesty?” “Oh no,” replied the king, “to take a note. Find out what is the conclusive argument against the Manichaean heresy.”

This, King Louis knew, mattered far more than a disturbance at a royal banquet. Ancient Manichaeanism, the belief that eight centuries earlier had initially prevented the mighty Augustine from embracing Christianity and four hundred years before that had troubled Christians in apostolic times, lay at the root of the current Cathar heresy. Spreading like an epidemic, this curious religion, much at odds with Christianity, now threatened the unity of his kingdom and all Europe.

The king also knew that if anyone could rebut it, that man was his noisy guest, Thomas of Aquino. Thomas was admittedly radical and eccentric in some of his teachings, and known for disrupting more things than a royal banquet. Nevertheless, in an age of crusaders, few doubted that Thomas was a soldier of Christ who fought with mind, not muscle.

What neither the king nor his guest could have known, incidentally, was that they would one day share a notable distinction. Both would be canonized by the church. King Louis would be credited with setting a model for Christian monarchy and justice rarely equaled in the centuries to follow (see sidebar, pages 140—145). The philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas would become so deeply entrenched that six hundred years later the Church of Rome would embrace it as the summation of Christian belief against which all truth claims can be measured. Whether Thomas himself would have approved quite such unequivocal recognition some of his many admirers of later years have doubted. But he strongly believed in truth, particularly scientific truth as revealed by reason, even if it appeared to conflict with some interpretations of the Bible, and he insisted that there could never be two conflicting truths.

Thomas of Aquino was no stranger to distinguished company. The eighth and youngest son of Count Landulf of Aquino, he was a grandnephew of the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (see chapter 4) and a cousin of Barbarossa’s grandson the emperor Frederick II, known as Fridericus Stupor Mundi, “Frederick Wonder of the World” (see chapter 6). The Aquinas family estate was centered on the castle of Roccasecca (Dry Rock), high above the main road between Naples and Rome, and it followed that the family was deeply involved in politics and war. They had joined Frederick II’s army in attacking the nearby Benedictine abbey of Montecassino, which was allied to Frederick’s bitter enemy the pope. When one Aquinas brother deserted and joined the papal army, he was put to death on Frederick’s orders.

Count Landulf decided early that his youngest son, born about 1225, was unsuited to political or military life. At age five he was large, uncommunicative, placidly acquiescent, and seemingly dull witted. He was naturally pious, however, spontaneously distributing the castle food to local transients and poring for hours over the Bible. Clearly, he was meant to be a monk, so the count enrolled him in Montecassino, the same abbey he had helped the emperor assault. Family influence might someday make him abbot, although it seemed unlikely. His fellow students called him “Dumb Ox Thomas” because he kept asking such stupefyingly dumb questions as “What is God?” And he really wanted to know.

His father abruptly removed him from Montcassino at about age fourteen, fearing that the monastery might become further involved in the wars between pope and emperor, and sent him to study in Naples. Later on, the Aquino family would switch to the papal cause, forcing them to abandon Roccasecca and take refuge in the papal states. But meanwhile came truly devastating news from Naples: Thomas, now nearly twenty, had joined one of the new mendicant orders. That is, he had become a preaching beggar in what many regarded as a religious cult, called the “Dominicans” after their fanatic founder, Dominic (see sidebar, pages 192—193). Eventually, his family was sure, the church would condemn the whole mendicant movement, but at present this exhibition by their youngest son was an unthinkable humiliation. Something, plainly, must be done, said his mother, the countess Theodora.

According to one account, she herself hurried to Naples. However, the Dominicans, already accustomed to raids by the outraged noble families of young applicants, had dispatched Thomas to Rome. Knowing that two of his soldier-brothers were stationed near his route, the countess urged them to intercept him and bring him home until he recovered his senses. They encountered him on the road and struggled to rip the Dominican habit right off his back, but they couldn’t do it; he was so very strong. Peasants used to stop and stare, it was said, when this enormous man passed by. In the words of one of the old records, “They came near to look at him, filled with admiration for a man of such compliance and beauty.”

Thomas finally agreed to go home. Wrapped tightly in his shredded habit and riding a donkey, he was escorted to a nearby family castle and locked up. Soon the brothers reappeared with what the old account describes as “a young and pretty damsel, attired in all the blandishments of love.” Thomas, furious, seized a brand from the fire, chased the terrified young woman from the room, slammed the door behind her, and used the brand to inscribe a charred cross on it. Then he knelt before it to pray.

