MARCH / APRIL 2016: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
The medieval period in Europe was marked by many notable changes and developments, including the entrenchment and dominance of Christianity. This was seen in every aspect of everyday life and governance, as well as in the universities, the centers of learning. In the eleventh century Europe experienced a resurgence of intellectual activity. More classic texts from the Greek and Roman periods were becoming readily available to medieval scholars, either through translations from its original languages to Latin or interpretations by other scholars from neighboring kingdoms.
The Dominican friar St. Thomas Aquinas was one theologian whose ideas and writings not only contributed to this surge of intellectual activity but greatly influenced Christian thought and doctrine for centuries afterward, making him a Doctor of the Church and a venerated saint in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran faith.
Thomas Aquinas was born in 1255 in the town of Roccasecca near Aquino, Italy. The younger son of a knight, he was intent on entering the church but was delayed when his family learned that he wished to enter the newly established Dominican order. They tried to persuade him otherwise, even keeping him under house arrest for a time. He was finally released due to the intervention of Pope Innocent IV. Upon becoming a Dominican monk, he travelled from Italy to Germany and France, where he continued to preach, study, and deliberate with other orders on political and religious matters.
During his time at university, Thomas Aquinas encountered the works of various thinkers like the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the Islamic thinker Averroes, and Jewish teacher Maimonides. Aristotle in particular was a great influence on Thomas Aquinas’ works as Aristotle’s works had been translated in its entirety to Latin for the first time by the end of the twelfth century. Academics were forbidden to lecture on Aristotle’s works as theologians believed them to conflict with the Christian faith. But Thomas Aquinas respected Aristotle and his use of raw data and scientific methodology and inquiry, using these frameworks—Aristotle’s language, if you will—to formulate his own ideas about the world, faith, and their connection to God. Christian theology and philosophy during this time was dominated by Neo-Platonism and the ideas laid down by Saint Augustine whereby human reason was not seen as a primary vehicle to understanding God’s will. But Thomas Aquinas argued that faith and reason were needed to truly understand God; to study nature—in which God reveals himself—through the human senses was to study God.
Thomas Aquinas’ ideas and writings ranged on a variety of subjects, which are reflected on his two most famous works: the Summa Theologica, which focused on Christian theology, and the Summa Contra Gentiles, with a broader philosophical focus. He wrote about the Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ. He defined the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude), the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), and the four laws (eternal, natural, human, and divine). While a theologian first and foremost, he also wrote on other subjects ranging from political theory and the best form of government to economic thought and ethical decision-making. He pondered on the relationship between the human body and the soul.
While many of his contemporary opponents saw his works as liberal and directly opposed to the Augustinian tradition, Thomas Aquinas was actually greatly influenced by Augustine’s works and sought to reach some of his conclusions using Aristotle’s methodology and deduction. But his ideas were not accepted immediately, and not by everyone within the Dominican order; he had many opponents to his views, including the bishop of Paris and a leading Dominican theologian in Oxford University.
In the later years of his life, Thomas Aquinas was caught up in much of the debates and hostilities from various and opposing scholastic factions. After his death, his opponents deemed his work heretical and he was even excommunicated posthumously. He was canonized a saint in 1324, his works rehabilitated, and by 1568 when he was named a Doctor of the Church, his works were considered foundational to Church teaching.
Saint Thomas Aquinas’ ideas left a profound impact on Western thought and Christianity. His integration of many of Aristotle’s ideas and methods with Christian theology ushered in a new understanding to the core tenets of the Christian faith. One of the many legacies of his work included the rise of Thomism, a philosophical school of thought derived from his works and considered as the official philosophy of the Catholic Church. His use of Aristotelian ideas also rendered him as one of the first thinkers to use and reintroduce it in the medieval period. While his ideas have undergone different interpretations and schools of thought over the centuries, Thomas Aquinas continues to serve as a foundation to Christian faith and understanding. ♥
Lianne Bernardo is a 20-something Canadian who loves history, period dramas, British TV, photography, and (European) football. She is an avid reader, from fantasy to literature to historical fiction, and extensively blogs about them on her website, When she isn’t reading, she’s working on her writing projects. Her Twitter: @eclectictales.