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Saint Thomas Aquinas: Prince of Scholastics

Though the lifetime of Saint Thomas Aquinas was not lengthy in years, he managed to obtain great scholarly and religious authority during his life, and he also composed more than sixty literary works that ranged in classification from theological to philosophical to scriptural. His talent in writing and his leadership qualities in the Roman Catholic Church earned Aquinas the title of the Prince of Scholastics. Although Aquinas would most likely debate the rank of a prince or even saint, there is no doubt that he greatly influenced Italian philosophy and theology with his service and his writing.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

In the year 1225, Thomas Aquinas was born into nobility in Roccasecca, into a line of kings and emperors. He was the son of the Count of Aquino and the Countess of Teano. Even from the beginning of his life, religion and theology played a large part in his education and upbringing. During his early years, Aquinas was educated at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, and when he was eleven, he was sent to continue his education at the University of Naples. In 1243, Aquinas’s father died, and though Aquinas was still an undergraduate at the university, he decided to join the Dominican order. However, his mother was completely against his association with the order and subsequently ordered Aquinas to be confined within the family castle until he abandoned what he believed to be his calling. Even after months, Aquinas maintained that his decision was still the same, and finally in 1245 he was released from his confinement. His first act of freedom was to travel to Paris to attempt to continue his scholastic studies.

Aquinas was ordained as a priest sometime around 1250 and began two years later to teach at the University of Paris. It was at this time that Aquinas began to explore the depth of his literary ability and began writing works that coordinated with his lectures at the university. Around 1256, Aquinas composed the first of his major works, Scripta Super Libros Sententiarum. In that same year, Aquinas was also awarded a doctorate in theology and subsequently given the position of professor of philosophy at the university. In 1259, Aquinas was summoned to Rome by Pope Alexander IV. There he performed duties of an advisor to the papal court. When Aquinas returned to Paris nine years later, he was thrust into one of the most extreme controversies of the time.

For centuries philosophy and theology had been strictly separated and were deemed by most to be incompatible. On one side there were the teachings of Aristotle, which emphasized logic and learning from earthly experience. On the other side there were the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which were based on faith and the acquirement of knowledge through revelation. When the teachings of Aristotle became increasingly popular in the early 13th century, members of the Roman Catholic Church felt that these new teachings threatened orthodox religious doctrine.

However, Aquinas believed that philosophy and theology were both essential and had their proper place in life. He began teaching that there was knowledge that was gained through revelation and knowledge that was gained through experience, and still further knowledge that was gained through both. He believed that knowledge could be acquired by earthly experience and study, but that the highest of truths could only be learned through revelation and divine thought. He first displayed his thinking in 1270 in the treatise De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas. He continued to teach these beliefs when he left Paris in 1272 and traveled on to Naples. There he organized a new Dominican school and continued in service of the Church. While venturing to the Council of Lyon in 1274, Aquinas became ill. His state worsened until he finally died on March 7, 1274 at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova.

Saint Thomas Aquinas continued to earn fame even after his death. His teachings that knowledge could serve the purpose of faith inspired many great thinkers around the world from many different religions. In 1567, Pope Pius V proclaimed Aquinas to be a Doctor of the Church. Even centuries after his death, the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas remained strongly influential. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the philosophy of Aquinas became a foundation of Roman Catholic doctrine. Today, the works of Aquinas are still deemed to be quite revolutionary and his teachings continue to influence contemporary thought.

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