This persuaded his brothers that Thomas’s chosen vocation, though crazy, must be deeply sincere. They moved him to Roccasecca, where he remained for a year, with his four adoring sisters waiting on him. Countess Theodora, although beginning to yield, still opposed his vocational begging, however. She appealed to both the emperor and the pope to intervene but was thwarted by her daughters (one of whom would later become a nun). In one account, they lowered their gigantic brother by rope from the castle walls so that he could join what their mother saw as his fellow cultists in Rome. But Thomas also remained a devoted family member, cherished by his sisters and loyal to his brothers, and later served efficiently as executor of a family estate. But by then the family had come to see what others saw so readily. Dumb Ox Thomas was an intellectual giant as well as a physical one.

He appears at one of the great turning points in the Christian faith. During most of the early thirteenth century the mention of a single Greek term could arouse either profound respect or deep suspicion in the rapidly proliferating universities of western Europe. That term was “Aristotelian physics.” The work of Aristotle, the greatest philosopher and scientist of the ancient world, who lived in the fourth century before Christ, had been familiar to Greek-speaking eastern Christians from the earliest times, but a Latin version had been available in the West only for the past two centuries. By Thomas’s time most educated people had no trouble at all with Aristotle’s works in logic or ethics. The sticking point was Aristotelian physics because it conflicted with the biblical account of the Creation.

The Christian whose thought piloted western Christianity during all the dark years of semi-barbarism in devastated Europe and then through the long revival of western civilization was Augustine of Hippo (see volume 4, chapter 5). The Greek influence on Augustine came from Plato, Aristotle’s teacher. But Aristotle dwarfed Plato in range and depth, and the Nestorian Christians of Persia had passed on his work to their new Muslim rulers. They, in turn, conveyed it to Muslim scholars in Spain, so when the great libraries of Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, Aristotle’s philosophy, in Arabic, began spreading to western Europe’s rising universities. The response to it was overwhelming, if divisive. To some it represented a foreign religious intrusion that in some respects threatened to return Christianity to paganism by supplanting divinely revealed truth, particularly regarding Creation, with supposed “truth” revealed through human reason.

To others, however, both Plato and Aristotle offered a new and powerful approach to Christian truth. This approach did not arise suddenly. A slow, steady growth in more methodical thinking about the faith had begun back in the 1050s with the brilliant Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, senior ecclesiastic in England, whose celebrated treatise on the Holy Communion drew on both the Bible and logic. His pupil and successor, Anselm, wrote a defense of Christianity founded entirely on reason. By Thomas’s time a whole new academic approach to faith, known as scholasticism, had been established.

In Thomas scholasticism would reach its pinnacle. Though he cited Augustine more than he cited Aristotle and cited the scriptures more than he cited either of them, he was determined to “baptize” those parts of Aristotle that had been considered incompatible with Christianity by rereading Aristotle in the most accurate translations and by rejecting those parts that could not be reconciled with biblical Christianity. This work would define his life–a life embroiled in bitter controversy. He would be denounced as a purveyor of paganism, threatening the integrity and authority of the Bible, a dabbler in scientific magic. Most irksome to his critics, however, he rarely lost his temper. All accounts describe him as courteous in debate–charming, clear, and unruffled–but so logically devastating that he frequently reduced opponents to helpless rage. Even so, writes his biographer Jean-Pierre Torrell (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, translated by Robert Royal), it is a mistake to conclude that Thomas was an icy, self-secretive intellectual without zeal or fervor. However dispassionate he was in debate, his writings exhibit vehemence and downright belligerence. They show him as a feisty intellectual scrapper, taking undisguised pleasure in reducing the rival case to absurdity.

Thomas’s sharpest and angriest critics were known loosely as “Augustinians.” (The term described a school of thought. The Augustinian order of monks, which was then being formed, was not involved in the controversy.) These critics saw Thomas’s focus on Aristotle as a movement intended to supplant the teaching of the great Augustine. Although Thomas vigorously denied this, the Augustinian attack on him would go on for nearly fifty years after his death.

As Aristotle’s work became better known in the West, its staggering dimensions enthralled a whole generation of Christian students in the mid-thirteenth century, for it embraced philosophy, biology, animal genealogy, astronomy, meteorology, physics, morality, and what today would be called psychology. “We are dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of the ancients as on those of giants,” the twelfth-century teacher Bernard of Chartres had declared. “If we see more things than they did, it is not by perspicacity of our view, nor by our size, but because we were elevated by them and brought to a gigantic height.”

