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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward A. Pace (1861–1938)

By Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

THOMAS AQUINAS, philosopher and theologian, was born at or near Aquino, in Southern Italy. He received his early training from the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. Tradition says he was a taciturn and seemingly dull boy, derisively nicknamed by his fellows “the dumb ox,” but admired by his teachers. He subsequently entered the University of Naples. While studying there he joined the Dominican Order, and was sent later on to Cologne, where he became a pupil of Albertus Magnus. In 1251 he went to Paris, took his degrees in theology, and began his career as a teacher in the University. His academic work there was continued, with slight interruptions, till 1261. The eleven years which followed were spent partly in Rome, where Thomas enjoyed the esteem of Urban IV. and Clement IV., and partly in the cities of Northern Italy, which he visited in the interest of his Order. During this period he produced the greatest of his works, and won such repute as a theologian that the leading universities made every effort to secure him as a teacher. He was appointed to a professorship at Naples, where he remained from 1272 until the early part of 1274. Summoned by Gregory X. to take part in the Council of Lyons, he set out on his journey northward, but was compelled by illness to stop at Fossa Nuova. Here he died March 7th, 1274. He was canonized in 1323, and was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pius V. in 1567.

These honors were merited by a remarkable combination of ability and virtue. To an absolute purity of life, St. Thomas added an earnest love of truth and of labor. Calm in the midst of discussion, he was equally proof against the danger of brilliant success. As the friend of popes and princes, he might have attained the highest dignities; but these he steadfastly declined, devoting himself, so far as his duty permitted, to scientific pursuits. Judged by his writings, he was intense yet thoroughly objective, firm in his own position but dispassionate in treating the opinions of others. Conclusions reached by daring speculation and faultless logic are stated simply, impersonally. Keen replies are given without bitterness, and the boldest efforts of reason are united with the submissiveness of faith.

His works fill twenty-five large quarto volumes of the Parma edition. This is, so far, the most complete collection, though various portions have been edited from time to time with the commentaries of learned theologians like Cajetan and Sylvius. Partial translations have also been made into several modern languages; but as yet there is no complete English edition of St. Thomas.

Turning to the Latin text, the student cannot but notice the contrast between the easy diction of modern philosophical writers and the rugged conciseness of the mediæval Schoolman. On the other hand, disappointment awaits those who quit the pages of Cicero for the less elegant Latinity of the Middle Ages. What can be said in favor of scholastic “style” is that it expresses clearly and tersely the subtle shades of thought which had developed through thirteen centuries, and which often necessitated a sacrifice of classic form. With the Schoolmen, as with modern writers on scientific subjects, precision was the first requisite, and terminology was of more consequence than literary beauty.

Similar standards must be kept in view when we pass judgment upon the technique of St. Thomas. In his presentation we find neither the eloquence nor the rhetoric of the Fathers. He quotes them continually, and in some of his works adopts their division into books and chapters. But his exposition is more compact, consisting at times of clear-cut arguments in series without an attempt at transition, at other times of sustained reasoning processes in which no phrase is superfluous and no word ambiguous. Elsewhere he uses the more rigid mold which was peculiar to the Scholastic Period, and had been fashioned chiefly by Alexander Hales. Each subject is divided into so many “questions,” and each question into so many “articles.” The “article” begins with the statement of objections, then discusses various opinions, establishes the author’s position, and closes with a solution of the difficulties which that position may encounter. This method had its advantages. It facilitated analysis, and obliged the writer to examine every aspect of a problem. It secured breadth of view and thoroughness of treatment. It was, especially, a transparent medium for reason, unbiased by either sentiment or verbiage.

If such qualities of style and presentation were encouraged by the environment in which Aquinas pursued his earlier studies, they were also helpful in the task which he chose as his life-work. This was the construction of a system in which all the elements of knowledge should be harmoniously united. An undertaking so vast necessitated a long preparation, the study of all available sources, and the elucidation of many detailed problems. Hence, a considerable portion of St. Thomas’s works is taken up with the explanation of Peter Lombard’s ‘Sententiæ,’ with Commentaries on Aristotle, with Expositions of Sacred Scripture, collections from the Fathers, and various opuscula or studies on special subjects. Under the title ‘Quæstiones Disputatæ,’ numerous problems in philosophy and theology are discussed at length. But the synthetic power of Aquinas is shown chiefly in the ‘Contra Gentes’ and the ‘Summa Theologica,’ the former being a defense of Christian belief with special reference to Arabian philosophy, and the latter a masterly compendium of rational and revealed truth.

The conception of the ‘Summa’ was not altogether original. From the earliest days of the Church, men of genius had insisted on the reasonableness of Christian belief by showing that, though supernatural in its origin, it did not conflict with either the facts or the laws of human knowledge. And as these had found their highest expression in Greek philosophy, it was natural that this philosophy should serve as a basis for the elucidation of revealed truth. The early Fathers turned to Plato, not only because his teaching was so spiritual, but also because it could be so readily used as a framework for those theological concepts which Christianity had brought into the world. Thus adopted by men who were recognized authorities in the Church,—especially men like Augustine and the Areopagite,—Platonism endured for centuries as the rational element in dogmatic exposition.

