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Brief Lives

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Hilarius Bogbinder discovers the surprisingly revolutionary views of one of the Catholic Church”s most revered philosophers.

Thomas Aquinas was the greatest theologian in the middle ages.” Thus read an ultra-short biography of the Dominican Friar and philosopher St Thomas de Aquino (1225-1274), printed at the end of the Danish Hymn Book (when I was a boy growing up in rural Denmark my parents would take me to church every Sunday, and during the very long sermons my mother would give me the hymn book to read). It is perhaps surprising that a Catholic thinker like Thomas was included in the official hymn book of a Lutheran Protestant country, where it was a common insult to be described as ‘Catholic in the head’ (a euphemism for being raving mad). Nevertheless, the congregation would happily sing Thomas’s hymn, ‘Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory’ (or in the original Latin, Pange, lingua, gloriosi).

That the philosopher also found time to write hymns is perhaps surprising. He certainly wrote a lot. In total, he penned over eight million words, and most of them about God. He even ‘proved’ God’s existence in five different ways.

It is widely reported, and probably true, that Thomas’s mother and his brothers locked him up in a tower and sent in naked beauties to tempt him, as it were, to follow his father into politics, and away from becoming a monk. The family belonged to the lower order nobility, and they were aghast that young Thomas wanted to become a friar and scholar. His father Landulf of Aquino (in Italy) was a knight in the service Frederic II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and was not a particularly pious man. But Aquinas Sr was willing to accept his son’s calling when he became an Abbot at the nearby Monte Cassino monastery. At least this was a respectable position. But even this Thomas could not endure. He wanted to be a scholar-monk, a thinker who devoted his life to understanding the mysteries of God. In the end, Thomas escaped. He reportedly climbed out of a window (The Life of Thomas Aquinas, R.D. Hampden,1848, p.23).

He made it to Naples, where his talent was duly recognized, even though to many the country-boy was a laughing stock. His nickname was the ‘Dumb Ox’ because he was slow to speak. He continued his studies at the University of Paris. Here he was taught by the famous Albertus Magnus – a fellow Italian who was interested in the philosophy of Aristotle. The rest is history.

It is also widely reported that Thomas was a big guy, and there are many anecdotes about the ‘corpulent cleric’ upon whom Friar Tuck is allegedly based. For example, it is said that he needed a special table with the middle cut out to make room for the saint’s sizable belly. Over six foot tall, Thomas had fair hair, and seemed to have looked a bit like the actor John Goodman. His vice – if so it can be called – was food rather than female company. While he was happy to admit that “gluttony is immoderation in food”, he also stressed that “man cannot avoid this”, and he concluded that it was “not a sin” (Summa Theologica, 1274, p.148). Moreover, Thomas himself might not have been tempted by carnal pleasures, but he was seemingly tolerant of those who were, for “there are inclinations which pertain… to natural law, such as sexual relations” (Summa p.94). He was hardly prudish – in fact, the saint was rather liberal. He even sounds a bit like a hippie when he opines that “man has a natural right to go naked because nature not having provided him with clothing, he has had to fashion it for himself” (Summa p.90).

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas by Woodrow Cowher

Revelation & Reasons

Aquinas’s foundational philosophical belief was that there’s a distinction between revealed truths (things revealed to us by God) which we cannot rationally understand, and truth which we can understand (rational truths).

An avid reader of the then newly-rediscovered scientific writings of Aristotle, Thomas was rather more open to rational truths than many of his contemporaries. Indeed, like Isaac Newton a few centuries later, Thomas wanted reason and faith to sit side by side. Thus Thomas deserves credit in the history of Western philosophy for his early attempt to reconcile faith and reason, and also for incorporating elements of Arabic and Islamic thinking into his own. Averroes, or Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD), the great Islamic thinker, is referred to as ‘the commentator’ in Thomas’s writings. But the hero for this Christian philosopher was the pagan philosopher Aristotle. Thomas quoted the Macedonian master more often than Christ, and referred to him as simply ‘the Philosopher’.

Previous Christian philosophers, such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430), had focused almost exclusively on the next world. For example, in his book City of God, Augustine said that the perfect life can only be realised in the heavenly city that will emerge after the Apocalypse. Thomas was in principle of the same view, but notwithstanding his belief in the afterlife and heavenly bliss, he was more interested in the here and now.

Much has been written about his insights, perhaps above all his idea that God is the full actualisation of potentiality. In the history of philosophy, Thomas distinguishes himself by developing an elaborate and original metaphysics of ‘being’; of what it is to exist. Inspired by Aristotle’s treatise The History of Animals, Thomas proposed that all things can be categorised according to the fullness of their ‘being’, meaning, according to how perfectly they fulfil their potential. According to Thomas (as to Aristotle before him), all things strive to fulfil their potential; to achieve harmony between being (esse in Latin) and their inner form (essentia). In this hierarchy of nature (Thomas called it the scala naturae), God is on top as the perfect realisation of his own potential; then follow the angels; then humans; animals; plants; and at the bottom, inanimate objects. Some of this might seem dated now. The same cannot be said for Thomas’s social philosophy.