By Aquinas’s time, noted the twentieth-century Christian historian and theologian Jacques Maritain, Aristotelian thought had been making “fearful inroads” into Christianity for half a century. “It was not merely that he brought in his train a crowd of Jews and Arabs whose commentaries [on Aristotle] were fraught with danger: the noble treasure of natural wisdom which he imported was full of pagan poisons, and the mere dazzling glitter of the promises of pure reason was sufficient to bewilder an ingenuous and inquisitive world.”

The “pagan poisons” were things like the denial of human free will, the denial of the Creation, and the eternity of matter. As Aristotle’s opponents well knew, such Aristotelian assertions were plainly heretical. He taught, for instance, that the world had always existed, the human soul did not survive death, and God has left the world to run itself. To Christians, the universe had a beginning, the individual soul survives death, and God definitely intervenes in the affairs of men. How, they asked, could Christian teaching be grounded in Aristotle?

Thomas countered these objections. Christian teaching must be grounded in revelation, in Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament and in the Hebrew law and prophets, he said. But Aristotle provided a foundation for how to think about these things. Moreover, some things, like the concept of a purely autonomous universe and the denial of the individual soul’s survival, he argued, did not come from Aristotle; they had been interpolated into his writings by the Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, known to the Christians as Averroes, called “the Commentator.” As for the contention that there was no “beginning,” Aristotle was simply wrong. If the world was to have an end, as Aristotle himself believed, then it must also have had a beginning. But was this sole error adequate grounds for disqualifying the whole rational approach? Was this a reason to deny Christian teachers the boundless potential of reasoned argument in defense of the faith?

The whole Aristotelian approach, Thomas insisted, offered a new and convincing way to present Christianity to literate and thinking people. To Thomas, notes his biographer Ralph McInerny (Aquinas), it presented a kind of “clinical specimen” of what the world would look like to a thoughtful man uninfluenced by the Christian religion. This opened a door, as it were, to the non-Christian mind, providing an access for the Gospel.

For Thomas there could be no true conflict between conclusions reached by human reason validly employed and those conveyed by the scriptures and creeds. Reason, like the five human senses, was given to us by God. So were the scriptures. So were the creeds. Just as there could be only one God, not several, there could be only one truth, not several. Therefore, what our senses tell us–what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and otherwise observe–unless perverted by sin, must be taken as true and real. The world we behold is not merely a transient sensation of the mind, as Plato contended. It is really there.

The twentieth-century Christian essayist and poet G. K. Chesterton saw this assertion of the ultimate credibility of our senses and, therefore, of the reality of nature as Thomas’s greatest contribution to the Christian faith. This is how Chesterton paraphrased what Thomas was saying to Aristotle’s critics:

I am not ashamed to say that I find my reason fed by my senses; that I owe a great deal of what I think to what I see and smell and taste and handle; and that so far as my reason is concerned, I feel obliged to treat all this reality as real. To be brief, in all humility, I do not believe that God meant man to exercise only that peculiar, uplifted and abstracted sort of intellect which you are so fortunate as to possess: but I believe that there is a middle field of facts, which are given by the senses to be the subject matter of the reason; and that in that field the reason has a right to rule, as the representative of God and man. It is true that all this is lower than the angels; but it is higher than the animals and all the material objects man finds around him. True, man can also be an object; and even a deplorable object. But what man has done man may do; and if an antiquated old heathen called Aristotle can help me to do it, I will thank him in all humility. (St. Thomas Aquinas, published posthumously in 1943)

Thomas, concluded Chesterton, was “more of a theologian, more of an orthodox theologian, more of a dogmatist, in having recovered through Aristotle the most defiant of all dogmas, the wedding of God with man and therefore with matter.” He had provided, that is, a philosophical rationale for the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thomas had done something else as well, although probably unintentionally. He had contributed significantly to the philosophical foundation of modern science. If conclusions reached through empirical observation (i.e., through our senses) could be taken as credible, it followed that thought, discussion, and eventually experimentation with physical nature could be considered a valid exercise for Christian universities. He was encouraged in this line of thought by his first teacher among the Dominicans, who focused particular attention on Aristotle’s “natural philosophy,” the study of nature, soon to be known as “science.”