Scholasticism inaugurated a new era. Patristic erudition had gathered a wealth of theological knowledge which the Schoolmen fully appreciated. But the same truths were to receive another setting and be treated by different methods. Speculation changed its direction, Aristotle taking the place of his master. The peripatetic system found able exponents in the earlier Scholastics; but Aquinas surpassed them alike in the mastery of the philosopher’s principles and in his application of these principles to Christian doctrine. His Commentaries on Aristotle adhere strictly to the text, dissecting its meaning and throwing into relief the orderly sequence of ideas. In his other works, he develops the germs of thought which he had gathered from the Stagirite, and makes them the groundwork of his philosophical and theological speculations.

With the subtlety of a metaphysician St. Thomas combined a vast erudition. Quotations from the Fathers appear on nearly every page of his writings, serving either as a keynote to the discussion which follows, or as an occasion for solving objections. Toward St. Augustine he shows the deepest reverence, though their methods differ so widely, and his brief but lucid comments throw light on difficult sayings of the great Doctor. His familiarity with patristic theology is shown particularly in the ‘Catena Aurea,’ where he links with passages from the Sacred Text numerous extracts from the older commentators.

His respect for these interpretations did not prevent him from making a thorough search of Scripture itself. With characteristic clearness and depth he interpreted various books of the Bible, insisting chiefly on the doctrinal meaning. The best of his work in this line was devoted to the Pauline Epistles and to the Book of Job; but his mastery of each text is no less evident where he takes the authority of Scripture as the starting-point in theological argument, or makes it the crowning evidence at the close of a philosophical demonstration.

The materials gathered from Philosophy, Tradition, and Scripture were the fruit of analysis; the final synthesis had yet to be accomplished. This was the scope of the ‘Summa Theologica,’ a work which, though it was not completed, is the greatest production of Thomas Aquinas. In the prologue he says:—

  • “Since the teacher of Catholic truth should instruct not only those who are advanced, but also those who are beginning, it is our purpose in this work to treat subjects pertaining to the Christian religion in a manner adapted to the instruction of beginners. For we have considered that young students encounter various obstacles in the writings of different authors: partly because of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly because the essentials of knowledge are dealt with, not in scientific order, but according as the explanation of books required or an occasion for disputing offered; partly because the frequent repetition of the same things begets weariness and confusion in the hearer’s mind. Endeavoring, therefore, to avoid these defects and others of a like nature, we shall try, with confidence in the Divine assistance, to treat of sacred science briefly and clearly, so far as the subject-matter will allow.”
  • The work intended for novices in theology, and so unpretentiously opened, is then portioned out in these words:—

  • “Whereas, the chief aim of this science is to impart a knowledge of God, not only as existing in Himself, but also as the origin and end of all things, and especially of rational creatures, we therefore shall treat first of God; second, of the rational creature’s tendency toward God; third, of Christ, who as man is the way whereby we approach unto God. Concerning God, we shall consider (1) those things which pertain to the Divine Essence; (2) those which regard the distinction of persons; (3) those which concern the origin of creatures from Him. As to the Divine Essence we shall inquire (1) whether God exists; (2) what is, or rather what is not, the manner of His existence; (3) how He acts through His knowledge, will, and power. Under the first heading we shall ask whether God’s existence is self-evident, whether it can be demonstrated, and whether God does exist.”
  • Similar subdivisions precede each question as it comes up for discussion, so that the student is enabled to take a comprehensive view, and perceive the bearing of one problem on another as well as its place in the wide domain of theology. As a consequence, those who are familiar with the ‘Summa’ find in it an object-lesson of breadth, proportion, and orderly thinking. Its chief merit, however, lies in the fact that it is the most complete and systematic exhibition of the harmony between reason and faith. In it, more than in any other of his works, is displayed the mind of its author. It determines his place in the history of thought, and closes what may be called the second period in the development of Christian theology. Scholasticism, the high point of intellectual activity in the Church, reached its culmination in Thomas Aquinas.

    His works have been a rich source of information for Catholic theologians, and his opinions have always commanded respect. The polemics of the sixteenth century brought about a change in theological methods, the positive and critical elements becoming more prominent. Modern rationalism, however, has intensified the discussion of those fundamental problems which St. Thomas handled so thoroughly. As his writings furnish both a forcible statement of the Catholic position and satisfactory replies to many current objections, the Thomistic system has recently been restored. The “neo-scholastic movement” was initiated by Leo XIII. in his Encyclical ‘Æterni Patris,’ dated August 4th, 1879, and its rapid growth has made Aquinas the model of Catholic thought in the nineteenth century, as he certainly was in the thirteenth.

    The subjoined extracts show his views on some questions of actual importance, with regard not alone to mediæval controversies, but to the problems of the universe, which will press on the minds of men twenty-five hundred years in the future as they did twenty-five hundred years in the past.

    For some years past the University of Louvain has been engaged in an important series of volumes, applying the principles of the philosophy of Aquinas to the interpretation of the established data of modern science. A summary of this, made by Cardinal Mercier and translated by T. L. Parker and S. A. Parker under the title ‘A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy,’ was in course of publication when the War broke out. Vol. I was issued in 1917, and the second volume, completing the work, will, it is hoped, not be long delayed.