St Thomas Aquinas, Social Justice Warrior

Thomas wrote about international relations at a time when nations were only just emerging. He is often cited as the first thinker to develop a theory of just war. For a war to be just, there must be a just cause; it must be executed by a rightful sovereign; and the war must be waged to promote good and to avoid evil. But in truth, this was the least original part of his political theory, and it was largely derived from the Decretum Gratiani, a canon law document penned by the virtually forgotten lawyer Gratian of Bologna. Thomas’s deepest insights were about domestic politics. These brimmed with often ill-disguised indignation and broadsides against corrupt politicians, “those shepherds who fatten themselves.” For, “if the community is directed in the particular interest of a ruler and not for the common good, this is a perversion of government”, he says in De regimine principum (On Princely Government, p.7), a short treatise he co-wrote with his colleague Ptolemy of Lucca.

In a section attributed to Thomas he was almost prescient when he wrote that, “a man who seeks personal profit from his position instead of the good of the community… is called a tyrant” (p.6). Or maybe it is just that there are timeless truths, and that there have been power-hungry men and women from Thrasymachus to Trump. But perhaps almost a millennium later certain politicians too should heed the call of the Catholic saint who wrote, “you should subject [yourself] to the same law which you promulgate” (Summa, p.139). It’s a fair bet that Thomas would have been unimpressed by politicians who enact rules about, say, COVID lockdowns, prosecute transgressors, and then break the rules themselves. But it is always hazardous (and anachronistic) to endow even saints with prophetic powers. Thomas did not exactly predict that politicians would behave in this way. In a sense, he was greater than that. He saw and identified certain traits that have always and will always characterise certain types of people. It is for this reason we still read him, as we do other classics.

In the late nineteenth century, when the Catholic Church became concerned about capitalist exploitation, they could not for rather obvious reasons turn to the Jewish atheist Karl Marx. After all, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), the father of Communism had called religion ‘the opium of the people’. But, then again, the Vatican did not need to turn to Marx, for in some ways, our medieval philosopher was more direct and even more critical than the author of Das Kapital. The friar warned against “a few rich men who take advantage of their wealth and oppress the people” and even went so far as arguing that “men should not hold material things as their own but to the common benefit; each readily sharing them with others in their necessity” (Summa, p.169). And as a political thinker of the left he was adamant that, “if, for example, a person is in immediate danger of physical starvation, and there is no other way of satisfying his need, then he may take what is necessary from another person’s goods either openly or by stealth, and this is strictly speaking neither fraud nor robbery” (Summa, p.171). So in some ways, Aquinas was to the left of Marx.

Of course, there is much in any thinker that offends. Thomas’s apparent preference for monarchical government seems rather odd to those schooled to espouse the virtues of democracy. But here a bit of context is necessary. For Thomas, democracy was not our representative government, but some kind of mob rule by the uneducated. Like Aristotle and Polybius before him, and like Machiavelli after him, Thomas preferred a kind of mixed government. In his view, the best ordering of power within a city or kingdom is one with a virtuous head, a body of wise representatives, and direct involvement by the people. But Thomas was hardly a conservative. The most original contention in his secular writings was his theory of revolution and the justification for tyrannicide: “The overthrowing of such a [tyrannical] government is not strictly sedition,” Thomas wrote, in a sentence that could have been penned by Che Guevara. Rather, “a tyrant himself is, in fact, far more guilty of sedition when he spreads discord and strife among the people” (Summa, p.161). Indeed, Thomas was never a proponent of an all-powerful ‘Leviathan’ state as his namesake Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was, and he spoke favourably about elections, somewhat selectively quoting Scripture to that effect, for example, “Seek out from the people wise and God-fearing men” (p.101). However, for Thomas, the election of representatives was part of an aristocratic system of government, not of democracy. Rather, he reserved the word ‘democracy’ for the direct voting of the people in referendums. He said, in a rather matter-of-fact way, that there “is government by the entire people or democracy, and to this corresponds the plebiscite” (p.131). In other words, Aquinas’s definition of ‘democracy’ (democratia) was rather more radical than the type of representative government we associate with this term. And at a time when there are challenges everywhere to the rule of law, Aquinas is worth citing as someone who acknowledged that “the most important thing in government is that power should be subject to laws.”

Thomas was canonized by a Catholic Church that has not always been characterised by its tolerance towards other beliefs; but the same intolerance was not characteristic of Aquinas himself. Indeed, it seems rather remarkable that the official philosopher of Catholicism wrote, “though the infidels may sin by their rites they are to be tolerated” (Summa, p.155). He was a pragmatist. For instance, “if it should happen that the observance of a law would be damaging to the general well-being, it should not be observed.” He continued, “when danger is so imminent that there is no time to refer the matter to the authorities, necessity itself carries its own dispensation” (Summa, p.141).

The Sum of Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was not yet fifty years old when he mounted his donkey to ride down the Via Appia to his hometown. Perhaps the philosopher was absent-minded. In any case, a branch hit the tall man and he fell off the ass. He was immediately taken to Monte Cassino, where he said he felt better.

He was wrong. He continued his journey, but fell ill, and stopped at Priverno in present-day Lazio. The philosopher realised that he was soon to meet his maker. Having received his last rites, he reportedly said as his last words, “For love of Thee have I studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught…”

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2021

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born translator and writer who studied theology at Oxford University.

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