This man, some twenty years older than Thomas, was Albert the German, who came from Swabia and who taught Thomas for at least three years (and perhaps as many as five) at Cologne. Even within his lifetime Albert would become known as Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), and the heavy emphasis he laid on “the evidence of the senses,” along with his early experiments with siphons and vacuums, cause some to regard him as a father of modern science. Albert himself saw Thomas as a far greater figure. “You call him a dumb ox,” said Albert. “I tell you this dumb ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowings will fill the world.”

Albert and Thomas were in total agreement, however, about avoiding the “theologization” of natural philosophy because, as Albert wrote,

Anything that is taken on the evidence of the senses is superior to that which is opposed to sense observations; a conclusion which is inconsistent with the evidence of the senses is not to be believed; and a principle that does not accord with the experimental knowledge of the senses is not a principle but rather its opposite. (William A. Wallace, Causality and Scientific Explanation)

As Aristotle’s (and Thomas’s) critics pointed out, a dangerous principle was being asserted here. What would happen if human reasoning, now so sanctified, were to be applied to the scriptures and the Christian creeds? If the latter were found to be irrational, which view would prevail?

At the University of Paris,1 where Thomas taught after he left Cologne, work on “natural philosophy” was at first forbidden. Later it was authorized but only if those studying it stayed away from theology. This was a fortuitous decision, observes Edward Grant in his comprehensive study God and Reason in the Middle Ages, since its effect was to liberate the study of natural philosophy (i.e., science) from the vigilance of ecclesiastical critics. The Aristotelian avalanche soon created such a rapidly rising interest in the physical sciences that it would be more true to say that the scientific revolution began in the thirteenth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth, the centuries usually assigned to it.

By Thomas’s time Europe’s universities were at work on geology, oceanography, meteorology, physics, and mathematics. And yet, notes Grant, medieval scholars were not scientists in the modern sense. They speculated, but they did not experiment. They were absorbed, for instance, by the question of whether anything is ever at rest. Throw a ball up in the air, and it will go up and come down. Is there an instant between its ascent and descent when it is not moving either way? Or watch a sphere rotate. A location on its widest circumference (its “equator”) will travel a considerable distance with each rotation. One close to its “pole” will hardly move at all. The closer you come to the axis, the slower a particular spot on the surface will move. Is there a point, its real axis, which is motionless? All fascinating, but the idea of setting up an experiment and observing actual results hardly ever occurred to them.

This reliance upon reason was by no means confined to the students of natural philosophy. Theology also quickly became rationally focused. “Reason in the university context of the [Middle Ages] was not intended for the acquisition of power over others, or to improve the well-being of the general populace,” writes Grant. “Its primary purpose was to elucidate the natural and supernatural worlds . . . [They became] a society obsessed with reason . . . Nothing like it had ever been seen. Indeed, reason played a greater role in theology than in the more secular subjects. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was viewed as a tool to reinforce faith. Not until the seventeenth century was it adopted as a weapon to attack faith.”

The “schoolmen,” as scholasticism’s practitioners came to be called, ferociously applied the laws of logic to debate such questions as the proofs for the existence of God, the implications of man’s fall from grace, the inevitability of human sin, the atonement, the factor of “personhood” in the Trinity, and the value of faith as against good works. What was the nature of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper? Could the saints answer prayer? What was the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation? In the eighteenth century, Grant observes, when reason was invoked to discredit faith, such unbelievers became known as “rationalists,” but if reliance on reason denotes a rationalist, “then you could equally say that Thomas Aquinas was a rationalist.”

Thomas did not much engage in natural philosophy, however. “What is God?” he had asked as a child, and he spent most of his life providing an answer. And however skilled as a controversialist, he was primarily a writer and teacher. Torrell calculates that he produced 4,061 handwritten pages of work at Paris between October 1268 and April 1272, the equivalent of nearly thirteen close-typed pages daily. This included massive work on his primary project, a summation of Christian teaching known as the Summa Theologica (still being drawn on by Catholic thinkers in the third Christian millennium as one of the credible sources of church teaching), plus 331 other articles. A twentieth-century study of Thomas’s thinking by the German philosopher Martin Grabmann (Thomas Aquinas: His Personality and Thought, translated by Virgil Michel) assessing the whole corpus of Thomas’s work counts twenty-two “philosophical writings,” three major works “chiefly theological,” thirteen books on various theological questions, twelve on “points of dogma,” three on apologetics, six on “practical theology,” eleven on “religious life,” and ten scriptural commentaries.

