Monday, July 26, 2010

Medieval Saint of the Week #4: St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas--the man who made it okay to think again.

What made Thomas Aquinas one of the most important thinkers in Western history?  Well, to understand that, you have to understand why the Middle Ages have often been known as "The Dark Ages," or, as one historian put it,  "A thousand years without a bath."

For the thousand years before Aquinas' birth, there was little in the way of scientific advances in Europe and North Africa.  There was great scientific progress in Asia, and the Middle East became the repository for the world's intellectual treasury, but Europe was languishing in the long shadow of an overbearing church.

For believers of this time, there was only one way to get to Truth, and that was through the literal interpretation of "The Word of God."  Everything man needed to know was in the Bible, and there was great anxiety about looking anywhere else--including the natural world that surrounded us.  Reason was out; faith was in.

St. Augustine gives us a perfect example of this type of thought.  In The Confessions, he writes an account of a man who asked the question "What was God doing before he made the earth?"  The answer to this dangerous question was "He was preparing hell for those who pry into mysteries."  Augustine, of course, offers this as little more than an amusing anecdote, but it illustrates the uneasiness people felt about looking for answers about the natural world.

Similarly taboo at this time was the wisdom of pagan philosophers.  Aristotle presented a tricky problem for medieval intellectuals, especially after crusaders began bringing back copies of his works from the Middle Eastern cities they were trying to conquer.  Aristotle was a pagan, and therefore damned, and therefore removed from God.  So why did he make so much sense?  There is no way he could have been correct, was there?

That is where Aquinas comes in.

Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant Dominican clergyman who studied at Naples, Paris, and Cologne.  He succeeded in marrying religious faith, classical learning, and science in a way that set the stage for the  centuries of intellectual rebirth that followed him.  He proved that Christianity and Aristotelianism can exist together, and that scientific investigation and theology are not mutually exclusive.  He wrote over 80 works in his life, including the Summa Theologia, a staggering masterwork that he worked on for ten years and then abandoned.

Aquinas proved that thinking rationally about the world around us is not just acceptable, it's part of our obligation as human beings.  He believed that he his reason was not faulty, and that he could actually use it to prove that God existed.

The church was not pleased, but Thomas Aquinas supported his theories with such exhaustive proof and reason that it was impossible to argue with him.  Here is a painting of someone who tried:

The Summa Theological is an incredible work of scholarship.  In it, Aquinas comes up with some of the trickiest and elusive questions that surround religious faith.  Some examples are:

  • Does God exist?
  • Is God the source of evil?
  • Where does sin come from?
  • Is my life predestinated?
  • Is passion evil?
  • What makes us sin?
The Summa contains 3000 of these questions.  Aquinas doesn't just answer them, though.  First, he thinks of all the possible wrong answers, and refutes them, one at a time.  Then he gives us the right answers, based on rational thought, his thorough understanding of scriptures, and the wisdom of philosophers such as Aristotle.

The Summa Theological is two millions words long.  That is the equivalent of 8000 double-spaced typed pages.  That's a lot of work.  (And it's all online, too!  In English and in Latin.)

On December 6, 1273, Aquinas put down his pen and stopped work on it.  We don't really know why.  One of his friends asked him, and he said that it was worthless, that compared to prayer, his writing was as worthless as "straw."

He lived for one more year, and then died after being hit on the head by a falling tree branch.  The Church, which was still suspicious of this man of reason, gradually came around, and canonized him in 1323.  Then he got a Facebook page.

And thus ended one thousand years without a bath.

"St. Thomas Aquinas."  Science and the Times, Vol. 2: 700-1450
"St. Thomas Aquinas. World of Biography.  Online.  Thomson Gale, 2006
"Thomas Aquinas."  World Eras, Vol 4. Medieval Europe, 814-1350


1 comment:

  1. Wow. That is as long as the Twilight series.