Aquinas, Thomas c. 1225–1274

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Aquinas, Thomas
c. 1225–1274

Thomas Aquinas, born in Roccasecca, near the Abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy, is considered the most eminent Catholic philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. Aquinas provided a comprehensive analysis of philosophy and theology, drawing from Greek and Roman philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Stoics) as well as from the Christian Fathers, especially Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Albert the Great, who was his teacher. A "Doctor of the Church" who was canonized on July 18, 1323, he was declared in 1567 "Doctor Angelicus" (Angelic Doctor) by Pope Pius V. Thomas was born of an ancient family, descending from Frederick I through his father and from the Norman dynasty of Hauteville through his mother. Thomas's sister Maria became an abbess and played an important role in his canonization. From age five, Thomas was educated at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. He died in Naples on March 7, 1274.


Thomas entered the newly founded prestigious University of Naples in 1239, where he excelled in the study of the liberal arts curriculum (the trivium and quadrivium) and philosophy under the tutelage of Peter of Ireland and Peter Martini. He joined the Dominican order in 1243 against his family's opposition and spent the rest of his life studying, teaching, and writing for that order. He studied from 1245 to 1248 in Paris and from 1248 to 1252 in Cologne with Albert the Great, who was his most important intellectual influence. Thomas returned to Italy in 1259, teaching and writing in major centers of the Catholic Church and university centers of the Dominican order. He died en route to the Council of Lyon, in which he was to play a major theological role, at the invitation of Pope Gregory X. Some, including Dante and the chronicler Giovanni Villani, believed that Thomas was poisoned at the behest of Charles of Anjou. Charles feared that Thomas would denounce his political misdeeds.

Aquinas wrote Latin hymns, included in "Liturgy on the Corpus Christi," such as Pange Lingua [Sing o tongue the glorious mystery] and Adoro devote, latens veritas [Thee I adore, secret truth], as well as more than sixty treatises, including The Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, reflecting his years in Paris (1252–1256) and including a treatment on the soul and the state of souls after death, and the Summa Contra Gentiles [Treatise against the Gentiles] (1259–1264), a comprehensive treatment of non-Christian doctrines in light of the principles of the Christian faith that was directed at nonbelievers. The Summa also addresses the ultimate felicity of humanity, affirming that "all human affairs serve the contemplation of truth" (Summa, III, 37). Summa Theologica [Treatise on theology] was begun in 1266 and left unfinished at his death. It is a summation or synthesis of Aristotelianism as incorporated into Christian theology that is now called Thomism.

Aquinas concentrated on the exposition of reason and faith in their respective operational spheres to provide understanding and intelligibility in terms of the self, God, and the world. He considered the nature of all things in 512 questions, or 2,658 articles. Selected works of Aristotle, translated from Greek and Arabic in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as the Nicomachean Ethics. the Metaphysics, Physics, Politics, and De anima [On the soul], have been incorporated into Christian thought as an intellectual synthesis of the Christian truth.

The Summae are considered the basis of Catholic teaching on topics such as war and peace, sedition, unbelievers, justice, homicide, theft, usury, virginity, types of lechery, unnatural vices, abortion, and contraception. Aquinas clearly affirms the prohibition against abortion; he does not believe, however, that the human fetus has a soul until some time after conception. Some commentators therefore think that Aquinas would not have considered an abortion in the first stage of pregnancy to be murder (Sigmund 1988, "Injustice"). For Aquinas, sensuality does not belong to the sphere of knowledge but to that of the appetite, and original sin is equal in all, as libido is equal in all: "The libido which is said to transmit original sin to the child is not inordinate sexual desire actually experienced" (Sigmund 1988, 1a2ae, 82, 4). Baptism can take away its guilt but not its concupiscence, which remains present in human conception (Summa Theologica, vol. 26, pp. 128-132).

In the treatises on law Aquinas discusses moral obligation inherent in the laws under which humankind lives: Those laws are either just or unjust, and they are as binding in conscience as the eternal laws from which they derive ("Law and Political Theory" (Sigmund, 1a, 2ae, 95, 2). His fundamental principle is that the source of obligation is rooted in God's mind and infused into the minds of humans. The three laws—eternal, natural, and human—are united into one and are specified progressively, but they all derive ultimately from eternal law.


Aquinas's teachings on women and marriage still have great influence in the Catholic Church. He believed that woman is defective and intellectually inferior and was subject to man from the beginning: "Such is the subjection in which woman is by nature subordinate to man, because the power of natural discernment is by nature subordinate to man, because the power of rational discernment is by nature stronger in man" (Sigmund 1a, 92, 1).

An exception to this is the Virgin Mary, to whom he dedicates much of the third part of the Summa (vol. 51, Our Lady). Her sanctification took place before her birth but only after the infusion of her soul (animation). Christ had no sinful flesh because the Holy Spirit cleansed Mary of all sin, including the original sin. Moreover, Aquinas affirms that there never was a true consummated marriage between Mary and Joseph. Thus, Mary did not transmit the original sin, and her purification was necessary as the vessel of God: "This anterior purification of the blessed Virgin was not required to prevent the transmission of original sin, but because it was proper that the mother of God should shine with the greatest purity. Nothing is worthy to receive God unless it be a spotless vessel, according to the text, holiness, O Lord, becomes thy house" (Aquinas 1a, 2ae. 81, 5).

Because she was the "mother of God," Mary was bestowed with the greatest grace, dignity, and worth ever given to any creature except Christ. Aquinas treats Mary extensively in both Summae, in the Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and in Expositions on the Gospels of Matthew and John. However, in his view Mary can be understood only in relation to Christ, and he identifies the major points of her cult as her sanctification, her virginity, her bethrothment, the Annunciation, and the Conception. He concludes that "the blessed Virgin never sinned, mortally or venially" (Aquinas 3a, 28, 4), and when she learned that it was pleasing to God, she consecrated her virginity to Him.

see also Catholicism.



Thomas Aquinas. 1955 (1259–1264). Summa Contra Gentiles [Summa against the Gentiles], ed. and trans. A. C. Pegis et al. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Thomas Aquinas. 1965 (1266–1274). Summa Theologica, Blackfriars edition. New York and London: McGraw-Hill.


Gilson, Etienne. 1948. The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Edward Bullough. New York: Dorset Press.

Sigmund, Paul E., ed. and trans. 1988. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations. New York and London: Norton and Company.

Weisheipl, James A. 1974. A. Friar Thomas D'Aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. New York: Doubleday.

                                   Giuseppe Di Scipio