He reputedly began each day before dawn by saying one Mass and hearing another, then worked straight through to the service of compline, around nine in the evening. He is said to have toiled on as many as five projects at a time, dictating to as many secretaries. He began each undertaking with a prayer and when confronted with an intractable problem would drop to his knees and seek divine help. His abstractions were legendary. His meals were brought to him, but he seemed scarcely conscious that he was eating them. His dress was slovenly, and caustic remarks about his appearance amused him. Comments on his great girth he found extremely funny, especially references to the crescent-shaped cut that had to be made in his desk to accommodate his stomach. Though he could deal with the most abstruse questions of Christian theology, he repeatedly warned future teachers to “keep it simple” and strove mightily to do so himself. He endeared himself to many; Albertus Magnus reportedly missed him so much after Thomas moved to Paris that he would weep at the mention of his name.

Thomas’s skill as a debater could extend well beyond theology and philosophy into church politics. In 1229, when Thomas was about four, the mendicant orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, had set up schools at the University of Paris. Their welcome had been anything but hospitable. The students and secular clergy2 teaching at the university had rioted; several students had been killed in the resulting crackdown, and the students had just gone on strike to protest such heavy-handedness. So the mendicants had unexpectedly found themselves cast in the role of strikebreakers. The resulting conflict would rage for the next thirty years, sometimes violently, with the friars occasionally beaten up on the streets or teaching under armed guard. Thomas arrived from Cologne in 1252. He was chosen at the unusually young age of thirty to deliver the inaugural lecture two years later, at a time when another student-faculty strike had been called to protest the mendicants’ getting too many appointments. Thomas delivered the lecture while the king’s archers protected the building and a student mob blocked many from hearing him.

So persistent was the mendicant-secular conflict that Rome repeatedly intervened to make peace, one pope deciding for the seculars, his successor for the mendicants. Finally, a formal hearing was called. The mendicants had two advocates: Thomas represented the Dominicans while John of Fidanza became the Franciscan representative. John was another distinguished academic, one day to be canonized as St. Bonaventure. (Though divided on a number of theological issues, the two would become fast friends.) The seculars were represented by the fevered William of Saint-Amour, described by one of the twentieth century’s senior historians of this affair as “irascible, violent and obstinate” (Marie-Michel Dufeil, William of Saint-Amour and the University of Paris Polemic, 1250—1259).

Many major background issues were involved. First, it was widely believed that monks should remain in monasteries, not wander about preaching and begging. Second, it was argued that Christians living in community should hold all property in common as in the apostolic age (Acts 4:32). The mendicants, having no property, could not do so. Third, the rule of Benedict, which had established the basic requirements for monastic life seven hundred years earlier, required that monks work, and begging didn’t qualify. Therefore, it was argued, these mendicants should be dispatched into monasteries, put to work, and ordered to stay there.

Deftly, gently, and devastatingly, Thomas tore William’s case to shreds so thoroughly that the pope vindicated the mendicants and asked King Louis IX to banish William and his three chief supporters from France. Louis declined, perhaps considering such a penalty too severe. Later, however, William published a paper portraying the mendicants as the false preachers who would appear before the coming of the Antichrist (1 John 2:18). When the church condemned this document, Louis relented, and William departed from France.

Thomas’s next confrontation was even more formidable, as was the challenger. The Englishman John Peckham, regent of the Franciscans in Paris and a future archbishop of Canterbury, destined to work sweeping reforms within the church in England, was probably the most vigorous foe Thomas ever faced. The issue was now Aristotle. Should study of his work be banned in Christian universities? Many thought so; indeed, it seemed at one point that nearly everybody thought so. Thomas found himself heatedly opposed by the Augustinians, many Dominicans, most Franciscans, the bishop of Paris, and nearly all the masters at the University of Paris. Peckham, arguing that Thomas’s work should be condemned as heretical and burned, castigated him personally in a long and violent harangue. Thomas responded courteously and logically, thus further enraging Peckham. The issue finally came before a church court presided over by the firmly anti-Aristotelian bishop of Paris, where all hope for Thomas must have seemed lost. Chesterton describes what happened:

The prospects of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed. Anathema after anathema was thundered from high places; and under the shadow of the persecution, as so often happens, it seemed for a moment that barely one or two figures stood alone in the storm-swept area. They were both in the black and white of the Dominicans; for Albertus and Aquinas stood firm.

In that sort of combat there is always confusion; and majorities change into minorities and back again, as if by magic. It is always difficult to date the turn of a tide, which seems to be a welter of eddies; the very dates seeming to overlap and confuse the crisis. But the change, from the moment when the two Dominicans stood alone to the moment when the whole Church at last wheeled into line with them, may perhaps be found when they were practically brought before a hostile but a not unjust judge.

Stephen Tempier, the Bishop of Paris, was apparently a rather fine specimen of the old fanatical churchman, who thought that admiring Aristotle was a weakness likely to be followed by adoring Apollo. He was also, by a piece of bad luck, one of the old conservatives who intensely resented the popular revolution of the Preaching Friars. But he was an honest man; and Thomas Aquinas never asked for anything but permission to address honest men.

It would seem that the triumph of Thomas was really a personal triumph. He withdrew not a single one of his propositions; though the reactionary bishop did condemn some of them after his death. On the whole, we may say that [with the Tempier decision] the great Greek philosopher entered finally into the system of Christendom. The process has half humorously been described as the Baptism of Aristotle.

But Thomas’s wars were not yet over. He had one more to fight, one he did not expect. As noted above, the versions of Aristotle reaching western Christendom in the thirteenth century came largely from Muslim Spain in the form of commentaries by Averroes. Indeed, many Aristotelians at Paris called themselves “Averroists.” Their chief spokesman, Siger of Brabant, now hailed Thomas’s victory as a victory for Averroism and triumphantly produced a paper to this effect. Thomas was appalled. Fundamental to his defense of Aristotle was his insistence that Averroism was a perversion of what Aristotle actually taught. His enemies had warned that if Aristotle were approved, the Averroists would claim their beliefs ratified. Now it was happening.

Armed with new translations of Aristotle by one of his fellow Dominicans, Thomas produced a refutation of what he established as the two chief errors of Averroism. The first error was that reason is a collective entity shared by the soul of mankind as a species. No, Thomas contended, there is no collective human soul; each of us has his own and through it is endowed individually with the power to think, to know right from wrong, and–up to a point, anyhow–to exercise a free will. The second Averroist error concerned him even more, namely the claim that there could be two kinds of truth, that a man could believe one thing theologically yet base his daily life on something quite incompatible with it. Philosopher McInerny sums up Thomas’s objection to this idea in twenty words: “It would be impious to suggest that God presents for our acceptance as true something we know to be false.” The bishop of Paris again came down on Thomas’s side. The Averroist propositions were condemned.3

There yet remained another adversary, one that Christians had been opposing for six centuries: Islam. For more than 175 years men had been dying in the Crusades to reverse its spread. But even if such offensives succeeded, which by the year 1259 was looking less and less likely, what would really be accomplished? Although stopping the Muslims might be necessary, the clear Christian duty was not to kill them but to bring them to Christ. So Thomas produced his second-greatest work, Summa Contra Gentiles, a manual for missionaries to Islamic peoples.4

His masterpiece remained uncompleted, however. He knew that Aristotle and Aristotelian methods could be an effective new means of preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ but would first require a whole new presentation of what Christians believe. This was the role of the Summa Theologica (properly the Summa Theologiae, though the other title is popularly used). By the 1270s two of its three parts were finished. The first is a reasoned explication of the essential concepts of Christian belief based on scripture: the unity of God, the Holy Trinity, the creation of the universe, the distinction between good and evil, angels, the dual nature of man (physical and spiritual), and the laws that make it possible for men to live with one another. The second deals with Christian morality: God’s plan for man, how what we believe and do determines our destiny, our passions and habits, the law, and the grace of God. It then focuses on the seven Christian virtues: fortitude, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love (see subchapter, page 202). The third part, opening with the Incarnation, Thomas had to leave unfinished.5

He had labored on the Summa at all the schools to which the Dominicans assigned him–at Paris, Rome, Orvieto in Italy, back to Rome, and then back to Paris. He traveled frequently (some nine thousand miles, Torrell estimates), nearly all of it on foot. In 1272 he returned for a further term at Naples, and there, in December 1273, he underwent a profound transformation that shocked everyone who knew him and has puzzled historians ever since. It seems to have occurred when he was celebrating Mass in the Chapel of St. Nicholas. The closest friend of his later years, the Dominican Reginald of Piperno, noticed the change immediately and asked him what happened. “I cannot do any more,” was Thomas’s inexplicable reply. He began disposing of his writing materials, and again Reginald, now “stupefied,” asked him why. “I cannot do any more,” Thomas repeated. “Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison to what I have seen.”

His strength, hitherto so robust, now rapidly failed. He was taken to the home of his sister the countess Theodora, near Naples, but when summoned to a church council at Lyon, where Pope Gregory X was seeking reunion with the Orthodox Church, Thomas responded. Now frail and faltering, he tripped and fell on the road but assured his companions that he was fine.

As they passed Montecassino, the monastery of his childhood, the abbot asked him to visit and help resolve a problem the monks there were pondering. Thomas agreed even to this, though it meant a steep six-mile detour. He heard their question and noted down the answer–the last thing he would ever write.6 Laboring onward, he stopped at the Benedictine Abbey of Fossanova, where he lay for several weeks, becoming gradually weaker. On March 4 or 5, 1274, Reginald heard his final confession. It was, he wrote, “like the confession of a five-year-old child.” Three days later Thomas of Aquino died.

Death did not resolve the controversies that swirled around him. By then Frederick II also had died (some twenty years before), and the church, turning to the French as a relief from the Germans, had placed its confidence in Charles of Anjou. For the Aquino family, already refugees in the papal states, this was not good news. When Charles chased them out of there, they claimed that their celebrated son, Thomas, had actually been murdered by imperial agents. This allegation long persisted, affirmed by Dante Alighieri, preeminent poet of the late Middle Ages who was eight years old when Thomas died. Twentieth-century historians, says Torrell, give it no credence whatsoever.

Much more interesting is the question surrounding Thomas’s strange transformation of December 1273. Did a mystical experience occur at that Mass? Did his long habit of abstraction turn into anorexia, so that in effect he was starving himself to death? Was it a cerebral stroke? Was it a physical and mental breakdown from overwork? “We must have the honesty to recognize that none of these explanations seems convincing,” Torrell concludes, adding that if he had to choose, nervous exhaustion coupled with a mystical experience seems most plausible.

Where Thomas Aquinas should be buried remained controversial for centuries. The monks of Fossanova first buried him near their main altar. Then, lest Dominicans demand the body or relic-seeking grave robbers steal it, they secreted it within their cloister. When a monk particularly friendly to Thomas said he had appeared to him in a dream, they moved him back to the main altar. Ninety-five years later, despite urgent pleas from the University of Paris, the Dominicans prevailed after all, and Thomas’s remains were moved to their church at Toulouse. In 1791, during the turmoil of the French Revolution, they were transferred to the Basilica of St. Sernin, where they remained until 1974, when they were returned to the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse.

The fiercest fight of all, however, broke out within weeks of his death between the old Augustinian conservatives in the theology faculty and the new Aristotelians in the arts faculty. In this collision of extremists, both sides were notably anti-Thomas. The theology faculty objected to him as too Aristotelian, the arts faculty because he wasn’t Aristotelian (meaning Averroist) enough. Finally, the new pope, John XXI, asked the elderly archbishop of Paris, the same man who had favored Thomas back in 1270, to adjudicate. This time Stephen Tempier went the other way. It took him less than a month to conclude that 219 propositions favored by Aquinas should be condemned.

The pope acquiesced and urged the archbishop to “cleanse” the arts faculty.7 While the Augustinians joyously noted that a great many of these men had been taught by Thomas, his old enemies eagerly moved in for the kill, the Franciscan John Peckham pressing to have the condemnation of Aquinas made specific. This controversy is usually portrayed as a battle between the two mendicant orders, but some notable Dominicans were actively anti-Thomas, prominent among them Robert Kilwardby, the archbishop of Canterbury, and others in the order’s Oxford chapter. Most Dominicans soon rose to Thomas’s defense, however. The Oxford chapter came under severe criticism from the rest of the order, and with the new century, the fourteenth, the attacks on him waned. On July 18, 1323, he was canonized as St. Thomas Aquinas, and in 1568 Pope St. Pius V named him a doctor of the church, Catholicism’s highest theological distinction.

Even so, he remained a storm center. After his death scholasticism swiftly began to atrophy and broke into competitive factions. The Franciscans came to be represented by Duns Scotus and, from the mid-fourteenth century, by the nominalist William of Ockham. The Dominicans were divided into Albertists and Thomists, though Albert and Thomas had never been divided. Thomism itself, now squarely backed by the church, became a closed system, shutting out new ideas and always answering challenging questions with pat quotations from the Summa. “Those who followed his methods degenerated with a great rapidity,” writes Chesterton (though not all Catholic historians would agree with him). “Of some scholastics we can only say that they took everything that was worst in scholasticism and made it even worse. They continued to count the steps of logic, but every step took them farther from common sense. They forgot how Thomas had started almost as an agnostic, and they seemed resolved to have nothing in heaven or earth about which anybody could be agnostic. They were sort of rabid rationalists who would have left no mysteries in the faith at all.”

By the Renaissance, scholasticism was widely viewed as an entrenched establishment that in the name of reason forbade most reasoned argument. The sixteenth-century humanist Desiderius Erasmus, an unabashed foe of scholasticism, vented fury upon it: “They set up as the world’s censors,” he stormed. “They demand recantation of anything that doesn’t exactly square with their conclusions . . . As a result, neither Paul, Peter, St. Jerome, Augustine, or even Thomas, the greatest of the Aristotelians, can make a man Christian unless these learned bachelors have given their approval.” Meanwhile, one Augustinian monk focused his attention not on the scholasticism but on Thomas himself, castigating him as “the fountain and foundation of all heresy, error and obliteration of the Gospel.” That monk was Martin Luther, though in later life he softened his opinion.8

For much-debated reasons, Thomism (see sidebar, page 199) enjoyed a startling revival in the nineteenth century, first in the Catholic Church and then beyond it. Some see this as a response to the general slide of modern philosophy into nihilism (the belief that an objective truth or existence is impossible). Having long ago parted company, that is, with the Thomistic insistence that the evidence of sense perceptions must be taken as real, philosophy was left with the pertinent question: then what can be believed? The response–nothing–did not seem entirely satisfactory, causing some to begin reexamining both Aristotle and Aquinas.

Thus, Chesterton, in the twentieth century, saw the renaissance of Thomism as a return to reality. The great philosophers almost all agree that we cannot accept as real that which we can see, feel, hear, taste, and smell, Chesterton noted. But in order to see a car bearing down on them or kiss their beloved or follow a delicious smell to the roast beef, they still must act as if such things are real after all. Thomas merely faced that fact.

In an encyclical issued in 1879, Pope Leo XIII formally adopted Thomism as a means of clarifying Catholic teaching. The entire Catholic world did not immediately follow the pope’s wishes, but gradually Catholic schools began basing their curriculum on Thomism. One product of this was the Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. Modern Thomists, McInerny writes, come in three types: transcendental Thomists, existential Thomists, and Aristotelian Thomists. They vary from the erudite Jesuit Karl Rahner to the earthy novelist Flannery O’Connor, who called herself a “hillbilly” Thomist.

As in his lifetime, however, Thomas’s teachings continued to arouse significant wrath. For example, the introduction to a collection of essays by Mortimer Adler, a twentieth-century Jewish scholar sympathetic to Thomism, recounts in What Man Has Made of Man the typically dismissive definition offered him by one colleague: “Scholasticism, a sterile form of deductive thinking, developed as a harmless outlet for the reasoning powers of man in a period of intellectual servitude when man could not observe the world around himself, lest any observation come in contradiction with prevailing dogma.”

Thomism’s detractors, observes Adler, are rarely responding to what Thomas actually wrote. “They have not read him, nor tried to understand him; they are prevented from doing so by an evil rumor of what Thomism is, spread by the malicious, or caused by our own poor rhetoric.”

Thomas himself might have had another response. He knew well how speaking the truth can attract condemnation, ridicule, scorn, and hatred. The best response is prayer. In fact, he himself had written such a prayer that closes the greatest of his hymns:

The heavenly Word proceeding forth,
Yet leaving not the Father’s side,
Accomplishing His work on earth
Had reached at length life’s eventide.
By false disciple to be given
To foemen for His life athirst
Himself, the very Bread of Heav’n,
He gave to His disciples first.
He gave Himself in either kind,
His precious flesh, His precious blood,
In love’s own fullness thus designed
Of the whole man to be the Food.
O saving victim, opening wide
The gate of Heav’n to men below,
Our foes press on from every side,
Thy grace supply, Thy strength bestow.

This is the end of the Thomas Aquinas category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 176, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Thomas Aquinas from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at